include_once("common_lab_header.php");
Excerpt for Race to the Edge of the World by , available in its entirety at Smashwords









RACE
TO THE EDGE OF THE WORLD






J.F. Wiegand




















© 2017. All rights reserved.

Background art by Teerawut Masawat / 123RF Stock Photo.

Full cover by the author.



Visit the author’s website at www.jfwiegand.com






CONTENTS


1) FLIGHT 1815

2) THE BOTTOMLESS PIT

3) REVELATION

4) SCOUT LAW

5) NUMBERS

6) THE MAP

7) THE GERMAN MONK

8) THE WOODSMEN

9) UPS AND DOWNS

10) THE WRITING ON THE WALL

11) REUNIONS

12) FRIENDS AND ENEMIES

13) THE GRUNT

14) LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL

15) THE EDGE OF THE WORLD

16) BIG BROTHER









CHAPTER 1
FLIGHT 1815




It was the third time I had seen it in the past fifteen minutes. DANIEL 4:11. I squinted out the car window, my eyes focused on the letters as they faded down the road. This one had been written in large, purple graffiti-style letters on the supporting wall of a highway overpass.

“Do you know what ‘Daniel-four-eleven’ means?” I asked my mother from the back seat. From the reflection in the rearview mirror, I saw a smile spread across her freckled face. “What? Did you see it, too?”

She nodded. “I see it everywhere.”

“Do you know what it means?”

“I do,” she said. “It was driving me crazy so I looked it up.”

“What is it?” I asked, stretching my seatbelt as I leaned forward.

The car slowed. “Sit back honey, it’s not safe.”

Although I was thirteen, my mother still made me sit in the back seat. I was the only one of my friends who had yet to ride in the front seat of a car. Honestly though, I was just happy to be by the window. It wasn’t until last fall that I was allowed to move from the middle seat.

I sank back into the seat and folded my hands on my lap.

“It’s a bible verse,” she answered."

“Really?” I said. “Do you know how it goes?”

“I don’t know if I’ll get it exactly right, but it’s something like ... ‘the tree grew large and its top touched the sky, and it was visible to the ends of the earth.’”

“What does it mean?” I asked, scratching my head. “Like what’s the message?”

She lifted her shoulders. “I haven’t the faintest idea.”

My eyes drifted back outside as I pondered the verse. I repeated it in my head as we pulled into the airport parking lot.

***

My heart began to pound as I followed my mother through the jetway and onto Western Airlines Flight 1815. We were scheduled to depart Portland International Airport at 4:20 p.m. and arrive at the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport at 6:44 p.m. From there we would drive three hours to the south rim of Grand Canyon National Park.

I took the middle seat in 16B and immediately buckled my seatbelt, pulling it tightly across my ragged blue jeans, which were about an inch too short. I set the timer on my army-green digital display watch for 2:24, but didn’t start it; I wanted to wait until takeoff so it would be exact.

“Here, squirt this up your nose,” my mother said, handing me a container of nasal spray.

I stared at it, turning it in my hand. “Why?”

“It keeps your nasal passages moist.”

“Why do I want them moist?” I asked, rubbing the tip of my nose.

“It makes it harder for the germs to attach, which is good, because there’s nowhere for germs to go on an airplane.”

Holding the nasal spray up to my right nostril, I squeezed, shooting saline up my nose.

“Other side now please,” my mother said.

A stream of saline ran onto my lips and I wiped it dry. After squirting a shot up the other side, I handed it back. She slipped the container into her carry-on bag and pulled out a book. I didn’t have to look at the title to know what she was reading, at least the general subject.

I let out a small breath and looked around the cabin, my eyes eventually falling upon a man in a cheap blue suit reading USA TODAY. Memphis Webber, a sixteen-year-old baseball prodigy, was on the front page. Memphis. Yeah, that was it. That’s what I was missing—a cool name. If I had that, then surely I’d be the one with the freakishly great talent.

But Memphis also had a rugged physique with enormous arms. I wasn’t blessed with those either. Below his picture was a quote: “What can I say? God dealt me a great hand!”

I glanced down at my body, which was covered in freckles like my mother’s. I had an average build, with knobby knees, plain brown hair and brown eyes. Not exactly a great hand. In fact, if I had to choose a poker hand that best described me, I’d probably go with a pair of fours.

“Excuse me,” said a girl, pointing with her black fingernails at the vacant seat next to me. “I’m by the window.” She was Asian, maybe sixteen. With her iPhone poking out of her jeans, she brushed past us, her black Converse high-tops knocking into my sneakers as she took her seat in 16A.

After securing the door, a flight attendant started down the aisle checking for unfastened seatbelts.

“They’re checking seatbelts,” I said to the girl next to me, motioning to her dangling belt.

She folded her arms against her small frame. “Do you really think it’ll make a difference if we crash?”

I looked down at my seatbelt. “Uh ... probably not if we went down from like thirty thousand feet. But I think it would help if we crashed right after takeoff.”

“And how often do you think that happens—crashing right after takeoff?”

“I don’t know,” I said shrugging.

“I’m guessing not very often. I hear flying’s the safest way to travel, so I think I’ll be fine without it.” She grinned, then pulled the belt over her lap, but didn’t insert it into the buckle.

The flight attendant checked our row and continued to the back of the plane.

The girl swept the black hair out of her face and leaned toward me. “That was a close one,” she said with a smirk.

Another flight attendant, with a nametag of KATE, turned on the cabin microphone. She adjusted her blue polyester uniform, cleared her throat, and started. “Please direct your attention to the cabin crew for important safety information.”

As Kate began her safety presentation, I pulled the instruction card from the seat in front of me and followed along.

“As we leave the gate, please make sure your seatbelts are fastened,” she said.

I peeked over at the girl, who shrugged, and then I pulled my seatbelt a bit tighter.

“Please be sure to locate the exit nearest you as it may be behind you.”

Glancing over my right shoulder, I spotted the closest exit, which was two seats behind me, in front of the wing.

“To operate the doors, remove the handle cover and pull the handle down and in.”

I studied the handle, trying to envision how it would work.

“If there’s a loss in cabin pressure, oxygen masks will appear. Be sure to adjust your own mask before helping others.”

Kate stopped briefly, her eyes moving between the passengers, all of whom were preoccupied. A silver-haired couple chatted about the stretch of warm weather, a mother of two wiped chocolate from the mouths of her children, and the man in the cheap blue suit continued to read his USA TODAY as he slurped from a cup of coffee. Then her eyes fell upon me and the instruction card gripped tightly in my hand, and she smiled.

“In the event of a water evacuation, life vests are located under your seats.”

I leaned forward and poked my head under the seat.

The teenage girl looked at me curiously. “What are you looking for?”

“I was just making sure my life vest was there.”

“Is it?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

“Can you check for mine, too?”

“Okay ...” I peeked under her seat, then looked up at her. “Yeah, it’s there.”

She tapped her seat. “Great.”

A few minutes later, Kate neared the end of her presentation. “At this time, please make sure your seats are in the fully upright position and all electronic devices turned off.”

The girl pulled out her iPhone, tapped the music icon, and leaned the seat back. “So did you get all that?” she asked. “I can count on you to save me if we crash?”

Before I could answer, she inserted her earplugs, turned up the volume, and leaned even farther back.

My eyes moved from the girl to the man in the cheap blue suit, who was two rows in front of me in 14D. The man was well over six foot with thin, greasy blonde hair. From the back, he looked like my father, whom I’d only seen twice in the past year, and one of those times was for my brother’s funeral. Anxiety built inside me as I stared at the man. When he finally turned, I blew out a relieved breath; but it wasn’t enough to keep my father’s face out of my head. The thought of us together at the funeral sent a cold shudder through my veins.

***

A few beads of sweat rolled down my face as the airplane left the gate.

“Are you okay?” the girl next to me asked, pulling out her earplugs.

I gave a feeble nod.

“Is this your first time on an airplane?”

I could feel my face flush and I nodded again.
“Don’t be embarrassed, I was a mess on my first flight.” She turned her palm toward me. “Here, hold my hand.”

After hesitating a moment, I placed my hand in hers. I felt the gentle pressure of her fingers and stared down at her black nails.

The plane turned onto the runway, came to a stop, and a few seconds later the engines roared and the cabin started to shake. I pressed the start button on my watch, triggering the countdown from 2:24.

“Here we go,” the girl said, her slim body vibrating in her seat.

I squeezed her hand a little tighter as we started forward, and then dug my sneakers into the floor, bracing myself. The plane shot down the runway, pinning me against the back of the seat. As the plane lifted into the air, I felt a flutter in my stomach, and although I didn’t know if it was from the takeoff or holding the girl’s hand, I liked it and held back a smile.

Once the plane had left the city of Portland and started to level out, the girl turned to me. “That wasn’t too bad, was it?”

“No, it was actually kind of fun,” I said. “It felt like an amusement park ride.”

“Yeah, although this one doesn’t finish for another two and a half hours, and the rest of the ride is boring.”

I snuck a peek at my watch. “It’s actually two hours and twenty-four minutes.”

Her forehead crinkled. “What did I say?”

“Two and a half hours ... you know, two hours and thirty minutes.”

She let out a small laugh, then glanced down at our interlocked fingers. “So do you plan on telling your girlfriend about this?”

I hadn’t realized I was still clutching her hand. “Sorry.” I pulled my hand away. “And I don’t have a girlfriend.”

“Really? That surprises me. I know you’re young, but you seem like the boyfriend type.”

Although I never asked why she considered me the boyfriend type, I was glad to hear that I was a member.

“Do you have a boyfriend?” I asked, my voice cracking.

She nodded.

“What’s his name?”

“Logan.”

I cringed. Of course. It had to be something different, and I was certain that Logan had a unique gift as well. He was probably a great guitar player, or a world-class sprinter, or maybe he was just wicked smart, but something though, definitely something.

“What’s he like?” I asked.

“He’s a little wild.” She tapped her black Converse high-tops against the floor. “I think that’s why I like him, you know, because he’s not like a Boy Scout.”

I shifted in my seat. “What’s wrong with being a Boy Scout?”

“Nothing, except they usually grow up to be stiffs.”

“Be careful, sweetheart,” my mother said. “You’re talking to one right now.”

The girl’s eyes grew large. “Are you really a Boy Scout?”

“Yes, Troop 1511,” I said nodding. “We’re spending the week at the Grand Canyon.”

“Well I sure can’t top that,” she said, and then turned in her chair, looking behind us. “Is the rest of your troop on the flight?”

I glanced at my mother, who was reading her book. She was one of the chaperones for the trip, and also the reason we were on a different flight. “No, we had to take a later flight,” I said, and then changed the subject. “Where are you going?”

“To Phoenix … to see my mother,” she said.

“But you live in Oregon?” I asked.

“Yeah, with my father,” she said. “My parents are divorced.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

She shook her head. “Don’t be. I didn’t talk to my mother much when we actually lived together.”

“Why?”

“I don’t think she cared much for my choice in guys … among other things.” The girl grinned. “She would have approved of you though.”

I could feel the heat return to my cheeks.

“Anyway,” she said, “I’m sorry what I said about being a Boy Scout. That was stupid.” She looked me up and down, her eyes moving from my brown hair to my worn-out sneakers. “I bet you’re really smart, too. You get good grades, don’t you?”

“I don’t know ... B’s and C’s mostly.”

“Well, at least you’re consistent. My grades are all over the place. It’s either an A or an F, not much in between.” She lifted her high-tops onto her seat and nudged closer. “So what do you want to be when you grow up?”

I hated this question. If I had a niche, I hadn’t found it, and I was tired of always giving the same answer. “I don’t know.”

“You should try a self-assessment test. You just answer a few questions and it tells you what you might be good at.” The girl grabbed her iPhone. “What’s your email? I’ll send you a link to one.”

I tried to keep a straight face, but my lips curled into a smile. I couldn’t help it. It was the first time a girl had asked for my email.

After she typed my email address, which started with jmcgee, her eyes shifted back to me.

“So you’re a McGee?”

“Yeah.”

“Let me guess the first name. Justin?”

“No.”

“Jason?”

I shook my head.

“Give me a hint.”

“Okay.” I paused. “It’s not Logan.”

I peeked at my mother, who was biting her lip, trying not to smile as she pretended to read her book.

“It’s Joe,” I said finally.

“Joe McGee. What a good wholesome name,” she said. “I’m Li Na.”

“Is that your first name?” I asked.

“First and last,” she said, and resumed typing with her thumbs. “Although it’s reversed. The Chinese order is surname followed by given name.”

“So your first name is Na?” I asked.

“See, I knew you were smart,” she said, nodding. “But you can call me Li … that’s what my high school friends call me.” She finished typing, then set down her iPhone. “All right, you’re going to have an email from me when you get home.” She tilted her head slightly, staring at my hand. “Are you still nervous about the flight?”

I shook my head. “No. Why?”

“Your hand’s shaking.”

“Oh, I’m just a little cold,” I said, rubbing my trembling hands together.

She folded her arms. “Yeah, it does seem nippy in here.”

Then I flinched as oxygen masks dropped from the overhead compartments. I sucked in a breath and felt my body tense as I stared at the mask.

The captain’s calm voice came over the intercom system. “It appears there’s been a slight loss in cabin pressure … there shouldn’t be anything to worry about ... but as a precaution, please go ahead and secure your masks.”

Throughout the plane, passengers began attaching their masks, exchanging nervous looks as they did so. The mother of two, sitting a row in front of me, panted as she tried to strap a mask onto one of her children.

I unbuckled my seatbelt and leaned over the top of her seat. “Put your mask on first.”

The mother looked up at me, her hands shaking. She continued to stare.

“Put your mask on first,” I said.

She pressed the oxygen mask against her face. “It’s not inflating,” she said in a muffled voice.

“They said that was normal. Just breathe.”

She drew a few deep breaths, gave me a thumbs-up, and then attached a mask to each of her children. After dropping back into my seat, I refastened the belt and attached my mask.

Then a high-pitched grinding squealed from beneath the wings.

“That didn’t sound good,” said Li, stretching the mask away from her mouth.

We flopped forward in our seats as the airplane slowed.

“We’ve had a mechanical failure,” the captain said through the intercom, his voice still calm but slightly rushed. “We need to make an emergency landing—flight attendants will provide further instructions.”

I looked out the window as the plane began to drop, but saw nothing but forest. I swung my head around, peering through the window on the other side of the aisle. More forest. The plane veered toward a narrow clearing and dipped below the treetops.

A flight attendant’s voice rang through the intercom system. “When we come to a stop on the ground, please wait for our signal before evacuating the aircraft. Once we give the go ahead, release your seatbelts, leave all of your possessions, and proceed immediately to the nearest —”

BOOM!

The right wing clipped a tree and the plane flipped sideways. I gasped, clenched the armrest, and then closed my eyes.








CHAPTER 2
THE BOTTOMLESS PIT




My head whipped around as the plane crashed through the trees. Pain shot through my neck and down my spine. Books, phones, water bottles and who knows what else pelted me in the face and chest.

The sounds of tearing metal and screams pierced my ears, followed by another large BANG, and suddenly a blast of wind whipped along the sides of my face. I jerked back and forth in my seat. The seatbelt dug deeper into my waist with each jerk, and I kept waiting for it to break. But it didn’t, and a few seconds later when the horrible noises finally stopped, I opened my eyes.

Although most of the plane was intact, the cockpit was no longer attached. Passengers rushed toward the exits as smoke filled the cabin. I took a few shallow breaths, then looked right and saw my mother, who had her hand gripped tightly on top of mine.

“Your head’s bleeding,” I said to her, watching blood drip from her hairline onto her shirt.

She pressed her palm firmly against the cut. “At least it’s still attached ...”

I turned to my left and my mouth dropped open. Li’s seat was empty. Then I noticed the unfastened seatbelt dangling over the front of her seat. I looked again through the huge opening in the front of the plane, then back to the seatbelt. I just stared at it, and would have kept staring if cold water hadn’t rushed past my ankles, sending a chill through my body. I remained in my seat, remembering the flight attendant’s instructions to wait for their command before leaving the plane.

“You don’t have to wait, honey,” my mother said through her mask. “The plane is sinking. I think it’s okay to leave.”

I ripped off my mask and unhooked my seatbelt. Crouching down, I reached under our seats and yanked the yellow life vests from their plastic containers. I handed one to my mother and slipped the other over my head, securing it around my waist.

“Keep your mask on,” she said. “The smoke …”

After strapping my mask back on, I followed my mother into the aisle, squeezing between her and another woman. A line of passengers stretched to the front of the plane and I felt the women behind me push against my back. My heart slammed against my chest as a feeling of claustrophobia swept over me, followed by urine steaming down the inside of my leg. That seemed to awaken me though and I spotted the exit two rows behind us.

“This way, Mom,” I said, grabbing her shoulder.

She turned and latched onto the back of my shirt, then we both pushed past the woman behind me.

Reaching through the smoke, the man in the cheap blue suit swept his hands along the surface of the emergency exit, searching for the handle. We crowded around, waving smoke from our faces.

“How do you open this thing?” the man said, sweat dripping down the back of his neck.

“There’s a handle at the top ...” I mumbled.

No one heard me as passengers headed for the other exits.

“I can’t get it open!” the man shouted.

My chest tightened. “It’s at the top—you—you have to pull it down.”

“What?” my mother said, leaning closer. “What are you saying?”

I began to pant. “There’s—there’s a handle at the top ... he has to pull it down.”

She shouted at the man. “The handle’s at the top! Pull it down!”

A second later, the door sprung open and more water rushed inside, splashing against me. My legs began to wobble and the next thing I knew I was on my hands and knees. As I stared down at my soaked pants, unable to move, I felt two hands yank me up from under my arms.

Smoke poured outside through the opening, and as the air began to clear, I could see a shoreline, several hundred yards away. The man in the cheap blue suit stepped onto the wing, which rocked against the water, took a deep breath and leaped. He screamed from the chill of the water and started swimming toward shore, taking jerky overhead strokes.

“Wait!” my mother said. “Use the life raft!”

He ignored her and kept swimming, pounding through the water. I was glad it was springtime, but I knew better. In Oregon—no matter what the season, no matter what the temperature—the water was always freezing.

“Where’s the life raft?” a passenger asked.

I stared at the ceiling compartment, the one holding the life raft, but I couldn’t move. My panting worsened. I forced my shaking arm upward, pointing toward the compartment. “It’s—it’s up there.”

The passenger followed my line, then leaped onto the seat, opened the ceiling compartment, and threw down a crumpled piece of plastic. As another passenger inflated the raft from on top of the wing, I tugged firmly on the red tabs of my life vest. It expanded in a second, startling me as it tightened around my neck. With waterlogged shoes, I stepped through the exit and into the raft, plopping down next to my mother.

“Okay, here we go,” a passenger said, pushing us off from the plane.

Using our hands, we began to paddle, and as the raft drifted from the plane, I glanced back. There was a massive hole where the cockpit had been and much of the tail had been demolished. With the tip of the starboard wing gone, the plane was tilting on its side, supported also by the starboard wing, which was still on fire. Another group of passengers was crowded inside the evacuation slide, which remained attached to the front exit as people continued to climb inside.

We had landed in the middle of a large lake, which rippled outward from the plane. Thick evergreen trees towered above the water.

Our raft reached the shore in less than twenty minutes. About fifty passengers had already arrived, including one cold and shivering man in a cheap blue suit. Based on the Douglas-fir trees surrounding the lake, I assumed we had crashed in Siuslaw National Forest. I had gone camping in Siuslaw, which extended along the Oregon coast from Coos Bay to Tillamook, with my Boy Scout troop, but had never come across a lake this big.

A light rain started to fall as dark clouds moved in overhead. I sat down on the shore next to my mother, who was using her sleeve to wipe blood from her forehead.

“Are you okay?” I asked her.

She nodded and wrapped her arms around me. “I’m so sorry, Joe.”

“For what?”

She didn’t answer and cried silently as we hugged. I couldn’t see her face, but I felt her body shake, and then realized why she was sorry. She felt guilty for changing our flight. We had been scheduled to depart four hours earlier with the rest of my troop, but my mother offered our tickets to a father and son who had been bumped from the flight, which Western Airlines had overbooked. The man’s son, who was disabled, wailed loudly on the floor as his father spoke with the airline representative at the gate. As soon as the airline made the announcement, my mother volunteered. In exchange, we received a free ticket on another domestic flight, and of course, a later departure on flight 1815.

As she pulled back, she placed her shaking hand over mine. The way my mother’s hand was positioned reminded me of when I opened my eyes after the crash, with my mother to my right and Li to my—

“I’ll be right back, Mom.”

With my shoes still soggy, I trudged along the shore, scanning the faces of the passengers. My eyes moved from person to person, but no one looked anything like her, and no one was wearing black Converse high-tops. I looked out at the lake and watched two more life rafts come in without her. When the evacuation slide finally drifted ashore, I stared at the passengers, shaking my head. Li wasn’t aboard.

Then I heard something, and it wasn’t coming from the lake.

Concentrating, listening over the voices of the passengers, I heard it again. I turned toward the direction of the sounds and took a few quiet steps into the woods. A faint voice echoed through the trees. I moved forward about a hundred yards, weaving through the evergreens, and then stopped again. It was quiet.

“Hello!” I called.

There was no reply. I let the massive Douglas-fir next to me serve as a landmark, and then pushed forward into the forest.

The smell of smoke from the plane faded as I walked on. The rain slowed to a sprinkle and a few rays of sunlight snuck through the clouds. I felt unusually light as I moved; normally I’d have a backpack full of supplies strapped to me as I hiked through Siuslaw, but not today. I plodded along the wet leaves and after a short while came upon a clearing. A few feet in front of me lay a piece of luggage, scuffed and torn at the edges. With my eyes, I followed a trail of bags and clothes to a shiny, metallic object resting on the top of a cliff. Beyond that was a long, narrow gorge, with the object propped against the sloped eastern edge.

My pulse quickened as I approached, the object becoming clearer. It was the galley, the section of plane between the cockpit and fuselage, and it hung over the edge of the gorge as a steady wind funneled between the steep rocky walls. Carry-on luggage was piled high against one side of the galley, and the compartment doors on the other side were ajar.

I scanned the clearing. “Hello?”

There wasn’t a response, but I saw a suitcase on the galley shift. My eyes narrowed and I noticed something poking out from underneath the pile of luggage. It was a pair of black Converse high-tops, and they were moving. Luggage tumbled down as the person kicked and screamed, trying to break free. Holding my breath, I took a light step onto the base of the galley, and it held. I exhaled sharply and started toward the person, but after a few feet the galley began to tilt. I leaped out and watched as it swayed over the edge.

“No!”

A gust of wind swept through the gorge, tilting the galley back. Then, sliding out from beneath the luggage, came an Asian teenager, her face bloody and bruised, her clothes torn. I leaned back, putting my weight on my back foot, extending my hand as Li stumbled toward me.

“Come on! Hurry!”

Li wobbled and dropped, crashing down with a hard thud. The galley began to tilt and then slide. She got to a knee and reached for me, her quivering arm outstretched. Our fingertips grazed, and then she collapsed on her side, sliding backwards into the luggage.

Then I blinked and she was gone. “NOOO!”

I dropped to my chest and peered over the edge. The galley was in a free-fall. I watched helplessly, my eyes transfixed on the galley as it became smaller, plunging downward. I kept telling myself that it didn’t happen, that somehow it wasn’t real, but the sight of it falling kept bringing me back.

The sound of the galley crashing against the bottom of the gorge never came though, and the helpless feeling inside me turned to curiosity. I tilted my head and squinted. The galley hadn’t crashed because there wasn’t a bottom to crash into. There was open space for what seemed like miles and then just blackness, as if I was lying on the edge of a bottomless pit or a massive crack in the earth.

As I continued to stare into the gorge, images of Li returned to my mind. Still on my chest, I pushed myself away from the edge and rolled onto my back. I lay on the ground with my hands over my face, and a sick, pit-of-the-stomach feeling swelled inside me. My eyes began to water.

I remained motionless for a long while. It wasn’t until my watch began to beep that I finally sat up. My watch read 6:44; we were supposed to have just landed in Phoenix.

After wiping my eyes dry, I staggered to my feet and headed back toward the lake. I lumbered along under the trees with my head down, replaying in my mind what had just happened.

I had her. I had her. I should have stretched farther. I should have—

“Why you back here?”

I flinched, looking up, and saw a thin man with curly, gray hair and an unkempt beard standing in front of me. He had a scowl on his dirty face and was dressed in plain clothes and dark sandals.

“Why you back here?” he said again in broken English.

“Our plane crashed.”

“I know plane crashed,” he said in a slow, deliberate tone. “Why you over here?”

“I ... I ...”

Two other men, dressed in hooded pullover robes, emerged from behind the trees. The first was a tall African American man with deep, dark brown eyes, and the second man had his hood pulled up, and his long, blond hair was pressed against his cheeks, hiding most of his face.

“Was he near the hole?” asked the tall man.

“Don’t know,” said the bearded man. “I in woods. I not near hole.”

The tall man stared at me, his dark eyes studying my face. “What’s your name?”

My eyes moved nervously between the three men.

“My name is Simon,” the tall man said. “Now tell me yours.”

“It’s Joe.”

“And your last name?” he asked.

“McGee.”

Simon hesitated. “And did you see anything odd, Joe McGee?”

“You mean other than the plane crash?” I said.

Simon folded his arms against his long robe and shot me a look. “Are you trying to be funny?”

“No.”

“So, I’ll ask again. Did you see anything odd? Other than the plane crash.”

Simon’s tone made me think twice about answering. I had certainly seen something odd, but was worried what a “yes” answer would mean. I had an overwhelming urge to lie, but something kept stopping me—scout law. It might sound corny, but a Boy Scout should tell the truth, always.

“Yes.” I answered.

“What?”

“There was this gorge. It looked … weird … and it seemed to go pretty far down.”

“How far down did it go?”

“I don’t know,” I said, shaking my head. “I couldn’t see the bottom.”

Simon nodded.

“We can’t let him go,” said the bearded man. “He see.”

The third man stepped forward, pulling his hood back and parting the long, blond hair from his face. “You can let him go,” he said in a German accent.

My mouth fell open and my hands started trembling. I knew him.

The man had greasy blonde hair and a pointy nose. I hadn’t seen him since my brother’s funeral. The last time I had heard anything from him was six weeks ago, and that was a voicemail left on his behalf.

My father was a professor at the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, but had gone on leave to accept a temporary assignment with the government—something about studying land. He never shared much more than that, except to say that he couldn’t use a phone or computer at his new location, and the location itself was classified. Now here he was, ten feet from me, with a German accent and bushy beard, giving off the same rank smell as the other men.

“Can’t let him go,” the bearded man repeated.

“No, you can let him go,” my father said. “You nothing to worry about.”

“How do you know that?” asked Simon.

“Because he not figure it out, and he not find way back here.”

Simon looked to me, then back to my father. “Do you know him?”

“Yeah, I know him,” my father said. “Trust me, you nothing to worry about. He go right back to his regular life.”

I could feel Simon looking at me, but my eyes remained locked on my father.

“Help!” a voice called in the distance, and the three men turned in that direction.

“I go check it out,” my father said.

“No,” said Simon, his voice rising. He was the only one of the three who spoke without an accent. “I need you to talk to our friends on Independence Avenue. We’re going to need a lot of help with this. The FAA will be all over these woods soon.”

Fine,” my father said. He shot off to the west, his long robe fluttering behind him as he ran.

Simon’s eyes shifted to me. “Follow us.” He pulled the hood up over his head and crossed in front of me, heading in the direction of the voice.

But I didn’t move, still shocked from the sight of my father.

“Hey,” said Simon. “Come on.”


I followed the two men as they weaved through the woods. Although they weren’t running, I had to hustle to keep up with them. They were deceptively fast, their sandals gliding across the ground; and with their earthy colored robes, they seemed to blend in with the forest.

Simon was the first to see them as we came over a ridge. Just down an embankment, through the trees, were three people. I recognized the first face I saw, Kate, the flight attendant. She was limping and blood was smeared on her torn polyester uniform. There were two men with her and based on their white shirts, black ties, and the gold stripes above their shoulders, I assumed they were the captain and copilot. The copilot lay on the ground clutching his side while the captain sat on a rock with a puzzled look on his face, as if he was trying to figure something out. About a hundred feet past them, wedged on its side between two pine trees, was the cockpit.

Simon moved with ease down the embankment, sliding from tree to tree, until he was within an arm’s length of Kate. When she turned and saw him, she screamed and jumped back.

“Oh, thank God,” Kate said. “We need help. Our plane just went down.”

“Where did it go down?” asked Simon.

“I don’t know, it broke apart,” she said. “I was in the jump seat.” She took a deep breath and pressed her hand against her chest. “I can’t believe you found us.”

“Have you left this area?” Simon asked.

“I didn’t, no,” Kate said. She motioned to the captain. “Just Captain Randall.” She walked toward the copilot. “Can you help us? I think his ribs are broken. We have to get him to a hospital.”

Simon’s eyes moved to the captain. “Where did you go?”

“To look for help,” the captain said.

“Which direction?” asked Simon.

The captain hesitated, then pointed with his thumb over his shoulder.

“How far that way?” Simon asked. “And what did you see?”

“I didn’t see anyone,” the captain said. “That’s why I came back.”

Simon shook his head, moving toward him. “I’m not asking if you saw any people. I want to know what you saw.”

The captain stared at Simon, concentrating harder with each question he asked.

Kate bent down by the copilot, waiving Simon over. “Can you help us please?”

Simon didn’t answer, his eyes still on the captain.

“I can help,” I said.

Kate looked past Simon and saw me. “Wait, you were on the plane.”

I nodded.

The captain perked up. “Are there other survivors?”

“Yeah, they’re just through the woods,” I said, pointing toward the lake.

“Great,” said Simon, annoyed. “Why don’t you take us to them, Joe.”

***

As the captain gathered the passengers, Simon and the bearded man planted themselves in front of the line of trees to the west, as if standing guard. They stood with their arms folded, whispering to each other.

Once we were assembled into one large group, Simon addressed us. “My friends and I have a bus nearby. We can use it to get everyone to the Hebo Ranger Station where we’ll call for help. As I’m sure you’ve already discovered, we’re too deep in the woods to get a cell phone signal.”

“How long will it take to get your bus back here?” asked the captain.

“We can’t get the bus this far back,” said Simon. “The terrain is too rough. We’ll have to walk it.” He glanced up at the sky. “Not to mention, it’s going to be dark soon, and believe me, you don’t want to be wandering around out here at night.”

I think most of the passengers assumed Simon was referring to the wildlife, but I wondered if it wasn’t something else.

“Hang on,” said Kate. “I just did a head-count. We only have a hundred and seventy-seven. There should be one seventy-eight.”

A feeling of guilt rushed through me. I stepped forward, biting down on my lip. “It’s the girl who was sitting next to me.” I closed my eyes. “She didn’t make it.”

A collective gasp went up among the passengers.

The captain walked over. “Are you sure?”

I looked up at him and nodded. Then I glanced to my right and saw a tear run down my mother’s face.

“Where is she?” asked the captain.

“She was trapped in a section of the plane when it fell into this gorge,” I said, and then pointed past him. “It’s about two hundred yards to the west.”

Simon folded his arms and glared at me.

The captain looked around, taking in the rest of the survivors. “I don’t understand,” he said, shaking his head. “The fuselage and all of the passengers are here. How did one end up a few hundred yards away?”

My stomach turned as I dropped my hand to my waist. “She … she wasn’t wearing her seatbelt.”

Kate and the captain exchanged pained looks.

“Well maybe she’s still alive,” said Kate. “How deep was it?”

“I know the gorge he’s talking about,” said Simon, interrupting. “She wouldn’t have made it. I’m sorry.”

“Why don’t we just check?” the captain said.

“I’ll have someone from my group go check, but we need to get moving,” said Simon.

The captain shook his head. “These passengers are my responsibility and I’m not going to leave one behind if there’s a chance they’re alive.”

“You have hundreds of people right here that need your help,” said Simon, “and there’s little chance your plane will be found before sunrise.” He paused. “We need to go.”

Without waiting for a response, Simon headed east. The captain stood still and a long moment ticked by. Then he began to follow him, as did the rest of us­­­—the one hundred and seventy-seven survivors of Western Airlines Flight 1815.

***

I walked next to my mother as the sunlight faded, neither of us talking much. As we moved through the woods, my neck tightened and the bruises on my face and shoulders began to ache. My thoughts remained on Li though, and I could tell from the distraught look on my mother’s face and her random squeezing of my hand, that she was thinking of her too. I wanted to talk to her about it, about my father, about everything, but I decided to wait until we had left the forest.

My father’s voice rang through my head as we walked. Why was he talking that way? What had he been doing for the past year? But it wasn’t just his accent and poor grammar; it was what he had said. He not figure it out. I knew what he really meant—you weren’t born with it.

It reminded me of the last conversation my brother Michael and I had with my father. We had been playing the card game War when he walked into my room and started going through my closet.

“What are you doing, Dad?” I asked.

“I need to get a suitcase from your closet.”

“Why do you need a suitcase?”

He pushed my shirts to one side, then bent down, reaching into the corner. “I have to go away for a while.”

I had heard my parents’ raised voices a few minutes earlier, followed by a door slamming. Now, I knew why.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“It’s for work,” he said, pulling out the suitcase.

“How long will you be gone?”

“I don’t know, Joe.”

I looked back to Michael who sat with his legs stretched on the floor, holding his cards clumsily in his hands. He was three years older than me, but several inches shorter and almost twenty pounds lighter. Michael stared at our father through the thin blond hair that hung over his eyebrows.

“Yyyy—your turrr—rn?” Michael asked in a slurred voice.

“No, it’s yours, Mike.”

My father shut the closet and headed for the door. “Why do you always play that game with him?” he said as he walked by.

“I don’t know ... he likes it,” I said.

My father stopped at the door and leaned against the frame. “But the game’s pointless, there’s no skill involved. You can’t even use strategy.”

“I know, but Mike knows how to play this one,” I said. “Well, some of the cards.”

He ran his fingers through his greasy hair. “What does it do for you though?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean what do you gain from playing?” my father said, pointing at me. “You certainly don’t learn anything.”

I thought about it, but stayed quiet.

“Joe, it’s nice of you to play with your brother, but don’t let his disability hold you back. His fate is sealed, not yours. You need to think about yourself, too.”

“Y—y—your tuuurn, J—J—Joe.” Michael said, flopping his head back to look up at me.

I hesitated. As I thought about what my father had said, I stared at Michael, who was waiting anxiously for me to play a card, his head tilted.

I swallowed, then flipped the king of hearts.

My father sighed and I watched him as his eyes drifted around the room. My books were arranged alphabetically on the bookshelf and my desk was well organized, with separate containers for pens, pencils and markers. Hanging on my bedroom walls were posters of my three favorite baseball players: Jackie Robinson, Joe DiMaggio, and Cal Ripken Jr. The only thing out of place was a book my mother had lent me—Siblings with Cerebral Palsy, which lay open on my bed.

“I guess it’s just something you’re born with,” my father said in a low, disappointed voice.

“What ...” I said.

My father motioned to the posters on the wall. “All these players who you admire so much … they were all born with something—an innate desire to succeed. Do you really think they could have accomplished what they did without being a little selfish? Do you think they spent their days playing meaningless card games with their brothers and sisters?”

“So you’re saying I shouldn’t play War with Michael?”

“No, I’m not saying that, because I know you will anyway. That’s my point. It’s just the way you are.”

***

Our trek through the wilderness wasn’t as bad as Simon had led us to believe, and although it would have been difficult to get a vehicle to the lake, it wasn’t that tough of a hike. I wondered, though, how Simon could be so confident in where he was going. It didn’t appear he was following a marked trail, but he made turns as if there were giant street signs along the way. I didn’t know how he’d ever find his way back.

Then I noticed something. About every few hundred yards, we would walk by a tree with engraved numbers. The top row always had the same format—a number, followed by a slash, followed by another number. The next three I saw were 330/185, 45/222, and 102/193.

Underneath, also carved into the tree, were two more rows of symbols. The second row was written in Roman numerals, but I didn’t recognize the symbols on the third row. I had no idea what any of the numbers meant, but one thing was certain, every time Simon walked past an engraved tree, he turned.

It was well into the evening when we reached the top of a ridge. “It’s right down this hill,” Simon said.

In the valley below, sitting among the evergreens, was an old white school bus with muddy tires. The bearded man had already arrived and was flanked by two other men, wearing similar colorless robes. They waited next to the bus with no expression on their faces.

“We’ll take those who are injured on the first load,” said Simon. “Everyone else stay put for now. It’s about a twenty-five minute ride to the Hebo Ranger Station, so we’ll be back for the next group in about an hour.”

My mother doubted she needed stitches, but the flight attendants encouraged her to go with the first group; the dried blood on her hair and forehead made her injuries look worse than they actually were.

As we waited in the aisle for the other passengers to sit, I peeked over my shoulder and saw Simon come aboard.

“Anyone see?” the driver whispered in what sounded like a Russian accent.

“At least one,” Simon said.

“What you going to do?” the driver asked as we moved toward the back of the bus. I never heard Simon’s reply.

My mother and I took the last seat on the right. To our left, sitting by herself, was an African American girl, her weathered face resting against the bus window. She was seventeen or eighteen, with long black hair that lay on her bony shoulders. I didn’t recognize her from the plane. As the bus started and the floor began to shake, I glanced at her feet. She was wearing sandals.











CHAPTER 3
REVELATION




The bus winded through the darkness down a bumpy dirt path. My mother kept her hand pressed against my knee as we bounced along, the path illuminated only by the bus’ dim headlines. When we emerged from the forest and turned onto a paved road, Simon stood and walked halfway down the aisle.

“I apologize for the bumpy ride,” he said. “We should be at the Ranger Station in about five minutes.”

“You guys will be all over the news,” a man said to Simon. He adjusted the sling around his shoulder. “You’re going to be heroes.”

“We’re just happy to get you home,” Simon said.

“So are you on some sort of camping trip?” the man asked.

Simon gave a slight nod.

“You must have a large group,” the man said, taking in the size of the bus.

“There’s quite a few of us,” Simon said.

“How long will you be camping for?” the man asked.

“Hopefully not too much longer,” Simon said, cutting the conversation short and returning to the front of the bus.

When the bus reached the Hebo Ranger Station, the door squeaked opened and passengers began to file out. I stood at the end of the line with my mother. Peeking over my shoulder, I noticed that the African American girl wasn’t getting up.

“We’re here,” I said to her.

She remained in her seat with her eyes down and her head still leaning against the window. I followed my mother through the aisle and waited to go down the steps as the last few people emptied out. I glanced again toward the back of the bus and this time the girl was looking right at me, her hazel eyes studying my face. The traces of brown around her pupils dissolved, leaving only green.

“Revelation twenty-one,” she said.

I stared back at her, confused.

“Let’s go,” a voice called from outside the bus. After descending the steps, I found Simon waiting. “Are you close with your father, Joe?”

“I … I don’t know,” I said.

“You don’t know if you’re close with you father?”

I glanced past him, looking for my mother. “We’re not that close, no,” I said, answering.

“Has it been awhile since you’ve seen him?”

“Well … yeah,” I said. “Until today.”

Simon sighed. “I think you hit your head during the crash,” he said. “That’s why you’re seeing your father in the woods … and strange holes in the ground.” He lifted his hood back over his head, brushed by me, and climbed the stairs back onto the bus.

***

Entry from Simon’s journal, dated March 27th:

Something passed through today, and not a little something. A commercial airliner. It crashed within a mile of the gorge. How did a plane make it through? We’ve had a few hikers cross the perimeter before, but nothing like this.

The FAA will search for the wreckage, but they won’t find all of it. And they mustn’t find the gorge, as it’s the most promising opening of them all.

One passenger saw the gorge. It was Colin McGee’s son. He’s just a kid, no more than 14. McGee assures me that the boy won’t act on it, but I’m not so sure.

There was also a fatality. A young girl. I will pray for her and her family, but there’s little chance that her body will be recovered.

***

Later that night, at the Portland International Airport, we met with two employees of Western Airlines. They told us our tickets would be refunded and we’d be eligible for first class upgrades on all domestic flights for up to one year. Then they asked us about the preflight instructions, the crash itself, and the subsequent evacuation. I remained silent while my mother provided every detail she could recall. The employees never asked about the galley and I never brought it up.

At 1:12 a.m., we finally headed home.

We lived at 58 Timothy Road in Beaver, Oregon. Our two-story brick house was small, but as with the other houses in the neighborhood, the yard was large and full of oak and pine trees. We were seventy miles west of Portland, just outside the Hebo Ranger district of Siuslaw National Forest.

I woke up early the next morning after only a few hours’ sleep. It felt strange being in my bed. I was supposed to be zipped inside a sleeping bag, with scouts sprawled around me, and the dry Phoenix air blowing against our tent. Instead, I was alone in my room with the heat on, a cold draft was seeping in through the window, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the previous day.

I looked aimlessly around the room until my eyes settled on a picture of my brother Michael, who had died from pneumonia that past winter. A red stain covered the front of his shirt and his lips were curled into an uneven smile.

He had been choking a few minutes earlier.

“I don’t know why I dressed you in white today,” my mother had said to him that day, tying a bib around his thin neck.

Michael shifted his bib to the side and laughed.

“Please straighten it, Michael.” She crossed through the kitchen and pulled a pan of garlic bread from the oven. “Joe, can you cut that up for him,” she said, glancing back at his plate.

“Sure.” I leaned over the table and cut up his spaghetti and meatballs, then let the knife rest against his plate.

“Move the knife,” my mother said.

“Oh, right, sorry,” I said, reaching for it.

That was the rule at the dinner table. No knives of any type near Michael, not even a butter knife. There was a rule for every room it seemed.

Michael gripped his fork in his fist, craned his neck over his plate, and began eating. Sauce spilled onto his bib and shirt with each bite.

“Here you go,” my mother said, setting the garlic bread next to me as she sat down.

As usual, my father’s seat was empty. I had become so used to him being away, that it felt awkward when he did join us for dinner.

“Have you tried the spaghetti?” she asked.

“Yeah, it’s good,” I said, swallowing down a bite.

“Did it taste different?”

I shook my head. “I don’t think so.”

The corner of her mouth turned up. “I used a new recipe.”

“What’s different about it?” I asked.

“I used turkey for the meatballs,” she said.

I looked down at my plate and rolled a meatball over with my fork. “Why turkey?”

But my mother didn’t answer, and when I looked up, I saw her eyes widen. She shoved her chair back and shot toward Michael, whose face was bright red and his mouth half open. She came from behind and yanked him up as Michael grabbed for his throat. Kicking his chair to the side, my mother wrapped her arms around him, slapped her hands together into a ball, then thrust them into Michael’s stomach. He lurched forward with each jerk, and a moment later, a wad dropped out of his mouth and onto the floor. He began to cry.

My mother’s hands moved from his waist to his chest, and she began to rock him.

“It’s okay,” she said. “Joe, hand me his water.”

I passed it to her and she held it to his mouth. He took a few gulps, then wiped his eyes dry.

“Are you okay?” My mother asked, stepping in front of him.

“I doooon’t like—I—I—I doooon’t like n—n—new meatballs,” Michael said.

My mother and I laughed, and a moment later Michael joined us. Then he couldn’t stop laughing. None of us could. She pulled her phone from her pocket and snapped a picture.

As I continued to stare at the picture, I focused on my brother’s hazel eyes. It reminded me of the girl on the bus. Revelation twenty-one. Although I didn’t know what it meant, my curiosity started to build; so I rolled out of bed and booted up my computer. I launched my browser and as I waited for it to load, I opened my email.

Then I saw it. The subject of the email read: Self-Assessment Test.

I stared at the subject line, unable to click on it as a wretched feeling filled my stomach. I had her. I eventually double clicked the email, and read:

Dear Joe, 

I hope this helps you find what you’re looking for.

P.S. Since you’re reading this we apparently landed safely. I guess you didn’t have to save me after all. 

Li

I closed the email, turned off my computer, and went back to bed.

***

My mother was cooking scrambled eggs when I came out of my room a few hours later.

“How’d you sleep?” she asked. “Probably about as well as I did.”

I nodded and took a seat at the kitchen table, which had four place settings. Even with my brother gone and father away, my mother still set the table for four. She claimed it was for decoration.

“Did you wash your hands?” she asked.

“Yes, I just did.”

Holding a pan full of eggs, my mother walked over, dumped half of the eggs on my plate and the other half on hers.

“Thank you,” I said.

The pan began to shake in her hand. “I’m sorry I switched our flight, Joe.”

I looked up at her and watched her eyes begin to water.

“I feel awful,” she said. “I was just …” She let out a long, slow breath. “I was just trying to …”

“It’s okay, Mom,” I said. “You didn’t know what was going to happen.”

She set her free hand on my back. “Are you okay?” she asked, sniffing back tears.

I nodded as I turned my glass of orange juice in its place.

“Walter and Suzy called,” she said as she crossed to the counter. “And your troop leader.”

“What are we going to do about the trip?” I asked.

“Did you still want to go?”


Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-39 show above.)