“Wait. Ted. She’s…” Cold hands and colder metal pressed against my nakedness. “Oh, my god. She’s alive, Ted. She’s breathing!”
“That’s not possible.” More cold hands, rougher, yanking up my eyelid, flashing light. Pressing against my neck. “She’s got a pulse! Let’s go!”
A bump, a roll, a door slam. Ambulance siren. Careening through time and space. Brakes. Doors. Hallways. Voices, urgent, and hands pressing at me. Cold metal.
I was inhaling fire. The air was burning cold, like mid-January in upstate when you swear your lungs are blooming into ice crystals with every breath and your nose hairs freeze on impact with the air. I gasped once, twice. Hands pushed at me gently as I struggled to sit up. “Shh, shh. Hang on, sweetie. Just rest.”
I pushed against them, still struggling to sit. I rubbed at my eyes, trying to focus through all the white and bright around me. Someone said, “You’ll be okay. You’re safe now.”
“Where am I?” My voice was raspy, rusty, a door unopened for centuries.
But everyone was pushing around me, excited, calling out. I blinked more, struggling to see and understand. Everything was so bright, so crazy bright, as if the television settings were messed up and whole picture just washed out to white. Hints of the shapes of people and objects, but nothing clear, blurred in and out of view.
“Mom?” I called out, trying to rub at my eyes. “Dad?”
A woman leaned in close to me. Her hot, onion breath was in my face. “What’s your name, sweetie? Can you tell me your name?”
“Natalie Raider. Are my parents okay? Where’s Laura?” Oh, no. Laura.
But no one was listening, just dressing me up like a marionette with tubes and wires and bandages coming out of everywhere. I struggled to sit up, but my right leg flared in searing pain and suddenly I was flanked by two people on each side, gently but insistently pushing me down.
And then all the shapes and figures slid sideways, and someone yelled, “We’re losing her!” and I found myself floating again.
When I awoke next, I could see clearly, although my eyes felt dry and loaded with grit. I was in a room blocked off by a white curtain. My lungs were filling with warm air, pain-free. My leg still throbbed vaguely, and the light was bright but not blinding. I was flat on my back, staring at ceiling squares.
I lifted my head and looked around, trying to make sense of anything.
A woman was sitting in a chair squeezed beside my bed, dressed in Pepto pink scrubs, short brown hair falling around her face as she bent over a clipboard. The curtain around us billowed, brushing against the back of her head, making it look like a marshmallow was trying to engulf her. Every couple seconds, she pushed at it distractedly with the back of her hand to fend it off. I made a noise and she snapped her head up, concern in her eyes.
“Oh, you’re awake. How do you feel, Natalie?” Her voice was the overly-friendly one school counselors used to encourage you to think of them as your buddy. I was instantly suspicious.
I did a systems check. “Sore.”
“You hurt? Where?”
“All over.” I rolled my head, stretching my neck and stretched my limbs. It felt like I’d been sleeping for days. “What time is it?”
She checked her watch. “About ten.”
She cocked her head. “No. In the morning. Natalie, honey, what do you remember about yesterday?”
“Yesterday?” My waking stupor fell away and I shot upright, the thin sheet falling away. I was wearing a hospital gown, and there was a bulge under the sheet where I felt bandages on my right leg. “My parents! Laura! Where are they? Are they okay?”
In a second, she was at my side, tossing her clipboard to the foot of the bed and making shushing noises. “You need to calm down, honey, understand?”
“Just tell me they’re okay.”
She hesitated. “Let’s start at the beginning.”
“Tell me they’re okay!”
She held her hands out again. “Calm down, now, Natalie. Don’t get—”
Laura, Laura, Laura! I jumped up and out of the opposite side the bed, flinging the curtain aside with a scream of metal rings against the steel rod.
I was in a long hospital room, with billowing curtain dividers between each patient. Everything was so white, the floor, the ceiling, the lab coats of the people staring at me.
I staggered, my legs wobbly and unsure, dull pain throbbing in my bandaged leg, my balance completely off as I lurched forward heavily like an astronaut experiencing gravity after months in space. I ripped tubes from my arms and lumbered down the room, yanking curtains aside and crashing into metal carts full of equipment. “Where are they?”
The woman behind me called again for me, and up ahead two big guys came out of nowhere, moving not at a run but with surprising speed for their size, their eyes locked on me. Medical linebackers with one job—intercept the crazy girl. Two nurses ran to catch up with them. I hesitated, but I had nowhere to turn. I started to dive behind another curtain, knowing it was a childish move – Tag! You’re it! – but the guys had reached me and snagged each of my arms.
“This way.” The woman with the clipboard had caught up to us. “Let’s put her in 215.”
215 turned out to be a single room with a window overlooking the roof below us, upon which a couple pigeons were busy decorating with ample amounts of pigeon poop, a slap in the face to the sterile rooms inside. After I was escorted into the room, the clipboard woman had a low, urgent talk with a doctor about whether or not I should be sedated.
The doctor, a blond guy who looked barely older than me, eyed me warily. “See how it goes first. I’ll be right down the hall.”
The woman pushed the door shut behind him, and stood in front of it like a sentry. She tucked her pin-straight, bobbed brown hair behind one ear and motioned to the bed. “Why don’t you sit down, Natalie? I’m Sasha MacMillan, and I’m here to help you. But you have to trust me, and work with me, okay? We’ll get to the bottom of all this together and find your family.”
“Find them? FIND them?” Oh, no. I sank onto the edge of the bed, the fight draining out of me. So they were still out there. In the sea. I dropped my head into my hands. This was not happening.
“What happened to them?” I whispered. “Why can’t you find them?”
Sasha pulled the single chair up and sat in it so close her knees banged against my shins hanging off the edge of the bed. She tucked her hair again. “Natalie. We need to work through this one step at a time, okay? What happened yesterday?”
I took a long, shivering breath. “The plane crashed.”
Sasha made a loud noise sucking in her breath, a loud gasp that startled me. “You were in a plane crash?”
I dropped my jaw and stared. At the same time, my heart exploded into hundreds of thousands of pieces, so loud I’m sure she must have heard the pieces crashing. They weren’t even looking for my family?
“The pilot,” I said, my voice rising. “He was radioing for help!”
She patted my knee and stood quickly. “You have to promise me you’ll stay right here, okay? You promise? I will be right back, but the best way you can help your family is to stay right here and wait for me so we can figure this out quickly. You promise?”
I nodded feebly and she hustled out the door. It clicked behind her.
I flopped backward slowly onto the bed, swallowed up in a darkness, alone. Alone. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t bear to think of my over-anxious mom, my emotion-squelching, bad-pun-telling dad, my sister…oh, Laura!…out there, waiting for someone to find them.
Sasha was back quickly. She settled into the chair again, all business. “Okay. The nurse is calling the authorities and we’ll locate your family. They may have gone to a different hospital.”
Of course. The ice in my chest released just a bit, letting me breathe again. But just barely.
“Okay. So your name is Natalie Raider.”
“Super. Beautiful name. How old are you?”
“Okay, great. And your family. What are their names?”
“Steve and Elaine Raider.”
“Terrific. And did you have brothers and sisters with you?”
“Laura. My twin sister.”
“Very good. When did you board the plane?”
And so it went on, her asking questions and praising each answer before asking the next. I told her everything, every detail plucked from its proper spot in my brain. We were taking Laura’s Joy trip, sponsored by the Joyful Memories Foundation. Most of it was by tour bus, I told Sasha, but this plane tour was going to be the highlight.
I told her about the ride, short as it was, and I tried to tell her about the crash but I couldn’t keep it together and it came out in gasps and sobs and short phrases: We’d only been in the air about five minutes. The engine stuttered. The plane shook. An acrid smell filled the cockpit. The pilot, yelling frantically into the radio. Grabbing for life vests. My mother’s screams. My father, reaching for Laura.
Sasha patted my knee and said not to worry about the details, she had enough, and that I should rest now. She left the room, but I saw her peeking back in through the little window. A few minutes later, a nurse came in with a tiny paper cup and a plastic cup of water. She handed them to me. “Take this,” she said. “It’ll help you rest.”
I gratefully tossed the pill into my throat and washed it down. Sasha and the doctors would find my family while I slept. When I woke up, they would be here. I wouldn’t be alone.
And yet, this odd feeling inside my chest, like part of my heart was hollow, like part of my heart was gone…
I started getting drowsy almost instantly. Random thoughts floated in and out of my mind. Laura and me at the playground as kids, laughing and hugging. Me, pitching a tantrum at four because Laura got to ride in the grocery cart and I had to walk. Writing her essay for her English class because she had a doctor’s appointment. Watching Don Douglas ask her to dance at homecoming. Then a thought occurred to me and I struggled to sit up. “What day is it?” I asked.
“Day? It’s Thursday,” said Sasha. “Get some rest.”
“Yes.” I sank back into the pillow that smelled like antiseptic, smiling just a little. At least I wasn’t too late. Once my family came, we’d all go home and I could finish my work, exposing Don Douglas. Everything would be fine.
I was still right on time.
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