Tuesday, December 16th
Adelaide Fairfax had been apprehensive about taking this flight from the very beginning. For one, she preferred not to be in such close proximity to her election opponent. Maxim Donahue, the man who’d filled her husband’s state senate position via special election two years ago, was working on his laptop across the aisle and slightly in front of her. He was the only other person on the seven-seater Cessna except the pilot and, although he refused to show it, he couldn’t be happy that she’d been the one to claim Franklin Salazar’s endorsement at their meeting this morning. A very wealthy developer, Franklin would not only be a generous campaign benefactor, he’d be a strong influence on getting other key supporters to donate.
But, as awkward as such close association was, it wasn’t being cooped up on a private plane with Donahue that’d tempted her to stay in Tahoe and forego the governor’s fundraiser in Los Angeles. Neither was it the Christmas music that filtered through the speakers, reminding her of a season she preferred, for the third year, to forget. It was that she’d always hated flying. The newspaper article she’d read last week, detailing the shocking number of uncharted plane wrecks in the Sierra Nevadas, didn’t help. This range contained some of the highest mountains in the Northern Hemisphere: craggy, rocky peaks that soared above the timberline.
Those same craggy peaks were now lurking somewhere below them in the blizzard-like weather. How close, Adelaide didn’t know. But she had a terrible feeling it was too close.
Because of her fear, she couldn’t classify the instant she knew they were going to crash a premonition. It was more of a gut instinct, a sudden prickly sensation that told her something terrible was about to happen—the same sensation she’d experienced right before she’d received the call notifying her of her husband’s fatal car accident.
She opened her mouth to ask the pilot if everything was okay but didn’t have a chance to voice the words. One of the powerful downdrafts they’d been battling almost since take-off jerked the plane, causing it to lose altitude at such a rate her stomach jumped into her throat.
Senator Donohue looked back at her, his expression, for once, devoid of the contempt he typically reserved for her. It was an honest “Oh my God” moment when their eyes met and they understood without speaking that the primary they both wanted to win so desperately the following June no longer mattered. Chances were they wouldn’t see Christmas.
* * *
The impact of the crash rattled Adelaide’s teeth and threw her against the harness of her seatbelt, feeling like a one-two punch in the stomach and chest. At the same time, a heavy object fell from above, striking her on the temple. It hit hard enough to disorient her, but she didn’t lose consciousness. She sat, eyes wide open, staring at nothing but sudden darkness. Even the Christmas music was gone, instantly replaced by a low hissing sound.
The smell of gasoline registered simultaneously with the pain she felt from the landing. She had to climb out, get beyond the fuselage. But how? If there were emergency lights, they didn’t come on.
Could she find the exit? If she did, would she be able to open the door? She was shaking so violently she doubted she had the strength to move so much as a small piece of luggage out of her way.
How had this happened? The pilot had promised they’d be able to get through. And God owed her a small break, didn’t He? She’d barely been able to function since Mark died. It was the coming election, and her decision to enter the race—what should’ve been Mark’s race—that’d given her a reason to go on.
Ironically, it was also thanks to the coming election that her life now hung in the balance.
She struggled to get her bearings, but the creaks and groans of the plane and the heavy dust-filled darkness worked against her. Never had she imagined herself in such a situation, where survival depended entirely on her own ingenuity and instincts. A pilot, a stewardess, a fireman passenger—she’d always assumed there’d be Someone In Charge in case of an emergency. Someone else.
Had the senator or pilot survived? What were the chances?
Not good, surely. She didn’t hear anything—no movement, no groans. Was she completely on her own?
She held her breath. The howling wind gusted into the cabin as if a hole had been ripped in the metal, or the hull had broken apart. Maybe she wouldn’t need to open the door. Maybe she was mere inches from freedom and didn’t know it. But if she made it out alive, how long would she be able to survive in such conditions? Were there any emergency supplies on board? Flares?
I’m going to die.
That realization made her quake. But what did dying mean, exactly? As a foster child who’d been bounced around so many homes she’d lost track, she didn’t stay in touch with any of her “parents.” She had no children. She’d already turned her business over to the woman who’d worked for her almost from the beginning, so she could campaign.
For the briefest of moments, she allowed herself to imagine seeing Mark again, touching him. He’d been the one constant in her life, the only person who’d ever made her feel loved. She missed his appreciation for fine wine and good books and old architecture and modern art, missed the way he laughed and made her laugh. Was he still the same in some other dimension, maybe living in heaven, as so many organized religions taught?
The possibility was enough to calm her. If heaven existed, maybe she wouldn’t be alone for Christmas, after all. Lord knew she’d trade her money, her company and her hopes of winning a state senate seat for contact with Mark—would do it in a heartbeat. No more forcing herself to meet each new day without the husband she’d lost. No more aching loneliness. Only someone with a fierce will to survive could come out of an accident like this. And that wasn’t her. She’d fought enough battles. It was better to give up right away, let go—
A moan interrupted. She was almost reluctant to acknowledge what that moan meant. Another survivor complicated her desire to slip away without a struggle.
It had to be Maxim Donahue, she decided. He opposed her in everything.
But it wasn’t Donahue. The sound came from the pilot. She could tell because Maxim called out to him a second later, his own voice scratchy and strained enough to make her wonder if he’d been seriously injured. “You…okay, Mr. Cox?”
Cox. That was the pilot’s name. They’d been introduced when Adelaide came on board, but she’d been too busy keeping to herself to concentrate on someone she’d likely never meet again. Cox wasn’t her pilot; a friend of the governor’s had provided the plane and the pilot. Bruce Livingston wasn’t about to let bad weather beat him out of what he had planned for his biggest fundraiser of the year. He’d invited Donahue as a way to show his continued support; he’d invited her as a way to reach her wealthy supporters. She knew it was a calculated move, but her acceptance was every bit as calculated. Although most folks expected the governor to stand by Donahue, her inclusion in this event signaled that he wouldn’t be entirely opposed to seeing her take over. It was a perfect way to play the middle ground–as Livingston did so well.
“Mr. Cox?” Donahue called, a little louder.
The moaning stopped. “Get out…now!” the pilot rasped.
Other than that hissing sound she’d noticed earlier, silence fell as absolute as the darkness.
“Adelaide?” Donahue said next.
It was odd even in such a desperate moment for this man, who’d only ever addressed her as Ms. Fairfax—and that with such starch courtesy it bordered on rudeness—to use her first name so familiarly. But at least he sounded more coherent than he had a moment before. She knew that fact should’ve brought relief. Instead, she experienced a marked reluctance to let go of the hope of seeing Mark for Christmas.
“Hey, you still with us?” he persisted.
Don’t answer. She knew what she was in for, couldn’t face it. They’d freeze to death even if they got out.
And yet, despite all the odds stacked against them—even the possibility of Mark waiting for her in heaven—the animalistic drive to go on, to live no matter how difficult, finally asserted itself.
“I’m here.” Unfortunately. Why couldn’t it have happened quickly? Why couldn’t it already be over?
In her seat. She hadn’t budged because she’d assumed it was pointless. She didn’t know where to go or what to do. Her head hurt, and a wet substance rolled down the side of her face that couldn’t be tears. She was too shocked to cry.
“Answer me, damn it,” he snapped while she was puzzling over her own reaction.
The force of his demand, and that same instinct that’d caused her to answer the first time, drew another response. “Where I was when w-we crashed.”
That information was enough to guide him to her. A moment later she felt him touch her. His hands ran over her head, her face, and then her body. They moved briskly, purposefully—and they missed nothing.
Mark… The yearning nearly overwhelmed her.
“I don’t feel any major injuries,” he said. “Can you walk?”
Not Mark. Mark’s replacement. Mark’s political enemy. “I th-think so.” Why weren’t his teeth chattering? How was it that he could remain calm, even through this?
She should’ve expected it. She’d often said he was made of stone. His wife, already ailing from cancer, had committed suicide two years ago, only six months after the car accident that’d taken Mark’s life. But Maxim Donahue had never shown so much as a hint of regret. She could still remember the implacable expression he’d worn when he appeared on television in a completely unrelated matter only days after Chloe Donahue’s funeral.
Adelaide had always resented him for the ease with which he’d been able to return to business as usual. He made carrying on look simple. Probably because he cared about nothing as much as his own ambition. That was part of the reason she’d decided to run against him in the next election. What Donahue had said about her late husband provided the rest of her motivation.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said.
The pilot didn’t utter another peep. Cox. Adelaide knew she’d never forget his name again. Not if she lived to be a hundred.
“Wh-what about M-Mr. Cox?”
Light appeared. At last. But it wasn’t emergency lights. It was the blue glow of flames licking across the cockpit. The flicker illuminated the slumped figure of the pilot, whose chin now rested on his chest.
“Get your hands out of the way!” Maxim Donahue shoved her fumbling fingers aside, unlatched her seatbelt and half-dragged her to the door, where he pulled the now barely visible emergency latch. But the door wouldn’t open. They were trapped. Unless they could discover where that wind was getting in….
Grabbing her shoulder, he shoved her toward the back. “Find the opening. I’ll get Cox.”
Find the opening. Adelaide could feel the wind, the cold, even the wet snow seeping through the wreckage, but her head injury left her dizzy, stupefied. She couldn’t think. Especially when she heard Donahue behind her, his gruff voice carrying a terrible note of finality. “He’s gone.”
“Gone?” she repeated, unable to absorb his meaning.
He didn’t clarify. He pushed past her and kicked at the walls and windows. But the fire in the cockpit provided more smoke than light. Flames stole along the floor, threatening to destroy the only hope they had.
Adelaide’s nose and throat burned. And the sticky substance, the blood, coming from the wound on her head kept running into her eyes. She wiped at it and blinked and blinked and blinked, but it made no difference. She couldn’t see. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t imagine how they’d live another five minutes.
Suddenly, the plane shifted, and a great gust of ice and snow blew back her hair.
Donahue had found an opening. He’d widened it. That brought a poignant burst of hope. But at the same time, metal screeched against rock, echoing miserably against the night sky. Then the plane tilted at a crazy angle and the floor beneath their feet gave way.