Set amid the deep, wild woods of the Yukon, First Light tells the story of Daniel Albrecht and Kerry Egan, a young couple just beginning their life together: in love, engaged, and, as Kerry soon discovers, expecting their first child. While they are flying home from a work trip in Alaska to plan their wedding in Chicago, both engines of their plane catch fire and send the plane careening into a mountainside in the middle of a terrible snowstorm. Kerry is seriously injured in the accident, and Daniel—the one person among the passengers with some survival experience—makes the courageous decision to search for help, hoping against hope that he can return to save his fellow travelers, especially the woman he loves.
Thus begins a harrowing and suspenseful race against time and the elements, as it becomes clear that not everyone will make it out alive. As the couple's story draws to a close, the surprising truth about the boy’s life, and that of his parents’ marriage, will at last be divulged.
A romantic and heart-wrenching debut from Bill Rancic, First Light is about surviving the most insurmountable obstacles—and finding renewal and love just when it seems that all is lost.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.90(d)|
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Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2016 Bill Rancic
The envelope arrives one afternoon when I’m out in the yard raking leaves. I’m feeling pretty good at the moment, watching the street for the car bringing my wife and son home from the soccer game, wondering if Jackson got to play, wondering if he got to score. He’s been riding the bench all season, watching his friends get more playing time, and it’s been bothering him enough that he’s added extra practices and workouts to his routine, running suicide drills at the stadium, lining up kick after kick in the fall twilight. I’ve been practicing with him in the evenings and on weekends, videotaping him so he can watch his form. A dentist appointment that morning kept me from actually making it to the game, but I’ve been thinking of my son all day as I scrape up leaves, red and brown and gold, wondering how it went. If he still didn’t get to play, or played badly…I know how disappointed he’ll be.
I remind myself that Jackson is a bright and loving kid who does well in school, who has plenty of friends, who is pretty much as well-adjusted as any parent could hope. If he doesn’t get to play in the soccer game today, so be it. Worse things have happened.
The leaves crackling underfoot remind me of the crunch of snow in the dead of winter. For a minute I’m back in the Yukon, in the woods with the snow falling all around, listening to Kerry’s slow breathing, watching her chest rise and fall. It’s a memory I have often—when my wife crawls into my arms at night, when our son sits between us on the sofa at home to watch a movie together or read a book. I remember praying for another breath, then another, then another. Praying for her, for us, to live, and thinking, I’m not strong enough for this. I’ll never be strong enough.
My breath catches, and I freeze for a moment, remembering. The truth is that we almost didn’t happen, Kerry and Jackson and me. If we hadn’t been saved. If we hadn’t survived. Then a siren blares and I remember where I am, what I’m doing. The ordinary world fits itself around me again, safe and calm and familiar.
The mailman pauses on his afternoon route to hand me the mail. Behind me the house Kerry and I bought and renovated seven years ago sits in its rectangle of mown grass, stained-glass windows glinting red and gold in the sun. Down the street I can hear the kids at the playground, their voices rising on the afternoon air like a flock of birds. I get a glimpse of Lake Michigan through the trees, sea-green and icy cold even on such a hot day. Along the shore there are kids biking and playing volleyball, whizzing by on skateboards, soaking up every moment of sun before the long, cold Chicago winter that’s coming, and I think that maybe Jackson and I will join them, once he gets home.
But when flip through the mail and see the envelope with the Denali Airlines logo on the cover, I know immediately what’s inside. I don’t need to do any math to know that this year marks the tenth anniversary of the crash; I feel it every time I look at Jackson, his gangly limbs, his big feet and hands. Like my wife and me, he’s a survivor, though he doesn’t know it yet.
I sit down on my front steps with the envelope in both hands, turning it over and over, almost afraid to open it. Finally I slit the top and take out the card inside, also printed with the Denali Airlines logo, a blue mountain backlit by a setting red sun. I read: You and your family are cordially invited to be our honored guests at a ceremony honoring the victims and survivors of Flight 806…
“Dad? Are you okay?”
It’s Jackson. He and Kerry are home from the soccer game, but I didn’t hear them pull up to the curb. I didn’t hear anything except the roaring in my ears.
I look up into the face of my son, so like his mother—large light-brown eyes, a mop of thick auburn hair that he’s forever refusing to cut, the same high, freckled cheekbones, the same wide mouth. He’s always been a good kid. Good-hearted, level-headed, if a bit on the sensitive side, with a tendency to mope. Like me.
I think, It’s time. He deserves to know.
For a minute I consider throwing the invitation away, pretending it never came, but that’s not a serious option. There are a hundred reasons why we should be at that memorial service, the most important standing right in front of me.
“I’m fine, buddy,” I say. “I’m just looking at this invitation that came in the mail.”
Behind him Kerry sees the envelope and freezes. She, too, knows what it means.
“Invitation? Like to a party?” asks Jackson.
“Sort of. I was thinking maybe you and me and your mom should take a trip.”
Jackson’s face lights up. “Like, where?”
I can see by the look on his face that he’s equating the word “trip” with “vacation”—Disney World, maybe, or California. Someplace warm, near the ocean, with a nice sandy beach and warm blue swimming pool and maybe a water slide or two. He isn’t thinking about snow and isolation, the deep cold woods of northern Canada. He isn’t thinking about memorials to the dead. His life, until now, has been fairly uneventful. A fact his mom and I have tried very hard to preserve.
Jackson grabs his skateboard from the front porch and is doing a few simple tricks along the sidewalk while we talk, taking a bit of a tumble when he trips trying to flip the board over. “Helmet, please,” his mother reminds him for the millionth time. He groans and takes the helmet out of the trunk of the car. Soon he’ll be a teenager, and getting him to listen won’t be so easy. No, I think—it has to be now. While he might still be willing to open his ears and his heart and hear, really hear, what we have to say.
“I was thinking we could take a drive up to Canada. To Whitehorse,” I say. “There’s something happening there soon the three of us are part of.”
I can feel Kerry tense up, but Jackson is oblivious to his mother’s fear, and mine. He scrunches up his face. “Whitehorse? Is that a real place?”
“It’s a city in Yukon Territory. Near Alaska.”
“Oh.” His face falls a little bit. “It sounded like town in Dragon Age or something. I thought it would be something cool.”
“It’s a real place, all right. Your mom and I have been there before.”
He looks intrigued. This is new information to him. “When?”
Kerry glances at me. We both knew this day was coming. Maybe not today, but soon. She says, “Before you were born, honey.”
He’s looking at me sideways now, his brown eyes full of skepticism, even a touch of annoyance. We almost never talk about our lives before he was born, though I know he’s curious. He asks us, sometimes, the story of how we met. “At work,” is all we’ve ever told him. “We worked together, and then we fell in love and decided to get married.” He’s never pushed the issue, though I’ve often wondered when he would ask for more details, when we’d have to tell him the truth and nothing but the truth.
Jackson says, “Did you say we’re going to drive there? Isn’t it, like, a million miles from here?”
“Four days’ drive, maybe five.” There is no way, absolutely no possibility of getting Kerry on a plane, not to mention me. Driving is our only option.
He groans. “Five days in the car? For fun?”
“Not exactly for fun,” I say. “It will be educational.”
That word, educational, is Jackson’s personal bête noir. He doesn’t like museums or historical sites, any of the things his mom and I have tried to interest him in whenever we use that word. He hears educational and thinks boring. But I have something in mind for this trip that will make driving imperative, beyond our fear of flying. And it will be educational, just not the way he thinks.
I want Jackson to see. To know the place, and what happened to us there. I want him to taste the air in the Yukon, ride its roads, see its towns and its hills. I want it to be as much a part of him, his life, as it is Kerry’s and mine.
“There’s a ceremony of sorts. A memorial for the victims of a plane crash. We should all be there.”
“A memorial for a plane crash? Why?” He drags out the last word, filling it with all the pre-teen skepticism he can muster.
“We were on the plane when it crashed,” I say.
I’ve imagined saying the words for so long, practiced them so many times, that the words are halfway out of my mouth before I realize it, but Jackson only looks at me and laughs, a kind of incredulous chuckle. Like he thinks this is another one of my weird dad jokes, as silly as the time when I taped a picture of a mallard to the low ceiling over the basement stairs and told him to “duck” when he went downstairs. He doesn’t realize I’m serious. “No, really, Dad. What’s going on?” He looks from me to his mom and back. “A plane crash? Like, for real?”
I catch Kerry’s eye. We’ve talked about this moment so often: when we will tell him, how we will. We’ve been close to doing it already a number of times the past few weeks but just haven’t been able to make ourselves do it. Now her look says, Are you sure about this?
I’m not, not at all, and I know she isn’t, either. Still, she says, “For real.”
A hundred tiny emotions flit across his face—anger and confusion and fascination and fear. Finally he settles for curiosity. “Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
Kerry steps up and puts a hand on his shoulder, though I can see his posture tighten, almost wanting to throw her off but not able to bring himself to do it; he’s at that age when he both wants and resents his mother’s reassurances. “It’s complicated,” she says. “But we think maybe you’re grown up enough now to understand.”
He narrows his eyes at her, still skeptical. “But only if we go on this trip, right?”
“I know it doesn’t sound like fun,” I say. “But I think we should be there.”
Already I’m planning. Four days in the car, maybe five, would be just enough time to talk to Jackson. We need to be able to talk to our son, to have his full attention, away from video games and soccer and math homework, away from his friends and the city and all our familiar places and distractions. We need him to listen. To hear us.
“Dad,” he says, “can’t we go to Disney World instead? Or at least the beach?”
“This is more important, buddy. This is someplace we need to be. I promise you, this is something you’ll always remember.”
“You always say that, and it always ends up being so boring.”
He’s not accepting it, but at least he’s not fighting me too hard. It will be okay, I know it. “What do you think? Want a snack?” I ask, putting my arms around him and lead him inside the house, the dog panting at his heels.
“Sure,” he says. “But nothing healthy. No kale. I hate that stuff.”
I laugh. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”
By the time we’ve got the car packed, the mail stopped, the house buttoned up for the time it will take to drive to Canada, attend the dedication, and come home again, we’re all worked up into such a state of anxiety that even the dog seems glad to see us go, dashing off her leash at the kennel without so much as a backward glance. Jackson cries a little on Sasha’s neck, turning his face away so I won’t see his tears. “She’ll be happier in the kennel than in the car with us, buddy,” I tell him. “We’ll be back in no time.” He turns his head away so he won’t have to answer. He’s having trouble believing that his mom and I are taking this trip for anyone’s benefit except our own, and I don’t think he’s entirely wrong about that.
We climb in the car, and soon we’re on the highway heading out of the city, past deep-dish pizza parlors and Vienna beef stands, merging into the stream of cars on the Kennedy heading north toward the Wisconsin border. Traffic is terrible, the cars thick and slow-moving, like minutes ticking on a clock. A few days out of town, away from the crowds and noise, will be a relief. But then I remember the quiet of the forest and the snow in the Yukon, the sound of the wind in the trees, the bitter cold that seeped into my fingers and toes, the fear, and I remember. this isn’t a vacation: Kerry and I nearly died out there. She spent a week in the hospital after, myself more than two. She still suffers migraines and memory loss from the injuries she sustained in the crash. She still has nightmares, sometimes, though in the mornings she says she doesn’t remember what they’re about. In some ways, I think it’s better. There are parts of the story I wish I could forget, too.
As we head north the Chicago streets give way to a stream of beige suburbs, the white hulks of malls, the green tracts of forest preserves and subdivisions, the houses growing farther and farther apart until suddenly we’re out in the country, in the open spaces of farmland and dairy pasture, the stubble fields brown in the fall light. Here and there a cloud of dust announces the presence of a combine harvesting the last of the corn, and every few miles a hand-painted sign declares “Pumpkins for sale!” At each one, Jackson begs us to stop and buy a pumpkin, forgetting we won’t be home for weeks, that there is no more room in our Toyota for anything after packing three suitcases, a cooler of snacks, and Jackson’s collection of books and games.
“Maybe on the way back, buddy,” I say. I’ve taken the first shift, thinking Kerry will want to take the lead—she’s his mom, and much of the telling of it should come from her—but I catch her eye across the car. The night before, she’d told me she was ready, that it was time. “I’ll be glad to get it over with,” she’d said, but now here we are, and neither of us can bear to begin. It should be just like ripping off a Band-Aid, I think—one quick tug and you’re done. Maybe we should wait for Jackson to ask a question. But no, that’s no good, we might be waiting until we get back home again and the trip will be over.
Kerry makes a choking noise in her throat, and I shoot her a quick look of sympathy. It isn’t easy, this business of dredging up the past.
“Don’t feel like you have to say everything at once,” I say. “Begin at the beginning.”
“One of us has to. We’re going to want to stop for the night in an hour or so.”
She squeezes her eyes shut. “It’s too hard.”
“You were always good at stories,” I tell her. “Why is it so hard now?”
“There are big parts of it I don’t really remember. And what about the rest? All those things we only learned about afterward, in the hospital? I don’t know if it’s enough.”
“What you don’t remember, I do. The parts we didn’t see firsthand we’ll have to describe as best we can, as they were told to us.”
“It feels weird. Speaking for people who can’t speak for themselves.”
She knows what I’ll say next, because I’ve said it before, more times than either of us can count: If we can’t speak for them, then who can? We are the living witnesses, the survivors, but we’ve always known this story belongs as much to the dead as to the living. We owe it to them to tell their story as truthfully as we can.
She gives me a wan smile. “Don’t worry,” I tell her. “We’re in this together.”
She reaches over and takes my hand, gulping in air. It’s clear I will have to begin. Looking into the rearview mirror at our son, who’s reading a book, I say, “Hey, buddy. Jackson. Your mom and I want to talk to you a minute.” He leans forward, between the two front seats. “Do you remember your mom and I saying something about a plane crash?”
I can feel him sit up a little, pay more attention. “You said you’d tell me all about it on this trip. You said I was old enough now to understand.”
“Maybe he’s still not ready,” Kerry says, so quietly I wonder if Jackson hears.
I reach over and grab her hand, feeling how badly it’s shaking. “He is.”
“Understand what? “ He furrows his brow. “Like secrets?”
Secrets. The one word we were being so careful to avoid. “Not exactly. But parts of the truth we were waiting to tell you when you were old enough.”
The kid is too smart for his own good sometimes. His mom looks at him, then at me. “They might seem like secrets, but we don’t think of them that way. It’s just some things we’ve been waiting to tell you when the time was right. Grown-up things, I guess you could say.”
I’ve rehearsed this speech over and over on nights when I couldn’t sleep, starting when Jackson was a baby curled in his crib. You have to understand, I always start, in my imagination. We all thought we were going to die. Some of us did die. And the things we did in order to live…none of it will ever be completely understandable to someone who wasn’t there. But I have to try to make you see why it matters. Because if I don’t, then what was it we were trying so hard to live for?
Next to me, his mother takes a deep breath and blows it out slowly. Her face is white. “Mom,” Jackson says, “are you all right?”
She fixes a smile onto her face and says, “I will be, honey.”
Outside the windows the miles of corn and the little farms go by, the cows chewing their cud in the fields. Tomorrow we’ll cross over into Canada, leaving behind the familiar world. There can be no more excuses, no more delays. Let him know that everything we did was for him, and why it all matter so much, still.
Every child deserves that. To know. To understand.
And so we begin.
It was December, two weeks before Christmas, and Daniel Albrecht could not remember the last time he’d been warm.
Listening to the groan of the hotel-room heater trying to keep up against the cold as well as the constant hiss of the channel changing as his fiancée flipped around looking for the news, Daniel burrowed under the comforter. Kerry put her cold feet on Daniel’s leg, making him yelp and pull away from her. “Hey!” he said. He rubbed the spot on his calf where she’d warmed her toes. “What did I ever do to you?”
“Come on. I’m miserable here.”
“We’re all miserable here,” Daniel said. “Don’t make it worse than it already is.”
“Please? I’ll let you watch football.”
“No way,” he said. She stopped her channel-flipping at ESPN for a moment, but as soon as she put down the remote, Daniel picked up her frozen feet and rubbed the warmth back into them. “Wow, they are cold.”
“That feels good,” she said, lying back and closing her eyes. “Do you know what time it is?”
They had been in Barrow, Alaska for nearly two weeks, and in all that time they had not seen the sun—two weeks spent pummeled by snow and freezing wind, working twelve-hours days entirely in the dark, never knowing if it was eight in the morning or eight in the evening. Daniel looked out the darkened window at the street beyond—at the flat, low buildings of Barrow, at the flakes of snow tapping restlessly on the window—and said, “Around ten at night, I’d say.”
“Monday. Give or take a week.”
Daniel and Kerry were both part of the crisis-management team at Petrol, Inc., the world’s biggest oil company. Two weeks before, an explosion on one of the company’s oil platforms off the Alaska coast had killed three workers and spilled two hundred thousand gallons of crude oil into the pristine waters of the Beaufort Sea. The CEO had dispatched the crisis-management team to Barrow before the bodies had even been recovered. The team’s job: shut down the leak, help the families of the dead employees settle their affairs, offer the company’s assistance to the local authorities to clean up the mess and minimize the environmental impact, and handle the company’s public image in the media.
All that was easier said than done when the crisis was happening in Alaska in December, the darkest month of the year, and one of the coldest. Daniel was director of operations for the crisis-management group; his job was to get the leak shut down and the spill cleaned up, a job that was proving difficult because of a colder-than-usual cold snap in the area. Conditions for sending the submersibles down to the seabed, to the source of the leak, were bad—the waves rough and frigid, topped by sub-crushing floes of ice on the surface, murky with oil and silt below, making the descent dangerous at best. Daniel felt he couldn’t risk their people in these conditions—it could mean further loss of life. Daniel told his boss they would need to wait until conditions improved before sending their people down to the sea floor to clamp the leak. “I’ll send my guys down when it’s safe to do so, ” Daniel had said, “and not before. We don’t want more bodies in this situation.”
Daniel’s boss, Bob Packer, had humphed into the phone, clearly disagreeing with Daniel’s assessment, but at the time, he’d been back in Chicago, keeping track of the situation from afar. A day later, almost like clockwork, he’d flown in to oversee the operation in person, and every day since then Daniel had felt him growing restless, wanting to get the job done and get their team out of there. Every minute the mess wasn’t contained cost the company money, not to mention keeping the leak in the public eye.
And Bob Packer was not a man who took no for an answer. The mercurial senior VP of the crisis-management department famously blurred the lines between his personal and business lives. Extremely competent, accomplished, and driven—“driven to insanity,” Kerry liked to joke—Bob had headed the department for twenty years. For the last two of those Daniel had traveled with him all over the world, from the Middle East to the Gulf Coast to the North Sea to the Alberta tar sands to Alaska and everywhere in between. Not once, in all that time, had he ever seen the man relax. Bob never stayed in the bar to have a beer with his team after hours, never offered a word of encouragement or congratulations on a job well done. The joke around the office was that he didn’t sleep, either, that he was really some kind of vampire, feeding on corporate earnings reports. He was famously quoted as saying that he’d taken the job at Petrol because crisis management was the only real challenge left in the corporate world, and Daniel didn’t exactly disagree with him—he’d taken the job there himself, after all—but the longer Daniel worked under Bob, the more he wished that he’d retire and let someone else take over the department. He was well past sixty, though, and showed no signs of wanting a quiet retired life.
“Because his wife won’t let him,” Kerry always said. “She doesn’t want him around any more than the rest of us do.”
And Daniel had laughed even though he felt sorry for Bob’s third wife, a pretty but dull woman he’d met exactly once at an office party. She’d looked miserable the whole time, staring off at the ceiling while Bob talked business with every person in the room and ignored her. Just last month, a Forbes headline had declared Bob “Married to the Job,” a piece that had become required reading among his employees. Twice divorced, working six days a week, more than three hundred days a year, Bob Packer demanded as much perfection from his team as he did from himself. The fact that other people didn’t want to live on such a schedule never seemed to enter into his thoughts.
ESPN went to commercial, so Kerry started flipping channels again. As the director of the media-relations team, her job was managing press inquiries for the company during a crisis, acting as a go-between for the senior executives and various media outlets. She and her people monitored the media coverage of the event and worked to influence the way the story was being told to keep up the company’s positive image.
“Where’s the damn newscast?” she muttered, still flipping. “I can never keep the hotel channels straight.”
Daniel looked over at his fiancée, wearing fleece pajamas now and two layers of socks, her red hair soft on her shoulders, makeup off so that all her freckles showed. It was so different from her workday look, the pencil skirts and killer heels, her hair tied up in a neat if somewhat severe twist to keep it out of her face, though since they’d been in Alaska she’d been wearing heavy coats and sweaters and boots. He leaned over to kiss her, trying to distract her from thoughts of work. She turned to kiss him back, but then just as quickly she turned back to the TV, and Daniel sighed. God help the man who came between Kerry Egan and her work. There was a reason Bob Packer had hired her, after all.
Media attention on the Beaufort spill had been quiet so far, and Daniel knew that fact was making Kerry a little nervous. Either she and her team were doing their jobs extremely well, or events were about to blow up in spite of her best efforts—the company name smeared across the 24-hour cable screens, the newspapers, the snarky news websites. If that happened, the media coverage could very quickly go from bad to disastrous, and Kerry would have her hands full in a hurry. He supposed he could understand her concern: the longer it took him to get his people down to the seafloor to stop the leak, the harder Kerry’s job became. It did sometimes put something of damper on romance.
So far, though, coverage of the explosion had been limited to an occasional mention of the bare facts on a couple of the 24-hour cable-news networks in the States, a third-page headline each in the New York Times and the Washington Post, and only fifteen seconds apiece from two of the four major network broadcasts. The international press was tougher, offering a few more detailed and critical pieces on the possible causes of the explosion and the damage to the local ecosystem. None of this was unusual.
What was unusual was that the Russians were starting to make serious noise about the environmental impact of the oil spill so close to their own coast, and taking their case to the international media—the BBC, Al-Jazeera, Reuters. Daniel knew Kerry was worried that the trouble for Petrol was really just beginning, that the longer the crisis went on the more reporters would start digging around for an angle. If the families of the dead men started going around the company to talk, if the Russians started making more noise to further some of their own causes in the court of public opinion, reporters could start landing in Barrow by the dozens from every country and continent, and then she and the rest of the team would be stuck in Alaska through New Year’s at least. And Daniel knew that Kerry wanted very much to be home for Christmas this year.
Her mother was bugging her about the holidays, as usual, asking why Kerry had to work such long hours, why wasn’t she ever home with her family, and when were she and Daniel actually going to set a date for the wedding? Though she wouldn’t say so, Daniel knew all these things were weighing heavily on her.
Daniel glanced over at her face—brow furrowed, deep in thought—and wished he could get her to turn off the TV for the night. But one of the producers from a Big Four newscast had told her they were finally running their piece on the Petrol accident that night. Since Kerry had put the producer in touch with Bob himself for the piece, she wanted to see the angle they were going to take on it.
When she hit on the right channel at last, Kerry put down the remote and sat up, paying no attention to the fact that Daniel was still rubbing her cold feet while the deep-voiced and smoothly tanned anchor discussed the president’s latest poll numbers and his battles with Congress.
Daniel rubbed her feet more vigorously. “Hey,” he said, “I thought we said no work tonight? That we were going to spend some serious time together tonight?”
“I know, babe, I just want to see this one story. It should be on any second.”
“How romantic,” he said. He pushed into the soft spot in the middle of her foot with one knuckle, but Kerry couldn’t take her eyes off the broadcast, waiting to see how the story was going to go.
Now the news switched to a story about a plane crash in Taiwan, counting the number of survivors and discussing the possible causes of the crash—human error, or mechanical malfunction? Kerry squirmed with impatience all through that story and the next one too, about new FDA regulations of chicken farms. “Why do producers always make you wait until the end of the show to get to the part you care about?”
“Better for ratings.”
“Aren’t you clever,” she said.
The broadcast went to commercial break. The newscast really was waiting until the last minute this time to get to Kerry’s story. She turned to look at him. “I saw you through the window earlier, when I was walking back to the hotel. You were on the phone. What did Bob have to say?”
“How’d you know it was Bob?”
“Because you looked pissed off. When you got off the phone you threw it down and gave it the finger.”
He chortled. “Yeah, well. He was telling me I have until midnight to get those submersibles to the bottom to shut down the wellhead or he’d find someone else who would. I keep telling him it’s too dangerous to send people down in these conditions, and he told me he’s already got my replacement picked out….” Daniel sighed and said, “You know how he is.”
“I know how he is, all right.”
“How about you? How’s it going from your end?”
“He promised Judy we’d be going home in two days,” Kerry said. Judy Akers was Kerry’s deputy director and best friend. She’d been complaining about wanting to go home almost from the moment they’d stepped on the plane to Alaska. Nothing was to her liking—the cold, the dark, the food, the work.
“And you don’t think so.”
“No. I think the Russians are going to start making noise soon, and then this whole thing is going to blow up. No way Bob will let us go then.”
“Can’t I get you to turn that thing off and kiss me already?”
“Soon,” she said.
When the news came back on, the anchor immediately launched into the piece on the Petrol spill, staring dramatically into the camera while he read the feed from the teleprompter next to a picture of an oil platform on fire. Kerry sat up straighter. Daniel sighed and dropped her foot.
“Now a report from Alaska, where three employees of Petrol Inc. died last week in an oil-platform explosion above the Arctic Circle,” said the newscaster. “The wellhead was damaged in the explosion, leaking nearly a million gallons of oil into the Beaufort Sea and threatening the fragile ecosystem near Prudhoe Bay.”
“Hmm,” said Daniel. “They got the numbers wrong on that one.”
Kerry sighed—she’d have to call them to issue a correction tomorrow, but the damage would already be done.
The anchor continued reading. “Efforts to close the wellhead and stem the tide of oil flowing into the ocean have been hampered by frigid weather and the fact that the area is completely dark twenty-four hours a day between November and January.”
The photo of the broadcast switched to a video of Bob, his prominent brow furrowed, his thick gray hair standing up bushy from his forehead. He was still, at sixty-seven, imposing and attractive, with the build of the football player he’d once been. His face wore his usual expression of outrage barely masked.
The anchor went on reading. “Because of the location of the leak so close to Russia’s Siberian shore, authorities in Moscow are monitoring the situation closely and threatening to take action if the situation isn’t resolved. Petrol Senior Vice-President Bob Packer, however, said today that the company expects its submersibles to reach the ocean floor by midnight tomorrow to repair the damaged wellhead and stop the flow of oil into the sea, although the platform will be shut down for several weeks to complete repairs and investigate the cause of the accident. Now to Sacramento, where the …”
Daniel turned off the TV. “Well, that certainly explains some things,” he said. He shook his head and laughed. “He can say anything he likes to the media, but I can’t wave my magic wand and make it safe for my people. ”
“Still, could have been worse,” Kerry answered.
Already he was feeling better. Daniel slid his hand slowly up her leg, his fingers pressing gently on the back of her knee, the length of her thigh, and pulled her toward him. She sighed and pulled his head down toward her. God, he loved her, and now, with her body warm beneath him, her lips parting gently…
Just then the room’s phone rang, loudly, making them both jump.
“Hello?” Kerry asked. “Hi, Bob. Yes, we were just watching it. Sure. Here he is.” She held out the receiver for Daniel, who groaned a little and put it to his ear.
“I’m glad you were watching,” Bob was saying. “You can see the pressure we’re under here. We need those submersibles to the bottom pronto.”
“Sir, there’s no way we can get it done on the timetable you suggested in that broadcast. You know that. Our people will be in danger, and I think it’s a mistake to jeopardize more lives until conditions are better. You wouldn’t want to lose a submersible crew…”
Kerry threw him a worried look.
“Conditions aren’t going to get any better for weeks. Maybe months,” Bob said, his voice clipped. “The longer this goes on, the worse the mess is going to be for all of us. You saw what the Russians are up to. I don’t want to get the White House involved here. The environmentalists are already screaming for blood.”
“But the water is so murky the submersibles can’t navigate—”
“Put extra people on it if you have to.”
“Extra people aren’t going to do any—”
“Soon as it’s done, everyone can go home, you included. Kerry can start breaking down the command center tomorrow. I’ve already told Phil to start tying up any of his loose ends.”
“You did.” Daniel looked at Kerry, who rolled her eyes.
“Yes. So I want you wrapping things up tomorrow yourself and getting ready to get on a plane out the day after. I think the cost of keeping our team up here is outweighing the benefits at this point. Corporate is making noise about how much we spend on food and hotels, and we don’t need more media attention up here than we have already.”
“Respectfully, sir, I feel we shouldn’t rush through this operation—”
“You’ve hardly been rushing, Daniel.”
“What I mean is that the situation could go south in a hurry—”
“The only thing I want going south in a hurry is our team, and that all hinges on you and your people. You have a job to do. I suggest you get out there and do it.”
Daniel held very still and didn’t answer, as if he could avoid the task by not acknowledging it. It was wrong—the whole thing was wrong. Bob knew it. He knew he was risking everything by pushing the team to do more than they were safely able to accomplish, just as he always did. He didn’t care how it got fixed or how much danger it put everyone in as long as he got the results he wanted. As long as Bob could go to the board and brag about the team’s performance, he’d risk anything.
“Two more days and we’re all out of here,” Bob said. “Tell Kerry. In the morning she and Judy and I are going to have breakfast with Phil. He wants to put together one last press release on the things the company is doing for the families of the victims, setting up a scholarship fund…”
A feeling like desperation—or maybe it was resignation—sank down through him like submersibles to the bottom of the deep black sea. You sonofabitch, he thought. You devious, rotten sonofabitch. He hung up the phone.
“Well,” Kerry said, “so what’s the good news?”
Daniel murmured, “He says you and Judy are supposed to meet him and Phil for breakfast first thing in the morning to go over one last press release before we leave.”
Kerry gave another frustrated groan and flung the covers over her head like a child saying she was too sick to go to school. She would not relish breakfast with Phil Velez, the director of the third leg of the crisis-management team—human resources. Kerry thought he had all the sparkling wit and personality of a compliance memo.
“Is that all?”
“Not quite. After you meet with Phil, Bob wants you to break down the command center and get everyone ready to go home. He says the trip is costing the company too much money. He wants us on a plane in two days.”
“Two days? Is that even possible?”
“You know Bob. He’d make it rain out of a clear blue sky if he could figure out how.”
“That’s why he’s the senior VP. What about the bad news?”
“Bad news is he’s insisting the leak is fixed by the end of the day tomorrow. Which means I better get on it now.”
“You can’t!” Kerry exclaimed, sitting up and clutching the blankets to her. “You’ve already been working all day. You told him it was too dangerous. He can’t make you do this!”
Daniel sat up and flung his legs over the edge of the bed. “He can. He already did. I don’t have a choice.”
“You do,” Kerry said. “You could always quit.”
“Not now. Those guys,” he said, looking out the dark windows, thinking of his team—the sub drivers, the sailors, the engineers who reported to him—“they need me. I can’t let them down, not now.”
“You don’t have to go yourself. You’re the director of operations. So direct someone else to do it and stay here.”
Part of him recognized the wisdom of this idea, but he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t let someone else do a job he wasn’t willing to do himself, no matter how tempted he might be. Daniel’s father, who’d been a steel worker in the Indiana mills, had always said that the best foremen he’d had were guys who’d come up from the millworks, who knew what it meant to work for a living, who weren’t above putting their own backs on the line. His father had never let someone else do a job he could do himself. No—Daniel had to get it together, get the job done and get everyone home safe. It was his father’s voice he heard in his head: Keep your eye on the ball, Daniel. You take your eye off the ball for even just a second and someone could die.
He gave a heavy sigh, then stood up and starting putting on his warmest clothes once more—thermal underwear, then jeans, then snowpants, then a thermal undershirt, fleece, down coat, earmuffs and a fleece hat—and he stuffed two pairs of gloves in his pockets for good measure.
“How can I make those guys go back out there if I’m not willing to go with them?” he asked. “It’s not right, Kerry. If they go, I go.”
Kerry watched him perform this familiar ritual and sighed. “It’s nearly eleven o’clock. It’s fifty below out there. What do you think you’re going to be able to do?”
“Whatever it takes.” Daniel looked at her from under his layers of wool. Already he could feel fatigue stiffening his limbs, a yawn stretching the back of his throat, but he would never be able to sleep warm and comfortable knowing his guys were out in the cold Arctic night without him. He’d be up all night anyway; might as well try to be useful.
“You heard Bob,” he told Kerry. “I’m going to single-handedly save the company from disaster and get the team home for Christmas.”
“You’re not Superman. You can’t conjure a heat wave or calm the seas with a flick of your wrist.”
“I’ll think of something,” Daniel said, leaning down to kiss her forehead, patting the pockets of his coat to make sure he had his satellite phone, his emergency charger, and his hotel key. “Sleep tight, babe. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Hopefully,” she muttered as he turned to go.
“Hopefully,” he said, and then he was out the door once more, into the cold.
Reading Group Guide
First Light Reading Group Guide Questions
1. Prior to the accident, Kerry is a workaholic who has a hard time prioritizing her relationship with Daniel over her demanding job. But then the accident happens, and it turns her world upside down. How does Kerry change throughout the book? How does the accident affect the way she treats those around her?
2. Does your perception of Phil change as the story unfolds? If so, how and why?
3. How does Kerry’s relationship with Daniel differ from her relationship with Phil? How are the two relationships similar?
4. What is the emotional turning point of the book? Do your emotional alliances change at any point? Whom do you root for, and does your answer change as you read along?
5. How does each character react to trauma and conflict? What does this book tell us about human connection in the face of tragedy?
6. What is the meaning of the book’s title—and why do you think it was chosen?
7. Suppose the crash never happened. Based on your knowledge of the characters, how would each one continue to live his or her life if it had been just an ordinary plane ride after all?
8. How does Bob’s character change over time, if at all? By the end of the book, is he still the intimidating, demanding boss he was first made out to be?
9. Were you surprised by Jackson’s reaction to his parents’ story? How else could he have reacted?
10. What is the role of time in this novel? How would the story be different if it did not include the interwoven present-tense narrative? Would you feel differently about the story’s outcome?
11. Were you surprised by the ending? What mechanisms and hints does the story employ to create suspense and surprise?