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In the bush plane high above the Alaskan landscape northwest of Anchorage, Dr. Aubrey Mathison swept her gaze over the barren snow-covered terrain below, the endless white broken by evergreens and leafless trees. Even through the headset she wore, she heard the loud droning noise of the engine saturate the cockpit.
She glanced toward the east as the sky grew light. Streaks of purple, rose and orange fanned outward as the sun rose at ten-thirty in the morning. The sight awed her. God's beauty stretched for miles before her.
"I think these trips to the villages are one of my favorite parts of my job," Bree said to the pilot sitting next to her in the singleengine aircraft. She'd spent a month in Daring, Alaska, on the Bering Sea. Now it was time to go home to Anchorage for some rest and relaxation.
Jeremiah Elliot slid a glance toward her. "It's why I love to fly. Nothing beats the view."
Jeremiah was more than just her neighbor; he was like an uncle to her. He'd been her father's best friend for years and had watched out for her and her mom after Dad died eight years ago. She'd been thankful for Jeremiah since she'd spent a lot of time away from Alaska not long after her dad died while she'd been attending medical school.
"But I'm glad to be returning home." Bree glanced toward Jeremiah.
He winced, deep grooves carving lines into his aged, weatherworn face.
Alert, Bree sat up. "Something wrong?"
"Just indigestion. I've flown feeling worse than this. No doubt I shouldn't have eaten that third helping of pancakes before takeoff."
"Three helpings! You need to watch your weight. Your metabolism is slowing down as you get older."
"Quit being a doctor," Jeremiah grumbled and rubbed his arm. "Sixty isn't that old."
"Maybe we should land before Anchorage."
"No way. I'm tough, and a little heartburn isn't going to get me down."
She released a long breath. "Uncle Jeremiah"
"Girl, don't you call me that. It won't work. You're as bad as your mom when she wanted her way." He looked at her, his mouth set in a frown.
Bree sent Jeremiah a grin. "At least I come by it honestly." The thought of her recently deceased mother not being with her this Christmas dimmed her smile. She turned to stare out the windshield as Jeremiah flew low over the treetops.
"I have to drop off some Christmas presents at a friend's cabin, and that's the only stop we'll make before reaching Anchorage."
"Is your friend's place here?" She pointed to the ground.
"No, just wanted you to see that moose down below. Beautiful animal."
As Bree admired the moose, Jeremiah pulled the plane up higher. He would often go up and down to show her something interesting. "You know I need to learn to fly. Will you teach me?"
"Sure, when summer comes. Don't have to deal with snow and ice then."
"Not to mention subzero temps."
A half hour later, Jeremiah landed the ski plane on a section of flat snowy ground near a frozen stream not far from a cabin. "I'll be back in a few minutes." He shifted in the seat and grabbed a bag.
Bree glimpsed the brightly wrapped packages before he closed the sack and climbed from the plane. She watched as Jeremiah trudged uphill through the deep snow toward the cabin nestled among the black spruce trees. He disappeared around the side of the cabin and came back into view ten minutes later.
Jeremiah knew people all over Alaska and often helped them out. Although this wasn't a place she'd seen before, she was acquainted with a lot of his friends. Some of them lived in the outlying villages he took her to for her month's rotation as the doctor. She scanned the area. Beautiful but isolated. She hadn't seen much on the approach but wilderness.
Jeremiah opened the door and pulled himself into the plane, his face red from the cold, his breathing hard. Settling behind the controls, he donned his headset and let out a whoosh of breath. Walking in deep snow could exhaust a person quickly, and Jeremiah looked as if he had gained an extra twenty pounds in the past six months.
"Okay?" she asked as the sound of the engine filled the quiet.
He scowled. "I'm fine." Then, without another word, he took off, using the flat land next to the stream as his runway.
"What plans do you have for the holidays?" Bree asked after ten minutes of silence had passed between them. The silence was so unlike Jeremiah, who usually talked through the whole flight.
When he didn't answer, she looked at him. Sweat beaded Jeremiah's face, and his complexion was now a pasty white. Bree's concern returned tenfold. "Jeremiah, you should see your doc"
He jerked, but his hands still gripped the controls. The plane dropped altitude quickly.
Was he having a heart attack? Her medical training kicked in immediately, but along with it came panic. She knew nothing about flying a plane. "Jeremiah, what can I do?" she asked as she removed one of her thick gloves and felt for his pulse at the side of his neck. It raced beneath her fingertips.
Pain scored his face. He fumbled with a switch, then said, "Mayday. Mayday."
As the ground rushed up at them, Bree was unable to do anything but pray. She swiveled her attention between an approaching open space that looked to be a small frozen lake and Jeremiah. From what she could tell, he must be having a heart attack but was hanging on as long as he could to land the plane. If not
Bree shook that thought from her mind. Lord, help. Please.
Clutching the seat, Bree prepared the best she could for a rough emergency landing. The skis touched down on the frozen terrain, but the plane bounced up, then down again. Finally, the singleengine aircraft slipped and slid over the frozen lake as it plunged toward the huge trees lining part of the shore. Jeremiah wrestled with the steering, trying to control the plane.
Then, pain contorting his face, he stopped struggling and slumped forward.
Bree's grip on the seat tightened as the plane plowed into the trees and rocks along the lake's edge. All she saw was green hurtling toward her, then everything went black
Seconds, possibly minutes later, pain and a biting cold sliced through the darkness shrouding Bree's mind. She wanted to burrow back down into unconsciousness, but the sounds of the wind howled through the cockpit. Pellets of ice and snow found her uncovered face, further prodding her to wake up. She inched one eyelid up and glimpsed the jagged edges of the windshield. A branch, several inches thick, lanced through the glass like a spear.
Then realization pierced through the haze of soreness. Jeremiah. She tried to sit up, but a limb off the bigger branch, filled with clusters of short needles, pinned her against her seat.
She brought up one arm next to the door and tugged on the annoying foliage, hoping to break it off. Finally she managed to bend it until it snapped; then she tossed it into the back of the aircraft.
Bree undid her seat belt and turned to find Jeremiah. Her medical bag was in her larger piece of luggage in the belly of the plane, which was now lying on the frozen lake, the skis having been ripped off on impact. But she knew Jeremiah had a first aid kit in the cockpit. First, though, she wanted to check on him. Squatting on her cushion, she leaned over the intruding branch, parting the limbs. Jeremiah wasn't moving. Her heartbeat pounded in her chest and head. She pulled off her glove and felt for a pulse through the greenery. Nothing.
Fighting panic, she gathered her strength, gripped the branch and shoved it out the hole it had created in the windshield. The effort caused her head to swim. Plopping back against her seat, she closed her eyes for a few seconds. Something wet trickled down her face, and she wiped at it with her gloveless hand.
Blood covered two of her fingers. Then she glanced at her chest and noticed the red that spattered her tan coat. She probed her forehead and found a cut about an inch long. After wiping her hand against the front of her parka, she slowly sat up and searched for her cell phone in her front pocket. When she turned it on, the screen gave off some much-needed light. She needed to get to her bag and retrieve her flashlight. No bars, but then she hadn't expected any service in the middle of nowhere.
She drew in a deep breath of frigid air to calm her racing pulse. She knew fear and panic inspired frantic actions that zapped a person's strength fast. Conserving her energy for the necessary tasks was important.
Using the light from her cell phone, she leaned toward Jeremiah, praying he was alive and she just hadn't been able to find his pulse a couple of minutes ago.
"Please, God, let him be alive. Please," she whispered.
When she had determined he was gone, she sank back in her seat. Before she could even react, she was swamped by pain that no doubt had been masked by the rush of adrenaline from the emergency landing. The throbbing in her head increased, making it difficult to think. She was alone, somewhere between Daring and Anchorage. Why hadn't she paid more attention to where Jeremiah was flying? She usually was alert while traveling to a new village, but on the ride home, weariness would sometimes overtake her and occasionally she'd fall asleep.
Light from the snow surrounding them shadowed Jeremiah's body as it lay slumped over the steering wheel. To conserve the battery, Bree switched off her phone. She could still make out the trees in front of them and a sloop to the left of the grove of evergreens. From somewhere in her mind came a bizarre thought: if only she had an app for heat.
Staying in the plane wasn't an option with the wind ripping through it and the possibility of the ice cracking beneath it and the aircraft sinking into the frigid water. She had to find shelter. Shelter near the plane, because of the aircraft's emergency transmitter. To do that, she needed the emergency supplies that were stored in the rear of the cockpit.
After rummaging through her duffel bag as well as Jeremiah'sluckily they weren't in the inaccessible cargo bayshe gathered what she could use to keep warm as well as her flashlight. She lit the cabin and zeroed in on the survival kit. She would stuff each bag with what she needed to make it through the long night ahead. She knew the growing darkness and stormy weather would make it unsafe for rescuers to search for her.
Jeremiah had always stocked a couple of extra provisions not required in the new regulations. She spied the shotgun with a box of ammunition and immediately felt better. Her father and Jeremiah had often taken her hiking in the backcountry and had taught her how to shoot. She knew the dangers a bear could pose.
Before leaving the aircraft, she grabbed the first aid box and tended to the cut on her forehead, scrubbing at the blood that had frozen on her skin. She placed a large bandage over the wound and pulled her hat back down over her head to keep any body heat from escaping.
She peered at Jeremiah in the pilot seat and felt emotion finally break through. Tears stung her eyes. She couldn't believe he was gone. He always transported her to and from the villages and had been there to help her through her father's and mother's deaths. Never again. A tightness in her chest spread upward to jam her throat. Tears rolled down her cheek and froze, pulling her up short, reminding her of the harsh environment she faced until she was rescued. She touched Jeremiah's shoulder, saying a brief prayer and a heartfelt goodbye. The safest thing was to stay near the plane because of the emergency transmitter's signal.
After tossing the duffel bags to the ground, followed by the survival kit, she put on the snowshoes, not sure how deep the snow was by the lake, and exited the plane. In the light of dayshe prayed it would be early tomor-rowthe bright red wings would help searchers in the sky find her. At least that was what she prayed for, but she did have a signaling device in the emergency kit if needed.
"Bree, stop thinking ahead. See to now," she muttered and trudged a few yards from the wreckage. She could see the plane sat mostly on land; only the tail rested on the frozen lake. She forced herself to plan ahead. Doing so always gave her a sense of security.
Make it back to Anchoragethen figure out your future.
Behind some evergreens, the shore of the lake sloped upward with a denser stand of trees at the top of the rise a couple of feet back. She peeked through the foliage and made a decision. To the left in the middle of the incline was where she would dig her snow cave. Using a collapsible shovel from Jeremiah's survival provisions, she began digging, keeping her mind focused on the task at hand. Ninety minutes later, with breaks to rest, eat a protein bar and drink some water, she finished the crude shelter she'd learned to make in her survival training class.
She stacked the duffel bags to block the entrance after she crawled inside, taking her shovel with her. After she lay down on the sleeping bag, which was spread out over a tarp, she turned on her flashlight and examined her snow cave. She'd curved the walls and poked some holes in them to allow fresh air to enter.
The small confines triggered a childhood memory. She'd been exploring a tight cave when her light had gone out, leaving her in the darkness with little wiggle room. At the memory, she began panting, her fear returning. Usually closed spaces didn't bother her, but suddenly she struggled with the image of the cave in her mind. She had to do something to keep herself calm. She began singing her favorite Christmas songs.
By the time she finished "I'll Be Home for Christmas," she couldn't shake the question: What if she wasn't? The cracking of ice mingled with the howling of wolves in the distance.
She pulled up her legs and clasped them. I'm not alone. You're with me, Lord.
A crashing noise overrode all others. Bree braced herself as though the ground would move beneath her.