I could still smell the burning of the engine. The beeping of the alarms still filled my ears. Jennifer screaming into the radio for help and that we were going down, I could still hear it ricocheting off the metal interior of the plane. But all I could feel, despite all the trauma surging through my senses, was cold and loneliness.
I shivered, leaning against the concave wall of the plane and clutching the tiny bottle of whiskey in my hand. A whole cooler full of travel-sized booze sat next to me and as I finished the bottle in between my fingers I reached in for another, not discriminating against the type, shape or content. Just as the burning of the whiskey dissipated into the back of my throat, I guzzled down 3 more ounces of vodka.
“You gonna share?” Jennifer mumbled from the other side of the plane, leaning against the passenger window with her feet up on the seat next to her. I fished out another bottle and tossed it to her, it immediately slipped out of her trembling fingers and tumbled to the floor of the plane. We both listened to the bottle rolling down the terrible angle of the plane and into the cockpit.
“So much for that.” Jennifer sighed and pulled her knees into her chest. She adjusted and pulled the life vests further into herself; she had created a kind of heat fort out of the self-inflating flotation devices and had filled it with the warmth of her exhales.
“You gonna invite me into your castle?” I asked, hearing the slur of drunkenness in my words but not caring.
We were going to die here.
“In a bit,” she said and leaned down, pulling her exposed fingers in between her thighs and breathing onto them.
“Only when you’re on the edge of death, eh Jen?”
She narrowed her eyes, glaring at me with those deep brown eyes that I had been following for 3 weeks. She had come to the research station on February 2nd and she had made me feel like a highschooler again. She gave me a sick twisting turning of butterflies in my stomach and a pattering pain in my chest. She was a grad student. Too young for me. Too beautiful for me. Too everything for my nothing. I had covered up everything with days and weeks of sarcasm and when we had been assigned this trip to deliver supplies to Ross Island, I had even pretended like I didn’t want to follow her deep brown eyes into the co-pilot’s seat.
“How’s your head?” I asked, distracting myself from my regrets. They would all come forward now as I slowly froze to death. Life flashing before my eyes; Regrets flashing after vodka and before tequila.
The gash on Jennifer’s forehead was changing into a dull shade of purple with edges of yellow and in the middle of the forming bruise was a mass of dried blood. I was sure if she touched it to anything that it would explode onto the walls like a popped zit. I squirmed at the thought, hiccuped and swallowed down rising bile.
“It’s okay,” she replied, her lips quivering with cold.
“Here let me just…” I stood and immediately slipped on the ice-covered floor of the bottom of the leaning plane. I tumbled downwards, kicking the cooler of alcohol bottles and spilling them down into the cockpit. The sounds of the glass rolling against the metal reverberated like a thunderous off-beat musical instrument in the small plane. The next pair of seats stopped me from sliding further; I landed in an awkward pile, my neck craned to one side and my arm pinned underneath my torso. Tiny bottles of whiskey, gin and vodka piled up around me and Jennifer laughed.
She let out a boisterous chuckle that I had never heard before.
The cold lifted temporarily as she filled the air with a laughter so optimistic and intentional that it stopped my shivering.
I laughed too and said, “I’m a mess.”
“You sure are.”
“We’re going to die,” I said, out loud this time instead of in my head, and I pushed myself up, the glass of the bottles clanging under my shoes and against the metal floor.
“I think so.”
We had both accepted it hours ago as the day had dipped into night and the temperature had dipped into freezing. The rescue team was surely on their way but they were short staffed and they wouldn’t find us in time. This was the South Pole and with no heat and with the negligence of my packing of emergency supplies, we would not survive through the night.
I hadn’t taken this job seriously.
I had been distracted by this potential of being alone with Jennifer.
I had been a stupid asshole.
I still was a stupid asshole; I couldn’t even die sober. I was sure that Jennifer blamed me for what had happened. With her head split open and her shoulders slouched forward into her pile of life vests, she was furious with me but maybe she didn’t have the energy to express it or I just wasn’t worth it.
“Is this my fault?” I choked out. The drunkenness had been replaced with the cracking sound of tears and mucus building in my throat. Blackness was encroaching the edges of my vision, I was filled to the brim with building tears, guilt and vodka. I grabbed another bottle that was resting against the bottom of the seat behind me; I flicked off the cap and chugged down the burning liquid, not even able to identify what I was drinking anymore.
Suddenly, Jennifer was just a pile of life vests. She disappeared into thin air.
Did she get rescued? Was someone here to get us? I was going to live but more importantly, she was going to live.
“Jennifer!” I called out.
Then, she was there again.
She lifted her head from her knees and looked at me, her face ghostly white aside from the open wound on her head. A stream of blood slipped down the length of her nose and split her lips into two like the outlining of a river on a map.
I shook my head from side to side.
“What is it now, Renny?”
I coughed and blinked. My head was heavy, my neck lolled forward and then kicked back against the seat. Her voice sounded strange and far away like she was yelling with her face stuck in a pile of snow. I rolled the weight of my head towards the window where I could only see the white compacted layers of the Antarctic, ice and snow. When we had crash landed, the nose had sunk straight into the thickness of the snow that had fallen the day before. It had overwhelmed the metal of the plane and swallowed us up in minutes, the weight of us and the softness of the snow making a rescue that much more impossible and unlikely.
“I think I love you,” I coughed out, still looking out the window.
“Renny, you don’t.”
“You don’t. You’re only saying this now because you’re dying and I’m the only one here. You’re only saying this because you’re drunk,” Jennifer explained, shaking her head and following my eyes out the window. “You don’t even know me. When’s my birthday?”
“November…” I suggested and then trailed off after catching a glimpse at the scrunch of her eyebrows.
“You’re just a lonely guy creating unrealistic fantasies in your head. I mean, that’s why you came here in the first place, to get away from the real world-”
“Jen, come on. Don’t do this to me now.”
“I’m not doing it, you are. You think now’s the time to tell some 25 year old girl that you love her? While we’re sitting in here freezing to death? You were lonely in Houston and you’re lonely here and if by some miracle you survive, you’ll still be lonely.”
I swayed back and forth as the words and the alcohol sank into my skin, coating me thoroughly. I pressed the heels of my hands into my eyes, burning the thin skin of my eyelids with cold.
The emergency lights along the aisle flickered on and off.
We were running out of time.
And like some delusional sign from God, there was a knock on the door. We were multiple feet deep in the snow, it was black and freezing outside of the plane and someone was knocking on the damn door. I leapt to my feet. The alcohol threw me to one side but I pushed myself out of the grip of the passenger seat and gathered my shaking body.
With trembling feet, I stepped over Jennifer’s body, covered in life vests, blood and frost, and climbed my way up to the emergency exit. I heard voices. A thin streak of flashlight flashed underneath the door as there was another knock.
I flipped the red handle up, it stubbornly clicked back down. I tried again, pushing the handle up with all of my remaining strength. Then I grabbed the door and using the seat behind me for leverage, I kicked it three times. Ice broke off of the bottom of my shoes as I dented the cheap metal of the plane door.
It broke open revealing a wall of white.
I was saved.
As I was wrapped in a soft blanket of silver, my fingers finally stopped trembling and my mind emptied out the images of Jennifer and replaced them with ones of my childhood and I wasn’t lonely. Right at that moment as I was rescued, I was not alone.