One more step for Annie

A miniature version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein staggers across the room to meet me, arms outstretched, hair lit up by static from a wild afternoon on the swings. She is my daughter, Annie, learning to walk. Again.

‘One more step, Annie. One more step for Daddy.’

Biting her lower lip, she trundles forward like a saddle-sore cowgirl and reaching me at last, grabs my legs to smile up at me, triumphant. A beautiful cherub on spindly legs just released from two years worth of callipers; two years worth of physical therapy, pain and frustration. She’s struggled for a third of her life, this pale and patient child of mine.

‘Hooray! You made it, Annie!’

‘I made it, daddy.’ Infectious giggles fill the air as I scoop her up to bury my face in her delicious downy hair and cover her with rough daddy-kisses. As I look across at my other girl, my wife Stacey, busy cooking dinner, she throws a melting smile touched with sadness over her left shoulder. I know what she’s thinking. I don’t want to fly out tonight either. The endless business trips are wearing thin – for both of us - but there are so many bills to pay, so many medical expenses… and I’ve wanted the very best for my little girl. But it’s nearly over now; Annie is almost well again.

‘It won’t be for much longer, honey, I promise. I’ll hand the travelling over to…’

‘To Bob. Yes, I know. How much longer, James? I’ve been listening to the same spiel since we got married. Before that in fact. It’s always after the wedding, after you finish the next project, after the house is built, after the baby is born. Bob’s young and single. He can handle it. You said so yourself. So?’

The question hangs between us as it always does. I know Stacey’s right. It’s time for me to let go the controls, to delegate… if only she knew how hard it is for me to do that. But I’m nearly ready – and so’s Bob. Annie’s on the home straight now, I know it; she’ll win the battle. I’ll hand it all over shortly, next week even - or after the conference - but tonight, it’s me who must fly.

The North Queensland trips are the worst. The planes are small and stuffy and the air conditioning never seems to work. Sometimes I wonder just how well maintained these old planes are but there’s never been a hiccup, not in all these years of travelling. One last kiss, a lingering goodbye as I fidget in my pockets checking for pens, notebooks and other useless paraphernalia. It gets harder every time I leave, looking at those two pairs of loving eyes as I head out the door, knowing I might miss some important milestone in Annie’s life. I’ve already missed so many – the first smile; first tooth; the day she sat up on her own. God, I even missed the accident – Stacey had to handle it on her own, as she so often does… but she’s capable… and strong.

Looking at her now she seems not so strong, more vulnerable; a hint of red high on her cheeks as she flushes with emotion. Maybe she’s had to handle too much on her own lately.

‘Bye, honey.’

‘Bye.’ Her voice is a whisper.

The airport is depressingly familiar; hot tarmac; scraping metal steps. Same plane; same deafening noise. Even the crew looks the same as last week. Once on board and safely in the air I let the steady thrum of the engines lull me into that dreamy state where magic happens and demons do battle. I’m remembering Annie’s last squeeze, chubby arms wrapped around my neck and the puddle she leaves on my skin as she sucks her wet lips against my face. The images drift by, a collage of moments, happy and sad – the emergency room, the surgery, Annie’s long, brave recovery. I think of Stacey’s admonitions to be careful, the way she fusses over me as I leave because she’s never known how to say goodbye, not even for a night.

 She’s fussing now, shaking me awake with what seems like unnecessary urgency, forcing me out of my reverie.  Coming out of my fog, I look up at the neat, dark head and realize it’s not Stacey.

'Sir, please fasten your seatbelt. We're having some turbulence but the pilot has everything under control. Nothing to worry about.' But an engine sputters, sounding like my father's Austin A40 spitting and hissing its way up the hill. One look at the stewardess's ashen face and white knuckles gripping the edge of my seat, tells me the pilot isn't as in control as she'd like us to believe. The plane is still shuddering as she weaves her way back down the aisle, dong her best to push dislodged luggage back into the overhead racks and soothe the passengers who are beginning chatter furiously.

          ‘It’s alright madam. We’ll be landing at the next airport, then…’

But the wind is knocked out of the stewardess as the plane lurches violently downward and she’s sliding, sliding all too fast, to the other end of the plane, stopping only when her slight shoulders connect hard with the cockpit door. Despite the steadfast seatbelt my face slams into the headrest in front and a cracking pain splits across my temple. I have to force myself upright, blurry-eyed and disoriented. The stewardess is not moving.

Sorry. Sorry lady. Can’t help you right now. In a minute… Nobody else even bothers to try. They are a mass of bloody noses, smashed glasses... but mostly wild, wide eyes that look ahead to the unknown. Surely the plane will right itself in a moment. The pilot has it under control, the stewardess said so – the stewardess who’s lying motionless in the aisle, limbs at an impossible angle. The plane plunges downwards.

For an impossible moment I seem to rise above my head as if, in preparation for death, I’ve disconnected from myself, floating above a body that is staring and speechless; me but not me. It won’t have time to say goodbye, this detached body of mine; it didn’t mean to leave them like this, without explanation or affection. There’s so much more to do and say. But the plane just keeps plunging downwards, ever faster.

 

An acrid smell bites at the back of my nose. Smoke…oh, God. Is the plane down? I don’t remember any impact. There’s blistering heat, fire… and I’m… here… somewhere in the dark; somewhere in the haze. Dead or alive, I don’t know. Blood trickles into my left eye, dimming my vision. I’m alive, I think, alive enough to feel pain though I can’t see anything but thick smog and infinite darkness. Around me is silence.

‘Can anybody hear me?’ My voice breaks. ‘Please, somebody…’

No answer, not even a groan. I call at intervals, not wanting to be alone, willing voices out of the darkness until my own gives up the battle with the stinking air. Any moment now the wreckage will blow – I can feel it in my bones; hear it in the creaking, swaying vessel that’s disintegrating around me. Come on legs, get moving. There’s a crushing weight on my left foot and I sit up gingerly, not knowing where I’m going to hurt next, and slide my hands under the object to gauge its weight. It feels like a seat…not so bad. Maybe I can shift it.  Bracing my shoulders I heave upwards, nearly passing out with the effort but after a long, tense moment the thing shifts – just far enough for me to drag my foot free. Useless and in pain, but free. No time to rest.  My eyes are better focussed now and I spy an opening in the side of the plane, just big enough to crawl through. There is a harsh screech of metal on metal as something tears free from the plane’s carcass and free-falls to the unseen ground. Hurry old man, hurry.

Slipping on a slick of my own blood I inch forward, skating on my knees to reach the narrow opening. It’s jagged; dangerous – I’m going to hurt myself again by forcing my way out but there’s no choice. It’s this way or no way.

Stealing myself for the pain I lunge through and drop to the ground, gouging out more flesh as my skin catches on the snaggle-toothed edges of my escape route. The landing is worse; the six-foot drop ends with my injured foot giving way under me, leaving me in a broken heap as blackness threatens to close in. I must stay conscious; I must make it back to my family.

‘Come on, daddy!’ A familiar, lilting voice laps at me through the cold night air, keeping rhythm with the moaning wind. I must be losing it. The night is clear, with a bright waxing moon that allows me to take my bearings. We’re in… I’m in… a clutch of heavily wooded hills, just short of a clearing. The pilot tried to bring us down safely, poor devil.

At the rasping sound of swaying metal I collect my wits again. This is no place to hang around. One step… searing pain; another step… this may well be the longest journey of my life.

'Dad-dee...' whispers urgently through the trees.

         I’m coming, angel. Where are you? Tell me which way to go. In one of four directions there’s bound to be a highway and I think I can hear the distant roar of trucks as they snake their way along the sleek roads, travelling much too fast… but I’m hearing some strange things tonight. Despite the bracing cold I’m sweating; feverish; and wonder how much blood I’ve lost. Rivulets continue to flow into my eye, making it even harder to navigate. I have to make a decision… fast.  She’s going to blow! I feel the heat rising, charging the atmosphere like a pressure cooker just before it jettisons its lid.

Ten paces in front of me is a gully – if I can throw myself into it, I’ll be protected but I’m going to have to run… somehow.

Then comes the eye of the storm, a menacing silence. Run!  Like Quasi Modo I lurch and tilt and scrape my way forward, breathing through the pain. I think of Stacey giving birth to Annie and I draw strength from her courage. Nearly there. One more step… and then… I’m falling, rolling into the ditch, the pain indescribable, impossible to live through. Then a rumbling, roaring thunderclap surges towards me and I lie, waiting, for the big bang to hit. Schrapnel scatters like a meteorite storm and I’m on my haunches, hands over head, face in the dirt, trying not to think of the people back there – now in tatters, spinning in all directions. May God have mercy. I try to pray, finding the well-worn words as surely as that eight-year-old kid in Sunday School. I promise God that if He brings me safely home I’ll never leave my family again. Please just give me one more chance. And as the angels begin their mesmerizing chant I give in to sleep… glorious, welcome sleep.

 

‘Daddy, get up!’ whispers the wind.

‘I’m sleeping angel. Let Daddy sleep.’

‘No!’ This time the voice is not coaxing but forceful, commanding. Someone stamps a gym-booted foot, jolting me back.

‘Get up, daddy!’ I listen to my daughter; Annie’s voice; Annie’s face; Annie’s soft, sweet arms draw me out of my complacency and half-conscious, I begin to clamber my way back out of the gully, shuffling forward for what seems an eternity. The road noise grows louder with every step.

 ‘Daddy!’

‘Soon, angel. I’ll be home soon.’

How long has it been? Minutes or hours? Time has ceased to have meaning here in the wilderness. Pain penetrates to the bone as I stumble over the undergrowth, wrenching my already useless ankle. A few more steps… keep going, James. Nearly there.

‘One more step, Daddy. One more step.’

I hurtle blindly forward towards the roadside, catching hold of a ghost gum to steady me. Bright lights… getting closer…doors slamming… strong arms… blessed oblivion.

 

The brilliant lights are returning, searing my eyelids, snapping me out of the black well I’ve fallen into. I strain to open my eyes but can’t force the lids apart. In panic, I throw back the covers and frantically reach up to touch my face, finding thick wads of bandages there. Gentle hands lay me back on heavenly soft pillows, patting me down, fussing, bossy… Stacey!

‘Lie down, James. You’re weak. You need to rest.’ Soft lips flutter against my own sore, parched ones and a flurry of awkward footsteps clatters across the room. A divine bundle is lowered onto the bed beside me.

‘You made it, daddy. You made it.’

    

Comments:
 
OneVoice   OneVoice wrote
on 2/27/2011 7:27:40 AM
Absolutely amazing... wonderfully told and brilliantly thought through. This is a timeless piece Mel. Your gifts are in the details. I laughed... in the end when James, like soo many of us, 'suddenly' valued what he had... at the cost of losing it. Life's sudden epiphanies can be bum-kickers - can’t they?

Sojourner   Sojourner wrote
on 11/3/2008 9:40:22 PM
Wow, this is an amazing and descriptive story, I am glad you write. I definitely agree with StarPoet and Lindsay, you go girl.

shakatoah   shakatoah wrote
on 11/2/2008 3:39:10 AM
Hullo again Warrior Princess...and again...thank you for the feedback. To know that you feel the very things that I feel when I'm writing is the best way I can gauge whether my intentions have hit the mark. I'm sitting here on a Sunday evening after a beautiful day in the garden...it's so green here and you can smell the earth after last night's storm. I should be able to WRITE UP A STORM...but I'm dead beat. Tomorrow...and tomorrow...and tomorrow. Love and light, Mel

Warriorprincess55   Warriorprincess55 wrote
on 11/1/2008 8:41:34 AM
Mel, this is a great short story! It kept me on the edge of my seat! It is excellently written and so heart-felt. I was right there on the plane watching the events unfold, and I felt the brutality of the crash and his pain. Your story does indeed express how very important family is and how very short and precious life truly is! I happily give you a 10 for this one!

shakatoah   shakatoah wrote
on 10/30/2008 2:56:55 AM
Oh...you two have made me go all goose-bumpy and blushy. Thank you. I'm so pleased you enjoyed my words. xxMel

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Rating: 10.0/10

Synopsis
Sometimes a man's family mean more to him than life itself. It just takes him a while to realize that he ought to put aside his frenetic work life and be there for the important things, like seeing his children grow up and supporting his wife through tough emotional times - in fact, just being there to give and receive love. This is the story of one harried, overworked family man who was given a second chance.
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