Read an Excerpt
My parents died in an automobile accident the year after I was married. They tried to enter I-75 through an exit ramp one Saturday night and crashed head-on into a semi hauling cattle. My father was killed instantly in the wreck, decapitated by the hood of his car, but my mother, miraculously, survived. She lived for a day and a half more, hooked up to machines in the Delphia Municipal Hospital, her neck and back broken, her heart leaking blood into her chest.
The semi driver came through it all with only a few minor bruises. His truck had caught fire, though, barbecuing the cattle, and after my mother died he sued my parents’ estate for damages. He won the suit but got no material satisfaction from it: my father had mortgaged his farm to the hilt and was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy when he died.
My wife Sarah’s pet theory was that he’d committed suicide, driven to it by the embarrassing proliferation of his debts. I argued with her at the time, though not very wholeheartedly. In hindsight, you see, it seems that he may’ve made certain preparations. A week before the accident, he came by my house in his pickup, its truck bed packed with furniture. Sarah and I had no use for any of it, but he was insistent, threatening to head straight for the dump if we didn’t accept the entire load, so I helped him carry it, piece by piece, down to the basement. After he left us, he drove over to my brother Jacob’s apartment and gave him the pickup.
There was also his will, the first clause of which was an injunction upon Jacob and me that we swear orally, in each other’s presence, to visit his grave every year, without fail, on his birthday. It continued from there, a bizarrely elaborate document, pages and pages, going through the old farmhouse room by room, bequeathing each object to us by name, no matter how trivial or inconsequential—a shaving kit, a broom, and an old Bible for Jacob; a broken blender, a pair of work boots, and a black stone paperweight in the shape of a crow for me. It was pointless, of course, wasted effort. We had to sell everything of any value to pay the debts he’d left behind, and the things of no value we had no use for. We had to sell the farm, too, our boyhood home. A neighbor bought it, grafting it to his own land, absorbing it like a giant amoeba. He knocked down the house, filled in the basement, and planted a soybean field on the lot.
My brother and I had never been close, not even as children, and the gap between us only grew wider as we got older. By the time of the accident, we had very little except our parents left in common, and their sudden deaths eased whatever weight this might’ve normally held.
Jacob, older than I by three years, had dropped out of high school and lived alone in a small apartment above the hardware store in Ashenville, the town in which we were raised, a tiny crossroads marked with a flashing yellow light, as rural as rural gets in northern Ohio. He worked on a construction crew in the summer and survived off unemployment benefits through the winter.
I’d gone to college, the first in my family to do so, graduating from the University of Toledo with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. I’d married Sarah, a classmate of mine, and moved to Delphia, thirty miles east of Ashenville, just outside of Toledo. There we bought a three-bedroom, unabashedly suburban house—dark green aluminum siding and black shutters, a two-car garage, cable TV, a microwave, the Toledo Blade delivered with a soft thump to our doorstep every evening at dusk. I commuted back to Ashenville each weekday, to the feedstore there, where I worked as assistant manager and head accountant.
There was no animosity between Jacob and me, no bad blood, we simply weren’t comfortable around each other, had difficulty finding things to say, and made little attempt to hide it. More than once, coming out onto the street after work, I saw him dodge into a doorway to avoid meeting me, and each time I felt more relief than pain.
The one tie we did have, after our parents’ accident, was the keeping of our promise to our father. Year after year on his birthday we’d repair to the cemetery and stand in stiff, awkward silence beside the grave site, each waiting for the other to suggest that a proper amount of time had passed, so that we could part and slip back into our separate lives. It was a depressing way to spend an afternoon, and we probably would’ve given it up after the very first time had we both not felt that we’d be punished somehow if we did, cursed from beyond the grave for our failure to stand by our word.
Our father’s birthday was December 31, the last day of the year, and the visit gradually took on a ritualized aspect, like any other event during the holiday season, a final hurdle to cross before reaching the new year. It became, essentially, our chief time to interact. We’d catch up on each other’s lives, talk about our parents or our childhood, make vague promises to see each other more often, and leave the cemetery with the clean feeling of having rather painlessly fulfilled an unpleasant duty.
This went on for seven years.
On the eighth year, December 31, 1987, Jacob picked me up at my house. He came around three-thirty, a half hour late, with his dog and his friend Lou in his truck. They’d been ice fishing together, their chief activity in the winter, and we had to drop Lou off on the other side of Ashenville before proceeding to the cemetery.
I never liked Lou, and I don’t think he ever liked me. He used to call me Mr. Accountant, saying it in a way which seemed to imply that I ought to be embarrassed by my occupation, ashamed of its conventionality and stability. I was peculiarly intimidated by him, though I could never discern exactly why. It certainly wasn’t his physical presence. He was a short, balding man, forty-five years old, just beginning to put on weight in the gut. His blond hair was thin, wispy, so that you could see his scalp beneath it, pink and chapped looking. He had crooked teeth, and they gave him a slightly comical quality, a mock toughness, making him look like some two-dimensional disreputable character out of a boy’s adventure book—an old boxer, a street thug, an ex-con.
As I came down the walk, he climbed out of the pickup to greet me, so that I’d have to sit in the middle of the seat.
“Howdy, Hank,” he said, grinning. Jacob smiled at me from behind the wheel. His dog, a big, overgrown mutt, mostly German shepherd, but with some Labrador thrown in on top, was in the back. It was a male dog, but Jacob had named him Mary Beth, after a girl he’d dated in high school, his first and only girlfriend. He referred to him as a “she,” too, as if the dog’s name had blinded him to his gender.
I climbed in, Lou pulled himself up behind me, and we backed our way down my driveway to the street.
My house was in a small subdivision called Fort Ottowa, after a frontier outpost whose inhabitants had frozen to death in a blizzard sometime before the start of the Revolution. It was farmland, unrelentingly flat but made over to look like it wasn’t. The roads curved around imaginary obstacles, and people constructed little hills in their front yards, like burial mounds, covering them with shrubbery. The houses up and down the street were tiny, each one built right up against the next—starter houses, the realtor had called them—full of newly married couples on their way up in the world, or retirees on their way down, the former planning careers and babies and moves to nicer neighborhoods, the latter wait- ing for their savings to disappear, their health to suddenly worsen, their children to send them away to old-age homes. It was a way station, a rung near the bottom of the ladder.
Sarah and I, of course, belonged to the first group. We had a nest egg, an account gathering interest in the Ashenville Savings Bank. Someday soon we were going to move away, take a step up in the world, the first of many. That was the plan, at least.
Once beyond my neighborhood, we headed west, away from Delphia, and as we did the curving streets, the clustered groupings of two-story houses with circular driveways and swing sets and picnic tables rapidly dissolved away behind us. The roads straightened themselves, becoming narrower in the process. Snow blew across them in places, moving snakelike, in long, thin, dusty lines, piling up along their edges. Houses strayed from one another, separated by whole fields now rather than simple squares of grass. Trees disappeared, the horizon widened, and the view took on a windswept look, a white-gray barrenness. We passed fewer and fewer cars.
It was an uncomfortable ride. Jacob’s truck was eleven years old, and there was nothing about it that did not show its age. At one time it had been painted a bright tomato red, my brother’s favorite color, but it was faded now to a scab- like burgundy, its sides pockmarked with rust. Its shocks were shot, its heater erratic. The rear window was missing, replaced by a sheet of plastic. The radio was broken, the windshield wipers torn off, and there was a hole the size of a baseball in the floor. A steady stream of cold air blew in through this, shooting straight up my right pant leg.
Jacob and Lou talked about the weather as we drove, how cold it had been lately, when it would snow next, whether or not it had rained on the previous New Year’s Eve. I kept silent, listening. Whereas I normally felt merely awkward alone with Jacob, when I was with him and Lou together I felt both awkward and excluded. They had an aggressively private way of interacting; their language was coded, intimate, their humor schoolboyish and obscure. Lou would say “pineapple,” with an extra stress on the “pine,” or Jacob would moo like a cow, and they’d both immediately tumble into laughter. It was bewildering—I could never escape the feeling that they were constantly making fun of me.
We passed a frozen pond, with skaters on it, children in bright jackets shooting back and forth. Dark, weathered barns dotted the horizon. It never ceased to surprise me: we were ten minutes away from my house and already surrounded by farms.
We drove south of Ashenville, skirting the town, keeping it just out of sight beyond the horizon, taking State High- way 17, ruler straight, until we hit Burnt Road. We turned right there, heading north, then left onto Anders Park Road. We crossed a long, low cement bridge over Anders Creek, plowed snow piled thickly over its railings, making it look fake, like something from a Christmas story, a cookie-dough bridge.
Beyond the creek was Anders Nature Preserve, a thickly wooded square of land that hovered at the right-hand edge of the road for the next two miles. It was a park, run by the county. There was a small pond at its very center, stocked with fish and surrounded by a mown field. People came out from Toledo during the summer to picnic there and play games, to throw Frisbees and fly kites.
The place had originally been the private estate of Bernard C. Anders, an early automobile magnate from Detroit. He’d bought the land in the 1920s and built a large summer house on it, the stone foundations of which were still visible beside the pond. When he died, during the Depression, the estate passed to his wife. She moved into the house year-round and lived there for the next four decades, finally leaving it only to be buried. She and Bernard had produced no children, so she chose to bequeath the land to the county, on the condition that they make it into a nature preserve and name it after her husband. It was an unusual place for a park, out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded on four sides by working farms, but the county, with an eye on state tax credits for parkland, accepted. The house was razed, picnic tables carted in, hiking trails cut, and Anders Nature Preserve was created.
We’d gone about a mile past the bridge, halfway down the southern edge of the park, when a fox sprinted in front of us.
It all happened very quickly. I saw a flash of movement off to the left, coming out of the snow-covered field, had just enough time to focus in on it, see that it was a fox, a large, reddish one, sleek and healthy, a dead chicken hanging from its jaws, and it was in front of us, shooting across the road, its body taut, hugging the ground, as if it thought it might sneak by unseen. Jacob slammed on the brakes, too hard, and the truck went into a skid, its rear end coming out to the left, its front bumper sliding right, digging with a loud, raking sound into the snow at the edge of the road. There was the crystalline popping sound of a headlight shattering; then the truck slammed to a stop. We were thrown forward, and the dog came flying in through the plastic rear window, tearing it, his legs scrambling in panic. He was there in the cab for just a moment—I felt his fur, cold against the back of my neck—then he was gone, back out the hole he had made, over the side of the truck, and into the woods after the fox.
Jacob was the first to speak. “Fuck,” he said softly. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
Lou giggled a little at that and pushed open his door. We climbed out onto the road. The imploded headlight was the only damage, and we stared at it for a bit, forming a semicircle around the front of the truck.
Jacob tried calling the dog. “Mary Beth!” he yelled. He whistled shrilly.
No one seeing us standing there would’ve ever recognized us as brothers. Jacob took after our father, while I took after our mother, and the difference was dramatic. I’m brown haired, brown eyed, of medium height and build. Jacob was several inches taller than me, blue eyed, with sandy blond hair. He was also a fat, fat man, immensely, even grotesquely overweight, like a caricature of obesity. He had big hands, big feet, big teeth, thick glasses, and pale, doughy skin.
We could hear the dog barking. He was getting farther and farther away.
“Mary Beth!” Jacob yelled.
The trees were fairly thick here, standing close together—maples, oaks, buckeyes, sycamores—but there was relatively little undergrowth. I could see the fox’s tracks winding their way in and around the trunks, disappearing into the distance. Mary Beth’s paw prints ran parallel to them, a little darker in the snow, wider and rounder, like a trail of hockey pucks beneath the trees. The ground was perfectly flat.
We listened to the dog’s barking grow fainter and fainter.
On the other side of the road was a field, smooth with snow. I could see tracks there, too, coming toward us from the far horizon, perfectly straight, as if the fox had been walking along one of the field’s furrows, masked from view by the snow. In the distance, a little toward the east, I could make out Dwight Pederson’s farm—a stand of trees, a dark red barn, a pair of grain silos, and a two-story house that looked gray against the snowy landscape, though I knew it was actually light blue.
“It had one of Pederson’s chickens,” I said.
“Stole it.” Lou nodded. “Broad daylight.”
Jacob whistled for Mary Beth. After a while it seemed like he’d stopped moving away. The barking neither decreased nor increased in volume. We listened to it, tilting our heads toward the woods. I was getting cold—there was a stiff wind cutting across the road from the field—and I was eager to climb back inside the truck.
“Call him again,” I said.
Jacob ignored me. “She’s treed it,” he said to Lou.
Lou’s hands were deep in the pockets of his jacket. It was an army surplus jacket, white for camouflage in the snow. “That’s how it sounds,” he said.
“We’ll have to go in and get her now,” Jacob said.
Lou nodded, took a wool hat from his pocket, and pulled it down over his pink skull.
“Call him once more,” I said, but Jacob ignored me again, so I tried calling the dog myself.
“Mary Beth,” I yelled. My voice came out pitifully thin in the cold air.
“He’s not coming,” Lou said.
Jacob shuffled back to the truck and opened the driver’s side door. “You don’t have to go, Hank,” he said. “You can wait here if you want.”
I didn’t have a hat with me, and I wasn’t wearing boots—I hadn’t planned on hiking through the snow—but I knew that both Jacob and Lou expected me to stay behind, expected me to wait like an old man in the truck, and I knew that they’d joke about it while they made their way off through the trees and tease me when they returned.
So, against my will, I said, “No, I’ll go.”
Jacob was leaning into the truck, fiddling around in the space behind the seat. When he emerged he was holding a hunting rifle. He took a bullet out of a little cardboard box and loaded it into the gun. Then he put the box back behind the seat.
“There’s no reason,” he said. “You’ll just be cold.”
“What’s the rifle for?” I asked. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Lou grinning.
Jacob shrugged. He cradled the gun in his arms, flipped the collar of his jacket up around his ears. His parka was bright red and, like all his clothes, a size too tight for him.
“It’s posted land,” I said. “You can’t hunt here.”
Jacob smiled. “It’s compensation: that fox’s tail for my broken headlight.” He glanced toward Lou. “I’m only taking one bullet, like the great white hunter. That seem fair to you?”
“Perfectly,” Lou said, drawing out the first syllable so that it sounded like “purrrr.”
He and Jacob both laughed. Jacob stepped awkwardly up onto the snowbank at the side of the road, balanced there for a second, as if he might fall backward, then gathered himself and lumbered down into the trees. Lou followed right behind him, still giggling, leaving me alone on the road.
I hesitated there, wavering between the twin sins of comfort and pride. In the end it was pride and the thought of Lou’s snickering that carried the day. With something bordering on revulsion, I watched myself climb up over the bank and set off through the snow, hurrying lest they get too far ahead.
The snow was shin deep in the woods, and there were things hidden beneath its smooth surface—the trunks of fallen trees, stones, broken branches, holes, and stumps—which made the going much harder than I’d anticipated. Lou led the way, spry, scurrying ratlike between the trees, as if he were being chased. I followed directly in his tracks, and Jacob brought up the rear, a good ways behind us, his face turning a brilliant pink, just a shade lighter than his jacket, with the effort of moving his huge body forward through the snow.
The dog’s barking didn’t seem to get any closer.
We continued on like this for about fifteen minutes. Then the trees suddenly thinned, and the land dropped away before us into a wide, shallow bowl, as if, millions of years before, a giant meteorite had landed there, carving out its impression in the earth. Parallel lines of stunted, sickly looking trees transversed the hollow—they were apple trees, the remains of Bernard Anders’s orchard.
Lou and I stopped on the edge of the bowl to wait for Jacob. We didn’t talk; we were both out of breath. Jacob shouted something through the trees at us, then laughed, but neither of us understood him. I scanned the orchard for the dog, following his paw prints with my eyes. They disappeared in the distance beneath the trees.
“He’s not in there,” I said.
Lou listened to the dog’s barking. It still seemed very far away. “No,” he agreed. “He isn’t.”
I made a complete circle of the horizon with my eyes, taking in both the orchard and the woods behind us. The only thing moving for as far as I could see was Jacob, working his way aggressively through the snow. He still had another fifty yards to go and was progressing at a pathetically slow rate. His jacket was unzipped, and even at that distance I could hear the tortured sound of his breathing. He was using his rifle like a cane, digging its butt into the snow and pulling himself forward by its barrel. Behind him, he’d cut a wide swath of deep, messy tracks, so that it looked as if he’d been dragged through the woods against his will, struggling and kicking the entire way.
By the time he reached us, he was soaked with sweat, his skin actually steaming. Lou and I stood there watching him try to catch his breath.
“Christ,” he said, gasping, “I wish we’d brought something to drink.” He took off his glasses and wiped them on his jacket, squinting down at the ground as if he half-expected to find a pitcher of water sitting there in the snow.
Lou waved his hand in the air like a magician, snapped his fingers over the right-hand pocket of his jacket, then reached in and pulled out a can of beer. He popped its top, slurped the foam from the lid, and, smiling, offered it to Jacob.
“Always be prepared,” he said.
Jacob gulped twice at it, pausing in between to catch his breath. When he finished, he returned the can to Lou. Lou took a long, slow swallow, his head tilted back, his Adam’s apple sliding up and down the wall of his throat like a piston. Then he held the can out toward me. It was a Budweiser; I could smell its sweetish scent.
I shook my head, shivering. I’d started to sweat hiking through the snow, and now, standing still, my damp skin was becoming chilled. The muscles in my legs were trembling and jumping.
“Come on,” he said. “Have a sip. It won’t hurt you.”
“I don’t want any, Lou. I’m not thirsty.”
“Sure you are,” he prodded. “You’re sweating, aren’t you?”
I was about to decline again, this time more forcefully, when Jacob interrupted us.
“Is that a plane?” he asked.
Both Lou and I glanced into the sky, searching the low clouds for movement, ears keyed for the hum of an engine, before realizing that he was pointing down into the orchard. We followed his finger to the very center of the bowl, and there, nestled among the rows of stunted apple trees, hidden almost completely by its covering of snow, was indeed a tiny single-engine airplane.
Lou and I reached it first, side by side.
The plane was resting perfectly flat on its belly, as if it were a toy and a giant hand had reached down out of the sky to set it there, snug beneath the branches of the trees. There were remarkably few signs of damage. Its propeller was twisted out of shape, its left wing was bent back a bit, tearing a tiny hole in the fuselage, but the land itself was relatively unmarked; there were no upturned trees, no jagged, black gashes in the earth to reveal its path of impact.
Lou and I circled the wreck, neither of us approaching close enough to touch it. The plane was surprisingly small, no bigger really than Jacob’s truck, and there was something fragile about it: it seemed far too tiny to support the weight of a man in the air.
Jacob came slowly down into the orchard. The snow had settled more deeply here, and he looked like he was wading or shuffling toward us on his knees. Off in the distance, Mary Beth continued sporadically to bark.
“Jesus,” Lou said. “Look at all these birds.”
At first I didn’t see them—they were so still in the trees—but then suddenly, as soon as I saw one, they all seemed to jump out at me. They were everywhere, filling the entire orchard, hundreds and hundreds of black crows perched motionless on the dark, bare branches of the apple trees.
Lou packed some snow into a ball and tossed it at one of them. Three crows lifted into the air, completed a slow half circle over the plane, and settled with a soft fluttering onto a neighboring tree. One of them cawed, once, and the sound of it echoed off the shallow sides of the bowl.
“It’s fucking spooky,” Lou said, shivering.
Jacob came up, huffing and puffing. His jacket was still unbuttoned, his shirttails hanging out. He took a few seconds to catch his breath.
“Anybody inside?” he asked.
Neither of us answered him. I hadn’t even thought about it, but of course there had to be someone inside—a pilot, dead. I stared uneasily at the plane. Lou threw another snowball at the crows.
“You haven’t checked?” Jacob asked.
He handed his rifle to Lou and lumbered up to the plane. There was a door in its side, just behind the damaged wing. He grabbed its handle and gave it a tug. The plane made a loud creaking sound, metal pushing against metal, and the door swung open about five inches, then stopped. Jacob tugged again, putting his weight into it, and got another inch and a half. Then he grabbed the edge of the door with both hands and pulled so hard that the whole plane rocked back and forth, dislodging its shell of snow, revealing the shiny silver metal beneath, but not moving the door at all.
Emboldened by his aggressiveness, I approached the plane more closely. I tried peering in through the windshield but could make nothing out. The glass was spiderwebbed with a tiny, intricate matrix of cracks and frosted over with a thick sheet of ice.
Jacob kept tugging at the door. When he stopped, his breath was coming hard and fast again.
Lou stood a little ways off. He looked like a sentry, with Jacob’s rifle cradled in his arms. “It’s jammed, I guess,” he said. He sounded relieved.
Jacob peered in through the crack he’d made, then pulled his head back.
“Well?” Lou asked.
Jacob shook his head. “Too dark. One of you’ll have to go in and check it out.” He took off his glasses and wiped at his face with his hand.
“Hank’s the smallest,” Lou said quickly. “He’ll fit the easiest.” He winked at Jacob, then grinned toward me.
“I’m smaller than you?”
He patted his little stomach, the beginning of his paunch. “You’re thinner. That’s what counts.”
I looked toward Jacob for help but immediately saw that there’d be none forthcoming. He had a toothy smile on his face, his dimples cutting into his cheeks.
“What do you think, Jacob?” Lou asked.
Jacob started a little laugh but then stopped. “I can’t imagine you fitting, Lou,” he said seriously. “Not with that gut of yours.” They both turned to look at me, straight-faced.
“Why go in at all?” I asked. “What’s the point?”
Lou started to grin. A handful of crows flapped heavily into the air, changing trees. It seemed like the whole flock was watching us.
“Why not just get the dog,” I said, “then go into town and report this?”
“You scared, Hank?” Lou asked. He shifted the rifle from one arm to the other.
I watched myself cave in, disgusted by the spectacle. I heard a voice in my mind very clearly analyzing the situation, saying I was acting like a teenager, doing something pointless, even foolish, to prove my courage to these two men, neither of whom I respected. The voice went on and on, reasonable, rational, and I listened to it, agreeing with everything it had to say, while I strode angrily around the plane to its open door.
Jacob stepped back to give me room. I stuck my head inside the doorway, let my eyes adjust to the darkness. It seemed even tinier inside than it had outside. The air felt warm, and humid, too, like in a greenhouse. It gave me an eerie feeling. A thin stream of light entered from the tear in the fuselage and shot across the cabin’s darkened interior, like a weak flashlight beam, forming a tiny crescent moon against the opposite wall. The rear of the plane was almost completely dark, but it appeared to be empty, a bare metal floor growing narrower and narrower the farther back it went. Just inside the doorway was a large duffel bag lying on its side. If I’d reached in with my hand, I could’ve grabbed it and dragged it out.
Toward the front, I could see two seats, gray with the light filtering in through the ice-covered windshield. One of them was empty, but there was a man’s body slouched in the other, his head resting against the control panel.
I pulled my head out of the doorway.
“I can see him from here.”
Jacob and Lou stared at me. “Is he dead?” Jacob asked.
I shrugged. “We haven’t had snow since Tuesday, so he’s been out here for at least two days.”
“You aren’t going to check?” Lou asked.
“Let’s just get the dog,” I said impatiently. I didn’t want to go into the plane. It seemed stupid of them to make me.
“I think we ought to check.” Lou grinned.
“Come on, Lou. Cut the crap. He can’t be alive.”
“Two days isn’t that long,” Jacob said. “I’ve heard of people surviving stuff longer than that.”
“Especially in the cold,” Lou agreed. “It’s like keeping food in the refrigerator.”
I waited for the wink, but it didn’t come.
“Just go in and check him out,” Jacob said. “What’s the big deal?”
I frowned, feeling trapped. I stuck my head back inside the plane for a second, then pulled it out again. “Can you at least scrape the ice off the windshield?” I asked Jacob.
He gave a deep, theatrical sigh, more for Lou’s benefit than mine, but nevertheless shuffled off toward the front of the plane.
I started to squeeze my way in through the doorway. I turned sideways and slipped my head and shoulders inside, but when I got to my chest, the opening seemed suddenly to tighten, gripping me like a hand. I tried to pull back, only to find that my jacket and shirt were snagged. They bunched up under my armpits, exposing the skin above my pants to the cold air.
Jacob’s bulk darkened the windshield, and I heard him start to scrape at the ice with his glove. I watched, waiting for it to get lighter, but nothing happened. He started to pound—dull, heavy thuds that echoed through the plane’s fuselage like a heartbeat.
I exhaled as far as possible and lunged forward. The doorway’s grip moved from my sternum to just above my navel. I was about to try again, thinking that one more push would do it, that I could get in, examine the dead pilot, and get out as quickly as possible, when I saw a curious thing. The pilot appeared to be moving. His head, resting against the dashboard, seemed to be shaking ever so slightly back and forth.
“Hey,” I whispered. “Hey, buddy. You all right?” My voice echoed off the plane’s metal walls.
Jacob continued to pound against the glass. Thump. Thump. Thump.
“Hey,” I said, louder, slapping the fuselage with my glove.
I heard Lou move closer in the snow behind me.
“What?” he asked.
Jacob’s hand went thump, thump, thump.
The pilot’s head was motionless, and suddenly I wasn’t so sure. I tried to squeeze forward. Jacob stopped pounding.
“Tell him I can’t get it off,” he yelled.
“He’s stuck,” Lou said gleefully. “Look at this.”
I felt his hands grab me just above the waist. His fingers dug in, a rough attempt at tickling. I kicked out with my right leg, hitting air, and lost my footing in the snow. The doorway’s grip held me up. Lou’s and Jacob’s laughter came filtering inside, muted and far away.
“You do it,” Lou said to Jacob.
I was pushing and pulling now, not even sure which way I wanted to go, just trying to get free, my feet digging into the snow outside, the weight of my body rocking the plane, when there was a sudden flash of movement up front.
I couldn’t tell what it was at first. There was the sense of the pilot’s head being tossed to the side, then something exploding upward, rising and pounding frantically against the inside of the windshield. Not exactly pounding, I realized slowly, but fluttering. It was a bird, a large black crow, like the ones sitting in the apple trees outside.
It came off the windshield and settled on the rear of the pilot’s seat. I watched its head dart back and forth. Carefully, noiselessly, I tried to work my way backward out of the doorway. But then the bird was airborne again; it smacked once into the windshield, bounced off, and flew straight at me. I froze at the sight of it, simply watched it come, and only at the very last moment, just before it hit me, pulled my head down into my shoulders.
It struck me in the exact center of my forehead, hard, with what felt like its beak. I heard myself cry out—a short, sharp, canine sound—pulled back, then forward, somehow broke free from the doorway, and fell into the plane’s interior. I landed on the duffel bag and didn’t try to get up. The bird returned toward the front, bounced off the windshield, flew back toward the now open doorway, but veered to the right before reaching it, shooting up toward the jagged little hole in the fuselage. It perched there for a second, then wormed its way through like a rat and disappeared.
I heard Lou laugh. “Holy shit,” he said. “A fucking bird. You see that, Jake?”
I touched my forehead. It was burning a little, and my glove came away bloody. I slid off the duffel bag, which was hard and angular, as if it were full of books, and sat down on the floor of the plane. A rectangle of light from the open doorway fell across my legs.
Jacob stuck his head inside, his body blocking the light.
“You see that bird?” he asked. I could tell he was smiling, even though I couldn’t make out his face.
“It bit me.”