Novel - Tentatively scheduled for 2023 release
Lily Andrews is only seven years old when she boards a small aircraft with her mother, destined for the beautiful gulf coast of Texas. When tragedy strikes mid-flight and the plane goes down deep in the wild Ozarks, Lily must survive in the unforgiving forest. With the help of a gruff mountain man and his dog, the intense little girl’s grit and determination helps her thrive in her private oasis until a simple mistake forces Lily to make a life-altering decision, ripping her away from her mountain paradise and thrusting her into civilization once more. Can the presence of a familiar stranger heal the wounds of their intertwining childhoods, or will chaos of the past be too much for them to overcome?
The bare wallpaper of the hallway left me feeling smaller than I already did, smaller than my eleven-year-old body had any right to feel. As we marched past the closed doors on either side, my mother smiled down at me, squeezing my hand before we entered the last door. Her lipstick had smeared a tiny bit at the corner of her mouth and her hair had a few flyaway strands like golden whiskers sticking out of her ponytail, the only signs of our mad dash to get out of the house. We were late, as usual. If there was one thing I could count on in life, it was my mother’s refusal to see deadlines as anything more than gentle suggestions.
Unlike the plain beige hallway, the office walls were covered in hand painted, colorful murals. I ran the tips of my fingers along them reveling in the texture changes within the swirls of thick paint. I may have hated coming to therapy, but the murals made the loudness of life just quiet enough that the constant, inward cringing relented. The colors worked better than any medication to calm the chaos in my head.
Dr. Le Van stood and walked out from behind his desk to greet us as we entered. “Lily. Hannah. My favorite duo.”
“Hello, Dr. Le Van,” my mother replied, glancing up at the clock and smiling sheepishly. “Sorry about the time. You know how things get.”
“I do, indeed.” He turned and winked at me before clearing his throat. “I thought we might try some painting today. Is that okay, Lily?”
I shifted so my back was to him and continued tracing the mesmerizing ridges of paint on the wall. Painting was boring. I could never seem to get the thoughts in my head to spill out onto the paper. It was easier to just write down the words and imagine the pictures.
“So, tell me, Hannah, how have you been this past week?”
“It’s been okay, Doc. It’s still hard, though.” She slight sniffle as she spoke. I could hear the rustling of Dr. Le Van as he pushed a tissue box across the table. “Mark wasn’t around much the last couple of years with all the deployments. It still feels surreal. I just don’t know.”
“Is it as hard as it was last year?”
“God, it’s been a year already? Feels like only a few weeks.”
“It’s been eighteen months, Hannah, but I can see the difference. You seem more centered, less like a stiff breeze would blow you right back out the door. Lily, too. She’s making good progress on her journals. Have you noticed any changes?”
“Yes. There have been some changes. Not so many nightmares for me, I guess. Lily is still, well, Lily. Head in the clouds, nose in a book, and always full of surprises. We’ve been getting out more to the zoo and such. Saw the reptile show at Lake Tobias last week, didn’t we honey?” I turned to look at her and lifted my chin in agreement before looking away. “We’re going to head down to Texas in a few days and stay with my parents for a while. It would do Lily good to get out of the city and, to be honest, I just need a break from everything.”
“It might do you both some good to have a change of scenery. I have a few colleagues in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that I can contact as far as getting Lily into a good program if you are interested.”
The scratching sound of his pen on a notepad crept along the skin of my arms, raising goosebumps. It was awful and wonderful, as if the scratching was deep inside of my brain like a cricket inside a big, empty castle.
My mother’s soft voice smothered the last few seconds of the sound. “That’d be great.”
“I know we’ve talked about this ad nauseum, but you really should think a little more about putting her back into school. Lily is making great strides with her social development and having contact with peers her age might help her to open up a little more. How would you feel about that, Lily?”
I looked down at the floor, flexing my fingers in time with my breath, listening to the ka-thunk of my heart as it hammered away inside of me. School. There was nothing good inside those cement walls, just busy halls and endless noise. The thought of going back there, of forcing myself to sit still in an unyielding chair at a desk that screeched across the tile floor with the barest of touches, made me sick to my stomach.
“She’s doing great with her work, well past her grade level in everything but history.”
“Yes, Hannah, and that is wonderful, but she needs to learn how to deal with social situations and settings where you can’t be present. I’d like you to set up a few solo sessions if you can. I think Lily would really like Dr. Coates.”
I stepped farther down the wall to my favorite part of the mural – a peacock strutting out from behind thick drooping fern leaves. I imagined a huge, feathered tail behind me, spreading as wide as the doorway, blues and greens shimmering under the florescent lights.
“I know. I’ll think about it. Maybe once we come back.”
“Hannah, I want you to know that I support whatever decision you make. You know what is best for your daughter. My job isn’t to undermine your parenting or tell you what you’re doing wrong. Lily is a smart kid, smarter than any I’ve ever worked with. She’s just a little locked up inside. It might help to spend time with family.”
“Hmm. Sorry, Doc, but you’ve never met my family. My mother is, well, abrasive to say the least. A hard-core southern bitch, honestly. Not that I have much of a choice. She and my dad are our only living relatives and they can offer opportunities for Lily that she will never have here in Pennsylvania.”
“What sort of opportunities, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“They’ve got boatloads of money, connections, sway. They live on the gulf coast with lots of space and clean air. It was paradise when I was a kid.”
“You don’t often bring up your past. When did it start seeming less like paradise?”
“After I met Mark. My mother hated him. We couldn’t get away fast enough. I’ve only been back a handful of times in the last twelve years, probably not since Mark’s first tour in Afghanistan.”
“Does she know Mark passed away?”
“Yes. I talked to my father about it right after it happened. He begged me come home then, but I thought I could handle it on my own. It feels like failure to go crawling back there now.”
“You know, Hannah, it isn’t failure to seek the support of loved ones. That is what makes you human. We all need a safe place to land when things are difficult.”
I wandered over and sat down at the table, reaching for the blue paint. I drew a large, feathery looking ‘P’ on the paper, then outlined it in green. Underneath I began writing all the bird species I could think of that began with the letter p. My mother leaned over, whispering a few more names in my ear.
“Plover, pigeon, oh and don’t forget my favorite, pelican.”
I nodded and added it to the list, chewing at my lip as I concentrated. Pelican was a good one. I imagined being caught in the stretchy pouch of a pelican’s mouth, sloshing back and forth as it sailed over the ocean. The rest of our session floated by as I dreamed about spending a lifetime watching the world glide away, leaning over the edge of the pelican’s parted bill.
My grandmother, Dawn, had pulled a few strings and managed to seat us on a small plane leaving from a private airfield outside of Harrisburg. My mother and I crossed the tarmac against an early summer breeze that had our blond curls tangling and waving across our faces, leaving us giggling and breathless by the time we made it to our seats. It was my first time flying, the first time I had even seen a plane up close. It was huge. The wings jutted out like stiff arms, gleaming in the bright sunlight. A wide white staircase had been rolled up to the side, and the hair on my arms stood taller with every step. I wanted to turn around and look out over the tarmac behind us, but the crew had already waited long enough for us to arrive, so they shooed us inside before I had a chance to peek over my shoulder. The cabin was quiet, only a few travelers were making the southern journey to Texas. I wrinkled my nose at the smell of antiseptic cleaner and new carpet.
My mother raised an eyebrow at me and smiled. “I know. Gross, right? How many seconds till the smell goes away?”
“Fifteen,” I responded, starting to count under my breath. Magically, the smell seemed to lessen until I could barely detect it. I took a few more sniffs for good measure. “Better.”
“Good job, Lily. Won’t be more than a few hours before we’re smelling saltwater and sand, kiddo. Got your beach bag ready?”
“Good deal. Got your bird book?”
“Yup.” I held up the tiny, well-worn pocket guide. Its tattered edges felt like velvet against my skin.
“How about britches? Got your britches on?”
I laughed at her silliness. She crossed her blue eyes and stuck out her tongue at me.
“Good. Take a nap, kiddo. We’ll be there before you know it.”
The Dramamine she had given me earlier to prevent motion sickness had me feeling drowsy enough that even the excitement of being in the sky with my feathered friends could not persuade my eyes to remain open. I yawned and snuggled in under her arm as the engines whined.
“Lily.” An urgent voice broke through my dreamless sleep, sending my heart racing as I felt an invisible fist of wind pressing me deep into the plush seat. The world around me tilted oddly, smelling of smoke and fumes. I felt my mother’s arms tighten as she screamed, shielding me from the chaos of the cabin. Other voices, including my own, rose with hers as the cacophonous whistling and whooshing grew louder. Then the noise grew farther and farther away, until there was nothing but silence.
I dreamed of my mother in fleeting wisps that reminded me of the clouds. Her pale blond hair, laughing blue eyes, and tender smile wavered around me like dust in the wind. I could feel her glossed lips on my cheek as she made a wet kissing noise to draw out my smile. In my dark inner world, she had always been the brilliant light that kept me from disappearing altogether.
Slowly, I surfaced from my dream into an entirely new reality. My ears rang and my mouth tasted like pennies. The initial explosion, the wild spiraling, and the impact felt like I had watched them from a distance, leaving nothing but the imprint of screams echoing through my brain. My mother’s arms were no longer around me but hanging limply forward as she took shallow breaths beside me. The flames that had crackled outside the cabin as we plunged from the sky were still sizzling, though they were quickly dying as the wet foliage and soil smothered them.
The nose of the plane was gone, leaving a gaping hole where the front burrowed into the earth, wrapped in tree trunks and briars. We were tipped forward, leaning heavily to the left, branches and leaves obstructing the view from my window. The smells were strange, acrid, and overwhelming, so I pinched my nose and breathed through my mouth the way my mother had taught me, counting to fifteen. It helped, but not enough. I sat still, buckled tight, with sore muscles, a few scratches, and tiny wet trails of blood leaking down the side of my face onto my pink shirt.
I tried my hardest not to panic when there was no answer. Keep calm, keep still, and everything will be okay.
“Mom, please wake up. Please.” My whispers sounded too loud, too scratchy, too desperate for her to ignore.
Nothing but the soft flutter of breath passed her lips. I could feel myself shutting down, withdrawing into the safe harbor of emptiness. After a while, it became even quieter, just an occasional soft cough from a seat near the back of the small plane. The June afternoon drifted toward darkness, leaving me to cry softly in the dim light. I could stand it no longer.
“Mom, I have to pee. I don’t know what to do. Mommy?”
She was unnaturally still beside me, pale and silent. Nothing in my brain was prepared to face the loss of my mother, so instead I told myself she was sleeping. This was not forever, just for now. In a few hours she would reach over and wake me up, telling me we arrived in Texas, and I had slept through the whole trip.
The low, rumbling voice of the coughing man startled me. “Come on over here, honey. Come unbuckle this belt for me, okay?” He wheezed with enormous effort, pressing one hand to his chest as he spoke. The other hand dangled in the aisle way, purple and angry looking.
Terror stricken, I did not reply, turning my eyes forward and hugging myself tightly to ward off the shivers that threatened to overtake me. He was frightening, bloody-faced and unsmiling, but he looked as scared as I felt. Minutes marched by as I debated what to do about his pained request. What would my mother want me to do? Would she be disappointed that I was unable to perform the simplest task to help someone in need or would she be proud of me for not talking to a stranger? Finally, I unbuckled myself, climbed across my mother’s still lap, picking my way down the dark, messy aisle over suitcases, clothes, and other loose items.
He smelled sour and metallic. I reached out, my hand trembling, and released the clip for him. He sagged forward with the sudden freedom. The movement frightened me even more and I lunged backward, scrambling to a safer distance. He sighed and leaned his forehead on the seat in front of him.
“Thanks, honey. What’s…your name?” His speech was slow and labored, sweat dripping off him in streams. Soot darkened his skin, making him look as though he had just stepped out of a coal mine.
“Lily.” I was confused now that he was free, unsure how much to say or even if I should be talking to him at all. A pebble of relief began to grow inside of me. He could help my mother so we could leave this creaking airplane and play in the Texas surf, just like we had planned.
“Hi, Lily. That’s a beautiful…name. I’m Jack. How old…are you, sweetheart?”
I looked back toward my mother, hoping she would stir. “Eleven.”
“Eleven? Nearly…as old as my Jessica. She’s soon thirteen.” His thin smile lasted only a few seconds before he groaned through gritted teeth. “Lily, I need you… to take hold of my arm.” He tipped his head toward the swollen purple limb nearly touching the floor. “And pull it…forward.”
I tentatively touched the gross thing, then recoiled. It felt like an uncooked hotdog, clammy and cold. I gagged at the thought of touching it again.
He gave another brief smile and nodded. “It’s okay, Lily…if you can’t.” Pain was etched in the lines of his brow and oozed along the hissing edges of his voice.
I swallowed hard, reaching forward to take his arm into both of my hands, trying to pretend it didn’t remind me of a fat, purply earthworm. “Like this?”
“Yes, just…like that. I’m going to move now. You hold tight. I… might make some…noise. Don’t you worry.”
I took a deep breath and spread my feet apart for balance, awaiting his instructions. When he gave the nod and jerked back, I yanked his arm with all my strength, and I heard a loud pop. Jack groaned loudly and slumped forward in his seat. My heart thundered in my chest as I watched him breathe in the same shallow breaths my mother had taken. What had I done? Who would help us now?