Copper Center, Alaska
These were the last thirty-two seconds of her life.
As the small plane—a twin-engine CASA contracted by the military—took off from the airfield, most of the seven passengers on board were staring out their windows, thinking themselves lucky. Few people got to see this side of the world, much less the private base that the army had built out here. On maps, it didn’t exist. On Google, it was permanently blurred.
In the last row of the plane, a woman with shoulder-length black hair was convinced she was blessed, marveling at the snow-dusted tops of Alaska’s beautiful aspen trees. She loved that the roots of aspen trees often grew together, supporting each other and forming a giant organism. It was why she joined the army all those years ago: to build something stronger, with others. She got just that when she came out here to the lush wilderness.
Definitely blessed, she told herself. Then, just like that, the plane began to vibrate.
Her initial reaction was, Fix it—straighten us out. She was annoyed that the vibrations were messing up her handwriting. On the open tray table, she was trying to write a letter—a dirty note—to her fiancé, Anthony, telling him what she was planning to do to him later that evening.
Her hope was to slip it into his back pocket, Anthony being so surprised—and horny—from her traveling all the way to Fort Campbell on his birthday, he wouldn’t notice her sliding some playful fun into his pocket. And even if he did, well…Thanks to their army schedules, she and Anthony hadn’t been alone with each other in two months. He’d have no problem with a pretty girl’s hand on his ass.
The intercom cracked to life. "Prepare for—"
The pilot never got the words out.
The plane tilted, nose down, like it was arcing over the peak of a roller coaster. The woman with the black hair felt her stomach twist. All that was left was the final drop. Suddenly, there were anvils on her shoulders, pressing her into her seat.
Diagonally across the aisle, an Army lieutenant with buzzed red hair and triangular eyes made a face and gripped his armrests, just beginning to realize how bad it was about to get.
The woman with the black hair was Army too—a twenty-seven-year-old supply sergeant—and on those first days of her Airborne training at Fort Benning, they taught her that when it comes to a plane crash, people don’t panic. They become docile and silent. To save yourself, you need to take action.
The plane jolted, nearly knocking the pen from her hand. The pen. Her letter. She almost forgot she was writing it. She thought about Anthony, about writing a will…Then she replayed those last few minutes before she got on board. Oh, God. Now it made sense. Her stomach was up in her throat. The VIPs at the front of the plane were now screaming. She knew why this plane was going down. This wasn’t an accident.
Frantically, she jotted a new note, her hand shaking, tears squeezing out from behind her eyes.
The plane jolted again. A fireball of jet fuel came in through the emergency door on her left, from outside. Her shirt was on fire. She patted it out. She could smell melting plastic, yet at the sight of the flames—
The door. She was seated at the emergency exit.
Still clutching tight to the scribbled note, she gripped the door’s red handle with both hands and started to pull. It gave way, and she slid it sideways. There was a pop. The door was still closed, but the seal was broken.
Twenty seconds to go.
She tried to get out of her seat, but her seat belt— It was still buckled. In a frenzy, she clawed at it. Click. She was free.
Still holding the crumpled note, now damp in her sweaty fist, she put her palm to the exit door and gave it a shove. It was stuck from the fire. She gave it a kick. The door opened as a rodeo of wind whipped her black hair in every direction. Papers went flying through the cabin. A phone bounced against the ceiling. People were screaming, though she couldn’t make out any of it.
Fourteen seconds to go.
Outside, the tall, snow-covered aspen trees that had looked so small were now racing at her, growing larger every second. She knew the odds. When you free-fall in a light aircraft, if fate’s not on your side, you don’t have a chance.
"GO! GET OUT!" a man’s voice shouted.
She had barely turned as the lieutenant with the triangular eyes barreled into her, fighting to get to the emergency exit.
The plane was in free fall now, a reddish orange smoke filling the cabin. Eleven seconds to go. The man was pushing against her with all his weight. They both knew if they jumped too soon—above three hundred feet—they wouldn’t survive the impact. Even if they were lucky enough to live, the compound fractures in their legs—if the bones came through their skin—it’d make them bleed out in no time.
No. This had to be timed just right.
Not until you’re at the treetops, she told herself, remembering her training and eyeing the aspens, which were closer than ever. The wind blinded her. The smoke was in her lungs as she held the lieutenant at bay with one hand and held tight to the note with her other.
"GO! NOW!" the man screamed, and for a moment, it looked like his back was on fire.
Eight seconds to go.
The plane plummeted diagonally toward the ground. Without even thinking about it, she stuffed the note into the one place she thought it might survive.
"WE DON’T HAVE—!"
She put her foot on the lip of the doorway, turned back to the lieutenant, and grabbed him by his shirt, trying to pull him outside with her. This could work. She could save them both.
She was wrong.
The lieutenant pulled away. It was instinct. No one wants to be yanked from a plane. That was the end. The lieutenant with the triangular eyes would go down, literally, in flames.
With three seconds to go, the woman with black hair leapt from the plane. She would land on the balls of her feet, still trying to follow her training as she hit with a thud in the snow. A perfect landing. But also a deadly one. She’d break both legs and snap her neck on impact.
The emergency crews would find her name on the manifest. Nola Brown.
And the scribbled note—her final words—that she’d hidden so well? That would be found by the least likely person of all.