“Steve! Wake up!”
Steve bolted upright, best he could since he was trapped in a sleeping bag. As the last wisp of sleep drifted from his brain, he glanced around for the source of the voice. He noticed Rudy leaning against a boulder, waiting impatiently.
“Are you going to sit there on your tin butt all day or are we going to fish?” Rudy questioned. It had taken a bit of effort, but he finally convinced Oscar that Steve needed a break; a fishing trip would do the trick. Rudy decided to drag Steve up into the Montana Mountains, away from civilization. All methods of outside communications were left back at the lab.
“Yeah, yeah,” Steve replied while fighting with the zipper. He heard Rudy chuckling at his dilemma. “How the heck…” The zipper finally broke loose. Steve cast off the bag and scrambled to his feet. He cast a dirty look at the doctor while rolling up his bedding.
In the meantime, Rudy poured coffee for both of them and seated himself in front of the fire, offering a cup to Steve.
Steve reached across the fire, accepted the cup, and then seated himself. “Thanks,” he replied before taking a sip. He was still trying to relax after having spent a week in the mountains. The peace and quiet is what he needed, but he was becoming a bit antsy.
After several minutes of silence, Steve said,” I hope you don’t mind, Rudy, but I’m going to give the fish a chance to live another day.”
Rudy finished off his coffee and put the cup down. “What do you have planned?” Rudy suspected Steve was getting restless when he started pacing through the campsite the other evening.
“See that mountain?” Steve questioned, pointing to the looming peak behind Rudy.
Rudy glanced behind him briefly. “You’re going to climb it?”
It’s there to be climbed, so that I will do.”
“As long as you stay out of trouble, fine with me. That will just mean there will be more fish for me to catch.” Rudy replied.
Steve laughed. “Right…”
Rudy just rolled his eyes. This was a long standing argument…who’s the better fisherman. “Be back in time for dinner,” He said while gathering his fishing gear.
“Will do.” Steve started off at a slow jog toward the tree line.
By noon Steve had made it about a quarter of a way up the mountain. He found a ledge to sit on, wanting to enjoy the view before needing to head back down to camp.
Minutes later, Steve thought he heard the sound of a twin engine plane. Looking around, he spotted the small plane flying just above the tree line, much too low to clear the mountain top. Using his zoom, he noticed the plane carried two, maybe three occupants. He decided that if there were a third occupant, it must be a child. Steve stood and watched in horror as the plane smashed into the trees, crashing to the floor below.
Steve was into a full sprint within seconds of the impact, gracefully hurdling fallen logs and dodging tree limbs. He slowed as he neared the crash site. He could barely make out two adults through the hazy, cracked windshield. He ran to the side of the aircraft and needed his bionic strength to tear the mangled door from its hinges. Time stood still as his eyes fell upon the only two occupants. A sickening feeling of dread made its way down into his very soul. He quickly assumed his father was taking Jaime to Washington.
Both were semi-conscious, faint moans could be heard from each. The smell of aviation fuel was burning his nostrils. In his peripheral vision he became aware of the smoking embers igniting the fuel and flames began reaching toward the cockpit and the fuel tanks. He knew he only had a second to decide his course of action. He may only have time to save one. His heart screamed, Jaime or my dad…. ‘Oh God what should I do?’ ‘This can’t be happening!!’ His mind reeled with the overwhelming decision.
Within five seconds of removing the lightweight door he had made his decision, sent a prayer skyward and slid the heavy bundle from the seat. He quickly readjusted his footing with the extra weight combined with the extreme slope of the terrain to prevent them from falling back into the flames. Swiftly he moved his loved one to a safe distance and laid the inert form on the soft dirt. He instantly jumped to his feet to return for the other begging God for just five more seconds.
After only two steps forward the plane exploded. Steve was instantly thrown backwards. He screamed, horrified at the scene. In his shock he never felt the sharp, thin piece of sheet metal slice through his left side at a high rate of speed. Nor did he feel the force of a wing strut strike his face. Debris rained down around him as he sat up, his mind not accepting the fact that he was out of time. He crawled over to his lone survivor as his gut twisted with grief.
Rudy had heard the plane pass overhead and followed it with his eyes until it was lost in the trees. He dropped his gear and took off in a run toward the mountain. As he passed their campsite he heard the loud explosion which reverberated down the small canyon. His concern for the passengers was overshadowed by the raw, grief-stricken scream that followed.
“NNNNNOOOOO!!!!!!!,” echoed against the rock walls. Rudy thought it sounded like Steve’s voice. The doctor quickened his pace to the mountain’s base.
Steve’s NASA first aid training kicked in automatically as he assessed his patient for obvious life threatening injuries. Finding only a possible concussion and some broken ribs he turned and saw the fire eating up the dry timber around them quickly. The air was getting too thick to breath. Steve absently zipped up his navy blue windbreaker to protect himself from the excessive heat and flames. Gingerly he lifted his victim and moved through the fire and headed down the mountain. Before leaving the devastated scene he sent up a prayer for his father’s soul. Jaime let out a soft moan as he adjusted her in his arms.
Steve was completely numb during the decent and did not realize Rudy had approached when he reached the bottom. “Steve! Are you alright? Jaime!”
Steve continued past the physician until he made his way to their campsite a short distance away. He kicked his sleeping bag open and laid her on it. “Rudy check her out. I found a head wound and I think she may have some broken ribs.”
Rudy was already doing so as Steve began frantically throwing their belongings into the boat. The doctor agreed with his friend’s assessment but noted there may also be some internal injuries. Steve just nodded silently and began to lift Jaime into the boat. Rudy was concerned with Steve’s unusual behavior. Steve was not one to panic in situations such as this. He couldn’t help but notice the large bruise on the left side of his face turning a crimson-purple color. “Steve, are you okay?”
“Yeah….let’s get her out of here.” He started the motor with a swift pull of the cord. Rudy jumped in and they sped toward civilization.
At full throttle it was still a 15 minute ride. Rudy’s attention was split between Jaime and Steve. Something was not right. He cautiously ventured a question, “Steve who else was in that plane?” He was fully aware that Jaime could not have been alone piloting the aircraft.
Steve felt a kick in his gut. The grief and guilt braided together and rose up to constrict his throat. When Jaime began to stir, taking Rudy’s full attention Steve was relieved the question would go unanswered.
The boat slid unceremoniously onto the ramp. Both men jumped out simultaneously. Rudy went to find the owner of the Outfitter Store that rented them the boat. Steve carefully carried his friend into the building. The owner, having been apprised of the urgent situation, pointed Steve to a back room with a cot.
Meanwhile Rudy called for an ambulance. The closest air force base was approximately 20 minutes away. It was the same one he and Steve flew into to begin their ‘relaxing’ trip. With Jaime’s vital signs stable the doctor felt they could wait for the ambulance.
Rudy met Steve at Jaime’s bedside and checked her once more. Steve let out a heavy sigh as Rudy assured him her vital signs were strong and there was no obvious signs of internal bleeding. She stirred and Rudy tried to communicate with her. Steve slipped outside, suddenly needing air.
He aimlessly paced the sidewalk between the parking lot and the store. He still couldn’t digest the life-altering events of the last 2 hours. He suddenly realized how grief-stricken his mother would be. ‘And it’s my fault he’s dead. How am I ever going to look her in the eye again knowing I let him die?’ He leaned heavily on a wooden light pole and exhaled deeply hoping to control this demon that had crawled inside him. He felt a fog of culpability surround him. His mind repeated the questions, ‘Why? Why? What are the odds that I would be there at that moment? Would someone else have made the same decision? If two rescuers were there, would both have survived?’ He shook his head trying unsuccessfully to clear it.
Jaime moaned as her head began to pound with each heartbeat. She blinked heavily and tried to identify the familiar voice calling her name, “Jaime?”
“No Jaime, its Rudy.”
“Rudy what are you doing …. What am I doing here?” She asked as her eyes roamed the store room full of hiking and fishing gear.
“You were in a plane crash.”
She stared intently at the ceiling remembering the flight, the conversation, and the trees! “Oh God…Where’s Jim?”
“Steve’s dad. He was flying me to Washington! Where is he?”
Rudy sat back in the chair as her words assaulted him. ‘Steve….that explains why he was so quiet.’
“Jaime, I’m sorry but I think Jim was killed in the crash. Steve was on the mountain when the crash occurred. We were camping near the base. He only brought you down. I’m afraid he never mentioned his father being injured.
Jaime was fighting both the tears and the darkness that were clawing at her. She felt she needed to comfort Steve. The doctor watched her concede the fight and as she closed her eyes the unshed tears were forced to exit. He knew it would be awhile for them both to come to terms with this experience. His thoughts were interrupted by the shop owner’s voice bellowing for him from outside. “Doctor, come quick!”
Rudy jumped at the urgency in the voice. When he ran to the doorway he saw Steve lying motionless, face up on the sun-warmed sidewalk. ‘So he does have a concussion,’ he thought as he bent over his friend. Seeing the darkened front of his jacket he though it strange that Steve’s windbreaker was still wet from the boat ride. He quickly unzipped it and was shocked to find Steve’s light blue shirt soaked with blood. “What the hell…?” He tore open the shirt to find the source of the incessant flow of crimson liquid. He ordered the store owner to retrieve any bandages or clean towels he could find. He needed to stem the blood loss. Touching Steve’s neck he felt a faint carotid pulse but Steve’s ashen color concerned him greatly. Rudy figured Steve, in his state of shock over the past few hours, probably didn’t even realize he was injured. He certainly gave no outward signs of being in pain. The experienced doctor had known of accident victims walking miles on broken legs not even aware of the pain because of the physical and emotional shock they were in.
Steve was floating in the darkness. It had a calming affect on his churning emotions. He didn’t want to fight. Even though fate had presented him with a no-win situation he knew he couldn’t live with the decision he had made. Even if his decision was different he would still be in this position. ‘Just let me go please.’ He could feel hands on his face and torso. ‘Just let me die please.’ He didn’t understand why the unknown hands wouldn’t stop their caring treatment at his feeble request. The sharp pain in his left side as pressure was applied was nothing compared to the pain eating away at his heart. ‘Dad, I’m so sorry.’ In his semi-conscious state Steve did not know Rudy had heard his outspoken thoughts.
Rudy heard and understood Steve’s weak ramblings but was at a loss as to the reason he wanted to die. He hoped it was just shock making him delirious since there was no reason for Steve to feel responsible for his father being killed when the plane impacted the earth. The doctor was too preoccupied to entertain other possible scenarios that could have occurred on the mountain.
When the ambulance arrived Jaime was able to walk to it assisted by a paramedic. The dizziness and nausea were barely tolerable but she was more lucid than before. The unexpected sight of Steve’s bloody body brought her surroundings quickly into focus. After the gurney was secured to the ambulance floor she sat next to it on the bench. The doctor tended to Steve while the young dark-haired paramedic kept an eye on Jaime. Rudy applied a pressure bandage on top of the already blood soaked towel. With an IV started in his neck Rudy moved to get the low blood pressure reading he expected. Steve was taking in pure oxygen through the mask in shallow pants. The patient continued to mumble but more incoherently.
At the hospital Jaime was listed in satisfactory condition and was being held overnight for observation. Before taking Steve into surgery Rudy left strict instructions for Oscar Goldman to be notified immediately of their situation.
Steve’s injuries required over 100 sutures to close the deep cut. Rudy had to not only close the cutaneous tissue but also his abdominal and intercostals muscle tissues. Thankfully his spleen was removed after his plane crash or else he would have bled to death within an hour.
Steve continued on his journey through nothingness. He didn’t want to deal with his father’s death at his hands. Nor did he want to face his mother’s reaction. He knew he would never be able to live with his actions. The realization of his limited options at the time would not lessen his despair over the outcome. He just wanted to stay in the darkness where he could be alone.
Rudy went to Jaime’s room to give his post-op report to her and Oscar. Although Steve sustained a serious injury and significant blood loss he was expected to recover. Their conversation was interrupted by the overhead page, “Dr. Wells to Recovery room 5 stat. Dr. Wells to Recovery room 5 stat.” Oscar followed Rudy in his hasty exit as Jaime laid her head back and prayed.
At Steve’s bedside there was a distinct air of tension. Two nurses hovered over the unconscious man. They explained the urgent page with a dismal report of the sharp decline in Steve’s vital sign. They stepped away so the doctor could assess the situation.
Rudy checked him quickly and Oscar inquired about the unexpected turn of events, “What’s going on?”
“This happened twice in the operating room. It’s like he’s fighting us. He’s giving up and I don’t know why.”
“But you said he would recover.”
“I know. I know but...” Rudy was confused.
Rudy shared some of the things Steve was saying when he was semi-conscious. Both Oscar and Rudy agreed none of it made sense.
Steve began to wake up and his friends listened closely, “Please just let me go….Dad, I’m so sorry….my fault……Oh God, mom I tried………Didn’t have enough time…..my fault.” Oscar shook his head while Rudy tried to bring Steve back to reality.
“Steve…Steve wake up.” He gently shook him noting he was sweating and breathing rapidly.
Steve slowly opened his eyes, saw Rudy’s face and immediately closed them not wanting to be there and resisting any escort into reality.
“Steve come on…it’s time to wake up!” Again he shook his friend.
Steve used his right hand to rub his face and realized he was sweating. Rudy looked at him with concern wondering what was going through his head. “Steve?”
“Yeah…What time is it?”
“About 6:30 am. The sun is coming up. Are you going fishing with me today or not?”
Steve sat up quickly, almost knocking Rudy’s coffee cup out of his hands. He breathed deep and looked around trying to orient himself.
“Steve, what’s wrong?” Rudy thought Steve was looking a little pale.
“Ah….nothing. I must have had a nightmare.”
“I thought I heard you mumbling but couldn’t make any sense out of it.” He sat back against a tree. “Wanna talk about it?”
“NO!” His answer was more forceful than he intended. He sighed heavily unable to get the fear and dread to leave his body. His heart continued to race. Rudy continued to look at him through with a furled brow.
Rudy asked again, “So are you going fishing or are you going to climb that mountain you were eyeing all day yesterday?”
“No! I’m not going anywhere near that mountain, today or any day.” He stood, rolled up his sleeping bag and grabbed a cup of coffee, his stomach still twisting from the horrible images still floating in his head. Rudy eyed him intently, suspicious of his agitated state.
“Are you sure you don’t want to talk?”
“Yeah I’m sure.” He calmed himself by concentrating on finishing his coffee. They grabbed their fishing gear and headed toward the river. As they walked Steve made an unexpected comment, “You know maybe I’ll take my dad fishing next week. I really should spend more time with him.” Steve gave Rudy a friendly smile which the doctor returned.