Cold Fire Page 22


He was appalled to hear that Holly had reentered any part of the smouldering wreckage. The cockpit and forward section rested in the Iowa field like a monolith in an alien graveyard on a faraway world, wildly out of place here, and therefore infinitely strange, huge and looming, thoroughly ominous.


He ran toward it, calling Holly's name.


Though she knew it was the very plane in which she had departed Los Angeles a few hours ago, Holly could barely believe that the forward section of the DC-10 had actually once been part of a whole and functioning aircraft. It seemed more like a deeply disturbed sculptor's interpretation of a DC-10, welded together from parts of real airliners but also from junk of every description, from pie pans and cake tins and garbage cans and old lengths of pipe, from auto fenders and scrap wire and aluminum siding and pieces of a wrought-iron fence.


Rivets had popped; glass had dissolved; seats had torn loose and piled up like broken and unwanted armchairs in the corner of an auction barn; metal had bent and twisted, and in places it had shattered as completely as crystal met by a hammer Interior fuselage panels had peeled back, and heavy structural beams had burst inward. The floor had erupted upward in places, either from this impact or from an explosion below.


Everywhere jagged, gnarled metal objects bristled in profusion, and it looked like nothing so much as a junkyard for old machines just after a tornado had passed through.


Trying to track down what sounded like the cries of a frightened child, Holly could not always proceed erect. She had to crouch and squirm through pinched spaces, pushing things aside when she could, going over or around or under whenever an obstacle proved to be immovable. The neat rows and aisles of the plane had been pulled and hammered into a maze.


She was shaken when she spotted yellow and red flickers of flame along the perimeter of the deck and in the starboard front corner by the bulkhead that separated the passenger cabin from the cockpit. But the fire was fitful, unlike the blistering conflagration that she had fled moments ago. It might abruptly flare up, of course, consuming everything in its path, although currently it seemed unable to find sufficiently combustible material or oxygen to do more than barely sustain itself Smoke curled around her in sinuous tendrils, but it was more annoying than threatening. Breathable air was in good supply, and she didn't even cough much.


More than anything, the corpses were what unnerved her. Though the crash apparently had been somewhat less severe than it would have been without Jim Ironheart's intervention, not everyone had survived, and a number of fatalities had occurred in the first-class section. She saw a man pinned to his seat by a foot-long, inch-diameter steel tube that had pierced his throat; his sightless eyes were wide open in a final expression of surprise. A woman, nearly decapitated, was on her side, still belted into her seat, which had torn free of the deck plates to which it had been bolted.


Where other seats had broken free and slammed together, she saw injured passengers and cadavers heaped on one another, and the only way to tell the quick from the dead was to listen closely to determine which of them was groaning.


She blanked out the horror. She was aware of the blood, but she looked through it rather than at it. She averted her eyes from the most grievous wounds, refused to dwell on the nightmare images of the shattered passengers whom she kept confronting. Human bodies became abstract forms to her, as if they were not real but only blocks of shape and color put down on canvas by a cubist imitating Picasso. If she allowed herself to think about what she was seeing, she would either have to retrace the route she had taken and get out, or curl into a fetal ball and weep.


She encountered a dozen people who needed to be extracted from the wreckage and given immediate medical treatment, but they were all either too large or too tightly wedged in the rubble for her to be of any assistance.


Besides, she was drawn forward by the haunting cries of the child, driven by that instinctive understanding that children were always to be saved first: one of the major clauses of nature's genetically programmed triage policy.


Sirens rose in the distance. She had never paused to think that professional rescuers would be on their way. It didn't matter. She couldn't O back and wait for them to handle this. What if reaching the child a minute or two sooner made all the difference between death and survival? As Holly inched forward, now and then glimpsing anemic but worrisome flames through gaps in the web of destruction, she heard Jim Ironheart behind her, calling her name at the opening where the fore part of the plane had been amputated from the rest of it. In the chaos falling from the mid-section of the DC-10, they had apparently emerged from the smoke at different places, heading in opposite directions, for she had not been able to find him even though he should have been right behind her.


She had been pretty sure that he and Casey had survived, only because he obviously had a talent for survival; but it was good to hear his voice.


"In here!" she shouted, although the tangle of devastation prevented from seeing him.


"What're you doing?" "Looking for a little boy," she called back. "I hear him, I'm getting closer, but I can't see him yet.”


"Get out of there!" he shouted above the increasingly loud wail of approaching emergency vehicles. "Paramedics are on the way, they' trained for this.”


"Come on," she said, pushing forward. "There're other people in here who need help now!" Holly was nearing the front of the first-class section, where the steel of the fuselage had broken inward but not in such profusion as in the area behind her. Detached seats, carry-on luggage, and other detritus had flown forward on impact, however, piling up deeper there than anywhere More people had wound up in that pile, too, both dead and alive.


When she shoved a broken and empty seat out of her way and paused to get her breath, she heard Jim clawing into the wreckage behind her.


Lying on her side, she squirmed through a narrow passage and into a pocket of open space, coming face to face with the boy whose cries she had been following. He was about five years old, with enormous dark eyes.


He blinked at her in amazement and swallowed a sob, as if he had never really expected anyone to reach him.


He was under an inverted bank of five seats, in a peaked space formed by the seats themselves, as if in a tent. He was lying on his belly, looking out, and it seemed as if he ought to be able to slither into the open easy enough.


"Something's got my foot," he said. He was still afraid, but manageably so. He had cast off the greater part of his terror the moment he had seen her. Whether you were five years old or fifty, the worst thing always was being alone. "Got my foot, won't let go.”


Coughing, she said, "I'll get you out, honey. You'll be okay.”


Holly looked up and saw another row of seats piled atop the lower bank.


Both were wedged in by a mass of twisted steel pressing down from the caved-in ceiling, and she wondered if the forward section had rolled once before coming to rest right-side up.


With her fingertips she wiped the tears off his cheeks. "What's your name, honey?" "Norwood. Kids call me Norby. It don't hurt. My foot, I mean.”


She was glad to hear that.


But then, as she studied the wreckage around him and tried to figure out what to do, he said, "I can't feel it.”


"Feel what, Norby?" "My foot. It's funny, like something's holding it, 'cause I can't get loose, but then I can't feel my foot-you know?-like it maybe isn't there.”


Her stomach twisted at the image his words conjured in her mind.


Maybe it wasn't that bad. Maybe his foot was only pinched between two surfaces, just numb, but she had to think fast and move fast because he might be losing blood at an alarming rate.


The space in which he lay was too cramped for her to squeeze in past him, find his foot, and disentangle it. Instead, she rolled onto her back, bent her legs, and braced the soles of her shoes against the seats that peaked over him.


"Okay, honey, I'm going to straighten my legs, try to shove this up a little, just a couple inches. When it starts lifting, try to pull your foot out of there.”


As a snake of thin gray smoke slipped from the dark space behind Norby and coiled in front of his face, he wheezed and said, "There's d-ddead people in here with me.”


"That's okay, baby," she said, tensing her legs, flexing them a little to test the weight she was trying to lever off him. "You won't be there for long, not for long.”


"My seat, then an empty seat, then dead people," Norby said shakily.


She wondered how long the trauma of this experience would shape his nightmares and bend the course of his life.


"Here goes," she said.


She pressed upward with both feet. The pile of seats and junk and bodies was heavy enough, but the half collapsed section of the ceiling, pushing down on everything else, did not seem to have any give in it.


Holly strained harder until the steel deck, covered with only a thin carpet, pressed painfully into her back. She let out an involuntary sob of agony.


Then she strained even harder, harder, angry that she could not move it, furious and -it moved.


Only a fraction of an inch.


But it moved.


Holly put even more into it, found reserves she did not know she possessed, forced her feet upward until the pain throbbing in her legs was markedly worse than that in her back. The intruding tangle of ceiling plates and struts creaked and bent back an inch, two inches; the seats shoved up just that far.


"It's still got me," the boy said.


More smoke was oozing out of the lightless space around him. It wes not pale-gray but darker than before, sootier, oilier, and with a new foul stench. She hoped to God the desultory flames had not, at last, ignited the upholstery and foam padding that formed the cocoon from which the boy was struggling to emerge.


The muscles in her legs were quivering. The pain in her back had seeped all the way through to her chest; each heartbeat was an aching thud, each inhalation was a torment.


She did not think she could hold the weight any longer, let alone lift it higher. But abruptly it jolted up another inch, then slightly more.


Norby issued a cry of pain and excitement. He wriggled forward. "I got away, it let go of me.”


Relaxing her legs and easing the load back into place, Holly realized that the boy had thought what she, too, might have thought if she'd been a five-year-old in that hellish position: that his ankle had been clenched in the cold and iron-strong hand of one of the dead people in there with him She slid aside, giving Norby room to pull himself out of the hollow under the seats. He joined her in the pocket of empty space amidst the rubble and snuggled against her for comforting.


From farther back in the plane, Jim shouted: "Holly!" "I found him!" "I've got a woman here, I'm getting her out.”


"Great!" she shouted.


Outside, the pitch of the sirens spiraled lower and finally down into silence as the rescue teams arrived.


Although more blackish smoke was drifting out of the dark space from which Norby had escaped, Holly took the time to examine his foot.


It flopped to one side, sickeningly loose, like the foot of an old rag doll. It was broken at the ankle. She tore his sneaker off his rapidly swelling foot.


Blood darkened his white sock, but when she looked at the flesh beneath, she discovered that it was only abraded and scored by a few shallow cuts.


He was not going to bleed to death, but soon he was going to become aware of the excruciating pain of the broken ankle.


"Let's go, let's get out," she said.


She intended to take him back the way she had come, but when she glanced to her left, she saw another crack in the fuselage. This one was immediately aft of the cockpit bulkhead, only a few feet away. It extended up the entire curve of the wall but did not continue onto the ceiling. A section of interior paneling, the insulation beneath it, structural beamwork, and exterior plating had either blown inward among the other debris or been wrenched out into the field. The resultant hole was not large, but it was plenty big enough for her to squeeze through with the boy.


As they balanced on the rim of the ravaged hull, a rescue worker appeared in the plowed field about twelve feet below them. He held his arms out for the boy.


Norby jumped. The man caught him, moved back.


Holly jumped, landed on her feet.


"You his mother?" the man asked.


"No. I just heard him crying, went in after him. He's got a broken ankle there.”


"I was with my Uncle Frank," Norby said.


"Okay," the rescue worker said, trying to strike a cheerful note, "then let's find Uncle Frank.”


Norby said flatly, "Uncle Frank's dead.”


The man looked at Holly, as if she might know what to say.


Holly was mute and shaken, filled with despair that a boy of five should have to experience such an ordeal. She wanted to hold him, rock him in her arms, and tell him that everything would be right with the world.


But nothing is right with the world, she thought, because Death is part of it. Adam disobeyed and ate the apple, gobbled up the fruit of knowledge, so God decided to let him know all sorts of things, both light and dark. Adam's children learned to hunt, to farm, to thwart the winter and cook their food with fire, make tools, build shelters. And God, wanting to give them a well-rounded education, let them learn, oh, maybe a million ways to suffer and die. He encouraged them to learn language, reading and writing, biology, chemistry, physics, the secrets of the genetic code. And He taught them the exquisite horrors of brain tumors, muscular dystrophy, bubonic plague, cancer run amok in their bodies-and not least of all airplane crashes. You wanted knowledge, God was happy to oblige, He was an enthusiastic teacher, a demon for knowledge, piling it on in such weight and exotic detail that sometimes you felt you were going to be crushed under it.


By the time the rescue worker turned away and carried Norby across the field toward a white ambulance parked on the edge of the runway, Holly had gone from despair to anger. It was a useless rage, for there was no one but God against whom she could direct it, and the expression of it could change nothing. God would not free the human race from the curse of death just because Holly Thorne thought it was a gross injustice.


She realized that she was in the grip of a fury not unlike that which seemed to motivate Jim Ironheart. She remembered what he had said during their whispered conversation in row seventeen, when she had tried to bully him into saving not just the Dubroveks but everyone aboard Flight 246: "I hate death, people dying I hate it!" Some of the people he saved had quoted him making similar remarks, and Holly remembered what Viola Moreno had said about the deep and quiet sadness in him that perhaps grew out of being an orphan at the age of ten. He quit teaching, walked away from his career, because Larry Kakonis's suicide had made all his effort and concern seem pointless. That reaction at first appeared extreme to Holly, but now she understood it perfectly.

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