Heart Will Go On
Disclaimer: This story is copyright to the author 2009. Thanks as ever to Steph and all at the Academy for the invitation to participate in the Valentine’s Challenge.
This is a work of fiction, not fact, and research isn’t my strong point – never let reality get in the way of a story that’s what I say and so should you if you read this. And if you’re a bit squeamish, I warn you now – prepare to be squeamed.
“I think the leg might have to come off. But I can’t do it with plastic cutlery.”
I stared at Joe helplessly as he stared at Daniel, even more helplessly. I tried to avoid Daniel’s fear-filled eyes, but they kept sucking me in, their panic mirroring my own.
“Are you sure the leg’ll need to go?” Joe, his stubbly head practically butting into my face, barked the question and started to look around desperately. “There’s got to be something in all this crap we can use…” He started scattering pieces of twisted metal around.
Daniel, prostrate on the ground, yelled out in pain and fear. “You can’t take my leg off!”
“Don’t worry.” I tried to reassure the frantic young man, even as I lied. “It probably won’t be necessary. Joe – see if you can find any drinks. Whisky, brandy – anything like that.”
“Good idea. I could use a drink.”
“Not for you!” I joined Joe at the mangled fuselage. “For Dan. It’ll help to knock him out. I’ve done what I can with his leg, but if we don’t get out of here soon…”
Joe paused from his rummaging amongst the rubble to sweep a hand across his moist brow. “I can’t believe this has happened to us.”
He wasn’t the only one. Five hours ago, I’d been strapped into my seat, savouring a quiet gin and tonic whilst cruising at an altitude of 20,000 feet. The details were a bit fuzzy, but I remembered I’d been escorting an extremely precious cargo to Perth. I’d peered out of the window as long as I could, watching my beloved Melbourne suburbs disappear until they were merely a shadow underneath a blanket of clouds. I remember feeling quite pleased the clouds would hide the unrelenting Nullarbor that would lie beneath them for much of the journey. I’d ridden across the vast expanse of desert before, by rail, and I remembered the bleak timelessness of the landscape, brutal and desolate. I vaguely remembered being glad that it was hidden from my sight; something about the bleakness made me feel hopeless and very unhappy, but I couldn’t quite figure out why now. I did remember leafing through the onboard magazine, when the pilot had interrupted my musings with his announcement of turbulence, then a small technical hitch. Next thing I knew, we’d been bracing for impact.
The pilot and co-pilot were both dead, we assumed; God knows for sure as the nose of the plane had sheared off and the cockpit was nowhere to be seen. The rest of the plane had continued, carving a path across the desert scrub. Not that I could remember much; luckily, amnesia had struck and the last thing I recalled was the feel of gin and tonic soaking into my lap as pandemonium broke out all around me. I vaguely recollected the sound of screaming filling the cramped space of the cabin; my own screams and everyone else’s.
I’d woken, dazed and bleeding, and it had taken me several long moments to remember firstly who I was. Trying to figure out what I was doing sprawled on the earth, covered in dirt and with a blinding headache, had taken longer.
I’d staggered to my feet, then promptly vomited into a clump of Sturt’s Desert Pea, ending up on my knees amidst the beautiful purple petals and gasping for air whilst trying to control my stomach’s violent heaving. I nearly ended up back on the floor again when I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Joe, another passenger who I vaguely recalled from the plane, although I didn’t know his name at this stage.
“Are you okay? Are you hurt anywhere?” His voice was gruff, but through my shocked haze I could hear the genuine concern in his tone. I shook my head and tried to rise on wobbly legs. He placed a hand under my elbow, and gently helped me to my feet. My left thigh flashed pain as I tried to place weight on it, and I collapsed on it. A quick glance revealed blood soaking heavily through my trouser leg.
Blinking, I stared around. “We… what happened?”
He didn’t bother to answer that and I couldn’t really blame him – it was pretty obvious what had happened. Instead, he gestured towards my forehead. “You’re bleeding.” I raised a shaking hand, and felt blood thick on my fingertips.
Somewhat sheepishly, he patted the pockets of his jacket, one sleeve of which was torn from the body and hanging off. “I don’t… I’m not the kind of guy who carries a handkerchief,” he explained with a wry smile.
Still staring at the blood, I just shrugged. “I’ll live. Probably just a mild case of concussion.” He was sporting a black eye himself, and a profusion of scratches and bruises but no serious injuries by the look of him. “Are you okay?”
“Better than some.”
Pieces of fragmented memory started to piece themselves together in my mind’s eye, forming a horrifying jigsaw. Quite a few pieces were still missing; one blank in particular seemed to nag its importance whilst remaining in the shadows. I blinked again, not quite believing what had happened; not quite believing I was actually alive.
“How many of us are there?”
“Twelve that we know of, including you. We’re still looking for survivors. Some people were flung out of the cabin when we came to a stop. You seem to be the farthest away – well, and still alive,” he finished awkwardly.
Twelve? The small plane had capacity for about thirty, not counting the crew, but it had been nowhere near full, thank God. I raised a hand and he helped me climb cautiously to my feet again. “What about those that didn’t make it?”
“So far, we’ve found four bodies and we’re burying them as best we can. Keep them safe from the dingoes. C’mon – no, not that way - this way.” He steered me slowly towards a gap in the mallee scrub, a gaping wound carved by the careening fuselage. Hesitantly, we introduced ourselves en route.
The scene was devastating. The rear of the plane had remained largely intact, but the wings and onward had shattered and scattered all over the area. Huge, twisted shards of debris lay all over the place, some lodged in the branches of a few nearby red gum trees. Ripped and mangled seats and fittings were dotted all over the landscape and the cargo we’d been carrying had disgorged from the hold, judging by the number of broken containers which had dumped their contents everywhere. People were wandering around, picking over the wreckage, calling to each other, comforting each other.
I held my palm against my throbbing head, and just wanted to lie down. The boxes reminded me of something, but the exact image remained hazy in my head. I knew I was missing something significant, though. I felt its importance as though it were a piece missing from my own heart. “Where are my things?” I wondered, somewhat groggily. “I had something …”
“Everyone’s stuff’s scattered all over the place. I doubt you’ll find it now,” said Joe. He waved over towards a couple of the nearest people. “Hey – can one of you guys come help me here? I think this lady’s hurt.”
“I think I have to find it…” A tantalising image of long, auburn hair and a quick-flashing smile swept across my minds-eye, but was gone again in an instant. “I’m missing something…”
“Are you okay, honey?” enquired a stewardess, still wearing traces of her heavy make-up but with freshly applied bruises and blood smears. She moved over to join us. “You look a little woozy. Do you need to lie down?” She must’ve noticed the stain on my trousers, as her eyes grew more concerned. “Maybe we should take a look at your leg, it looks pretty bad.” She reached out towards my thigh, but I pulled away sharply – the wound had opened as I’d limped back, and I could feel the blood trickling down my leg.
“Don’t let me sleep,” I advised. “I have a mild concussion. And I probably need stitches in my leg, but unless you’ve found the first aid kit, there’s not much I can do. The femoral artery wasn’t hit, so I won’t bleed to death.”
“Jeez, honey. Are you a nurse?” I shook my head, and she looked crestfallen. “Pity, ‘cos we sure could use one right now.”
“I’m a doctor. A surgeon, actually.”
Relief splashed suddenly across her face. “That’s the one good piece of news we’ve had today.”
The stewardess, Donna, had half-led, half-carried me over to the group of injured passengers. I’d done the best I could with the cuts, sprains and broken bones, although to be honest there was only so much a person could do with a handful of aspirins and a few band-aids – the combined medical supplies of the assembled surviving passengers. I’d fashioned some rough splints from sticks and twigs, and strapped up a few arms, fingers and wrists.
Dan was far less straightforward. His femur had not so much broken, as splintered. Shards of bone gleamed white amidst the bloodied flesh of his leg, and he whimpered in pain even though unconscious.
“We really need that first aid kit,” I whispered to Joe.
“I’ll get a couple of the others looking for it, but for all we know, it went with the front half of the plane. Isn’t there anything you can do, Doc?” He rubbed eyes that were ringed with exhausted circles.
“I’ll clean it up as best I can, and do what I can with a splint. See if you can find us a clean t-shirt from someone’s luggage – I’ll need it to clean and bandage up his leg. He’s not bleeding too heavily, but I’m worried about infection setting in.”
“Okay.” Joe rose to his feet. “But maybe we won’t be here long enough for that to happen. I’m hoping we’ll get spotted soon.”
“Let’s hope so.” I sat back, propping my own leg out. It was still bleeding quite heavily, but I hadn’t had time to attend to myself. Gingerly, I teased aside the torn flaps of material and revealed the wound – a jagged gash that ran across my thigh. It was deep and needed stitches, but I didn’t even have any band-aids left. I shrugged, almost wistfully, took off my shirt, ripped a sleeve off and tied it around the injury as tightly as I could. The sun was scorching, and not even at its full midday power, and even in those few short moments I could feel the bare skin of my arms starting to prickle with the heat. I pulled the ruined shirt back on over my sleeveless vest top and wished I had something warmer to wear – I’d need it if should we need to spend the night out in the desert.
A memory tugged at the fringes of my subconscious. A navy blue fleece, stuffed into a small travelling case. Mine? But of course, I had to have had luggage. And if I couldn’t find mine, then someone else’s would do. There were scattered remnants of suitcases lying around the place, and the other passengers had been gathering the remains together to see what they could use.
Luggage. A case. A holdall? The memory still teased me.
Joe returned with a clean, white t-shirt that had been found in a busted suitcase. He ripped it up into strips, and I went to work cleaning Dan’s wounds and dressing them as best I could. Halfway through, Dan started screaming and bucking against me as he started to come back to consciousness. Joe put him out cold again with a swift right hook.
“For his own good,” he muttered apologetically whilst rubbing his knuckles. No doubt he’d picked up another load of bruises to go with his others, which were starting to colour up nicely. His face looked like a surreal painting in purples, blacks and dark blues.
“This is probably a pretty dumb question, but has anyone tried to phone out?” I tied the last knot into Dan’s makeshift bandages, and held up an arm to Joe. “Help me up would you, please Joe?”
“No signal on the mobiles, wouldn’t you bloody know it? Doc, shouldn’t you be attending to yourself? Or at least resting. You look bloody awful. And we can’t afford for you to get ill on us.”
Flashback. “You work way too hard, Ronnie. Don’t you go getting ill on me; you’re supposed to be the doctor, remember.” The voice sounded so familiar, and the tidal wave of emotions it brought up swept over me. My breath caught, and my hand flew to my mouth.
Joe thrust out both arms to catch me, obviously fearing I was going to faint. He thrust a half-empty bottle of Evian water into my hand and I accepted it gratefully, not having realised until then how thirsty I was. I drank a few mouthfuls, aware that it was one of the few precious bottles we’d been able to salvage.
“Thanks.” Exhaustion washed over me, and I dropped back onto the floor again. “I suppose you’re right. After all, we’re not going anywhere, are we?” My eyelids lay heavy with weariness, but I fought to keep them open. I took a few more sips from the bottle, and suddenly my eyes flew open. “Oh my God - the container! I must find the container!”
“Anything that was intact was brought back to the cabin. Might be there.” He helped me to my feet, and I leant heavily on him as I limped my way over to the mangled plane cabin, gritting my teeth against the pain the whole time. Desperately, I sorted through the meagre pile of passenger belongings that had been salvaged, but knew immediately that what I was searching for wasn’t there.
“Never mind, honey,” soothed Donna. “If it’s clothes you need, just grab something from the pile over there. I don’t think anyone will mind – we’re all having to muck in
“I need to find my container. Joe, will you take me back to where you found me?”
“Doc, no offence but you’re in no shape to go hauling back there.”
I heard my voice snap with desperation. “Show me where you found me, Joe! I have to get back there – I had my case with me, it might’ve fallen out nearby. I can’t leave it. I have to find it!”
He started to refuse again, and I think I might’ve lost it a bit. I must’ve been really distressed because, grudgingly and obviously against his better judgment, he agreed to accompany me back to the place where he’d found me. I re-secured the makeshift bandage about my thigh and, leaning heavily on his arm, we set off on our agonisingly slow and in my case, extremely painful, progress through the scrub.
“Doc, if we’re on a wild goose chase to recover your Max Factor, I’ll be well annoyed.”
I gave him a small, wry smile. “I think I’ve seen the last of my make-up. And dressing for dinner isn’t exactly high on my list of priorities.”
Joe chuckled as he followed the scarred path of our earlier crash trajectory. “So what’s so important that we’re traipsing all this way? If rescue comes and we’re not there…”
“The others will wait for us. You have no idea how important this article is. It really is life or death.”
“So tell me, Doc. I have plenty of time to listen.”
I hesitated. I wasn’t even sure that what I was remembering was even true; for all I knew, concussion had wreaked havoc on my recollections. Maybe I was seeing fantasy as reality? “It’s a transplant organ.”
“What?” Joe stopped dead in his tracks and stared at me incredulously.
“I was delivering an organ for human transplant. It’s in a sealed bio-container. A patient is waiting to receive it in Perth. I can’t leave it behind, if there’s a chance we’ll be rescued. I could never forgive myself.”
Joe was silent for long minutes. “Well, I didn’t think anything else could shock or surprise me today but you’ve done it, Doc. Amazing.” I shot him a rueful, shy grin.
We continued in companionable silence for a while until he caught my grimaces and made me sit down. “Your organ isn’t going anywhere, Doc. A few more moments won’t matter. If we find it at all.”
I sank to the floor gratefully. “I know we might not find it.” My stomach lurched at the thought. “And I guess we have bigger worries. What are we going to do if we’re not rescued? It’ll be freezing tonight once the sun goes down.”
He nodded, the motion abrupt and decisive. “I know. I prefer to think that we’ll be found quickly.”
“I hope so.” I rose to my feet and we set off on our way again. “Someone’s got to have been tracking our progress. Air traffic control. There had to have been a flight plan lodged.”
“Yeah, but I think we veered off course when they realised we were in difficulties. It’s possible Air Traffic Control lost us. I haven’t said that to the others – I didn’t want to worry them. It was close to here I found you. Keep your eyes open in case your container is around here someplace.”
“Okay, thanks.” I scanned the surrounding area eagerly whilst continuing our conversation. “How much food and water do we have back there?”
“We have water, and other drinks – Donna knew where they were stored. Food – we have peanuts and crackers, and a few airplane meals. But no way to cook them.”
“Can we find water or food around here?”
“It’s just scrub up at this altitude. So far, we haven’t found fresh water and none of us have any idea about bush tucker. We’re out of medical supplies. The group are talking about heading out. They don’t want to sit out the wait.”
“What?” I stopped, appalled. “Oh no, that’s the last thing they should do. If rescue comes, they’ll spot the plane, so it makes sense to stay near it. If we head off, we could end up anywhere and never be seen.”
“I agree with you, Doc. But they say if there’s no sign of rescue soon, then they’re taking the bulk of the supplies, and making their own way down.”
My mouth dropped open in aghast surprise. “But what about Dan? He can’t go anywhere!”
“I know, Doc. Hey, I think I found your case. Is this what you’re looking for?”
I was so overjoyed, I’d thrown my arms around him and kissed him. He’d done the gentlemanly thing and carried my container back for me whilst I’d staggered along slowly behind him, baking in the heat of the full sun.
When we made it back to the main group, I just wanted to find some shade and collapse. The only shade to be had, though, was in the mangled remains of the plane and under the twisted branches of the few eucalyptus trees. The others had cleared out much of the wreckage and had moved Dan into what remained of the cabin area, as the coolest place to be found. I stashed my precious cargo in the rear, and went to check on him. The others drew Joe into a huddle.
Dan was awake, but terrified and in tremendous pain. I tried to soothe him amidst the raised voices of the group outside. Soon, Joe broke off and approached us, pulling me aside by the elbow.
“They’re off – they’ve already packed a few rucksacks with most of our supplies.”
My hand flew to my mouth in horror. “But they can’t! Don’t they realise how much danger they’ll be putting themselves in?”
“They think they’ll stand a better chance of finding water and shade if they strike out. One of the damn fools is convinced he saw a dirt road a few miles from here as we came down, and he’s got all the others believing him. God knows if he did – everyone else had their eyes shut and screaming at the time. I know I was. Maybe they’ll be able to pick up mobile reception further out, who knows?”
“But what about him?” I gestured towards the prostrate young man, stretched out across a hastily cobbled bed of seat cushions. “They can’t be thinking of taking him, surely?”
He shot a look of disgust over at the others, who were busy picking up their rucksacks, frequently glancing our way as they did so. “No, even better. They’re going to leave him behind. They’re figuring that you’ll stay with him, what with being a doctor and having your own injury.”
I was almost speechless, save for the angry retorts that sprang to mind. “I suppose they figure we’re as good as dead already. It’s times like this that bring out the best in people.” I kept my responses dry instead, unwilling to indulge in the luxury of anger – I could do that later, if I was lucky enough to get out of here. I had learned over the last few days that anger served no purpose other than to distract, and to suck up emotion. “And I’d hate to slow you all down. Leave us more water, and go on your suicide mission.”
Joe shot me a brief, sour grin. “Oh, I’m not going, Doc. Suicide mission is right – I’m not wandering off in search of death in the bush. Besides, I reckon you could use my help more here. If you’re staying?”
I prodded my leg gingerly and shook my head. “They’d probably end up putting me down like a useless old dog if I slowed them down too much. Compassionate lot.”
“Survival instincts kick in, I suppose, Doc, and there’s no room for sentiment when you think your life’s on the line.” Unexpectedly, his serious face cracked into a huge grin, and he winked at me. “So it’s a good job I already stashed a few bottles of water and some chocolate bars in a secret hiding place. I always knew being a pessimist would come in handy.”
“How very optimistic of you.” I grinned back at him in return, and we then watched silently as the rest of the group started to slowly pick their way through the speargrass and out of our eyesight range.
Dan had drifted off into a restless and feverish doze again. I tucked torn blankets around him, then puffed into my own palms before rubbing them together, hoping for a bit of friction warmth.
Joe had dug a small trough in the desert sand, and between us we had collected twigs and branches from the nearby sparse bushes and laid a small pile of them into Joe’s small trench. He was now rummaging around in the debris, in hopes of finding a stray cigarette lighter or box of matches. We both feared we might have to try rubbing a couple of sticks together, and neither of us trusted our survival skills. Fire was crucial though, for safety as well as warmth, as the chilly evening air unmistakeably shifted to a freezing desert night.
I limped painfully over to join him in his quest. “Did they leave us any warm clothing?” I asked as I ferreted around the floor of the cabin. I moved in the direction he nodded in and examined the small pile of clothing that had been gathered and not deemed important enough to take – nothing heftier than a couple of thin, woollen jumpers and a couple of pairs of socks. I yanked an emerald green gents’ jumper over my head and rolled up the sleeves. I reserved a thick denim shirt for Joe, and grabbed the rest to lay over Daniel.
I checked on my package again, resisting the urge to open it and take a peek inside. It was a sealed unit, an experimental item whose new technology was designed to transport human organs for long distances, keeping them sterile and at the necessary temperature to safeguard the tissues until they reached the recipient. The system pumped an oxygen and nutrient rich fluid on continual cycle through the organ, thus helping to minimise tissue degradation whilst in transport. What I didn’t know, though, was how long it could function for, and I hoped I wouldn’t have to find out. The company who had designed and manufactured it estimated 24-32 hours. I reckoned we would be well on our way towards safety by tomorrow morning.
Joe came back with a look of triumph on his face and brandishing a cheap cigarette lighter. “Thank God someone cheated the security scanners.” With a flourish, he lit the small bundle of tinder and a tiny fire leapt into life. We cheered, ridiculously overjoyed by the achievement, then huddled around it, desperately soaking up its warmth.
He sat back on his heels and carefully placed one of our precious thin branches onto the fire. “Doesn’t look like we’ll be getting out of here tonight after all. They’ll have called off any search and rescue in the dark anyway. They’ll probably start again at daylight. I expect we’ll be found then.” We sat quietly for a while, watching as the tiny flames danced ardently around each other, teasing first and then consuming. Joe broke the hush with a sigh. “So given that you can’t take his leg off, what’s the prognosis, Doc?”
I eased my own damaged leg out, untied my makeshift bandage and briefly inspected the wound. It was still bleeding, but with more of a trickle than a stream now. I used a strip of t-shirt to make a clean pad, and retied my binding. Loss of blood and the effects of shock were starting to take their toll – I was feeling quite drowsy. I swept a forearm over my tired eyes. “Call me Ronnie, Joe. I don’t feel like much of a doctor right now.”
“It’s not your fault, Doc Ronnie.” He tried to pat my uninjured leg, the motion awkward and clumsy. “You’ve done a brilliant job so far with what you’ve got.”
I shot him a grateful look. “All I can do for Dan is try and keep the wound clean and hope infection doesn’t set in before we’re rescued. And if we have enough of those miniature bottles of alcohol, keep him too drunk to really know what’s going on. There’s not much I can do for the leg – he needs extensive surgery to rebuild the bone, pin it in place. And the muscle is pretty badly damaged too. He’s probably going to need a hell of a lot of physio. I wish there was more I could do.” I shrugged and fought back tears of helplessness and frustration.
“Mind you take care of your own injury, Ronnie.” With a sigh, he lay down on the ground, stretching his arms out behind him and using them to cushion his head. He gazed up at the ink-black sky as I stared out into the darkened mass of desert which stretched, seemingly endlessly, before us. “Can’t be having you getting sick on us too. Who else would I talk to, if Dan is too pissed?” He gave a small laugh, the soft sound echoing across the empty landscape. “Could be worse, Doc. We have a roaring log fire…” Joe gestured towards our puttering little blaze. “The stars are out and the Southern Cross is looking particularly fine tonight. It’s a regular little campfire cookout.”
He was right – the sky was clear, the Milky Way was smeared across the Heavens like spilt milk and the stars stood out like diamonds arranged on a black velvet background. I was used to seeing tiny pinpricks against light-polluted city skies, squinting up whilst Natalie patently tried to point out the constellations before we both gave up in frustration. Out here in the desert, they were clear and I could make out the Southern Cross easily. She would’ve been so pleased with me.
“It’s practically a date.” I chuckled in surprise as he blushed. “What’s for dinner?”
“Here…” He split a Violet Crumble bar in half, and handed me a piece. “Delicious! I am one damn fine cook!”
“My compliments to the chef,” I laughed as I licked the chocolate off my fingers, anxious for every last scrap of the foodstuff. “God, I wish we had another twenty of those. I’m really hungry.” We sat, musing and silent again for a while. “What do you do, back in the real world, Joe?”
“I run my own company – tax advice to the self employed and small businesses. I started off as a builder, fell foul of the tax man, figured I wasn’t the only one to have done that and worked it from there. Of no use at all in situations like this. I was on my way back home to Perth, visit my folks. Revisit happier times.” At my curious look, he merely shrugged. “Divorce. How come you ended up here?”
I motioned back towards the plane carriage. “Transporting the organ.” My heart twisted peculiarly, and I felt my lips do the same. “I’ll just go check on Dan.” I stumbled to my feet and hastily limped to the shattered cabin. I checked on my container case, resting my palm on it until my heartbeat steadied. I made sure the seals were still intact, and then went to see how Dan was doing. He was still asleep. I wiped my eyes before making my way back to Joe and the campfire.
He regarded me with curious eyes, yet made no comment. Instead, he handed me the bottle of water. “Okay, Doc?” he finally asked, a cautious note to the question. I nodded, and gave him a wavering smile in thanks. “Want to talk about it?”
I shook my head, knowing the words would choke me if I tried to say them. Silence stretched between us. “I lost my partner early this morning.” The words seemed to fly unbidden to my lips, forcing their way up my throat, ripping my insides out on their journey. “I loved her so much. She died.” I saw his eyebrows rise in shock and I wasn’t sure what had stunned him the most – the admission of death, or the admission of my sexuality. “Pneumonia. Complications…” I waved my hand, unable to really find the words. “She shouldn’t be dead. Not from that.”
Joe sat up sharply. “I’m so sorry.”
“I couldn’t save her. I couldn’t even treat her. I’m a surgeon, and she didn’t need a surgeon.” I felt my lower lip trembling, and bit down so hard I tasted blood. Joe leaned across, and put his hand gently on my arm. “All I could do was hold her hand, and watch her leave me.” I could feel the ghost of her hand in mine, my finger pressed against her pulse point to remind me that she was still alive, although so lifeless. Not like the Natalie I knew; a woman so vibrant, you could almost see the life coursing through her veins. My heart contracted again.
“Sometimes that’s all you can do.” Joe spoke soothingly, and yet failed to soothe.
“I felt… I feel so helpless.” The tears that had teetered on my lids slowly dropped onto my cheeks and nose. I dashed them away hurriedly. “So useless. I don’t know what I’m going to do without her.”
Joe nodded his understanding. “I know. I felt the same when my wife walked out on me. It’s not the same, of course it isn’t. But the shock … I wasn’t expecting it. Stupid, really – I should’ve known I couldn’t give her what she wanted. I’m just not that kind of guy. I wasn’t brought up to give flowers, or go on about love all the time.” He smiled wryly. “Wish I had been.”
“I bought Natalie flowers, when she was in hospital. But I don’t think she saw them. I wish I’d bought them a day earlier, when she might’ve known. She always liked roses. If I could go back…” I hung my head as I felt more fat drops start to slowly track down my face. I dashed them away hastily, then bit down hard on my lip, attempting through sheer will power to stop my tears. I would not grieve for Natalie; not yet.
We lapsed into silence again. The tiny fire sputtered and flickered, tenacious in its attempts to cling to life. Joe picked up a few splinters of branches and bark, and fed the insatiable blaze.
We slept fitfully, all of us, even though exhausted and probably still in shock. Joe and I ended up huddling in the remains of the cabin, trying to get out of the cold as much as we could but we still shivered our way through the night. Joe reserved one miniature bottle of whisky and we nipped at it when the cold got too much. The rest of the alcohol we saved for Dan, alternately pouring it down his throat or using it to bathe his leg. In between nips, I buried my face in Joe’s shoulder and tried to convince myself that it was Natalie’s.
Morning broke, the sun appearing over the horizon like a flaming orange. The chilled desert air began to gradually warm. Within hours, there was a sun haze in the distance and swarms of flies began to gather around the site, scenting the decaying flesh of the recently buried bodies and body parts. We quickly grew used to the sickly, sweet scent of decay which began to pervade the site.
Stiffly, and in my case painfully, we rose to greet the day and tried to shake off our exhaustion, hopeful that our tired eyes would soon spot the sight of planes, helicopters or maybe even a convoy of cars speeding to our rescue. Fatigue soon caught up with us, added to the boredom of staring out onto the same uninteresting terrain.
We took it in turn to doze through the day, alternating whilst the other kept watch for rescue and checked on Dan. Morning slowly stretched into afternoon, and my checking of my cargo grew increasingly frantic as the shadows lengthened and the evening drew in.
Dan’s fever had worsened, although the alcohol seemed to be dulling the pain. I could smell the scent of decay about his leg, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. I didn’t give much for his chances. The night would be bitterly cold again, and we had already worked our way through Joe’s limited supply of chocolate and bar snacks. We were hungry, and growing more so. All the bottled water had gone, but Joe had found the water reservoir tanks still intact in the small galley of the plane and had managed to pierce a hole into the metal casing. We probably had enough for another few days, if we were really careful with it. All our alcohol was gone, which meant that from now on, poor Dan had to spend his fevered, pain-filled hours sober.
“When it gets really bad, will you knock me out again, Joe?” The request was unorthodox, but totally understandable.
I had just returned yet again from checking my box. I lowered myself onto the ground, lay back and felt panic and fatigue grip me. “Why hasn’t anyone come?” I cried. “We can’t be that difficult to find. A smashed up plane in the middle of the bloody desert. It’s not as though there’s a load of trees hiding us, is it? It’s like we’ve crashed into the Twilight Zone or something.”
“You don’t think they’ll have called off the search, do you?” asked Dan in a rare moment of lucid consciousness, his voice rimmed with pain.
“Surely they’d only do that if they thought there were no survivors. And I would’ve thought that they would want to examine the wreckage, anyway. Find out the cause of the crash. And recover the bodies.”
“Unless they’ve found the black box already,” offered Joe. “And the front part of the plane. Maybe that’s all they need.”
I threw my arm over my eyes, trying to shield them from the last rays of the setting sun. “If that’s the case, then they could just follow the trail of debris and find us too. So how come we’re still sitting here in the middle of nowhere?” I slapped my uninjured leg angrily. The panic that I’d been feeling all day was beginning to reach boiling point. “I can’t wait much longer!”
“I’m sure a rescue party will show up soon.” Joe tried to reassure us both, but I wasn’t in the mood for reassurance. I opened my mouth to snap back at him, but he gestured with his head towards Dan, who was staring at us both with exhausted, anxious eyes. “Don’t you think so, Doc?”
I forced a smile to my lips. “I’m sure you’re right, Joe.” The last thing Dan needed was more stress.
Dan eventually fell back into unconsciousness. I limped awkwardly back towards the cabin, my leg aching and stiff, and grabbed Dan’s makeshift coverings before checking again on my container. It was becoming a compulsion. The metal exterior still felt cool to the touch, but I knew that didn’t necessarily mean it remained cold inside. It was running out of time, and so, by association, was I. I felt panic and helplessness rise in my chest, and for a moment I struggled to breathe. I planted my hands on the container, and forced myself to take slow, measured breaths.
“Keep working, damn you!” I pleaded to the refrigerated container. I could still hear the faint whirring of the pump from the interior, and hoped against hope that meant that the tissue inside was still intact. “Keep working, please!” I shook the box desperately, hoping that somehow my energy would transfer itself into the container and keep it functioning beyond its natural resources.
I took several moments to pull myself together before slowly hobbling my way back to the fire.
Joe was feeding twigs to the miniscule blaze. “Box still okay?” he asked casually. I didn’t answer. I lowered myself gingerly to the floor, careful not to bend my leg and re-open my slowly healing wound. “You know…” he began warily. “It’s great that you’re so concerned about the organ, very admirable. But do you think it can still be used for transplant?”
I almost jerked to my feet, the stabbing pain in my thigh being the only thing that stopped me. “Don’t you say that! Don’t you even think that! The heart is still alive, I know it is!”
“Okay…” Joe cast me an odd look before busying himself with feeding a couple of dried up eucalyptus leaves into the fire.
There was a strained silence. I broke it eventually. “Sorry, Joe. I shouldn’t have snapped at you. It’s just that, all there’s been over the last few days is death. I can’t face it any more.”
“Your transplant patient?” he queried. I merely shrugged an answer. “It’s okay, I understand. It must be hard for you, trying to deal with your grief and all of this.”
My grief? Funny – I hadn’t thought of grieving at all. The only feeling that seemed to pierce the numbness was a fervent desire to keep the heart beating. Somebody out there needed it and it was my job to deliver it safely. I could grieve after the job was done, if I wanted to.
Joe came and sat down next to me, and watched as I carefully stretched my injured leg out in front of me. I leaned back against the shattered exterior of the plane and sighed heavily, staring out at the empty landscape before us. “Not going to check on your leg?” enquired Joe. “It still looks pretty bad.”
I continued observing the reddened vista before me with lifeless eyes. “What’s the point? I have nothing new to dress it with.” I gently stroked around the edges of the gash. It was the only thing that seemed to ease the constant, painful throbbing.
“Don’t get disheartened, Ronnie. They’ll find us eventually.”
I switched my dulled eyes to his face. “You don’t really believe that, do you Joe?”
He looked surprised for an instant, before his face settled into a careworn expression. It was the first time I’d seen him show any other emotion save optimism. “Not really, no. I can’t believe they haven’t found us already. I didn’t want to say anything in front of Dan. The only explanation I can think of is that they’ve called off the search.”
My lightly massaging fingers stilled on my thigh. “Because they don’t think there are any survivors?”
He shot me a meaningful look. “Or because they think they’ve already picked up all the survivors?”
My hand flew to my mouth, and I could feel my eyes widening involuntarily in horror. “You don’t mean… you don’t think they’ve picked up the others, and they haven’t told them about us?”
He shrugged, the motion anything but casual. “I can’t help thinking that.”
“But why would they do that? What kind of people would do something like that? And anyway, they could check the passenger manifest and figure out that we were missing.”
“There are three other bodies buried out there, somewhere.” Joe pointed off to the left of the mangled remnants of the plane. “What’s to stop them saying there were six? Maybe there’s no hurry to recover bodies. They may have thought that Dan was dead, and you didn’t look all that great either, Doc.”
I looked even worse now, I was sure. The only colour in my face was sunburn. “But you did. They knew you were here.”
“We haven’t been picked up, and that makes me think that they’re either looking in completely the wrong area, or the search has been called off. And the only way a search could be called off, is if they think there’s nothing left to find. It’s the only explanation that makes sense.”
I shook my head frantically. “I can’t believe that. I can’t afford to believe that. They have to find us soon – they have to. ”
“I wish I could be as optimistic as you, Doc. But I think we should start preparing for the worst.”
Evening had drawn into night. The sky had deepened from bruised purples to star-studded blacks and our tiny blaze barely cast a glow in the dark. We could hear creatures skittering about beyond us – dingoes, we were sure, and other nocturnal desert creatures that we didn’t want to meet. We carefully examined the area for snakes and spiders regularly, and then slept as best we could.
I roamed through dreams and memories, recalled conversations and scattered fragments of a life I probably would never experience again. The feel of silken skin against mine; soft honey-brown hair brushing my cheeks; the feel of a warm hand clasped in my own as we watched television together. Streams of infectious giggling; a crooked smile; the scent of arousal. Two bodies wrapped around each other, supine in their after-glow.
The overwhelming feeling of loving someone, and being loved in return.
A crashing emptiness descended with the last, whispered breath of the love of my life. The emotions were so powerful, they jerked me from my fitful slumber with a cry on my lips. I stared at the Milky Way above me, feeling as black as the midnight sky.
“What will I do without you?” I whispered. “We were supposed to grow old together. We had plans. You weren’t supposed to leave me on my own, damn you!” I felt tears prickling my eyes. Fiercely, I tried to blink them back. What was the point of crying?
I love you. Natalie had repeated the words often, made a point of telling me so first thing every morning as we turned to face each other on our shared pillow. I heard the words now as I rested my head on a ripped-out seat cushion, the ground hard and unforgiving beneath me.
“How can you? You aren’t here!” The words flew from me and I glanced around hastily in case Joe had woken and heard me talking to myself.
You worry too much, Ronnie! Said with a hitch of laughter in the smooth voice, and the image of glittering blue eyes and one deeply dimpled cheek flashed into my mind at the same time. Promised two Easters ago when my insecurities had surfaced again over dinner, and had prompted an offer to move in together. I never walk away from something that’s important to me.
“Neither do I.” I hauled myself to my feet awkwardly, then went to check on my heart.
When I came back, Joe was awake and feeding scrub fodder and green branches to the fire, making it smoke and splutter. I huddled next to the tiny blaze, desperately trying to draw in some of its warmth. “Looks like staying behind was the wrong choice after all.” I blew into my cupped hands. “You should’ve gone with the others, Joe. You’d have been safe by now. Warm. Not hungry. Probably in your own bed.”
“Doesn’t that sound wonderful?” he replied. “I don’t know what I want more right now – a soft bed or a hot meal.”
Both of our stomachs chose that moment to growl their hunger, and we tossed each other ironic smiles. We were both growing used to the permanent gnawing in our bellies. We’d even tried chewing on some speargrass.
“Vegemite on toast.” Natalie had hated it, but it was the ultimate comfort food for me. After a hard shift at the hospital, I’d come home exhausted and she’d brew me a cup of tea and slather a couple of rounds of toast in vegemite, splashing on a bit of Worcester sauce if I looked particularly whacked. All with a grimace of disgust on her face. “What are you, pregnant or something?” she’d invariably say. “Nobody who isn’t pregnant could possibly eat this disgusting mess.” “Of course I’m not pregnant,” I’d reply with a mouthful of toast. “Not unless you’ve suddenly developed male organs and I think I would’ve noticed that.”
Joe wore the same grimace. “Can’t stand that stuff. Maybe we could catch a snake or something? Cook it over the fire. Or try bush tucker – can you eat any ants, or is it a special type of ants the aboriginals eat? ‘Cos there’s loads of them in the bush.”
“The aboriginals eat wytchety grubs.” We both shuddered. “I think I’d have to be near death to try that. Not that I’d know where to even look for them. I think I’ll stick with the vegemite.”
“Oh.” Embarrassment flooded my cheeks. “I haven’t checked…”
“But you were just in there? Don’t tell me – you were checking on your box?” I nodded, and had the good grace to blush. I felt quite ashamed that I’d checked on the heart and hadn’t spared a thought for Dan. What kind of doctor did that make me?
“I’m sorry, I’ll go and see to him now.” I was back in a few minutes. “No change.” Stiffly, I lowered myself to the floor, held my head in my hands and started to weep. “I can’t do a thing to save him, Joe. Even if I had something to amputate his leg with, the infection’s already spread too far. And I couldn’t stem the bleeding anyway. What are we going to do?”
He shook his head, his face grey. “I don’t know, Ronnie.”
Dan died in the night.
We covered him with blankets and left him in the shattered cabin. We didn’t know what else to do, and it took all our reserves of energy to do that. After we’d finished seeing to him, we briefly discussed whether we should stay, or head out. We’d stayed for Dan, and now we didn’t have to. The only thing was, neither of us could take more than ten steps without feeling faint. We were in no physical shape for a desert trek.
We were trapped with this wreckage.
We spent the early morning drifting in and out of consciousness ourselves, exhausted and weakened by hunger. The thirst was the worst – my throat felt like it was on fire, and nothing would assuage it. Not that there was much to try with. We had drunk the last few drops in the water reserve, and were now reduced to sucking on leaves and scrub plants, desperately hoping that some morning dew lingered on them. Invariably, it didn’t.
Joe foraged desperately through the cabin, even though we both knew there was nothing left there. He came back and collapsed next to me, his face lined and hopeless.
“We need fluid,” he said, succinctly stating the obvious. I shrugged – talking only wasted energy, hurt my dried throat and cracked my lips more. “I can only think of one place to get it,” he continued.
That piqued my interest. “Cactus? Or have you seen a mirage in the desert?”
“No,” he replied, all seriousness. “Dan. Or at least, his blood…”
Total shock was rapidly followed by disbelief. I couldn’t have heard him properly. “You want us to drink Dan’s blood?” I didn’t even bother to keep the horror and disbelief out of my voice. “You can’t be serious?”
“Do you have a better idea?” he snapped defensively, his face reddening even under the sunburn. “We need fluid or we’ll die of dehydration out here. I can’t think of anywhere else to get it from, unless we cut open our own arms – and that rather defeats the point, doesn’t it?”
He was right, of course. I still couldn’t stomach the idea of cutting open Dan and vampiring on his blood. I shook my head, my face grimacing with disgust. “Dan’s dead. His bodily fluids will have evacuated already, and what’s left in his body will already have started to stagnate and decay. Plus, his blood will have carried the infection from his leg around his body. It’s not healthy.”
“Drinking bad water has got to be better than drinking no water,” Joe observed. I wasn’t so sure.
“Do you really want to cut Dan open? You’re not suggesting we hack off a bit of haunch and grill it over the fire as well, are you?”
Joe shot me a filthy look. “Don’t be so disgusting. Eating people is cannibalism. That’s not right.”
“What?” Drinking their blood apparently wasn’t. The distinction appeared to be lost on Joe, who was looking thoughtful as he mused over a few points.
“You’re right about one thing, though. It might not be good for us.” Joe’s eyes had suddenly grown calculating. “Anyway, Ronnie – I’m talking worst case scenario. It might not even come to that.” Joe settled back, his head on his arms, and closed his eyes. “Let’s hope it doesn’t.”
“Right. Let’s hope so.” But we both knew it probably would. Suddenly, from appearing in a ‘Lost’ type scenario, I found myself catapulted into a desert version of ‘Lord Of The Flies’. Without the pigs.
I awoke abruptly, roughly shaken awake by Joe who had hold of my shoulders.
“Ronnie! Wake up. There’s a light flashing on your box!”
“What?” I was up in a flash. He’d dragged the box out of its hiding place and dumped it next to me. I hadn’t even realised it had a light, but a tiny amber beam pulsed on the lid.
“What do you think it means?” asked Joe, his eyes wide and staring.
“Oh my God!” I panicked, my hands flapping over the lid. “The system must be failing. It must be a warning light. Oh no! Oh no – please don’t…” Desperately, I shook the box, hoping that it would jolt the system back into life. The amber light continued flashing. “No – don’t stop on me now. Don’t you dare – don’t you dare!” I thumped the box, and again, banging down hard on the lid with my fist like I was trying to perform some sort of electronic CPR on the unit.
Joe tried to grab hold of my fists and keep them away from the item, but I kept yanking them from his grasp. “Ronnie, there’s nothing you can do if the components are failing. You have to let it go.”
I could feel the tears coursing freely down my face, but I made no attempt to stop or hide them this time. “No – I can’t do that. I will not lose this as well.”
Joe grasped my fists again, but this time held them close to his chest. “Ronnie – listen to me, just stay still for a minute and listen to me. We will both lose everything unless we do as I say. This heart – it’s kept fresh in there, yes?”
I nodded, and felt tears drip off my nose with the movement. “It holds it at a steady temperature and pumps nutrient-rich fluid continuously through the organ,” I responded, almost automatically. “It helps to minimise tissue degradation whilst the organ is in transport, until it reaches the recipient.”
“So basically what you’re saying is that it keeps it fresh.” I nodded, dimly registering the words that seemed to be floating slowly from his mouth. “And as well as the heart, there’s also a rich fluid in there that will also be fresh?” I nodded again, my eyes fixed on the carrier, and tried to yank my hands from his chest. The urge to rip open the box and shake the heart back into life was almost uncontrollable.
“We need that heart to survive, Ronnie. Do you understand what I mean?”
I looked at him with relief. At last, he understood. “Yes, I need it – I’ve been telling you that the whole time, Joe!” My eyes drifted back to the box.
“No, Ronnie!” He sighed in exasperation and shook me a little, forcing my eyes back to meet his. “It’s the heart, or us. It’s our only source of nutrients and fluid. It’s the heart or us, Ronnie.”
I grew still, and stayed motionless in his arms. I stared wordlessly at him whilst his words slowly sank in.
“It’s dying anyway,” he persisted. “The donor wanted to save a life. Why not ours?”
The donor wanted to save a life. That was true. Why else does anyone offer their organs for transplant? “Yes,” I began, hesitantly. “Save a life. But we can’t…”
“Why can’t we, Ronnie?” Joe was begging now, almost crying with his own desperation. “It’s our only chance. It might give us enough energy to make it to the road, or keep us alive for a few more days if we stay here. The battery’s out, the thing will be useless for transplant now. We need it. Don’t let the donor’s gift be wasted. Don’t let that person’s death be in vain.”
It was almost like a light went on with his words. “As long as the heart lives, she isn’t dead. Yes. You’re right, she wouldn’t want it to end this way, not if she could help.”
His face creased with confusion, then comprehension, and he took a step back from me. “You don’t mean…?” His mouth dropped open, his hand involuntarily moving to cover it.
I nodded, grinning feverishly, and began tearing at the sealed lid of the box. “You’re right. And she’ll still be with me, but it’ll be better than if she was inside some stranger, because this way she’ll be inside me. That’s where she belongs, that’s where she should be. That’s what she’d want.” I hauled the lid off, and we both peered inside.
It made absolute, perfect sense.
Tenderly, I reached inside and unhooked the precious organ from its tubes. I held it up, and saw Natalie’s smiling face, tenderness and love shining out from her eyes. I smiled back.
Joe had retreated back a few more steps and seemed uncertain now. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realise it was her.”
“Who else could she be?” I whispered, smiling tenderly up into Natalie’s beautiful, compassionate eyes. “I don’t want to lose her. This way, she gets to live for as long as I get to live, and we get to be together forever.”
When I’d taken as much as I could, I held out the rest to Joe. “Go on,” I urged, as he seemed suddenly hesitant. “She would’ve liked you, Joe. And she would’ve been so grateful for all you’ve done for me since we’ve been out here. I don’t want to lose you too, and she’d appreciate that. So please…?”
He reached out his own hands, and took Natalie’s gift.
The sun over the horizon distorted our vision, and we squinted up through half-closed eyes at the four shadows which seemed to hover in the heat haze. More ghostly mirages, teasing shadows of a rescue which never came. We were used to them by now – we’d even stopped waking each other up when we saw them.
“They said they’d seen you,” commented one of the shadows in a heavily accented voice. “But we thought it was desert fever talking. It can do that sometimes.”
“Joe…” I knocked my hand onto his face in a feeble attempt to wake him up. “I think the mirages are talking to us.”
“We’ve been tracking back. Looks like we were just in time.” We sat up, rubbing our eyes. A small group of aboriginals stared back at us, balancing on their spears as they observed us with interest. “Got to say though, you two bloody well have some guts. .Don’t normally see white people go for that sort of tucker, but you two just gobbled it up. What was it anyway? Dingo? Goanna?” They handed us small flasks and we gulped the water down desperately, slaking our thirst. “Hey , take it easy with that – we’re a ways away from any water.” The group’s apparent spokesman turned to his compatriots. “Better tell where we are, get transport in. Doesn’t look like these two are going anyplace by themselves.” His mate turned to the rest of the gang and spoke a few words in a language we couldn’t understand. A couple of them headed back into the haze, their forms becoming elongated and wavering in the distortion.
“You found us?” asked Joe, eyeing the water bottle hungrily.
The aboriginal slung the water bottle over to Joe, then squatted down next to us. “Just in the nick of time, by the looks of you. They’ve been concentrating the search out westwards, where they found most of the plane. No survivors, so they figured it wasn’t a rescue mission. You’re lucky you hung on this long.” He unslung his belt, and pulled out some jerky. “Roo meat. Chew on it – it’ll give you strength. Rescue will be here in a few hours.”
Gratefully, we grabbed a couple of spirals of the dried meat, and forced our exhausted jaws to chew..
Joe and I were the only survivors, in the end. The imaginary road that the others went off chasing was just that – imaginary. They drifted around the desert, and died. When their bodies were found, it was figured there were no survivors back at the crash site, so they’d focused their efforts on the front half of the plane and the black box.
Going back home was hard – without Natalie, and with all I’d been through. Joe said it was the same for him. I went through a very bad time afterwards – I guess grief and probably post-traumatic stress really hit me. Same with Joe. Neither of us could work, we couldn’t stand to be around people. We just couldn’t cope. Thank God we had each other. Not in any romantic sense; it just made such a huge difference to have someone who had been through exactly what you had been through. He really helped me through it, and I hope I did him, too.
I found it hard to get back into medicine – I couldn’t shake the fact that I had felt so useless; I’d let Natalie and Dan down when they had needed me most. What good was being a doctor when you couldn’t save those you loved? So I left medicine. Now, I work as a counsellor, helping people cope with their stresses, their bereavements, their grief.
Joe and I live with each other – not in any romantic sense; I could never, ever replace Natalie. It’s more for the companionship, and maybe because we still need each other, even after the time that’s passed since we were lost in the desert. I think that Natalie would understand, and maybe even agree.
Joe comes with me every Friday to the cemetery, and we both visit Natalie’s grave. And give thanks to her. Because we know that she most probably saved both our lives in the end and we owe her our gratitude, at least.
She’ll always be a part of me. She’s in every cell, every molecule in my body, and she sings within my blood.
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