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Endless, Numbered Days
The first rebellious thing she does when she turns 18 is buy a pack of cigarettes and a lighter.
When she shakes it out of the box, she’s shocked at how something so intimidating can feel delicate as the bone of a baby bird. She doesn’t smoke it; she lights it and watches it burn, listening to the paper filter burn until it singes her fingertips. The second one, she destroys, blowing the tobacco leaves across her skirt and the sidewalk, because they smell sweeter than the roses her mother planted in the backyard 4 years ago.
She smokes the third cigarette.
It’s actually quite terrible, and she swears she can feel her lungs at the back of her throat as she coughs. But when it’s over and she can breathe again, she feels delightfully light-headed and there’s a tingle in her throat and she thinks that maybe, she might understand why her uncle is addicted to this feeling.
And at that moment she sees Ben, who saunters over, smelling of leather and booze and sophistication. They’re standing by a softball field as he smirks.
“I didn’t know you were a smoker.”
And she can’t find the wherewithal to explain that she’s not a smoker, that her parents would kill her if they found out, that this isn’t who she is. Instead she smiles back and offers him one. He accepts.
And it is the beginning.
5 years later, they are living in Coquille, Oregon. It’s the last place she wants to be, because it’s cold and rainy (and heaven knows she’s a creature made of sunlight and beaches) but rent is cheap and they both have jobs. They live comfortably, but they certainly aren’t rich, which is why she’s surprised when he presents her with tickets to Australia. She’s wanted to go there since she was 16, but never had the chance (or the money). Ben grins at her and for a moment, she believes he might be her Prince Charming, despite his numerous drug habits and suspiciously late nights.
When they board the plane, she is wearing a blue sundress and sandals. He has just shaven, and the two are clasping hands. Once on the plane, he proceeds to drink an obscene amount of alcohol and pass out. She turns the pages of The New Yorker crisply and doesn’t react to the stares from the other passengers.
Somewhere between Hawaii and Sydney, the plane begins to shake violently. The air begins to crackle with the energy of alarmed passengers. The pilot announces that they have just lost an engine, but they are changing routes and will complete the journey with three engines. But the plane lurches once again, and she just knows that they will not be making it to Sydney. So she squeezes Ben’s hand and begins reciting bible verses, long buried under the excuses of can’t, won’t, and doesn’t. He awakens, confused, but when he hears the passengers screaming and stewardesses sprinting down the aisles, he too is sure they are going down. Beth’s hand is in his and when he glances out the window, he can’t help but notice in a remarkably twisted way the beautiful sapphire color of the ocean she’s always loved.
It all happens so fast. One second, the entire plane is freefalling. Then, the plane has suddenly been split in two with a loud crack. Several passengers are suddenly sucked over the edge of the split fuselage, but the couple somehow manages to stay inside the plane. When a yellow raft falls at her feet, she is suddenly reminded of all those times her brother teased her about whatever plane they were currently on going down. At one point, her mother berated him and as an apology, he explained to her the physics and forces of what would actually happen. Long story short, she has to get this raft inflated and jump before the plane hits the water.
She pulls the cord to inflate it and tells Ben they have to jump.
“Are you crazy? We’re going to die anyway, Beth. Let’s not fight it; hopefully it’ll be over soon.”
“Maybe, but this is our only chance at survival.”
Because she’s always been smarter than him and because he trusts her, he agrees.
“On the count of 3! Ok…1…2…3!” They both cling to the ropes lining the raft as they freefall the 600 feet to the water. They land on the surface seconds before the plane, and a safe distance away, but he swears that he can still hear screaming as it goes down in flames.
Then they float there, not saying a word, just breathing in and out for hours.
She wakes up the next day and her first thought is I should have just gone down with the plane, we’re going to die anyway, but now it’s going to be slow and agonizing and- But her thoughts are cut short as she turns to find a island in the distance. She immediately shakes Ben, who doesn’t respond Oh God, is this some sort of messed up Titanic thing?! But his eyes slowly crack open and she sees the realization darken them. She points wordlessly to the island in the distance. Just as silently, he slides off the raft and begins swimming. She follows.
When they finally reach the island, they collapse on the white sand. She sees him grimace and can’t believe she forgot to think about injuries. A quick once-over reveals the deep gash running from his shoulder to his elbow, still bleeding and she thanks God that they weren’t attacked by sharks. She reaches for it and he turns away, waving her off with an insistence of, “I’m fine.”
She laughs, “We’re stuck on an island in the middle of nowhere, God knows how many miles from the plane’s original course, we’re probably the only survivors, but not for long because we don’t have food, shelter or a way to create fire. We’re not fine, Ben.”
At this she gets up, noting the pain in her hip and limps toward the foliage in the middle of the island. After an hour of searching, resulting only in coconuts, she comes back to find her husband no longer on the beach. Frantically glancing around, she sees him wading back into the ocean. She splashes in after him without a second thought. “Ben! What are you doing?!” He gestures to the 30 or so suitcases floating in the water. “The same current that brought us here must have carried these as well,” he remarks.
As expected, they find many clothes. But they also find a bottle of vodka, a lighter, numerous prescription drugs (which Ben quickly pockets), some PowerBars, bottled water, candy, Gatorade, and a soaked copy of The Swiss Family Robinson, among other things.
He doesn’t know if they’ll survive. But it feels like maybe the universe is giving them a break. At least, it feels that way until Beth pours vodka over his gash and he is in agony. “We need to disinfect it!” she insists.
After constructing a makeshift shelter of leaves, sticks, and clothes and building a small fire, (seriously, she thinks, are they on Lost or something?) she snuggles into his chest and whispers “Don’t lose hope.”
There are a thousand things he wants to say, weighing down his tongue. But for reasons he doesn’t quite know, he stays silent.
They wake up the next morning to the waves crashing in the background and it’s sort of nice. She wants to laugh and cry at the same time, thinking I got my beach vacation after all! They are careful not to waste resources, (not that it matters, because they’ll be found soon…right?) so they split a PowerBar from the case for breakfast. Following that, they’re not sure what to do. They take a short walk, and he tries to convince them both that the search parties are bound to find them soon, maybe even today. But all they can do is wait.
When she wakes up the fifth morning, she has to scramble to the bushes to vomit what little there is left in her stomach. He finds her crying in the bushes shortly after that, clutching her stomach. “Oh baby…” he pulls her close. When he rests his forehead against hers, it is burning. He prays it is a simple stomach flu or her body going into shock or something, anything that will keep her with him on this forsaken island.
So they stumble back to the shelter and he offers her a Gatorade. She vigorously shakes her head. “I just…want to sleep.” His first instinct is not to let her, but being the coward that he is, he can’t bring himself to say no. She drifts off and he can’t shake the feeling that this is the beginning of forever.
When she gains consciousness, she can feel her heart racing. She glances at a small inflamed scrape on her thigh and has to resist the urge to vomit again. “Baby…Beth, what is it? Are you ok?” He glances into her eyes “J****, Beth...your eyes are…yellow…”
She’s seen enough in her career as a nurse to know what this is. There isn’t much time. Why didn’t she take the time to disinfect her own cuts? Stupid, stupid, stupid. So she takes a deep breath and tells him, “Ben…Oh God, I’m so sorry, Ben…I…don’t know if I’m going to make it much longer.”
He grabs her tight and says “Don’t talk like that, of course you’re going to make it, someone is going to find us soon, and I’ll take care of you, Beth, I won’t let anything happen.” And she draws back, trying to find the words to explain that he can’t save her from her own body attacking her. But there are no words, so she just sobs into his grimy shoulder.
Later, she explains what sepsis is, and how she likely contracted it and he wants to scream because this is Beth, she’s smart and beautiful and why would God have let them survive a plane crash if only to kill Beth with an infection slowly, in the middle of nowhere? But he can’t answer these questions, and for once, neither can she.
It is Day 11 on the island when she finally gives up hope. He is holding her hand and watching her struggle, wanting to kill himself because there’s nothing he can do to help her. So he stokes the fire and crawls to lie beside her. She looks into his eyes and says “I love you,” and this time he responds by holding her close and saying “I love you” over and over, because it’s the last thing he wants her to hear.
Sometime early the next morning, her lungs fail and she slips away. He awakens immediately and realizes her chest is no longer moving up and down with each breath. Frantic, he shakes her in disbelief. “No, Beth, no, come back! You can’t leave, they’re going to be here so soon, you need to hang on for just a little while longer, just a little while baby, I promise, please please please do this for me!” Her limp body does not respond. Hysterically, he begins to administer CPR in an effort to revive her. He continues for exactly 23 minutes without success before the unthinkable happens.
He hears the distant whir of a helicopter which has spotted the smoke from the fire. It lands about 30 meters away and 3 people begin sprinting toward the shelter, carrying with them countless medical supplies.
He continues administering CPR until they literally tear him away. Suddenly there are people shining lights in his eyes and murmuring, and he doesn’t care, he just doesn’t care, all he wants is to be with Beth. Someone straps her to a back board and they carry her to the helicopter while one of the burlier men picks Ben up and carries him as well.
They ask him questions, but he can’t bring himself to speak. They try to jump start her heart over and over. They’re about to give up, but Ben shouts “No! Try again! She’s not gone yet!” The team is startled, but they do it for the man who has already been through so much.
But this time, it works.
Later they will say it was a miracle, and Beth and Ben will be asked to go on various daytime talk shows to talk about their ordeal, but right now, he just falls to his knees and begins to sob.