The Fate of Flight follows 23-year-old Stella Wilks on a mush through the Alaskan wilderness as she struggles with painful memories from her past while battling the harsh winter cold. Stella lives in Tok, Alaska where her dad raises huskies and runs a business of mush equipment and lessons. Stella embarks on this journey oblivious to the cause of her mother’s death but after falling into a freezing lake with her sled dogs and barely surviving, she contracts hypothermia and flashes of memories resurface as hallucinations and piece themselves together. Stella is accompanied by Keith, her dad’s best friend and coworker who she is separated from after the lake accident, only to figure out by the end of her brutal journey, that Keith was the man with the swallow bird tattoo who her mother had an affair with before her death; a death which everyone assumed was an unfortunate accident, but as Stella learns, was actually an act of murder carried out by Keith in a fit of anger. Stella’s fight throughout the novella has less to do with nature, and more with herself, as she faces her suppressed feelings of betrayal and grief, and finds her way to acceptance. At the end of chapter 3, Stella finds herself under the frozen ice of the lake, catching a glimpse of Keith’s sinking dog sled. Jolted by fear of her own death, she climbs out from under the ice and mourns her dogs and Keith, who she assumes is dead, and continues on her journey. Too far from home, she continues on her journey toward her grandfather’s cabin.
CHAPTER 4: THE SHATTERED DREAM
I leaned against the bar in front of me, entirely supported by the metal rod. My own legs trembled under my weight. “So cold,” I whispered, my voice raspy and quiet. My clothes, wet from my swim in the lake, clung to my body like decoupage. I watched as my dogs carried me to the lake cabin and once again envied their heavy, fur coats now tipped with frost after hours of exposure. Their hairs bristled in the wind. Midnight’s black blurred with Balto’s grey and Wolf’s white and Zorro’s blonde and Mishka and Sheba’s brown and Laika’s outlandish red, until it was just a smudge of color in the stretch of snow occupying my vision. I felt dizzy. The colors blended together, transporting me to a familiar place.
I sat on the floor, across from her, staring at the landscapes, the perfect blend of colors beautifully painted, appearing in every hallway and room like our house was a museum of my mom’s works. Even when I didn’t know much about art I could appreciate just how lifelike they were, as if I was the one standing in front of the mountain, appreciating its magnitude, or in the middle of the wintry forest, gazing at the path before my feet. I had once asked her why she didn’t sell them or open up a shop.
“No one will appreciate them, my little star. Tok isn’t known for its love of culture,” was her fleeting reply. She sounded resigned, as if she’d already given the idea some thought and there was just a hint of bitterness at the final statement.
I didn’t say anything but I disagreed. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could possibly not appreciate them. Some were realistic like the one of the mountain and the forest, taking an Alaskan spin on artists like Levitan. Some were more abstract, slightly resembling Kandinsky’s colorful landscapes. Others were incomparable to any artists I knew. There hung gorgeous rivers and rolling hills, vividly expressed in greens and blues, oils and pastels, paints and watercolors. There were footprints in the snow, lit by the moon, and wolves running in the distance. Occasionally you could spy a detailed portrait of a Husky or two that we owned, some only remaining through their depiction on our decorated walls. My favorite was the one from when she first met Dad, Ethan Wilks, the college student studying business at APU, the same college she attended, who spent winters at his grandfather’s cabin teaching tourists and curious Alaskans the art of mushing. My mom loved to tell me about the first time he took her along. She had sat in the basket, still too inexperienced to take the reins, and when she closed her eyes she had felt like she was flying so she spread her arms wide and imagined herself in the sky. Afterward, she went straight home and painted the flying dog sleigh that now adorned our living room, pouring the amazing freedom and liberation she had felt onto canvas. She showed my dad the painting as soon as she finished and he shared that he was mesmerized by her: the girl who flew. The painting encapsulated his feelings about dog sledding perfectly. He had never seen a more beautiful piece of art, he had told her. So she gifted him the painting that she could tell opened his eyes to the power of art. And that was how it started. They married at twenty-one, had me at twenty-three.
“My little star,” she had murmured when she first saw me and so my name was born. I always loved hearing that story, especially when she was the one telling it, with her creative exaggerations and her graceful way with words. I loved the way she accentuated everything with movement; the spreading of her arms as she described her first ride in the sleigh, the flick of her wrist, mimicking the careful stroke of a paintbrush painting the flying vessel in the night sky, and her reach toward the stars as she told me about the nature of my name. Everything sounded so magical when it came from her, like a fairytale of our lives.
“Tell me about that one,” I said pointing at the flying sleigh in the dark of night, a faint coloration in the background suggesting the famous northern lights.
She breathed a sigh. “Alright, if you really want to. But last time, okay?” I eagerly nodded, and got up from my spot on the floor, sidling next to her on the futon, knowing it wouldn’t actually be the last time. “It all began when I had a sudden impulse to try something new…”
The icy wind and the pelt of snow against my face dislodged me from the pleasant memory. Everything was the same as before; it seemed like no time had passed. I took a rattling breath and as I exhaled, a faint burst of fog escaped my mouth. My nose burned from the freezing air I had no choice but to inhale. My thoughts muddled as I breathed in and out, each time gazing at the spectacle my warm breath created when entering the harsh conditions of my wintry surroundings.
“Pn-eu-mon-ia,” I sounded out as I stared at the open pages of the heavy, old medical dictionary in my lap. “Disease of the lungs; an infection caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, or parasites.” I had heard my dad say the unfamiliar word when speaking on the phone. I hated the feeling of ignorance that overwhelmed me at the moment. There was a secret being kept from me and I needed to know it. When he finally turned his back to the closed glass doors of his office and continued the conversation, I seized the opportunity and crept from my position on the couch, slipping past his door to the library. I searched the spines of the many nonfiction books stacked on the shelves until I spotted what I was looking for high above my head. The worn, violet cover that read “Van Coeverdens Medical Encyclopedia” sat above, taunting me with its information, impossibly out of my reach. The white and gold painted sliding ladder my parents banned me from using until further notice sat on the side, offering me a guilty ray of hope. I listened to make sure my dad was still on the phone, and quickly pushed the ladder slightly to the left of my desired choice of literature. I climbed up its steps, my tiny, nimble feet easily traversing the steep climb. I gripped the banister tightly, afraid to look back down, and carefully reached my right arm out to grab what I came here for. Van Coeverden’s work was so excessive I almost lost my balance and toppled off the ladder, which would have raised quite a racket and definitely landed me in all sorts of trouble. Thankfully I was able to climb back down, encyclopedia in hand, and race back to the safety of my room. After reading the definition, I had left my room, quite distressed, just as Dad was leaving his and Mom’s. I decided to ask him outright.
“Is Mommy okay? Does she have pn-eu-mon-ia?” I carefully repeated each syllable as I had seen written on the page.
He paused, clearly caught off guard by my perceptiveness but quickly regained his composure. “Mommy’s just feeling a little bit under the weather.” He winced as another spout of coughs reverberated through the house, suggesting otherwise. “Don’t you worry, Stella. She’ll be back to her old lively self in no time.”
With Mom sick and Dad busy I was left to my own devices so I slunk back to my room and grabbed the book lying on my bedside table: White Fang by Jack London. I had read Mrs. Normandy’s copy of The Call of the Wild just a few weeks ago. I had read countless books but that one especially spoke to me. The pages had flit before my fingers. I wasn’t even aware of the thin paper, the words printed in black, the torn, paperback binding of the book. I felt the pains of Buck, the misfit sled dog, as if they were my own. I suffered tragedy after tragedy at the hands of civilization along with him. I opened the hardback cover of White Fang and read the words handwritten in cursive with a black ink pen.
“Buck’s transition from tame to wild is reversed in the story of White Fang. I hope you will be as enchanted with this tale as you were with the latter. Merry Christmas my darling.”
I flipped to page fifty-two, where I had last stopped, but after several cases of my thoughts being interrupted by my mom’s horrible hacking, which so effortlessly traveled through our thin walls, I put the book back down. Instead, immediately overcome with an idea, I grabbed a pencil and began to scratch away on the fine, coarse paper my mom used to sketch her ideas on. Only I didn’t sketch a drawing. That was a talent I unfortunately had not inherited. Instead, I wrote a poem; my first one.
The lady in white
stands on a cliff,
able to smell
the most dazzling whiff.
It wasn’t a very good poem, I remembered through the cloud of illusions transporting me to a different time. I struggled to remember the next words. I pictured my uneven, childish handwriting separated by stanzas and the next line came to mind.
She steps toward the edge,
the smell so divine.
She feels it is something
she likes, maybe wine.
Wine? I wondered, not for the first time, where my mind was at. The beverage did seem to symbolize adulthood so perhaps I felt it had to be present in my writing to make it seem more mature. One of my huskies whimpered. Laika, if I had to guess, since she was still unaccustomed to riding for so long in such severe weather. Guilt panged through my chest but I couldn’t let them rest. Otherwise, we’d all be dead. Every minute counted. The strings of the last stanza came together, completing the story.
She steps once again,
but she fails to see
the edge of the cliff
below her break free.
The final line echoed in my mind, hauntingly morbid for an eight-year-old, and reminded me of the dreadful incident. I brushed the memory aside and focused, instead, on the one I had just witnessed. My mom didn’t go back to her old self like my dad had promised. Even when she had recovered, she was so distant, trapped in her own little world. I had to call her name at least three times for her to respond. It was like she wasn’t there. As a kid, I had blamed the pneumonia for her sudden shift in behavior for lack of better understanding, but maybe it was something else happening simultaneously that I was too young to notice. Suddenly my body began to shiver uncontrollably and the next memory swept over me like a wave, sending me spiraling back into the past. So vivid that I was no longer in the sleigh, hanging on for dear life.
I stood outside of Mount Edgecumbe in the pleasant, chilly November of 2009, waiting for my mom’s car. I had packed quickly, surprised at the call from the principal’s office, setting me free for the weekend. An unfamiliar, dusty, muted red BMW drove up along the empty carpool lane of my high school. She reached across and opened the passenger side door without a word, a wide smile on her face as she laughed and said, “We’re going to Juneau!” – her hometown. I was still shocked at the unexpected phone call, her sudden appearance. She’d never done this. I was skeptical but curious as I sat in the car and she pressed on the gas. She asked me about school, and after a moment of silence in which I was trying to assess what exactly may have spurred this sudden interest, I gave up and instead seized the opportunity to tell her about my favorite English teacher and my writing and my new best friend, Mike. To my surprise, she listened, nodding her head, laughing at some of my stories and asking questions about everything. When the conversation died down she turned the radio all the way up and we sang the classics we both loved. As “Hotel California” finished and was replaced by “House of the Rising Sun,” I looked over and marveled at the woman sitting next to me, a spitting image of the mother I had missed, the one that faded with years and was now suddenly back with no warning, emerging through a call from the principal and a trip to our capital. When she turned her head and saw me staring, I covered it up with a smile and belted out the chorus of the song.
We had to take a plane to reach Juneau because of the countless lakes and rivers isolating Sitka, but we eventually got there and signed in to our bed and breakfast, the Silverbow Inn. We visited the Alaska State Museum, wandered through the exhibits of historical occupations and learned all about the Alaskan natives, including their art and ways of survival. The next day we went shopping in the countless little street shops lining South Franklin Street. It was dry and cold outside and the sky was cloudy yet a warm feeling rested in the base of my stomach, escaping me occasionally through a laugh or a smile. Hope, I think it was. All traces of doubt had left me somewhere on the trip here. They were scattered across Alaska but not here in Juneau. I could imagine this trip becoming a tradition, like my mush with dad. This could be our thing. I would share the idea with her later. I didn’t want to think about the future now. The present was perfect. We had strolled along the street, reading the signs that hung above each colorful door. I inhaled the scent of wild flowers hanging from the shop front canopies as my mom pointed out another jeweler shop she remembered from her day. Then she abruptly stopped. Surprised, I turned to face her. “What is it?” I asked, concerned.
“Oh, I just forgot something back at the inn,” she said in a lighthearted tone. She seemed distracted. “I’ll meet you back here. You can scope out of some of these shops for me. Fill me in later, okay?” she asked and promptly turned back in the direction we came without waiting for a response.
I stood on the street, confused about the interaction we just shared. It left me feeling uneasy. The way she acted reminded me of her usual self, the one I’d grown to dread. The one I was hoping had changed. I cleared the thought from my mind. I was being dramatic. She just forgot something at the inn. I turned and entered the nearest shop. A blue and wood paneled cozy little souvenir shop labeled “Hickok’s Trading Company.” As soon as I entered I was filled with this childish desire to buy something… anything to remember the awesome past two days I’d spent with my mom. After browsing all of their shelves countless times, I finally settled on a delicate little snow globe containing a tiny cottage with its lights on, sitting on a snowy mountain and with “Juneau, Alaska” printed on the base surrounded by moose and bluebell flowers. The lady behind the cash register, a blonde-haired portly woman of about forty, wearing an indigo Patagonia jacket and a cheerful smile inquired, “And how are you today, missy?”
“Great. Really great,” I answered. She smiled in reply and placed my souvenir in a small brown paper back with their logo in blue on the front.
“Have a nice day,” she called as I left.
“You too,” I echoed and walked outside into the cool November breeze. I stopped in my tracks. Across the street from me, right next to the blue metal mailbox and the flower arrangement adorning the lamppost, stood my mom, only she wasn’t just standing. She was talking to a man who stood with his back to me, the edge of a bird tattoo peeking up from his jacket. There was no way she had walked all the way to our inn and back in the maybe ten minutes I had spent inside the shop and there was nothing in her arms suggesting she had retrieved the item she’d forgotten. My mind worked, trying to figure out what she was doing, why she was lying to me, when she suddenly took the man’s hand and led him inside the nearest establishment – the Red Dog Saloon, an enormous red, wood paneled building with saloon doors and an American flag jutting out of the side. I waited, unsure of how to proceed. I could’ve waited for her to come back out to find me and explain what she was doing, maybe introduce the man she was clearly familiar with, an old friend perhaps that she unexpectedly met on the street just seconds before. But I couldn’t help it. My feet carried me to the saloon doors of what was clearly a bar. I pushed them open and entered the space brimming with commotion: people talking, country music playing, a football game on TV, pots banging together. The smell of deep fry and the sharp tang of alcohol filled my nostrils. What was I doing? Why was I spying on my mom? Shame and doubt crept their way into my thoughts until I was just about to turn around and walk back outside, but movement in the corner of my eye caught my attention. My mom’s long, straight blonde hair swished over her shoulder as she took a seat at the bar next to the man I had seen earlier. I felt like an intruder but I couldn’t stop staring. I watched as my mom leaned over and kissed him and he kissed back. My eyes widened and I couldn’t help but gasp. It was the worst possible scenario. I hadn’t even considered it a possibility. This was too much too fast. I turned and pushed through the saloon doors, running back across the street, breathing fast. The shock was fading and was now replaced with anger, which festered in its place. I ran to the small alley between Hickok’s and Jeweler’s International, the paper bag still gripped tightly in my hand. I brought it out and unfurled the top, which the nice lady had stapled and sealed with a yellow smiley face sticker. I reached my hand in and brought out the snow globe which I had bought with so much hope. The beginning of a new era, I had thought. I was so naive. She hadn’t come here for me, she came for him. So many obscene names for her crossed my mind. And what about Dad? Didn’t she love him? What about the painting? The stories she told me? They really were just silly fairy tales. She gave me hope. She let me believe in them. She lied to me. With that last thought I raised the snow globe, peering inside at the beautiful winter wonderland, shimmering in the light, and hurled it at the ground. The perfect image shattered with a crash into a thousand pieces, scattering all across the cement.