A teacher friend of mine asked if I’d be willing to help out with an assignment she’s giving her class. She needed some short fiction (4-5 paragraphs), aimed at 11-13 year olds, with a survivalist theme (her students had just read Gary Paulsen’s classic novel Hatchet). Any excuse to exercise my Middle Grade writing muscles is a good one so I eagerly agreed. Here’s what I came up with:
by Jason L Blair
The cold bit into Nathan’s hands as he climbed the hill. His bare fingers were nearly frozen. His whole body ached and protested every movement. Stop, it pleaded. Give up. Rest. The boy’s brain fought back, something deep and primal within him, No. I must go on. Each time he closed his palm on another piece of ice, he wanted to scream. A sudden burst of wind whipped around him, showering his face with fine grains of bitter snow. It felt like his face had been splashed with fire. His lips were brittle and breaking. The saltiness of his own blood coated his tongue. Above him, the sun—bright and mocking—beat down on him. All light and no heat.
As the boy crested the ridge, he saw the remains of the plane smoldering in the distance. Thick plumes of gray smoke billowed from the wreck. It was the beacon he had followed, the signal that guided him. When the craft went down, Nate and his family were in the last row. That part broke off first. He closed his eyes and could feel his seat spinning. His hands clutching the armrest. His mom, leaning close to him, whispering, “I love you, Nate. I love you.” Tears welled and almost immediately froze to his cheeks.
He heaved himself over the edge of the hill. A small crowd gathered by the remains of the cabin. The captain, whose name the boy had heard as Burley, warmed himself by a makeshift fire. The bearded man’s leg rested on an overturned service tray. Someone had knotted a bright blue blanket over his thigh. A flight attendant was packing snow into containers while a dozen other people milled about. Aside from the captain, who had given the boy a small pin—a pair of golden wings—Nate didn’t recognize any of them. He wondered if they knew each other. Or had they all been strangers filling seats. The boy fought back any thoughts about the people he did know.
The attendant stood and seemed to stare right at him. The boy tried to raise a hand, to call out, but his voice only managed a faint “help.” Even that was too much. The effort unsettled something in his throat and he started to cough. Faint, at first, but it got worse and worse. Each hacking gasp shook his body. Shivers rippled through his spine. His feet kicked out from under him and he started to slide. He scrambled for the top of the cliff but his fingers refused. His hands, locked into fists, beat uselessly against the shifting snow. He saw the crest slide farther and farther away. His legs slithered against the surface of the hill but to no avail. He wanted to cry, to scream, but he was tired. Too tired. Stop, his body said. Rest. His body landed in a heap at the bottom of the hill. Nate could feel his heartbeat slowing, his breathing was low and hypnotic. He was suddenly warm, comfortable. Rest. Rest.
His eyes fluttered open. No. No rest. Nate forced his body to move, to bend, to lift, to plant its feet and stretch, to extend, to grasp, to climb, to scream. “Help!” He yelled it every time his hand clutched an icy mound of dirt. “Help!” He hoped the words weren’t just in his head. “Help!” The hill didn’t seem so tall. He fixed his eyes on the twisting pillar of smoke. Overhead, the sun laughed—all light and no heat—but the boy didn’t listen. He continued to climb. He heaved his body over the top and started to slide the right way, quickly, like he was being pulled. He looked up and saw the smiling face of the flight attendant. A man’s face too. He had a beard too but not like Burley’s. A pair of broken glasses sat sideways on his stubby nose. “Another one!” a third person, a girl about his age, yelled. “We’ve got another one!” Nate looked up at the sun and laughed back.