If You’re Not Living
on the Edge, You’re
Taking Up Too Much Space
I stand at the outer tarmac door staring at the plane I am about to get on and try my hardest not to freak the f out.
It’s easier said than done.
Not just because I’m about to leave behind everything I know, though up until two minutes ago, that was my main concern. Now, though, as I stare at this plane that I’m not even sure deserves the dignity of being called a plane, a whole new level of panic is setting in.
“So, Grace.” The man my uncle Finn sent to pick me up looks down at me with a patient smile. Philip, I think he said his name was, but I can’t be sure. It’s hard to hear him over the wild beating of my heart. “Are you ready for an adventure?”
No. No, I am not the least bit ready—for an adventure or anything else that’s about to come my way.
If you had told me a month ago that I would be standing on the outskirts of an airport in Fairbanks, Alaska, I would’ve said that you were misinformed. And if you had told me that the whole reason I was in Fairbanks was to catch the tiniest puddle jumper in existence to what feels like the very edge of the world—or, in this case, a town on the edge of Denali, the highest mountain in North America—I would have said that you were high as a freaking kite.
But a lot can change in thirty days. And even more can get ripped away.
In fact, the only thing I have been able to count on these past few weeks is that no matter how bad things are, they can always get worse…
Landing Is Just Throwing
Yourself at the Ground and
Hoping You Don’t Miss
“There she is,” Philip says as we clear the peaks of several mountains, taking one hand off the steering column to point to a small collection of buildings in the distance. “Healy, Alaska. Home sweet home.”
“Oh, wow. It looks…” Tiny. It looks really, really tiny. Way smaller than just my neighborhood in San Diego, let alone the whole city.
Then again, it’s pretty hard to see much of anything from up here. Not because of the mountains that loom over the area like long-forgotten monsters but because we’re in the middle of a weird kind of haze that Philip refers to as “civil twilight” even though it’s barely five o’clock. Still, I can see well enough to make out that the so-called town he’s pointing at is full of mismatched buildings randomly grouped together.
I finally settle on, “Interesting. It looks…interesting.”
It’s not the first description that popped into my head—no, that was the old cliché that hell has actually frozen over—but it is the most polite one as Philip drops even lower, preparing for what I’m pretty sure will be yet another harrowing incident in the list of harrowing incidents that have plagued me since I got on the first of three planes ten hours ago.
Sure enough, I’ve only just spotted what passes for an airport in this one-thousand-person town (thank you, Google) when Philip says, “Hang on, Grace. It’s a short runway because it’s hard to keep a long one clear of snow or ice for any amount of time out here. It’s going to be a quick landing.”
I have no idea what a “quick landing” means, but it doesn’t sound good. So I grab the bar on the plane door, which I’m pretty sure exists for just this very reason, and hold on tight as we drop lower and lower.
“Okay, kid. Here goes nothing!” Philip tells me. Which, by the way, definitely makes the top five things you don’t ever want to hear your pilot say while you’re still in the air.
The ground looms white and unyielding below us, and I squeeze my eyes shut.
Seconds later, I feel the wheels skip across the ground. Then Philip hits the brakes hard enough to slam me forward so fast that my seat belt is the only thing keeping my head from meeting the control panel. The plane whines—not sure what part of it is making that horrendous noise or if it’s a collective death knell—so I choose not to focus on it.
Especially when we start skidding to the left.
I bite my lip, keep my eyes squeezed firmly shut even as my heart threatens to burst out of my chest. If this is the end, I don’t need to see it coming.
The thought distracts me, has me wondering just what my mom and dad might have seen coming, and by the time I shut down that line of thinking, Philip has the plane sliding to a shaky, shuddering halt.
I know exactly how it feels. Right now, even my toes are trembling.
I peel my eyes open slowly, resisting the urge to pat myself down to make sure I really am still in one piece. But Philip just laughs and says, “Textbook landing.”
Maybe if that textbook is a horror novel. One he’s reading upside down and backward.
I don’t say anything, though. Just give him the best smile I can manage and grab my backpack from under my feet. I pull out the pair of gloves Uncle Finn sent me and put them on. Then I push open the plane door and jump down, praying the whole time that my knees will support me when I hit the ground.
They do, just barely.
After taking a few seconds to make sure I’m not going to crumble—and to pull my brand-new coat more tightly around me because it’s literally about eight degrees out here—I head to the back of the plane to get the three suitcases that are all that is left of my life.
I feel a pang looking at them, but I don’t let myself dwell on everything I had to leave behind, any more than I let myself dwell on the idea of strangers living in the house I grew up in. After all, who cares about a house or art supplies or a drum kit when I’ve lost so much more?
Instead, I grab a bag out of what passes for the tiny airplane’s cargo hold and wrestle it to the ground. Before I can reach for the second, Philip is there, lifting my other two suitcases like they’re filled with pillows instead of everything I own in the world.
“Come on, Grace. Let’s go before you start to turn blue out here.” He nods toward a parking lot—not even a building, just a parking lot—about two hundred yards away, and I want to groan. It’s so cold out that now I’m shaking for a whole different reason. How can anyone live like this? It’s unreal, especially considering it was seventy degrees where I woke up this morning.
There’s nothing to do but nod, though, so I do. Then grab onto the handle of my suitcase and start dragging it toward a small patch of concrete that I’m pretty sure passes for an airport in Healy. It’s a far cry from San Diego’s bustling terminals.
Philip overtakes me easily, a large suitcase dangling from each hand. I start to tell him that he can pull the handles out and roll them, but the second I step off the runway and onto the snowy ground that surrounds it in all directions, I figure out why he’s carrying them—it’s pretty much impossible to roll a heavy suitcase over snow.
I’m near frozen by the time we make it halfway to the (thankfully still plowed) parking lot, despite my heavy jacket and synthetic fur–lined gloves. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do from here, how I’m supposed to get to the boarding school my uncle is headmaster of, so I turn to ask Philip if Uber is even a thing up here. But before I can get a word out, someone steps from behind one of the pickup trucks in the lot and rushes straight toward me.
I think it’s my cousin, Macy, but it’s hard to tell, considering she’s covered from head to toe in protective weather gear.
“You’re here!” the moving pile of hats, scarves, and jackets says, and I was right—it’s definitely Macy.
“I’m here,” I agree dryly, wondering if it’s too late to reconsider foster care. Or emancipation. Any living situation in San Diego has got to be better than living in a town whose airport consists of one runway and a tiny parking lot. Heather is going to die when I text her.
“Finally!” Macy says, reaching out for a hug. It’s a little awkward, partly because of all the clothes she’s wearing and partly because—despite being a year younger than my own seventeen years—she’s about eight inches taller than I am. “I’ve been waiting for more than an hour.”
I hug her back but let go quickly as I answer. “Sorry, my plane was late from Seattle. The storm there made it hard to take off.”
“Yeah, we hear that a lot,” she tells me with a grimace. “Pretty sure their weather is even worse than ours.”
I want to argue—miles of snow and enough protective gear to give astronauts pause seem pretty freaking awful to me. But I don’t know Macy all that well, despite the fact that we’re cousins, and the last thing I want to do is offend her. Besides Uncle Finn and now Philip, she is the only other person I know in this place.
Not to mention the only family I have left.
Which is why, in the end, I just shrug.
It must be a good enough answer, though, because she grins back at me before turning to Philip, who is still carrying my suitcases. “Thanks so much for picking her up, Uncle Philip. Dad says to tell you he owes you a case of beer.”
“No worries, Mace. Had to run a few errands in Fairbanks anyway.” He says it so casually, like hopping in a plane for a couple-hundred-mile round-trip journey is no big deal. Then again, out here where there’s nothing but mountains and snow in all directions, maybe it’s not. After all, according to Wikipedia, Healy has only one major road in and out of it, and in the winter sometimes even that gets closed down.
I’ve spent the last month trying to imagine what that looks like. What it is like.
I guess I’m about to find out.
“Still, he says he’ll be around Friday with that beer so you guys can watch the game in true BFF style.” She turns to me. “My dad’s really upset he couldn’t make it out to pick you up, Grace. There was an emergency at the school that no one else could deal with. But he told me to get him the second we make it back.”
“No worries,” I tell her. Because what else am I supposed to say? Besides, if I’ve learned anything in the month since my parents died, it’s just how little most things matter.