Saturday, May 7, 2011

Book Excerpt

“Hey,” Tom said, toothbrush in mouth.  He hopped on the bed and Sandy opened her eyes, squinting against the morning light.  He was naked, his hair sticking up at odd angles.  “I can’t believe I’m actually up before you,” he said. 
Sandy groaned and buried her head under a pillow.
Tom patted her leg.  “Rise and shine, babe.  The helicopter tour starts in an hour, and I don’t want to be late.  Besides, someone has to join me for a shower.”  He disappeared into the bathroom, and Sandy, yawning, dragged herself out of bed.
Sandy, not Tom, had picked out their rental car—a Ford Mustang—but she made Tom drive so he would stop calling her “Mustang Sandy.”  Her plan worked.  He kept his attention on the highway and the scenery, the pineapple fields and coffee plantations backed by steep, chiseled mountains like chips of jade.
Sandy turned on the radio and scanned the stations.  “Where’s the NPR on this island?”
“I can’t believe we’re driving through paradise and you’re interested in the news,” Tom said, though he knew complaining would do no good.  Sandy had tuned him out.
After a sea of static she found the NPR station and sat back, staring at the radio as the anchor delivered the news.
“We have more on this morning’s assassination attempt as Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Bleiberg and Envoy John Wolfenson were leaving the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.  Only days away from the historic peace treaty between Israel and five other Mid-Eastern countries...”
Sandy,” Tom said, “you promised you were going to—”
“Shhh.”  She held up her hand to quiet him.
“The assassination attempt threatens to delay the signing between the six countries.  The State Department has confirmed reports that the alleged assassin was Bernard Rose, a long-time member of the United States Secret Service, who had recently been the bodyguard for Envoy John Wolfenson...”
“I know the assassin,” Sandy said.
Feeling like an asshole—albeit a vindicated asshole—Tom shut off the radio.  “I thought we agreed this vacation was all about us.  You know, I’ve wanted to put several landscapes to canvas since we got here—I’ve actually had a great idea for a series—but you don’t see me with my paints, do you?”
Sandy’s pulse throbbed in her wrist and neck.  She felt electrified, alert.  Helen called it her Spidey Sense for good stories, but Sandy knew it was just adrenaline—she was a junky for excitement.  “Honey, didn’t you hear me?  I met Bernard Rose a few years ago.  I should put a call into the show...”
She dug her cell phone out of her purse, but Tom snatched it from her and tossed it into the back seat.  She started to reach for it until she saw his clenched jaws. 
Awkwardly, Sandy leaned against him, playing as if she had always meant to cuddle instead of retrieve her phone.  “Is that any way to look at your new fiancĂ©e?” she asked.
“I’m serious here.”
“Then how come you’ve got that smile on your face?”
Tom didn’t have a smile on his face.  But after a few moments Sandy’s silly grin made him chuckle.
Even though a great story was slipping through her fingers, she left the cell phone where Tom had thrown it.

They boarded the black tour helicopter right on schedule, joined by a pair of Japanese newlyweds.  The couple spoke little English, and even less definite and indefinite articles.  They seemed nice, although the woman lied about her weight when the pilot asked.  Sandy took her cue and pretended to be ten pounds lighter than the scale said she was.
The newlyweds sat in front, and Tom and Sandy sat in back.  Everyone wore headsets so they could hear each other over the whoop-whoop-whoop of the helicopter’s rotor.  Before liftoff, the headphones played Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”  Tom and Sandy sang along, bobbing and swaying to the tune.
The tour circled the entire island, covering rainforests, waterfalls and gorgeous mountains.  Sandy actually gasped when they toured the Haleakala Crater.  It looked like the moon.
“This crater is the world’s largest dormant volcano,” the pilot said over the headsets.  “The cinder cones tower higher than the Empire State Building.”
Tom grinned.  The pilot obviously knew where his passengers hailed from because more than once he compared the Hawaiian landscapes to landmarks in Tokyo and New York.  He had a knack for putting things in perspective.
“Might be rain,” the pilot said, pointing at black clouds on the horizon.  He looked at his watch.  “Ah, you folks are in luck.  It’s almost noon, so we’ll be the last tour to see the Wall of Tears up close.”
“What happens after twelve?” Tom asked, shouting even though everyone could hear him clearly over the headphones.  He spoke the same way when talking on Sandy’s cell phone.  “I’m kind of a Neo Luddite,” he often explained.
“The wind picks up,” the pilot said, “makes it impossible to approach the cliff.”
Tom sat back, imagining a strong gust slamming the helicopter against a rock wall like a toy.  He glanced at Sandy, but she was too busy admiring the cinder cones below.  He decided to hold his tongue.  Sandy had been in copters before and would know if something was wrong.
The helicopter moved toward a narrow enclosure of cliffs, a box canyon covered in dense vegetation.  A stream cut its way through the verdant floor below, trailing in a white ribbon from the back wall.  Dozens of waterfalls streamed six hundred feet down the cliff, springing directly from the stone in some kind of magic trick.
“The water comes out of ancient lava tubes,” the pilot explained.
Sandy nodded, and the Japanese woman pulled the white handkerchief higher on her forehead as if to keep it from obstructing her sight.  Her husband snapped photographs through the window.
The pilot said, “Legend has it that the gods poked their fingers into the cliffs and made the earth cry—”
A gust of wind jolted the helicopter.  The Japanese woman screamed, and everyone grabbed their armrests.
“What was that?” Sandy asked once the bird had settled.
The pilot did not look back.  “Some of that wind I was telling you about.  We’re all right.  Just can’t stay here too much longer.  Let’s—”
Another gust of wind shook the copter, this time more violently.
Tom’s stomach flopped.  “I think we’ve seen enough,” he said, knuckles white as he held on.
The pilot nodded.  “I think you’re right, Tom.  Now the way I get out of here is to put the copter in reverse.  But at first it’ll feel like we’re going upside down.  Don’t worry though... Be happy.  Everybody ready?”
All four tourists nodded.  They didn’t have much choice; the terrain was uneven, jagged, full of ridges, valleys and ravines, no place to land a helicopter.
The pilot hit a few switches and pulled back on the cyclic stick and collective pitch lever, angling downward to get out of the narrow canyon. 
Suddenly, a powerful wind shear slammed into them, and the helicopter veered sideways, causing everyone to strain against the seatbelts.  The pilot tried to adjust, but the gust of wind was too severe and too sudden; it hit the vehicle at the most vulnerable time in the maneuver, and the engine cut out. 
Like a bird shot from the sky, the helicopter fell.
The pilot said, “Shit.”  He pulled back on the stick, trying to regain control of the copter.
In the back seat Sandy and Tom looked out their windows as they rushed toward the ground.
She clutched his hand.  “Jesus Christ!  Tom!”
“I can’t believe this is happening!”  A dissociated part of him realized how stupid he sounded, how inane.  His brain fired in so many directions he only caught flutters and vague impressions of his thoughts: if he died, the price of his paintings would skyrocket; he would never paint again, would never begin the last painting in his series, “The Phoenix,” a golden, fiery building unfolding from the ash pit of Ground Zero, a theme of hope; and Sandy—she would never wear her wedding gown, would never win her Pea Body Award.
The pilot grabbed the handset on the two-way radio.  Tom heard his distress call, heard the other passengers screaming in a mishmash of Japanese and English curses, all far away and unimportant.
“Mayday, mayday, this is N6037.  We’re going down.  Mayday, mayday, this is Niner6037.  We’re at the Wall of Tears and we’ve lost power—we’re going down!”
The helicopter picked up speed, rocketing toward the plant-covered rocks.  It crashed through trees, tipping, tilting—it smashed into the ground.  Branches shattered the windshield into a million glittering gems.
Then... silence.
The tick of cooling metal.