Let’s finally meet the human protag! And once again, first draft material here. The pacing is very herky-jerky :U
The new apartment is crap.
But Holly knows this – it’s why she’s able to afford to live there alone to begin with. At 29, she’s finally on her own. No more roommates blasting music at 2 in the morning, or leaving dishes to rot in the sink.
But leave it to the Mendozas to find a way to be disappointed in their younger of two daughters.
For one, this apartment is in Billings, Montana, almost a 9-hour drive from her childhood home in Salt Lake City. The Mendozas and their large, extended family all live within a half-hour of each other, and it’s been that way for generations now.
For two, she’s single. And as far as they’re concerned, if she’s not married when she’s young, attractive, and fertile, then she’ll be alone forever. They cite a great-aunt that she’d never met as an example – a woman who worked hard and didn’t concern herself with men for her whole life, and died alone because of it.
But Holly’s long suspected that she’s doomed to die alone anyways, because for three, she’s bi, and for four, she’s Latino.
Holly swallows, winding her way through the boxes littering the small living room to go collapse onto the well-worn couch, even as she still clutches her car keys. She aches from doing the entire second trip herself, and her eyes, literally underscored by deep bags, glance over to the 24-count box of Tecate sitting on the kitchen counter. It was a farewell gift from some of her friends.
She wants one – a couple, actually – but they’re hot from sitting in the car during the long trip. Instead, she sinks into an unnatural position, shuts her eyes, and lets out a long, low, groan. The scene that unfolded at about 8 o’clock that morning plays over in her head.
“I still don’t understand why you’re doing this.” The woman standing in the doorway separating Holly’s childhood kitchen and dining room looks at her daughter from under a pair of neatly-manicured, though graying, brows. While she dyes her hair, and has ever since getting her first silver strand 15 years ago, the Mexican in her can’t justify paying for those new eyebrow color kits.
Holly’s fishing around in the fridge for some juice. She’s a little hungover from being out with her friends the night before; the only people that seem to have well-wishes for her.
“I told you,” she says, scowling at the question that she’s heard a dozen times already. “I just need to get out of this town.”
“So you’re moving nine hours away.” She smiles and looks towards the ceiling, and Holly sees that she’s trying to blink away tears. “Why do I still feel like you’re doing this to spite your father and I?”
The youngest Mendoza grabs a glass out from the drying rack and sets it down on the tile counter a little too hard.
“I’m not doing it to spite you and dad.”
“Why Billings? What’s in Billings that you can’t get here?”
Holly pours. Her head is killing her. “Yellowstone. You know how much I love being outside.”
“I know there’s more than that.”
She chews on the inside of her cheek, and looks out the kitchen window into the side-yard, where her mother grows potted succulents during the warmer months.
Of course there’s more than that.
How about all the holiday get-togethers that she has to endure being called a puta or cochina by an elderly relative who thinks she’s out of earshot? All the vaguely well-meaning, but still aggressive, harassment from her cousins? The primos weren’t like the older generations of staunch Catholics, but still – indifference conveyed through Latino-style camaraderie is oftentimes just as harsh and unforgiving as derision.
Her mother knows this. But she has too much damn pride, too much of that classic Mexican guilt, to let herself accept them as valid reasons.
You gave birth to a sinner, Holly wants to say. You think I want to be around a family that can’t stop reminding me of that?
“You’re going to be alone,” Linda continues. “A young woman like you shouldn’t be alone. At least if you maybe just… grew out your hair…”
Holly can’t help but stare daggers at her mother, suddenly conscious of her neatly trimmed undercut and topknot. And yes, it’s obvious that it’s a men’s haircut. But the comment makes the bile begin to rise, and it’s because thinly-veiled criticisms about her appearance have always made her particularly angry.
“You know what? Just stop. I don’t need this shit right now. Not as I’m about to leave.”
Her mother closes in. “How do you think your father and I feel? How do you think we feel when you haven’t even given us a good reason as to why you’re doing this. Why you’re… you’re abandoning your family.”
She can see the very real fear in her mother’s soft brown eyes that she’ll never see her younger daughter again, and for a moment, she’s caught up in her pain. But she steels herself, remembering that the woman’s refusal to defend her child from the brunt of the family’s derision is what made this happen.
“The family abandoned me thirteen years ago, mom,” she mutters. “I’m just returning the favor.”
Linda’s hair, a barely tamed mane of brown waves, makes her look suddenly fierce. Its framing her normally soft features, gently creased by years of living passionately and working hard. But her face is severe now. “So this is about spite.”
“Dammit, mom. Forget it.”
Holly sets down the half-empty glass and pushes past the diminutive woman in the doorway.
“This family hasn’t abandoned you,” Linda calls after her, emphasizing the last words.
Holly pauses in the living room. “Then how come dad and Heather aren’t here?”
Her mother is silent, and the youngest Mendoza grabs her keys and heads to the front door. “We both know why,” she mutters, fighting the lump in her own throat. “I love you, mom. But I need to go. I’ll call when I get in.”
Holly didn’t call – she texted. The last thing she wants to do is get on the phone and pretend that the conversation didn’t happen.
She opens her eyes again, squinting as rays of fiery orange shine in through the blinds, streaking across her face. Her eyes wander about the spartan space, and then to the hallway leading to the single small bedroom and bathroom, wondering what to unpack first.
Holly’s gotten sheets on the bed and is busy filling kitchen cabinets with her collection of mismatched cups and plates when she realizes that tomorrow’s Saturday, and even though she starts work at her new location on Monday, she doesn’t want to spend the weekend holed up in here.
“I think I’ll hit the trails tomorrow.”
It’s been three days since Holly broke her leg (and probably both ankles) falling down that ravine, and her supplies for what was just supposed to be an overnight hike in the Beartooths were just about gone.
It’s no small miracle that she’d had few visitors since falling: a couple of coyotes that she’d made quick work of with the bear spray, and a mountain lion… the same one that had spooked her into losing her footing to begin with. But her arms still worked just fine, and with them she was able to pitch a rock at its head, drawing blood. Holly knew it would be back, and she’d begun to at least hope that she’d be dead by then.
But she knows that this was how she was always going to go – alone, and without the Mendozas at her side. Even then, though, she always envisioned her last moments at least taking place in a hospital bed, not fending off predators out in the Rockies.
But still, alone is alone.
Her mom knows where she is… long ago Holly got into the habit of telling someone the details of her adventures out in the bush in case, god forbid, something happened.
Something like this.
Does her mom even know what to do? From two states away? Holly didn’t tell her what trail she’d be on, how many miles she expected to go, who to call…
“Goddammit,” she hisses, wincing at the ever-present throbbing pain in her swollen leg and ankles. It’s just short of unbearable. Holly aches everywhere else, especially her arms, from using them to pivot and drag herself from one log to the next. She glances back at where she’d initially fallen three days ago; it’s only about 20 feet away.
She needs to try elevating her legs again, though. To literally lay down and wait for death.
With a deep breath and a preemptive wince, Holly begins chanting: “Dios te salve, Maria. Llene eres de gracia… El Señor es… es contigo…”
And even though she’s a long-lapsed Catholic, the prayer seems to help. Though you wouldn’t know it by the sound of the growl that rips from her lungs as she lifts her leg from behind the knee and slowly sets it on a rock. And just from that small action alone is she panting in pain and exhaustion; delirium and chills are just over the horizon, she can feel it. The woman lays back on the ground to catch her breath and wait for the spots clouding her vision to go away. (But maybe they won’t this time.)
It becomes apparent, though, that three days of little food and deprived sleep have finally caught up to her, and Holly knows for certain now that she is not getting up again. There’s just not strength enough left for it.
But there’s a sound.
Distant, at first, but in the dead silence of the mountains, it’s unmistakeable: rotor blades whipping through the air.
“Shit,” Holly breathes, trying to reach for her pack without moving her legs. “Shit… shit…” With a shaking hand she reaches for her compass. Even now, she feels her energy draining away as she positions the reflective back of the compass beside her eye, letting it catch the sun.
They’re looking! For me!
The lone, injured hiker can do nothing but wait for the helicopter to appear. And if it doesn’t make a pass right over her?
No. It will… it will…
It seems like forever before the helicopter comes into view overhead, its white and orange body stark against the cloudless sky. Holly doesn’t breathe as she repositions the mirror in such small increments, trying to follow the lumbering path of the rescue craft above, but it keeps moving, and before long, she’s shouting at it at the top of her lungs as it disappears behind a ridge. Her throat’s raw.
Holly Mendoza stares blankly at the sky, now empty. Her face scrunches up in despair and she fights with every ounce of will that she has to not throw the compass as far away from her as she can.
Instead, she clutches it in her dirty, clammy palm like she wants to draw blood. A strangled snarl leaves her, threatening to turn into a sob, but for some reason, no tears come. Maybe she’s too parched to cry.
There’s one last thing she can think of to do.
Summoning her last dregs of strength, she twists around to the best of her ability, reaching for what twigs and leaves are nearby, and gathers them up into a rough pile. She rummages through her pack again, taking out a lighter – one that her grandfather gave her – and with effort, sparks a flame, setting the tinder alight.
The fire it produces is huge at first, and hot; she shields her face from the flames that are burning just a little too close for comfort. But in no time it dies down to smouldering ashes, and she has nothing more to stoke it with. The smoke it produces is steady, but small. Hardly the signal fire she was hoping for. She stares at it with quickly dissolving incredulity.
“So that’s it, then.”
The woman hears another sound, though; and it’s definitely not the helicopter. It’s more like… stones tumbling down into the ravine. And truly, she expects the worst, because it’s beginning to sound like something slowly rooting through the underbrush towards her, and she can barely twist around enough to look in much of any direction other than up.
Trembling, Holly grabs the bear spray and waits.
But she doesn’t have to wait long to notice that whatever it is out there is definitely walking on two legs instead of four.
“Hello!” she finds herself rasping, wincing at the pain blooming in her leg. Ignore it! “Is somebody there! I-I need help!”
“Holly Mendoza!” a voice replies from maybe one or two hundred feet away. It’s a strange voice; distorted in the same way as someone speaking through a headset. But right now, she barely notices, and a wide, though weak, grin spreads on her face from ear to ear.
“It’s me!” she shouts, trying to sit up. “Over here!”
The footsteps grow louder, now, and heavier as they approach from behind. And it’s not long before a figure, briskly making their way towards her, appears from around a bend. But it’s not a normal figure.
The thing is enormous: three times her height, and clad in the same black, white, and orange of the chopper. What she can now recognize as a fully-armored body and face-obscuring helmet catches the flecks of light filtering through the trees above it. On the right side of its chest, in black on white, are the letters Y.S.A.R., and below it is an image of a hand silhouetted against a mountain peak. On the other side of its chest is a number: 006, which is also printed on its helmet.
While confused for a second, Holly recognizes the thing as a drone suite: a vehicle.
“I’ve got her in my sights,” she catches the operator saying into his mic as he closes the distance between them. “Rendezvous at my location.” He kneels down beside her, trying to make the thing’s 15-foot stature appear less intimidating – and looks her up and down through the camera behind the helmet’s reflective mask. “Are you alright?” the operator asks through the suit. “Can you feel your legs?”
She gives a breathy, panting laugh. “Wish I couldn’t,” she jokes, and the operator chuckles along with her.
“Just hang tight, alright? We’ll be getting you into a stretcher in just a few minutes.”
Holly’s mind wanders for a moment, imagining being strapped into a bright orange basket stretcher and pulled into the helicopter. But something about the thought doesn’t seem right, and now she remembers: this shit is expensive.
“Wait!” she blurts up at the helmet. “Wait… please don’t send a chopper. Please. Can’t you just… just carry me to an ambulance or something? That’s the whole reason you’re with search and rescue… so… so you don’t have to airlift as often?”
The machine-body betrays the human operator’s confusion; his huge six-fingered hands hover in the air above her, not sure what to do with them all of a sudden.
“…what?” He sounds almost as helpless as her, now. “I… I can’t. The helicopters are already deployed, and…” His voice trails off. “Why?”
She can hear the damned thing heading back toward them.
Holly covers her dirty, sunken face with dirtier hands. No… no, no, no…
“This… it’s not supposed to happen this way.” She pauses. “I’m getting rescued. I-I’m supposed to be happy, for fuck’s sake.” The words are leaving her like water through a leaky dam. And it’s probably the delirium, but her anxiety is skyrocketing, and thoughts of bankruptcy or loan sharks or some other bogeyman fill her head, and she can’t stop it. Holly catches her breath and lets out a little laugh. “You’re saving my life and all I can think about it how expensive it’ll be. That’s pretty fucking sad, isn’t it? Fuck me…”
The drone suit looming over her is silent. The operator looks away, toward the trail some hundred feet up the slope, and rests two massive metal fingers on her shoulder.
“I wish there was something I could do,” he says, the both of them listening to the helicopter land somewhere nearby. “But I’m – the suit – is just a fancy piece of equipment here. I… I get no say in how things are done.”
Holly breathes in slow, trying to calm down. “I get it,” she murmurs before wincing again at a sudden throb in her leg.
What he says next catches her off-guard. “I’m sorry.”
Two people are headed towards them at a near-jog, though, and the drone suit looks over its shoulder at the others. They’re carrying a bright red stretcher between them, and he takes the opportunity to rise and step out of the way. The two men gently maneuver her into the thing, but white hot pain shoots up her leg as they have to manually position it in with her. After a few quick questions, the two of them move away and the man behind the drone bends down to pick her up and carry her to the helicopter. Holly is still seeing stars from the man grabbing her broken leg as they ascend the hillside.
“Please… please don’t be sorry,” she grinds out through her clenched teeth. “I don’t mean to make you feel like shit. It’s my problem, not yours.”
But he’s silent, and the only expression she can see in the visor is her own being reflected in it.
A few moments later and he slides her gently into the hold of the helicopter, where two EMTs are waiting. Before she knows it, they’ve stuck a needle in the back of her hand, and something rushes out of it and into her arm like a warm breath, and they tell her that it’s going to help the pain. She suddenly feels giddy, and could swear that it feels like they’re lifting off the ground…
The sensation quickly fades and Holly’s head begins to swim as the other SAR guys climb up into the helicopter and strap themselves in, but the giant remains outside. She gets the feeling that she’s meeting the operator’s gaze, wherever he is, as she looks out past her feet at him. Just before they close the door, though, she catches him fold his arms and look down, shoulders slumping. Such a weird thing to see a machine do, even though it’s only tracking the operator’s movements.
…and is that a glint of something behind the black acrylic?
Too late; the door’s shut and they’re lifting off and she suddenly feels like falling asleep for the rest of her life.
“How’s he gonna get home?” she asks wearily as they slip a pair of muffs over her ears. But they either don’t hear her over the din filling the cabin or ignore what they rightly assume is the beginnings of drug-addled gibberish. “Maybe he goes home by himself…”