His eyelids fluttered as he slowly became aware he was awake. Dazed, he looked around the cabin, struck by how nothing and yet everything seemed familiar. He knew his name was James, and he knew the woman sitting next to him in the cabin was Eileen, his beloved wife. However, he had no idea how he ended up strapped to a chair, or why Eileen was strapped to a chair right next to him.
The brain is a complex organ, moving at a rate so fast that sometimes it leaves consciousness behind. James quickly freed himself, feeling a primal urge to get to Eileen. He needed to know she was all right.
As far as he could tell, he was in perfect health. But the love of his life, his precious Eileen, wasn't breathing. Her body appeared cold and stiff.
“Help Me!” he called out in a panic, his words forceful and deliberate. “Please—is there anyone there?”
"She's not breathing—she needs help!" The words were heavy and raw, but James instinctively knew they were fruitless. Eileen was gone, and he was alone, stripped of his short term memory and facing his worst nightmare.
It had been only minutes since he had regained consciousness, at least it seemed as if it had been only minutes. A few things were now abundantly clear. Eileen was dead, the cabin was dark and bitterly cold, and he had lost all track of time.
The door to the cabin was locked, but even if it wasn’t, James would not have been able to pry it open. He would learn this later. The back of the cabin had been destroyed, with a gaping hole, large enough for a truck to drive through.
In the moonlight, He could see old snow crusting around the rough opening in the back of the cabin as new snow continued to fall. Although grateful for the protection the cabin afforded, it was no match for the bitter cold. He began to shiver uncontrollably.
The adrenaline that had provided his only warmth started to wear off quickly. He knew he couldn't survive long in such harsh conditions. After a short search, aided by the last light of the phone retrieved from his shirt pocket, James discovered the cabin offered no relief from the cold. His time was short, only a few moments to make a viable plan.
James was a consummate planner with Eileen, his good natured wife, putting up with his micromanaging. He wished he could tell her now how much she meant to him one last time, but she was gone. He would think about her later. Now, his survival depended on his ability to focus.
He made his way to the hole in the back of the cabin and trekked out into the woods. With the powdery snow, his careful footsteps made no sound. The softness of the snow couldn't hide its destructive chill.
Looking from left to right and only seeing trees, James made his way to the front of the cabin. At a time where he should have been consumed by panic, he was struck by the stark beauty of the serene landscape.
If he and Eileen had come here on one of their many hikes, he might have impetuously decided to build a home in these woods. He had promised her a dream home, but there was no escaping the truth that his life, whatever was left of it, would never be the same and would no longer include Eileen. Though the woods held an ethereal beauty, there was no solace to be found—certainly not in a frozen wasteland that was quickly becoming a coffin.
Lost in thought, James pictured Eileen and what might have been. He almost forgot to assess his situation. Almost.
Breaking the silence, he could swear he heard his wife's voice. Don't dilly dally, James. There's work to be done. Heeding Eileen's unspoken words, James looked for anything that might be of use.
He observed the left side of the cabin, the side where the door was located, under a foot of snow. There was no way he would have been able to open that door. He became grateful for the damage to the rear of the cabin. It allowed the cold air in, but it also provided an exit. Being outside cured any burgeoning claustrophobia with which he might have been afflicted but it also brought into clear focus his seemingly unsolvable dilemma. He had to survive until morning. The night was a predator and he—its prey.
The last thing James had seen on his phone before the battery had gone completely dead was the time: 3:00 a.m. It would be at least four hours before sunlight would offer any relief from the frigid night. The cold provided the slap in the face he needed to knock him from his waking slumber. He wasn’t sure how he would survive, but he knew walking around in the snow in sub zero weather—in dress shoes—was not a good start. He headed back inside the cabin.
Once indoors, James enjoyed the respite from the wind that seemed to have been blowing through him. Now in survival mode, his eyes adjusted to the low light, and he retrieved the first aid kit from his initial search. Although seemingly unimportant at the time, he now grabbed it and flipped open the lid. He remembered that many kits contain Mylar blankets, small but effective tools in prolonging life in cold weather emergencies. To his great relief, there was just such a blanket in the kit; he quickly wrapped the shiny foil around himself, waiting for its warming properties to take effect.
Four hours is no time at all when one is watching a double feature or playing a family game of Monopoly. In fact, James could recall many a time at work when he set aside an hour to work on a legal brief. Before he knew it, he was taking a call from Eileen asking why he had missed dinner. Four hours is no time at all unless one is sitting in a freezing cabin in the woods next to a dear wife whom you will never see alive again.
Extreme cold can have an odd effect on one's thoughts. Strange ideas started to enter his mind. Eileen had been wearing a sweater and what looked like some very warm woolen socks. He could use both to increase his chances of survival, but then she might get cold. His first impulse—as always—was to care for her. The desire to protect his wife was great, yet so was his desire to live. These few articles of her clothing, small as they were, offered life in the middle of the night, in the middle of winter, in the middle of nowhere.
“Eileen, do you mind if I borrow your sweater and socks?”
There was comfort in hearing a voice, even his own. Not at all, my dearest James. Eileen would never have said my dearest James, but in the fog of delusion that drove a man to have a conversation with himself, her imagined words seemed perfectly natural.
Undressing someone who is deceased and bound to a chair in a frozen cabin is harder than one might initially think. James’s hands shook, both showing the first signs of frostbite. Getting a firm grip on anything had become quite the chore. Add to that the rigid nature of Eileen’s body and the grim undertaking, retrieving the warm clothing took what seemed like hours. Had his phone battery not died, he would have noticed that no more than a few minutes had passed during his struggle to warm himself.
Once he had donned the sweater and socks, he wondered if her articles of clothing actually made his torso or feet measurably warmer. However, he felt closer to Eileen, making up for the difficulty of the task.
As he sat in his chair, wrapped in his blanket, wearing his wife's clothing, the hours turned to minutes. Suddenly, James became painfully aware of the lie recounted by every author of every book he had ever read. Great philosophers from Aristotle to Bugs Bunny had postulated that as individuals moved closer to death, their entire lives would flash before their eyes.
This was demonstrably untrue.
As he felt the encroaching effect of hypothermia, first on his hands and feet, then throughout his skull, slowly chilling the vital organs that sustained his life, he didn’t reflect back on the moments passed. He thought long and hard about the moments unrealized. The grandchildren he and Eileen would never hold, the travels they would never make, the forever home they would never build, and the front porch they would never occupy. James didn’t miss the things he had; he missed the things he missed. All he wanted to do was to sit in his rocking chair next to Eileen, holding her hand as the sun set.
It was then he finally understood what he had to do. Summoning all the strength he had left, he took off the sweater and socks he had borrowed from Eileen and returned them to their rightful owner. He folded up the Mylar blanket that was his only source of heat and placed it carefully back in the first aid kit. He returned to his seat, where he belonged, right next to his wife, and took her hand in his. In that moment all was exactly as it had been when he first opened his eyes. Content in his decision, he looked at his wife and then simply closed his eyes for the last time.
James would never know that less than twenty minutes after he had passed away that rescuers, guided by the signal from the black box in the plane's cabin, would find the star-crossed lovers.
No one knew exactly why James's plane had crashed. He was, after all, an experienced pilot in a brand new plane. According to the autopsy, the pair were listed as dying from blunt trauma resulting from a plane crash. Newspaper articles were written about the tragedy that had befallen the couple, but no one who was there, when they were found, viewed it as a complete tragedy. They told a story of timeless love encapsulated in the wreckage of an airplane’s cabin and of two people holding hands for eternity.