Authors: Caroline B. Cooney
Flight #116 Is Down!
For my daughter, Louisa, who became an EMT at sixteen, and with thanks to Paul Connolly, Lew Daniels, and Jan Morrison. Any errors in the text are mine.
ATURDAY: 5:05 P.M.
The coffee shop was open from six
until midnight. It sat in the middle of nowhere between a video rental shop and a gas station whose pumps were difficult to find behind the row of cars to be repaired, or beyond repair.
Patrick loved the coffee shop. Everybody went there, all the men he admired and wanted to be exactly like.
It had had a lot of names: it had been Joanie’s, and The Doughnut Hole, and The Welcome Home, and The Diner on the Hill, until nobody could remember which name fit when, and now it was not called by name at all, but by liquid, as in “I’m going for coffee. Meet me?”
Patrick did not like coffee and wished he could order a Pepsi. But he was learning how to gag coffee down. His original plan was to drink it black because he liked guys who straddled the stools at the counter and said, “Black”—tough and hard, as if saying, “Assassinate Me.” But black coffee was disgusting; you might as well drink concentrated river pollution. Then he tried his father’s style, “Half a sugar, drop of milk,” but that just turned the pollution paler. He was up to “Two sugars, heavy on the milk” now, and he still couldn’t figure out why people wanted to pour this stuff into their systems.
But he loved the coffee shop.
Constables, state police, firemen, and ambulance volunteers hung out here. Construction workers, the town crew, state forest rangers—everybody interesting. It often seemed they did nothing but drink coffee; or perhaps drank in shifts, so as to have one person on the job and one swilling coffee. This was where the stories were. How that stupid jerk Masey wired the O’Fallin house so bad that it caused the fire last month, and here summer people were still hiring Masey to do their wiring. How the Stoeckle brothers had probably set their own restaurant on fire for the insurance but looked now as if they’d get away with it. How McCandless’s son had married that Epson girl, and that’s how he got the job building the addition to the Town Hall, because the Epsons ran everything.
Patrick lived for that kind of gossip.
His geography of Europe and Africa might be a little skimpy, but his geographical knowledge of Nearing River was flawless. Patrick was convinced that he knew every road, every driveway, every shortcut, and the grade of every hill. He knew who ran the snowplows and who did 24-hour tows. He thirsted for more facts about his town, absorbing them for the moment when he called the shots and saved the lives and houses.
Patrick was a Junior on the Ambulance.
He hated this term. It implied stupidity, youth, and a small body. Patrick was smart, seventeen, and weighed in at one eighty. He was a trained and certified EMT: Emergency Medical Technician.
Meanwhile, however, he was also a Junior. Ellington and Darien, Connecticut, also used Juniors for emergency response, but in those towns they were called Explorers. Patrick thought that was even worse than Junior: like, were you going to say to this person having a heart attack, “Oh, just lie down and let me Explore”?
Patrick could take blood pressure, pulse, temperature, and respiration. He could bandage and splint. He could move neck and head injuries. He knew how to control bleeding, treat shock, and deal with belligerent drunks.
Patrick thought it comical that he needed a hall pass to go to the school library—but he could deliver a baby or give CPR without saying Please May I.
The town of Nearing River had no paid medical or fire response; no town in the area ever had. Volunteers handled emergencies. There was one problem. Except for the factory where Patrick’s dad worked, there were no jobs in Nearing River. The town—it was stretching things to call Nearing River a town—was pretty remote. People had to drive as far away as Torrington or even Waterbury to get work. Few adults were around by day to volunteer for anything at all.
So the state issued a waiver to Nearing River and allowed sixteen- to eighteen-year-olds to train for ambulance rescue. Juniors on call left high school classes to respond to emergencies. If it weren’t for Juniors, it would be very poor planning to have a car accident, a baby, a stabbing, a heart attack, or a drug overdose between eight in the morning and six at night.
Patrick wanted to be a paramedic someday and drive the paramedic’s specially equipped Bronco: speeding over curving, ice-slick roads, bringing relief to the wounded.
Actually, most calls were un-wounded. People panicked easily. They called the ambulance for anything. A kid fell off his bike and got three drops of blood on his kneecap and the mother called the ambulance. An elderly woman scraping potatoes scraped her knuckle instead, and she called the ambulance. Two cars ploughed into each other and bystanders called the ambulance when nobody was hurt in the slightest; even the cars weren’t hurt.
Patrick had done very little lifesaving.
He tried to be glad that so few local lives were in danger, but deep down he was hoping for a really good catastrophe. Say, an elementary school bus turning over into the ravine on Upper Long Hill.
Then he would catch the thought, stomp on it, swear to God no such horrible idea had passed through his mind; actually glancing upward (Who me, God? Sweet Patrick? Never.) as if to ward off the thunder and lightning he deserved for happily daydreaming of such a thing.
Oh, well, just going to high school was punishment enough. Every day Patrick could not believe they expected him to attend yet again. He studied because his father would kick him out of the house if he didn’t, and because his mother was an English teacher who would be ashamed if her son failed.
Patrick adored his parents.
His father was head of maintenance for the only factory in town. Patrick’s dad loved his work: always something different—wiring, windowpanes, air-conditioning. The factory had two nice policies: anybody who wanted to donate blood got time off and a company van to take them to the Bloodmobile; and anybody who was a volunteer on Fire or Ambulance could automatically leave for a call.
Rescuing ran in the family.
Patrick’s mom had quit driving on the Ambulance Squad after fourteen years of taking one twelve-hour shift a week and now was a dispatcher two nights a week for 911.
Patrick’s dad had switched to the Fire Department, having tired of ambulance calls. Stuff like, “HillView Nursing Home, eighty-four-year-old female, difficulty breathing” did not whip up Mr. Farquhar’s adrenalin anymore. Eighty-four-year-olds in nursing homes were always having difficulty breathing. However, he was now subjected to calls like, “11 Rockrimmon Road, man smells smoke,” which, after Mr. Farquhar left work, joined his buddies at the firehouse, yanked out the engines, drove all the way backcountry, would turn out to be a neighbor burning leaves. Mr. Farquhar’s enthusiasm for rescue of any kind had hit an all-time low.
Patrick’s enthusiasm was at an all-time high. All he needed was somebody to rescue. But regrettably, no matter how Patrick yearned for action, this was basically a very dull part of America. He had to watch television to see a gunfight, a drug war, a volcano, or a forest fire. Even though he loved every inch of Nearing River, it was a mystery to Patrick why anybody lived here. It was so boring.
Yet people were continually moving in.
It amazed Patrick that there were so many people in this small town he did not know. Ambulance call after ambulance call was for a family he had never heard of; a house he had somehow never noticed. Houses lurked behind thick stands of maple trees; driveways sneaked out from behind granite outcroppings; new people moved to town without notifying Patrick. In fact, if he went by the last names of ambulance calls this year, the entire town consisted of sick strangers.
Patrick filled his heavy white coffee mug to the brim with cream, hoping to soften the sewage flavor. It did not. He steeled himself, thinking sadly that men all around the world steeled themselves to face terrorists, civil war, or famine, while he, Patrick, couldn’t even swallow coffee.
He took his scanner off his belt and set it on the green plastic counter to admire. He loved his scanner: the black official rectangle, the little red lights zinging around and around the frequencies, ready to stop for any transmission. Tonight, however, the frequencies of state police, local constables (Nearing River didn’t even have a police force), and Fire and Ambulance in the three nearest towns remained silent.
Noelle, who ran the diner, and appeared to be the only one on this evening, switched her radio off Easy Listening to the weather channel. Patrick listened skeptically. The weather channel was a joke. It couldn’t predict as well as his father could, just walking out the front door. In the last week they had had fog, ice, a dusting of snow, a day of sixty-degree weather, followed immediately by another ice storm. March was Patrick’s kind of month; he liked October, too; that was a month you couldn’t count on. Months like July, now, or January—they were predictable.
Patrick yearned for something unpredictable; something that would test him; something he could swagger about.
Noelle put Easy Listening back on. Patrick was opposed to the whole concept of Easy Listening. He wanted hard, taxing, tough listening. What was the matter with his life that it just lay around being Easy Listening?
The scanner channels lay silent. The red light flickered from channel to channel without finding any action.
The estate was called Dove House.
The mansion had been built a hundred years before by an owner who had been charmed by a dovecote in England when he was abroad. He constructed, therefore, an enormous, shingled, twenty-room mansion for himself and his bride, with tiny windows and tiny dormers below a massive roof. It was ridiculous, out of proportion, and weird—but charming. Anybody arriving for the first time would frown at the house, visibly thinking, What is this thing? Then they would smile, just as visibly thinking, Whatever it is, I kind of like it.
Dove House faced a lovely fieldstone courtyard, complete with fountain. The courtyard entry was European and cozy, while the rear of Dove House looked out across wide meadows, a deep rock-encrusted ravine, and thick vine-tangled woods. There was a tennis court, a reflecting pond surrounded by roses, and a gazebo.
At one time the owners of Dove House had kept not only doves, but also peacocks and sheep. The Landseths, who had bought the place a dozen or so years before, had been entranced when they inherited this menagerie.
The peacocks, however, had to be abandoned because they were always escaping their enclosure, going off into the woods and shrieking their doomed-child-in-agony shriek. (The neighbors who frantically called 911, the constables and volunteers who set off into the ravines searching for the doomed child, quickly tired of this entertainment.) The sheep were abandoned because they were pretty only from a distance and not close up, but the sheep didn’t know that and were always breaking through the fences and getting disgustingly close up. Finally there were only horses, when the Landseth daughter went through a horsey stage, and fields were cleared and fenced off.
Heidi Landseth had trouble even remembering her horse-crazy years. She’d had two ponies and three horses at one point. Then, when she was twelve, Heidi lost interest. It really had been strange: her life was horse horse horse, and one morning she woke up and didn’t care if she ever rode again. Eventually the horses were sold, and now the stable lay empty, and the pony field had to be mowed twice a year to keep it from growing up into woods again.