An adventurous debut novel that cross cuts between a competitive college swimmer’s harrowing days in the Rocky Mountains after a major airline disaster and her recovery supported by the two men who love her—only one of whom knows what really happened in the wilderness.
Nineteen-year-old Avery Delacorte loves the water. Growing up in Brookline, Massachusetts, she took swim lessons at her community pool and captained the local team; in high school, she raced across bays and sprawling North American lakes. Now a sophomore on her university’s nationally ranked team, she struggles under the weight of new expectations but life is otherwise pretty good. Perfect, really.
That all changes when Avery’s red-eye home for Thanksgiving makes a ditch landing in a mountain lake in the Colorado Rockies. She is one of only five survivors, which includes three little boys and Colin Shea, who happens to be her teammate. Colin is also the only person in Avery’s college life who challenged her to swim her own events, to be her own person—something she refused to do. Instead she’s avoided him since the first day of freshman year. But now, faced with sub-zero temperatures, minimal supplies, and the dangers of a forbidding nowhere, Avery and Colin must rely on each other in ways they never could’ve imagined.
In the wilderness, the concept of survival is clear-cut. Simple. In the real world, it’s anything but.
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Claire Kells was born and raised outside Philadelphia. She received a degree in English from Princeton University and a medical degree from the University of California. Currently in residency, she lives and works in the Bay Area. This is her first novel.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I’ve always loved the water. My earliest memory is opening my eyes in my neighbor’s pool and seeing the world through this different state of being. It shocked no one when I begged for swim lessons at the age of three—far younger than my older, more adventuresome brothers. When my mother saw me flying off the high dive the summer before kindergarten, she was horrified but not surprised. She wanted to ban me from the pool for a week, but my dad had a different idea: put her on the swim team.
After the crash, my instincts changed. Even the smallest children know not to breathe underwater, but somehow, my mind railed against everything I’d ever known. I thought it was permanent.
I thought fear was forever.
The security line proceeds in its usual torturous fashion: in stops and starts, other people’s luggage tumbling at my feet. After thirty minutes of halfhearted apologies, one of the TSA checkers waves me over.
He holds up my Massachusetts license and smirks. “You sure this is you?”
“Yep.” I force a smile. That picture isn’t my proudest moment: blond hair wild and windblown, eyes bloodshot, freckled skin paler than a baby’s butt. It was February, the week before midterms. Never get your driver’s license issued in February.
“You’re a brunette now.”
“Yep.” Precious seconds tick by.
“Okay,” he says, handing it over. “You pass.”
I take my license and head for the closest lane. A family of six squeezes in right in front of me, juggling Uggs and Disney backpacks and a whole assembly of umbrellas. A toddler empties his pockets and fifty pennies scatter on the floor. I scoop them up while his parents chase down their other kids.
Five interminable minutes later, I’m through the X-ray machine, awaiting the verdict with my shoes off, arms at my sides. “Clear,” the woman says, with the amount of enthusiasm one would expect from someone who’s said it a thousand times today.
The crowds don’t exactly part for me as I run for the gate, but I’ve gotten good at this. Some people run clumsily: handbags flying, suitcases bobbing behind them on carpeted floors. The business-class folks walk with a practiced, efficient grace. I’m somewhere in between: a little stressed but not crazed. Forget dinner, though. I hurry past the bars and fro-yo stands with a lurch in my stomach.
The thing is, I could have avoided all this; I could have been on time, relaxed, enjoying a decent dinner or at least some packaged sushi before my flight. Phil Markey offered me a ride to the airport after practice this morning, which came as a shock because senior guys don’t often talk to sophomore girls—especially sophomore girls who don’t exactly dominate in the pool. I didn’t wonder about it too much, though. A ride with the co-captain? I said yes.
My excitement dimmed when Phil pulled up to my dorm with Colin Shea in the front seat. Colin Shea: serious and quiet and abundantly talented. Scarily talented. I’d avoided him since the first day of freshman year, and the thought of trying to explain why to Phil . . .
So I bailed. My excuse didn’t even make sense—something about carsickness and country music. Phil didn’t care, but Colin noticed. He always notices.
As if on cue, Colin steps out of line at Starbucks just as I’m rounding the corner. He’s paying for a coffee—a venti, in fact. Who buys coffee right before a red-eye? Not just that, but a supersized coffee. He doesn’t even bother with cream and sugar. He thanks the exhausted barista, stuffs the tip jar while she isn’t looking, and jogs up to the gate.
He’s clearly the last one to board. Well, second to last. Why did he wait so long to board? I hope to God he wasn’t waiting for me to show up. Phil knew we were all booked for the same flight to Boston, and Colin has a strange sense of responsibility about him. He probably thinks I’m late because of him. Which is true, but he will never know that.
I’ll give it a minute and board right before they close the doors. Hopefully he’s sitting way in the back somewhere. Some clever finagling scored me a seat in the emergency exit row, and I’m betting Colin just went for the cheapest option.
The gate agent responds to him the same way the barista did: stunned by his size and slick bald head, softened by his smile. She scans his boarding pass, hands it back to him, and even manages a sincere “Have a nice flight.”
When the final boarding announcement sounds overhead, I make my move. The terminal feels more subdued now, almost quiet. Tomorrow, the day before Thanksgiving, the chaos will bloom all over again. A janitor empties huge recycling bins. Two Asian women scrub the countertops of a Panda Express. A bearded man in a tweed jacket sits in one of those massage chairs with his cell phone to his ear, rubbing his temples as the clock creeps toward midnight.
The gate agent offers me an empty customer-service grin, the kind that isn’t meant to be returned. “Have a nice flight,” she says. She’s tired; I’m tired. I’ve averted disaster with Colin Shea and now I just want to get there.
As I round the corner, the cabin door gapes at me. A flight attendant mediates the transition from ramp to plane, where she greets me with a chipper “Welcome!” She doesn’t seem perturbed that I’ve boarded precariously late, but the first-class passengers are. They wring out their hot towels and glare at me like I peed in the complimentary champagne.
I rush past those coveted rows and enter the cramped, dingy quarters known as coach. The scene is familiar: tired parents and wailing babies, old men with canes, college kids sending a few last texts. Personal space doesn’t mean zip in coach. People are leaning on each other, into each other, all over each other. Phil has one of the bulkhead seats. Lucky bastard. He winks because that’s just kind of what he does, and I smile back.
“You made it,” he says.
“Hell, isn’t it?” He gestures vaguely to the chaos brewing behind him.
“A special kind,” I say, trying hard to sell the joke.
He nods and goes back to SportsCenter streaming on his iPad. Not the best of interactions, but not the worst, either. At least he acknowledged me. I was worried he might never talk to me again after the whole carpool fiasco.
After a brief survey of unfamiliar faces, I drop my gaze and power forward. Up ahead, a generously sized man pours into the aisle. He catches me with an elbow, then a knee. No apology. It’s fine. This is just how it goes on one of the busiest travel days of the year. Most people are wrestling with the overhead bins, but a few stare at me as I make my way down the center aisle. One brave-faced teenager actually swivels his head for a greedy look at my butt.
Ten . . . eleven . . . twelve . . . 12F. Window seat. It’s not first class, but it’s not 32B, either. I stop and look up. First order of business is to identify kids in the vicinity: Infants are bad, toddlers a nightmare. There are two of the latter sitting in the rows directly behind me. The little boy in 13E sports a baseball jersey, and 14F is swimming in a pint-size Indian kurta. All four parents flash me the same tentative grin, as if a positive attitude might just be the key to a seamless, whine-free flight. Another boy, maybe six or seven, sits in row 15, but he’s all tuned in to his dad’s electronics. This is a good sign. I just hope the younger boys skipped their naps today so they sleep through the flight.
The only other person in my row is a fortyish guy in an ill-fitting suit. He’s on his cell phone, ordering some poor intern to finalize the paperwork before the holiday. The man looks like he hasn’t cracked a smile since the eighties. I’m glad we’re together, though. He doesn’t seem like the chatty type.
I maneuver past his legs and settle into my coveted window seat. The shade is already up, revealing the nighttime extravagance of SFO and the Oakland skyline in the distance. Yellow lights pepper the hills to the east, disappearing in the hazy divide between sky and headlands. To the west, San Francisco sits in a steepening wall of fog.
The flight attendant leans into my row, pursing her lips with practiced professionalism. But my gaze doesn’t linger on her for very long; it shifts to the six-foot-four, broad-shouldered kid next to her.
I swallow hard. “Yeah?”
“This gentleman will be joining you in the emergency exit row.”
The next seat over, Cheap Suit groans. Colin murmurs a thank-you to the flight attendant and shifts awkwardly into the dreaded middle seat. His legs are long and cumbersome, and he probably used them to barter for a seat in the roomier section. A wave of irritation surges through me. He definitely planned this—saw me walk down the aisle and take my seat, then concocted an excuse about his legs being too long for 32B or wherever he’s supposed to be.
As Colin gets settled in, I make a point of rummaging through my bag. Laptop, e-reader, pens, a ripped swim cap. Some coins and other things I can’t identify just by touch. I continue searching.
Laptop. Perfect. I put my earbuds in and power it up, but the battery’s dead. How did that happen? I go for my phone instead. There’s only one song stored on the hard drive, and it’s a sampler from the phone company, but it will have to do.
So far, so good. Colin straightens his long legs and pulls his elbows in toward his body. For a tall person, he occupies amazingly little space. Most people his size park their elbows on the armrests the second they sit down, obliterating any sense of personal space. A good number of them proceed to nod off and snore or, worse, end up on my shoulder. At least Colin has some awareness of his surroundings. That or he’s trying too hard.
He skims his massive hand over his bald head as he reaches for a dog-eared copy of Great Expectations. Although I’m doing my best to look elsewhere, I can’t help but notice the handwritten plea to return the book if found, with Colin’s name and Dorchester address scrawled on the inside cover. I resist the sudden, inexplicable urge to ask him about this: You’re from Dorchester? When we met over a year ago, he told me he was from Boston. Which isn’t exactly a lie, but Boston makes you think country clubs and old money; Dorchester means you probably learned to swim in a community pool behind a chain-link fence.
I suppose the details don’t really matter. Best to act uninterested, to close my eyes and will the hours to pass. Because they will, and when we land, we’ll go our separate ways.
The lights dim, the tires lurch, and the plane rumbles backward. The grump in the suit barks a final set of commands into his cell phone, while the gentleman in front of me is already snoring. It sounds like his throat is wrestling with his vocal cords, a real battle to the death. I blast the sample music. Slowly, peacefully, the sounds of air travel fade to a muffled drone.
I close my eyes. In six hours, I’ll be there.
I’ll be home.
A gray shore unfolds before me, cast under shadowy gray skies. The scene stretches on forever, sand and sky, two hulking ghosts in a lonesome embrace. The sea laps the shore, oblivious. It washes over my toes, my ankles, my knees. And then it recedes.
A wave is cresting in the distance—black, shapeless, inevitable. Although my mind processes the threat, my body refuses to respond. Muscles won’t contract. Lungs refuse to inflate. Paralyzed, I stare at the wall of water as it swells before me, gathering strength before swallowing me whole—
The wave is not water but sound: human sounds. Crying, screaming. The distant echo of people’s voices pitched with panic.
Gasping, I snap my eyes open and find that I’m not alone on some vast gray shore. I’m in my seat. Plastic tubes dangle from the ceiling. Serving trays rattle in place. The cabin pulses with light, though the sky beyond my window is a grim, starless black.
The man next to Colin has dropped something, and he’s on all fours, crawling toward the front. The plane dips in that direction, pitching all of us forward, like an unbalanced seesaw. I blink a few times, focusing the images, praying they simply disappear—but the sound makes it real. God, the sound . . .
I cover my ears, only to feel the resistance of earbuds. The cord has no weight on the end of it, and in some distant corner of my mind, I consider the consequences of a lost cell phone. Then the plane goes into a dive, and my attention veers to the window.
The shade is still open, providing a pristine view of a great, mocking nothingness. We could be at the bottom of the sea or a million miles out in space—it’s impossible to tell. I press my forehead to the glass, straining for a view of something. Anything. Lights, people, houses, cars. Or maybe a runway beckoning us to land.
But there is nothing out there. I’ve never seen darkness so absolute. We could be anywhere; we could be nowhere.
Oxygen masks bounce on seats like coiled springs. Someone’s leopard-print luggage lands in the doorway between first class and coach. Lights are flickering. Alarms blaring. The whoosh of air threatens to burst my eardrums, even with my earbuds in. I pull them out to face the onslaught of what’s happening.
It occurs to me then, finally, that we’re going down. There are other people sharing this nightmare, two hundred of them, seeing the same horrors and experiencing the same despair and hearing the same staccato beat of air and engines. Our paths were supposed to diverge again in Boston, but they didn’t. We’re here. We’re ending. Together.
I don’t know these people. I don’t love them or care about them or even know their names. Would it be easier if I did? Or would we cry even harder, holding on to the ones we love?
The plane jerks, and my neck snaps back against the seat. A sharp pain rockets through my chest, then fades. I feel a hand on my arm: warm, smooth, steady. And in that moment, everything goes quiet. Calm.
“Are you okay?” Colin.
His voice is smoother than I remember, and it takes me a moment to realize why: The uncertainty is gone. The shyness, too. The facade he uses to navigate our stilted interactions has been stripped away, replaced by a different, stronger, truer person.
In that moment, a single question floats to the front of my mind: Why?
Why is Colin Shea here with me now when he should have been sitting somewhere else? Why isn’t he trying to save himself, as so many others are doing? Why isn’t he calling his mom or dad or someone else he actually cares about?
Why does it suddenly feel like I’ve known him all my life?
My vision clears. I can see his eyes very clearly now: a pulsing, turbulent blue, the color of the sky just before dawn. Dark, but somehow comforting.
“I’m okay,” I say.
He puts the armrest up and grasps my hand, and the panic tickling the back of my throat sinks back down. “I don’t want to die.” I say it more to myself than him, but he must hear me because he squeezes my hand even harder.
“You won’t.” He tigh...
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