The first thing that Neal became aware of was the silence.  It was so thick it was almost a tangible thing, like a blanket muffling the world.  As he untangled himself from his big duffel bag, he grunted.  The sound seemed like a rifle shot in the still darkness around him, and it startled him even though it had been his own voice.           

He thought that he had a few minor bruises and scratches, but, miraculously, no further wounds.  Neal looked around to see if he could find the others in the dark, and then he realized that they weren’t on the plane anymore.  Impossibly, they were lying on a mountain face, exposed to the elements.  The storm seemed to have abated, but the world was still wet, cold and very, very dark.  Neal couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead of himself, for the moon and stars had been swallowed by storm clouds.  He put his hand on the ground and found a leg.

            “Neal?”  Owen said groggily, waking at his friend’s touch.  He sat up and shook off his stupor.  “Where is everyone?”

            “They have to be around here somewhere.  Help me find them.”  Neal answered, whispering.  The eerie silence still disturbed him, and he wanted to disturb it as little as possible as a result.  He had this vague notion that it was like the calm before the storm, and he didn’t want to break that calm.  He was afraid of what might happen.

            That thought struck him, as a storm had been what had brought the jet down in the first place.  Where was it?  The winds and rain should still be pounding fiercely.  For that matter, where was the goddamned plane?  How had they managed to get off the bloody thing?  Neal felt panic attempting to seize him, and fought it.

            No matter, worry about that when you have to.  For now, find your friends, he told himself.  He hefted his duffel and then he and Owen searched in the dark slowly, moving forward a few feet at a time, holding hands like children crossing the road so that they wouldn’t lose each other in the dark.  Neal figured that by moving slowly, they wouldn’t stumble off the edge of the mountain in the dark.

            “I found Alex,” Owen said, “He’s okay.”

            Owen spoke gently to Neal’s cousin, and then kneeled down and shook him to wake him up.  Neal could hear this and was vaguely aware of it in the dark, but he was preoccupied with helping Jason out from under his big hockey bag.  The skinny young man was shaken up, but unharmed.  So far, so good.

            “Whoa!”  Evan said, startling the others as he suddenly sat up, spilling suitcases from side to side.  He looked around and suddenly pulled Dan out of the pile by the neck of his shirt.

            “Now where are Genevieve and Ethan?”  Owen said.    

            “I’m here,” Genevieve’s voice said softly from further down the slope, behind them, “But Ethan needs help.”

            Soft, muted light was beginning to come through the cloud cover, letting them see some of their surroundings, and Neal realized that it was the dawn of a new day.  In the new light he found Genevieve kneeling over the prostrate form of her older brother.  Neal felt his throat catch as he considered the idea that maybe not all of them had made it.

            “Is he…” Dan said, almost voicing the thought that was running through everyone’s minds.

            “No, he’s breathing, but I can’t wake him.”  Genevieve answered quietly.  Neal felt relief run all through himself at her words, and then knelt to check on his friend.

            Ethan seemed to be almost asleep, but the blood on his brow indicated that he may have banged his head.  They all felt relief that he was alive, but concern still flowed through them all.  If he’d received a concussion, it could be serious, and how could they possibly move him?

            “What are we going to do?”  Owen said, looking at Neal.  In that instant, Neal felt a sudden change in himself.  He had always been the de facto leader of the group, because he was the oldest of the guys, but never had it been that serious.  Now there was a real emergency, a friend was hurt and he felt this insistent little voice tickling the back of his mind:  Get off the mountain, get off the mountain, get off the mountain…  He didn’t know if he was afraid that the storm would return or if it was just the quiet, the goddamned quiet all around them, so quiet it was loud…  He just wanted to be off the mountain face and away to safety, somehow.

            They were looking to him to be the real leader now, and he felt the weight of that responsibility like a solid thing, a yoke on his shoulders.  He could either carry it bravely or be dragged down by it, and here was the moment that would decide.  What would he do?  Any doubt or hesitancy on his part, and the group could crumble.  He could feel the potential panic in each of them, and they looked to him to be the one to hold them together.

            “All right, we need to get moving.  Dan and Alex will carry Ethan.  He might have a concussion, he might not, I don’t know.  But I do know that we can’t stay here, waiting for the storm to come back.  Evan, Jason, Owen, we can carry the luggage.”

            “What should I do?”  Genevieve asked.

            “I need you to keep an eye on Ethan.  He could swallow his tongue or something, and I don’t want that to happen.  I’m going to try and see where we are, and see if I can figure out where we’re going.”

            Neal watched as they all set about the tasks he had set for them, and silently congratulated himself.  He hadn’t panicked, and neither had they.  So far, so good.

            He looked around the slope, to see if there was any way off of it.  It was still kind of grey and misty, but the sun was coming through enough to let him see the mountainside, and he spotted a path that lead up the mountain.  That wasn’t quite what he wanted, but it seemed like the only way off this clear part they were on.  Everything else was too rocky, and they couldn’t just climb down.  Not with Ethan unconscious.

            They seemed to have crash-landed on a plateau near the base of the mountain.  He wondered again why they weren’t on the plane, and then wondered where the jet was, for that matter.  He looked out across the slope, and then he saw it.  There was another mountain next door, and the big airliner had crashed into it and exploded on impact, torn apart by fire and rock.  Not that he would ever complain about being alive, but it seemed an impossible sort of landing.  It was almost as if they had been placed on the mountain instead of crashed, like a child putting down his toys when he’s done playing with them.

            Neal suddenly felt uneasy, and wanted to get off the mountain as soon as possible.  Questions about why they were alive and why they weren’t on the plane when it blew could be answered later.

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