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THE BIGGEST IRONY about that night is that I was always scared to fly.
Always. Ever since I was old enough to think about it.
It seemed counterintuitive. Even a little arrogant. Why go up when gravity clearly wanted us to stay down?
Back in high school, my parents took my big sister, Kitty, and me to Hawaii one year. I dreaded the flight from the moment they told us until well after we were home again. The phrase “flying to Hawaii” translated in my head to “drowning in the ocean.” The week before the trip, I found myself planning out survival strategies. One night after lights out, I snuck to Kitty’s room and climbed into her bed.
I was a freshman, and she was a senior, which gave her a lot of authority.
“What’s the plan?” I demanded.
Her face was half buried in the pillow. “The plan for what?”
“For when the plane hits.”
She opened an eye. “Hits what?”
“The ocean. On the way to Hawaii.”
She held my gaze for a second. “That’s not going to happen.”
“I have a bad feeling,” I said.
“Now you’re jinxing us.”
“This is serious. We need a survival strategy.”
She reached out and patted my bangs. “There is no survival strategy.”
“There has to be.”
“No.” She shook her head. “Because if we don’t crash, we won’t need one. And if we do crash…” She paused so I could catch her drift.
“We won’t need one?”
A nod. “We’ll just be dead.” Then she snapped her fingers.
“You make it sound easy.”
“Dying is easy. It’s not dying that’s hard.”
“Guess you have a point there.”
She closed her eyes. “That’s why I’m the brains of the family.”
“I thought I was the brains,” I said, nudging her.
She rolled away. “You know you’re the beauty.”
Impossibly, we survived that trip.
Just as impossibly, I survived many more trips after that, never hitting anything worse than turbulence. I’d read the statistics about how flying was the safest of all the modes of transportation—from cars to trains to gondolas. I’d even once interned at an office right next to an international airport and watched planes go up and come down all day long with nary a problem. I should have been long over it.
But I never could lose the feeling that “flying” and “crashing” were kind of the same thing.
Now, years later, I was dating—seriously dating—a guy who was just days away from getting his pilot’s license. Dating him so seriously, in fact, that on this particular Saturday, as we headed out to celebrate my not-yet-but-almost-official new dream job, I could not shake the feeling that he was also just about to ask me to marry him. Like, any second.
Which is why I was wearing a strapless black sundress.
If I’d thought about it, I might have paused to wonder how my boyfriend, the impossibly fit and charming Charles Philip Dunbar, could be one hundred percent perfect for me in every possible way—and also be such an air travel enthusiast. He never thought twice about flying at all—or doing anything scary, for that matter, like scuba diving or bungee jumping. He had an inherent faith in the order of the universe and the principles of physics and the right of mankind to bend those principles to its will.
Me, I’d always suspected that chaos was stronger than order. When it was Man against Nature, my money was on Nature every time.
“You just never paid attention in science class,” Chip always said, like I was simply under-informed.
True enough. But that didn’t make me wrong.
Chip believed that his learning to fly was going to cure my fears. He believed that he’d become so awesome and inspiring that I’d have no choice but to relax and enjoy it.
On this, we had agreed to disagree.
“I will never, ever fly with you,” I’d announced before his first lesson.
“You think that now, but one day you’ll beg me to take you up.”
I shook my head, like, Nope. “Not really a beggar.”
Now, he was almost certified. He’d done both his solo and his solo cross-country. He’d completed more than twice his required hours of flight training, just to be thorough. All that remained? His Check Ride, where a seasoned pilot would go up with him and put him in “stressful situations.”
“Don’t tell me what they are,” I’d said.
But he told me anyway.
“Like, they deliberately stall the plane, and you have to cope,” he went on, very pleased at the notion of his impressive self-coping. “Or you do a short-field landing, where you don’t have enough space. And of course: night flying.”
The Check Ride was next week. He’d be fine. Chip was the kind of guy who got calmer when things were going haywire. He’d make a perfect pilot. And I’d be perfectly happy for him to fly all he wanted. By himself.
But first, we were getting engaged—or so I hoped. Possibly tonight. On Valentine’s.
I can’t tell you how I knew, exactly. I’d just sensed it all day, somehow, the way you can sense it’s going to rain. By the time I buckled in beside him in his Jeep, I was certain.
I’d known Chip a long time. We’d been dating for three years. I knew every expression in his repertoire and every angle of his body. I knew when he was faking a laugh, or when he was bullshitting. I could tell in seconds if he liked a person or not. And I certainly knew when he was hiding something—especially something he was excited about. Even though this date seemed exactly like every other date we’d ever had, I just knew something big was about to happen.
I figured he’d take us to the Italian place with the twinkle lights where we’d had our first date. But, instead of heading for downtown, he turned toward the freeway and ramped up.
The top was off his Jeep. I clamped my arms down over my hair. “Where are we going?” I called.
He called back, “It’s a surprise!”
My stomach dropped at that. Once again, I knew Chip’s intentions without his even hinting. This was kind of a problem with us. I could read him too well. He wasn’t taking me to dinner. He was taking me to the airport.
* * *
TWENTY MINUTES LATER, we had left the city of Austin far behind. He pulled up the parking brake beside an airplane hangar at a private airfield in the middle of nowhere.
I looked around. “You can’t be serious.”
He leaned in. “Are you surprised?”
“Yes and no.”
“Just pretend. Just once, I’d like to surprise you.”
“Fine. I’m shocked. I’m awed.”
“Don’t pretend that much.”
He came around to my side and took me by the hand, and then he pulled me behind him, bent over all sneaky, around to the far side of the hangar.
I followed him in a state of cognitive dissonance—knowing exactly what he was doing while insisting just as clearly that he couldn’t possibly be doing it. “Are you sneaking me in here?” I whispered.
“It’s fine. My friend Dylan did it with his girlfriend last week.”
I tugged back against his hand. “Chip. I can’t!”
“Sure you can.”
“I just want to show you my plane.”
“It’s not your plane, buddy.”
Copyright © 2018 by Katherine Pannill Center
Excerpt from Things You Save in a Fire copyright © 2019 by Katherine Pannill Center