Clear to Lift (25 page)

I wish she were here. So badly, I wish she were here, and we could sit together and talk into the night.

“It's okay, honey. But can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” I say, twirling a strand of hair, now that my mug hand is free.

“Is there something else you're worried about? Something you're not telling me?”

No way. She couldn't know. But a mother's intuition…? Still, no. But crap. She's right. There is something else. A big else.

“Yes,” I say quietly.

“Would you like to talk about it?”

“Um…” Oh, boy. I walk uneasily into the living room, lowering myself to the couch, and take a deep, steadying breath. “Well, I met someone here.”

I hear it when the breath rushes out of her. “I thought as much.”

“You did?”

“Based on our last few conversations, yes.”

“Oh…”

“Do you want to tell me about him?”

“Well, Will … His name is Will. He's…”

“He's what?”

“Mom,” I say, my eyes glistening. “He could break me.”

 

27

Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep!

“What the—?” I scramble to sit up.

Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep!

I lean over and switch on the lamp, fumbling for my pager, which bounces, vibrating, across the nightstand.

A straight row of “1”s. Military SAR.

Glancing at the clock—0030—I tumble out of bed, wiping the sleep from my eyes. Okay. What day is it? I stumble to the bathroom and splash water on my face. Friday. No wait. It's just after midnight. It's early Saturday morning.

I almost trip and kill myself trying to insert my leg into my flight suit, balance not quite there yet. Saturday … Saturday.

Boots. Tie the boots. Grab the phone. Saturday … I remember. The air wing's final week of flight ops. They're flying tonight, because the weather finally cooperated, the rain easing and even stopping sometimes throughout the course of the evening—the tail end of the weather system with the alien clouds. It's their largest-scale, everybody-is-airborne party, the most difficult flying yet. Oh, no …

I punch the speed dial for Base Operations. “Lieutenant Malone,” I say when the petty officer answers.

“Ma'am, we have an F/A-Eighteen down. The skipper wants to speak with you personally on this one.”

“Does he want me to call him?”

“No, ma'am. He's right here. Hold on.”

I climb into my car and fasten the seat belt.

“Alison,” Captain Woodrow says. “A Hornet went down in Bravo Nineteen. We don't know if the pilot ejected. Hammer's in the air. He's assumed on-scene command. The rest of the exercise has been canceled. All aircraft are returning to base.”

Hammer … the air wing commander. The jerk from the pool.

“Roger that, sir.”

“Everyone's monitoring Guard,” he says, referring to the dedicated emergency frequency on the radio used by all aircraft for search-and-rescue efforts. “Everyone on the ground, every pilot flying tonight. They're all listening.”

“Understand, sir.”

“When I ask for a status, remember the code.”

“Copy. Will do, sir.”

No one but a coroner can officially pronounce someone dead, so if we find a person where the outcome is obvious, we speak in code on the radio. This way, we're not officially saying anything, but everyone involved will know the score.

I speed to the hangar, pulling in just as Clark arrives.

This will be the first time I've flown with Clark where he will act as the copilot, while I sign for the bird as the aircraft commander.

“What do we have?” Clark says as we jog through the security gate, the sentry waving us through.

“A Hornet's down. Bravo Nineteen.”

Clark's gait changes, just slightly, his body stiffening. Although I don't dwell on this, because Hap and Beanie sprint by us, throwing their gear into the bird, and start undoing the tie-downs.

“Beanie!” I call. “Rig the Nightsun!”

“On it!”

The Nightsun is a searchlight rated at forty million candlepower, a light so intense it could start a fire if you turned it on inside.

We're airborne in thirteen minutes from the time of the pager alert, Clark flying, heading south along Highway 95, the radios buzzing nonstop with chatter. Captain Woodrow was right.
Everyone
is up this frequency, but Hammer is leading the chorus, flying overhead in his E-2 aircraft, using his aircraft's call sign, Seahawk One.

Good lord. He's barking commands, issuing orders, and frankly, choking the airwaves with unnecessary directions … and unfounded criticisms.

“Where the fuck is the goddamn SAR helo? This is fuckin' unsat!”

Which is ridiculous, as I've reported our status at least three different times to Fallon Tower, which is up this same frequency.

Deep, calming breath. “Seahawk One, Rescue Seven, on site, commencing search, stand by.”

“Well it's about goddamn time! Last known coordinates…” I block out the ranting and check the aircraft's last known position according to Hammer with what Fallon Tower gave us earlier—a conversation Hammer should have heard. Whatever. He finishes speaking, thankfully, yet nervous energy continues to bleed into our aircraft via the radios—jets reporting in, returning to base, others put into holding, still others given altitudes and headings to keep everyone separate and safe.

But I'm nervous for another reason. I remember the rising terrain on either side of Bravo 19 from when we delivered the EOD team here just four weeks ago. Yes, we're searching for a downed aircraft, but it's all too easy to get so focused on this that you lose situational awareness, forgetting that you, too, fly in mountainous terrain.

At least it's not raining—for the moment, anyway.

Flying over the range, Clark tracks east, then west, moving south all the while, like tracing rungs on a ladder. At the same time, Beanie has the Nightsun trained on the landscape, giving us fair warning as the Blow Sand Mountains loom in front of us each time we track east.

“Rescue Seven, Range Ops,” Captain Woodrow says.

“Range Ops, go ahead,” I say.

“Anything yet?”

“Negative, sir.”

Our search continues, while dozens of aircraft from the air wing circle, hold, return, land—the radio chatter constant. The beam from the Nightsun sweeps forward and aft, side to side, as we move along at a crawl.

“Ma'am, did they say who we're lookin' for?” Hap asks.

“No, not specifically.”

Back and forth we sweep. I say a silent, fervent prayer—several, actually—that this pilot will be okay. That he or she ejected safely and is just waiting for a ride home.

“I've got something, two o'clock!” Hap reports.

“Clark, slow down,” I say.

“Debris field,” Beanie says. “This is it.”

Another prayer … Please …

We make another pass, and my heart sinks. We only need to fly by once to know that the pilot didn't make it. Still, we need to confirm.

Clark makes a cautious approach to land, but the pucker factor is high, due to the uneven, rising terrain. Hap and Beanie relay ground clearances until, finally, the skids settle, albeit at an angle, since we're on a rise.

Beanie shines the Nightsun in the direction of the crash site, to an area of concentrated wreckage. The tail fin sticks up prominently, the wings still close to what used to be the airframe. A wheel here, twisted metal there.

“Okay, Clark, I'll take the controls while you and Hap confirm.”

Clark remains unmoving, staring ahead, his hands rigid on the controls.

“Clark? Clark, I've got the controls.”

Nothing.

“Hey, Clark,” I say, leaning over and touching his shoulder.

He turns his head and looks at me with the oddest expression, like he's … scared?

I lift the microphone away from my face and speak to him directly, so the aircrew won't hear. “Are you okay?”

Almost imperceptibly, he shakes his head.

“Would you like me to go instead?” I ask, again not using the radio.

He nods.

“Okay,” I say, with a squeeze to his arm. Granted, no one wants this job, but Clark's reluctance surprises me. “We'll be right back.”

His head moves—just barely—in acknowledgment.

“Hap, let's go,” I say.

“Roger that, ma'am.”

I step out my door, my stomach churning. I so don't want to see this.

Moving oh so carefully across the rocky, slippery terrain, I put my hand to my mouth to stifle a cough. The smell of burning rubber chokes the air, and smoke drifts upward, wraithlike in the watery, chill night.

Our boots scrape against loose rocks as we move upward, now stepping over and around chunks of metal. Beanie moves the Nightsun ahead of us, illuminating the front section of the aircraft. The cockpit is sunken, awkwardly low, into the airframe, the canopy missing.

I swallow hard when the reflective tape from the back of the pilot's helmet glows red. He's still strapped in. I can see it from here, just ten yards away. We continue forward, every step heavier than the last. Something sticks out of the cockpit, like a tree branch, curled and gnarled, the flight suit sleeve missing, an arm charred through, fingers splayed sideways.

And then something that stops me cold. Snoopy. The little cartoon figure cut from red reflective tape now comes into focus on the back of the pilot's helmet.

No. It can't be.
No, no, no!

I will myself forward, those few extra leaden steps, to confirm by looking at the name tag on the flight suit. It reads too clearly amid the charred material around it. SHANE FORESTER LT USN.

I bend over, hands on knees. “Oh, Jesus.”

“Ma'am? Are you all right?”

“Hap, just do it, and let's get outta here.”

Hap moves past me, to a sight that will be seared into his memory and mine for the rest of our lives, putting his hand on a burnt, broken neck to confirm no pulse.

The smell suffocates. Burning rubber. Composite metals. I turn, Hap on my heels, and we do a combination walk-jog to get back to the aircraft, moving stupidly fast, almost falling multiple times. Shane …

The acid rises.
Hold on, Ali. Hold on. Not now.

I strap into my seat. “Are you okay to fly?” I ask Clark, another question without using the mic, so the crew can't hear.

He looks at me. Swallows. “Who?”

I close my eyes. Squeeze. Open them. “Snoopy.”

Clark deflates before my eyes. He continues to hold the controls as his shoulders slump and his elbows sag, dropping to the back of his seat as if he lacks the strength to hold himself upright. He turns to me, looks into my eyes, holds them, holds them, like he's clinging to a lifeline. His eyes water into glass, haunted, anguished … vulnerable.

Snoopy and Clark were close. God, now that I think about it, they were
always
together. At the last planning meeting with the commanding officer, before the air wing arrived. At the swimming pool. At Donner Summit. And then all those other times, like when Shane came to Fallon for his liaison work. Clark and Shane at the commissary. Clark and Shane running. At Burger King. At the bookstore. At that crappy, run-down casino that still allows smoking but makes the best apple turnovers on earth. Best friends, probably. Assigned to the same aircraft carrier. Clark miserable when Shane had to leave. Always wanting to go back to H-60s. To the
Carl Vinson.

But the look in his eyes … his soul shredding. The husband who's been told his wife has died on the operating table. The wife who answers the door to the casualty assistance calls officer, there to inform her of her husband's death, killed in action. “I'm sorry to inform you…” and she misses the rest, because she crumples to the floor. The person who has just lost their lifelong partner—

I pull in a sharp breath. Oh no.

Oh no, oh no, oh no.

Partners. They were …

I lift the microphone away from my lips. “You were together. You and Shane. I … I had no idea.”

He stares. I stare. A million heartbeats.

“I…,” he stutters. “I don't know what you're talking about.”

“What? But you were— What do you—?”

Wait a minute.…

I don't think he wants me to know. I don't think he wants anyone … oh, good god … Hammer. The air wing commander. His
boss.

“… just make sure you keep your eyes in the boat,”
Hammer said.
“Fuckin' faggots everywhere in the ranks now.”

“Clark, I won't tell,” I say in a rush. “I mean, if that's what you're worried about. I won't—”

He swallows hard. Robot voice. “Nothing to tell.” He turns his head forward, hands so firmly gripped on the controls, I feel sure he could rip them from their moorings if he wanted.

I touch his arm. “I'm sorry. I'm so sorr—”

He shakes me off. Breathes deeply. Lips tight. Cheeks taut.

“Ready to lift?” he asks, keying the mic.

“Set in back, sir,” Beanie says.

I observe Clark for a long moment, watching his controlled, measured breathing. His hands are steady—strained and white, ready to crack the controls, but steady.

“Okay, let's get outta here,” I say, using the mic switch again.

He lifts, returning to the highway, while I put my hand to my chest, questioning my ability to speak, the pain acute—for me, yes, but far worse for Clark.

I check him again. Flying professionally, competently, compartmentalizing what's destroying him on the inside. A searing reminder that I, too, have a job to do. A radio call I dread to make.

Range Operations is monitoring the guard frequency … along with an entire base, an entire air wing.

“Range Ops, Rescue Seven, RTB,” I say, using shorthand for “return to base.”

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