Fear was an owl that rarely lighted on the branches of Kiahna
Especially in the light of day.
But it was nine o'clock on the sunniest morning of spring, and
Kiahna couldn't shake the feeling-the strange gnawing in her soul,
the way the skin around her neck and chest felt two sizes too small.
What is it, God . what are You trying to tell me?
No answer echoed back at her, so Kiahna kept busy. The passenger
briefing was nearly finished, and the pilots were in their
seats. She anchored herself against the service wall and found her
smile, the one she used every time she flew.
Flight 45, Honolulu to Tokyo, was a nine-hour flight. With a
layover in Tokyo, the roundtrip gave Kiahna eighteen flight hours.
Five times a month she made the two-day turnaround, and after a
decade with the airline, her pay was better than any she could get
anywhere else. Out the door at seven and, with the time change,
home before dinner the next day. Kiahna had earned the route after
ten years with the airline, and it was perfect for one reason.
It allowed her most days to be home with Max.
"Movie today?" The man was a light traveler, briefcase and a
carry-on, a regular in first class. Whatever his worn leather bag
held, it took him to Japan at least once a month.
"Yes, sir. Mel Gibson's latest."
"Good." He smiled and kept moving. "Gets me over the ocean
One by one the passengers filed in, same as always. But still she
couldn't shake the feeling.
It took fourteen minutes to seat the cabin, and Kiahna worked
the routine. The flight was nearly full, which meant the usual readjusting
to make people and bags fit comfortably in the cramped
quarters. She greeted passengers, sorted out seat assignments for
confused travelers, and poured a drink tray for first class.
A family with four children was seated over the wing, and
already their baby was crying. Kiahna found a package of crackers
and coloring books for the couple's older children. With every
motion she tried to sort out her feelings.
She jumped and turned to face her partner. Stephanie was working
the back part of the cabin. "We're waiting."
The announcement. She'd completely forgotten. A quick
breath. "They're all in?"
"For two minutes now."
Kiahna snapped the drink tray into place on the small service
counter and edged past the other woman. The announcement was
hers that morning; she should have remembered. She took hold of
the microphone and began the routine.
"Welcome aboard Flight 45. We're expecting a full cabin this
morning, so if you have two carry-ons with you today, please store
one of them in the space beneath the seat in front of you." She
paused, her mouth still open.
What came next? There was more to say, something about oxygen
and masks, but the words scrambled in her mind and refused to
come. She stood unmoving, her heart slamming against her chest.
"Here"-Steph took hold of the microphone-"I've got it."
Kiahna's arms shook as she backed away, up against the closed
front cabin door. What was wrong with her? She'd given that
announcement a thousand times; she could be in a coma and say it.
Steph finished, and the copilot came on. "Flight attendants, prepare
They pushed their jump seats down and buckled in. Usually this
was Kiahna's favorite part. A few minutes of power and thrust while
the airplane barreled down the runway and lifted into the air, minutes
where she wasn't needed by anyone for anything, when she
could think about the day and all that lay ahead.
This time, though, was different.
All Kiahna could think about was the part of her day that lay
behind, the part with Max.
* * *
At seven years old, Max was both brilliant and beautiful, a wonder
boy streaking through her life like a comet at breakneck speeds.
He wore red tennis shoes, and his best friend was his yellow
Labrador retriever, Buddy. At school, Max had a reputation for
being the fastest-and sometimes the silliest-boy on the playground.
And his mouth ran faster than his legs. Kiahna liked to
hold court with Max on dozens of adult topics. The death
penalty-Max was against it; more money for public schools-he
was for it. Max was fiercely patriotic, and at school he sometimes
organized red, white, and blue days in honor of the U.S. troops in
the Middle East.
But this morning he'd been quiet.
"When do you finish working?" They lived in a two-bedroom
apartment, and he slipped into her room while she was still pressing
her standard-issue airline navy blazer.
Kiahna studied him. "Dinnertime tomorrow, same as always."
"No, not that way." He hopped up on her bed and sat cross-legged.
"When will you stay home in the daytime? Like Devon's
mom or Kody's mom?"
"Max." She turned from the ironing board and leveled her gaze
at him. "You know I can't do that."
"Why?" He anchored his elbows on his knees.
"Because"-she came a few steps closer and sat on the edge of
the bed-"those moms have husbands who work."
"So why can't we have a husband?"
"C'mon, Max." She cocked her head and brushed her finger
against the tip of his nose. "We've been through this, sport."
Buddy padded into the room and sank in a heap near Max's feet.
"Yeah, but ." Max brought his fists together and rested his chin
on them. His green eyes caught a ray of morning light. "Forever?"
"For now." She crooked her arm around his neck, pulled him
close, and kissed the top of his head. His dark hair felt soft and
damp against her cheek, still fresh from his morning shower. "Until
something better comes along."
"Like a husband?" Max lifted his face to hers. He was teasing,
but beyond the sparkles in his eyes was a river of hope, a hope that
ebbed and flowed, but never went away.
Kiahna smiled. She tousled the hair at the back of his head and
returned to the ironing board. Max knew better than to push. A
husband had never been in the picture. Not a husband and not a
daddy. Kiahna couldn't trust a man with her own heart, let alone
her son's. Besides, it wasn't God's plan for her to have a husband.
At least that's the way she'd always felt.
Max slid onto the floor and looped his arms around Buddy's
neck. The dog rewarded him with a solid swipe of his tongue across
Max's cheek. "Buddy understands."
"Yes." Kiahna smiled. "Buddy always does."
* * *
A soft bell sounded, and Kiahna sucked in a quick breath. They
were at ten thousand feet-time to prepare the beverage cart and
make the first pass through the cabin. Steph approached her from
the other side of the aisle.
"You okay?" She had one hand on her hip, her eyebrows lowered
into a V. "What was the trip about the announcement? Never
seen you freeze like that."
Kiahna stood and smoothed out the wrinkles in her navy cotton
skirt. "I don't know." She gave her partner a smile. The feeling, the
strange restlessness, had plagued her ever since her talk with Max.
"Busy morning, I guess."
"Yeah, well"-she rolled her eyes-"you wanna talk busy? It's
four o'clock, and Ron . you know Ron, right?"
"He moved in last month?"
"Right." Steph grabbed a piece of gum from her skirt pocket,
slipped the wrapper off in a single move, and popped it into her
mouth. "Anyway, he gets this call at four this morning, and it's
A sudden jolt rocked the aircraft so hard Steph fell to her knees.
Gasps sounded throughout the cabin, and somewhere near the
wing one of the children began to cry. Kiahna fell back against the
service counter and reached for a handful of soda cans that had
fallen to the floor.
"What the ." Steph was struggling to her feet when the plane
tilted hard in the other direction. The motion knocked her back to
the floor. In the tenth row, a handful of screams and shouts rang
out from a group of college kids, journalism students heading back
home from a convention.
Kiahna grabbed hold of the nearest wall and felt the blood drain
from her face. The air was always choppy over the islands, especially
in spring. She was about to help Steph to her feet when the
copilot leaned out from the cockpit.
"We're going back." The man's upper lip was twitching. His
whispered words came fast. "Something's wrong with the tail." He
swallowed hard. "The whole bloody aircraft wants to nosedive."
Nosedive? Kiahna stared at him. This wasn't happening, not this
morning. Not when every fiber in her being had warned her something
wasn't right. The copilot was gone again, and Kiahna shifted
her gaze to Steph. The girl was a New Yorker, twenty-two, twenty-three
tops. She was cocky and brash and had a quick tongue, but
now her face was gray-white. "What . what do we do?"
Kiahna reached for her partner's hand and helped her to her
feet. "We work the cabin. I've done an emergency before." Her
voice sounded familiar, but only remotely so. "We stay calm and
everything will work out fine."
"But what if we-"
"No what-ifs." She took the lead and headed down the aisle. "We
have to work."
They weren't through first class when a strange popping sound
shook the plane and propelled it downward. It's the descent, Kiahna
said to herself. And then again for the benefit of the passengers.
"We're making our descent. Cover your heads and assume a forward
Kiahna didn't dare turn around, couldn't bear to meet Steph's
questioning eyes. The truth had to be written across her face: the
sharp angle of the aircraft didn't feel like a normal descent pattern.
It felt like a nosedive.
Panic worked its way through the rows in a sort of sickening wave.
"Jesus, help us!" a lady shouted from row eight. She had an arm
around each of her children.
"Someone do something!" The scream came from an area near
the back of the plane, and it set off a chain reaction of loud words and
frantic cries for help. No one had any doubt they were in trouble.
Still Kiahna moved forward. At each row she demonstrated the
crash-landing position. Hands clasped at the back of the neck, body
tucked as far forward as possible. "Assume the emergency position,"
she said over and over again. "Assume the emergency position."
"What happening?" An Oriental man grabbed her arm; his eyes
locked on hers. "What, lady? What?"
Kiahna jerked herself free as the nose of the plane dropped
again. The aircraft was almost entirely vertical.
The captain's voice-tense, but steady-filled the cabin. "Prepare
for an emergency landing. I repeat, prepare for an emergency
Babies were wailing now; parents grabbed their children to keep
them from falling toward the front of the plane.
"Lord, have mercy on us," a woman screamed.
The voices mingled and became a single noise, a backdrop that
grew louder and then faded as Kiahna caught a glimpse of the
ocean out one of the windows. In that instant time froze.
Kiahna was back at home again.
* * *
"Come on, Max. Get your backpack. We're running late!"
Max rounded the corner, Buddy at his side. "I can't find it."
"Check the coat closet."
He darted across the kitchen and toward the front door. She
heard him yank the closet open. "Here it is!"
"Grab it; let's go."
The whole scene took a fraction of a second to flash across her
mind, all of it routine, mundane. No subtle nuances or hesitations,
nothing to indicate that this morning could be their last. Nothing
but the strange pit in her stomach.
She closed her eyes . where was Max right now? He stayed
with Ramey Aialea mornings until the school bus came, and again
in the afternoon and through the night when she had a layover.
The woman would see him off to school the next day and take care
of him for an hour or so when school got out. Ramey was in her late
sixties, a weathered grandmother in poor health who took in Max
as a way of staying young. She lived just a block away and felt like
family to Kiahna.
Max had been with Ramey since he was born.
That morning, as happened so often, Kiahna and Max had piled
into Kiahna's old Audi and made time to Ramey's first-floor unit.
Ramey and Kiahna both lived in the same modest residential section
of the island, the place where apartments filled every available square
inch, leaving room for only an occasional palm tree. The place where
the island's food servers and hotel maids and resort staff lived.
The apartments weren't much, really. But Kiahna's complex had
a fairly clean pool and a patch of gravel with a swing set. More
amenities than some. That, and paradise every day of the year. It
wasn't a bad place to raise a boy. A native to Honolulu, Kiahna
wouldn't have lived anywhere else.
By the time she and Max arrived at Ramey's apartment, Kiahna's
strange feeling had set in. She didn't want to waste time making
idle talk with her old friend. Instead she stepped out of the car and
met Max near the front bumper. "Have a great day, sport."
He squinted into the sun. "Do you have to go?"
"Yes." She pecked him on the cheek. "We'll play Scrabble
tomorrow night, okay?"
"It's too sunny for Scrabble."
"Okay, then basketball? Give and go, all right?" Kiahna rested
her hands on her knees and kept her face at his level.
"Really?" Max's eyes held a hint of doubt. "Give and go?"
She winked at him. "As long as it's light out."
Max bit his lip. "Japan's a long way from here."
"Yes." Kiahna angled her face. Why was he talking like this?
She'd flown since before he was born. "But not so bad when you
go all the time."
"Yeah." He lifted one shoulder and let his gaze fall to the
ground. "Sorry about this morning."
"For what?" She fell back on her heels.
"The husband stuff." He lifted his eyes to hers. "I just get sad
when you're so far away all day." A few seconds passed. "What if I
break my arm? Who'll help me?"
"She's my 'mergency contact." He pushed the toe of his tennis
shoe against her leather loafers. "But I mean the hug part and the
singing part. Who'd do that?"
Kiahna hesitated only a moment. This was the part of being a
single mom that always made her throat swell-the idea that she
couldn't be all things to Max, not while she had a full-time job.
"Well"-she framed his small face with her fingers-"I would."
"You'd be somewhere over the ocean." He wasn't arguing with
her, only making a point. Sharing a fear she hadn't known he'd had
"Even if we're oceans apart I'll always be right here." She lowered
one hand and let her fingers rest on the spot just above his
heart. "You know that, right, sport? Remember our song?"
A breath that was more sad than frustrated slipped from him. In
a rush of arms and hands and fingers he threw himself into her