Originally from Nashville, Tennessee, Susan Finch holds an MFA in fiction from Indiana University and a PhD in creative writing from Florida State University. Her work has appeared in Apalachee Review, The Fourth River, The Louisville Review, and The Portland Review. She lives with her husband and their son in Grand Junction, Colorado, where she teaches literature and creative writing at Colorado Mesa University.
3rd place - 2011 Raymond Carver Contest
I unzip the front of my flight suit, peeling back the sweaty polyester, but I stop halfway. Taylor is watching. She’s standing in the doorway to the bedroom, holding a pair of my wedge sandals. She knocks loudly on the doorframe, clears her throat, and bellows, “Mom!”
Lauren comes out of the bathroom, compact in one hand, powder puff in the other. She’s wearing two different earrings—one large gold hoop and one more modest, silver teardrop. “You don’t need to shout, hon.”
“I’m just returning these.” Taylor stays in the doorframe and holds the shoes out, waiting for her mother to come get them. She doesn’t make eye contact with me.
“Give them to Missy,” Lauren says, “They’re hers, aren’t they?” She waves her hand in my direction, but Taylor doesn’t move.
“My closet is your closet,” I say.
Lauren shoots me a look. “Don’t encourage her,” she says, using her teacher-voice. “Taylor knows better to ask before she borrows.” I feel like she is saying this more for my benefit than Taylor’s.
Taylor crosses her arms, and the sandals swing back and forth.
I’m not sure what to say, so I lie. “She asked.” I smile a little at Taylor, but she still doesn’t look at me.
“Which pair?” Lauren pulls back her hair and turns her head slightly from side to side, showing us her earrings.
“I like the hoops,” I offer.
Taylor snorts. “Maybe if you were fourteen.” She puts the sandals on the floor and leaves the room. One shoe flops over on its side like a dead fish.
“Welcome home,” Lauren says, sitting on the edge of the bed. “Don’t worry. She’ll get over it.” But I wonder what she means—the fact that her mom is a lesbian or that I’m living here now.
I turn away from her, facing the closet, and step out of my uniform. My white t-shirt and cotton shorts are damp with sweat, sticking to my skin.
“I just love your jumpsuit,” she jokes. She knows I’m required to wear it for Air-Evac, but she’s not used to seeing it hanging up in the closet next to her linen sundresses and tailored suits.
“What can I say? I’m just a slave to fashion.” The nearest clothes are a pair of jeans crumpled on the floor next to the bed. I’m about to sniff them to see how dirty they are, but I stop, aware of Lauren watching. I look in the mirror and brush my hair back into a smooth ponytail. I don’t look as bad as I might after a twenty-four hour shift, but I always feel a little wild compared to Lauren. When she shops, she buys outfits; when I shop, it’s whatever’s most stain resistant. “I should probably shower.”
“It’s just a barbecue.” She looks like a catalog model propped up on our brand new butter yellow bedspread, complete with matching pillow shams and dust ruffle, her idea. She leans back, arranging the pillows behind her.
“It’s your mom’s Fourth of July Bash. Best invite in Nashville.” I grab a clean shirt from the closet and head for the bathroom. “I’ll be quick. Promise.”
“You’re the boss,” Lauren says. “Maybe you could wear these.” Two teardrop earrings are in her hand.
. . .
Even though it’s a short ride, I sweat through my shirt in the car, wet already in my armpits. I turn the AC on high and hold my elbows away from my body, trying to dry off before we arrive.
“I’m freezing to death,” Taylor complains, and Ben, her little brother, imitates her.
“Freezing to death,” he says, “To death.” He clutches at his chest and collapses in Taylor’s lap, squirming and writhing. Taylor shoves him away.
“Cut it out,” Lauren says. On her lap, she’s balancing a plate of cream cheese and black olive penguins with tiny carrot slivers for beaks and fat carrot flippers. Since Ben joined the swim team this summer, he’s been obsessed with anything aquatic. We even bought him a small fish tank full of neon Tetra, and he claims he can tell the difference between them. “This is Smokey,” he says as one fish swims by. “And this is Jade,” he says as it comes around again.
Lauren saw the penguin recipe in Better Homes and Gardens and spent hours perfecting the little birds and positioning them on a sea of iceberg lettuce and saltines. Ben loves them. He sneaks one and walks it along the armrest. “Excuse me,” he says in a squeaky penguin voice, “I’m lost. Can you help me?”
“Sure,” Lauren says, “You want to go this way.” She reaches out and grabs the penguin’s head, stuffing it in her mouth.
“Mom!” Ben whines, but then he squeals with laughter. His laugh is giggly and high-pitched like a little girl’s, and I can’t help but join him.
When we arrive at the party, the driveway is already packed with cars. We park at the bottom of the steep driveway and walk up. I carry the penguins and some of them topple over, sliding to one side of the plate. The party is already in full swing on the back porch. Lauren’s family comes out of the woodwork for parties, uncles and aunts and cousins—once and twice removed. It was a little intimidating at first. Most of my family lives on the West Coast, and I rarely see them. We were never this close anyway.
Lauren’s mother, Lia, is on the edge of the party talking with Lauren’s ex-husband, Rudy. Lia invites him to all the family get-togethers because, as she told Lauren once, “No matter what you do, he’ll always be my grandchildren’s father.”
Rudy slaps his thigh, laughing at something Lia has whispered to him. He takes off his baseball cap, wipes the sweat from his forehead and rearranges the hat on his head. He’s gained about fifty pounds since divorcing Lauren nearly three years ago, and Ben is always coming home with cheap plastic toys he got with a fast food dinner. Strangely enough, Rudy and I spend the most time talking at these kinds of things, which was probably not Lia’s initial intention. Rudy and I both work in healthcare, so we know a lot of the same people. Plus, we both love Vandy basketball. Though he prefers the boys, and I like the girls.
I carry the penguins to the buffet, making a space for them near the end of the table next to an American flag-shaped cake.
“How cute,” Lia says, rearranging the plates I’ve moved.
“It’s an icebreaker,” I say, making the same stupid joke I made earlier for Lauren, but Lia doesn’t laugh.
“How cute,” she says again. She rights one of the penguins, but it bobbles on a piece of lettuce and falls.
Ben walks over and saves me, whether he means to or not. He plucks a bird from the plate and pops it in his mouth. “Awesome,” he says and hands one to his grandmother. She bites off the head and smiles at Ben, offering him the body. He takes it and stuffs his finger into the olive, squeezing the cream cheese out the end. “Penguin guts,” he says and then licks his hands clean.
Across the patio, Lauren is breezing from conversation to conversation, making it all look so easy. Taylor follows in her wake, but pretends not to. She lingers on the periphery of each circle of people, stares into her punch glass, poking at the ice, but she laughs with everyone else at whatever her mother is saying.
Rudy brings me a beer, and we talk about work. He knows the new EMT we just hired. That’s Nashville, big city, small town. “Hates the hours, but he loves his flight suit. Says it got him out of two moving violations already. Ticket Teflon.” Rudy leans against the buffet table, and I imagine I can hear the wood groan under his weight. “You know, I’ve been thinking I might get back in the field? Maybe you could squeeze me in for a couple of shifts?” He rests his beer on top of his belly, and it moves up and down when he laughs. “Or maybe you could just lend me your suit?”
“Maybe,” I say, imagining the helicopter listing to one side. I chomp on a celery stick.
The party rolls on until dark, and eventually the mosquitoes descend, hovering around our ankles and congregating on the punch bowl’s edge like a bunch of drunks. The stars-and-stripes cake has been devoured, and the blue and red icing leaves everyone with purple lips. The cousins begin collecting their kids and coolers to leave, and I’d like to be one of them. I scratch at my new bug bites and start to tidy up the patio, stacking plates and gathering crumpled napkins. I carry the punch bowl inside and slosh red punch on my white button down. In the laundry room, I rub the stain, leaning over the sink with a bar of soap and a washcloth, when Taylor and Lia come into the kitchen. I can hear them talking. They’re talking about me.
I freeze, balancing over the sink, holding my breath.
“Don’t worry about Missy moving in,” Lia says. I hear dishes clink against the counter and the dishwasher open, the shelves rolling out. “You know your mother. This whole women-thing. It’s just a phase.”
“Well, you’d better tell her that,” Taylor says. “They redecorated mom’s bedroom. In yellow. And they just celebrated their two year anniversary.” The dishwasher closes and the rinse cycle begins.
“God, has it been that long?” I hear the screen door slap against the house.
I scrub at the stain until it’s only light pink and try not to feel hurt.
I walk back into the kitchen, and I’m surprised to find Taylor is still there, standing by the counter. Her back is to me, but I can see her swigging directly from one of the wine bottles.
“Hey, kiddo. Why don’t we save the binge drinking for college?” I make a strangled kind of laugh.
She takes one more long swig, turning toward me, so I can see her face as she swallows. She’s wearing a sundress she borrowed from Lauren and a pair of diamond earrings her grandmother gave her for her sixteenth birthday, but she also has on three fraying rainbow friendship bracelets, the threads unraveling at the ends. She puts the bottle down and walks out the screen door.
. . .
On the ride home, Taylor is obviously drunk. Or at least acting that way. She sings loudly to the radio and screams when we turn it off. Every time I make a turn, she lunges wildly to the side, shouting, “Hold on, Ben!” At first, he laughs and joins her, but she gets louder and flops into his lap, shouting, “Save me! Save me!”
“From what?” he asks, and when Taylor won’t tell him, he gets quiet.
When we pull into the driveway, Lauren asks me and Ben to go into the house and Taylor to stay in the car. Lauren’s face is red, either from anger or the sun or both.
We can hear them yelling from the front porch, but I can’t quite make out what they are saying. I unlock the door and tell Ben about my helicopter. “Maybe I can take you up one day,” I say, trying to distract him. He’s holding our empty penguin platter and looking back at the car. As soon as I can get the front door open, Taylor leaps out of the car, slamming her door behind her. Lauren is on her heels. Ben and I step into the entryway, practically holding the door for them as they storm in. Taylor goes to the kitchen and Lauren follows. Taylor stands in front of the refrigerator, holding the door open as if she is looking for something to eat. The fridge is covered in Ben’s artwork, old Christmas cards, and school pictures of the kids.
“You’re grounded,” Lauren says calmly, though I can hear an edge to her voice.
“Promises, promises,” Taylor mumbles. She pulls out the orange juice and examines the expiration date. She puts it back.
“Did you hear me? Grounded.”
Taylor slams the door. Something floats off the fridge and on to the floor. Taylor picks it up and rips it in half. Then rips it again. I know exactly what it is—a picture of Lauren and me at the beach. We took a trip down to Pensacola when the kids were at camp. She drops the pieces and storms to her room.
Lauren follows her, only to have Taylor’s door slammed in her face. She stands in front of a poster of Kermit. “Go green!” the caption says at the bottom. Lauren grabs the top of the poster and rips it down the middle.
“Mom, stop,” Ben says, and Lauren turns and walks into our bedroom, closing the door behind her.
Ben and I go back to the kitchen and sit at the table, staring at each other. He wants chocolate milk. I give him the whole bottle of syrup. “I trust you,” I say, and I leave him, spoon in hand, pouring swirls into his milk, to go check on Lauren. When I pass Taylor’s room I take off the only piece of poster left on the door, a corner stuck to the wood with tape. “Go,” it says.
Although it’s only eight o’clock, Lauren has put on her pajamas, a tank top and a pair of my old scrubs. She sits on the bed in the dark and flips through channels on TV. She doesn’t land on anything, keeps pushing buttons. The light from the screen flickers on her face, blue and white.
“I’m still pissed,” Lauren says. “And I don’t want to talk about it.”
“You’re her mom. You’re the adult.” I hand her the corner of the Kermit poster. “It was just a little wine.”
She looks at the paper and hands it back to me. “Just a little wine? She’s drunk and you knew and didn’t tell me.” She turns on the television, turning up the volume as she talks. “Don’t tell me how to raise my kids, Missy. You have no idea what it’s like to be a mother.”
. . .
That week at work, Nick and I spend most of the day talking about our family problems. Nick has redheaded twin boys who just left for college, and soon after they left, his wife did, too. She left him for a plumber. “The man plays with poop, Miss. All day long,” he says, shrugging. His boys have been avoiding his calls since they heard news of the divorce, telling him they’re too busy to talk.
“Teenagers are a bunch of assholes.” Nick leans in from the kitchenette to tell me this. His head pops into view for just a moment like a jack-in-the-box.
I’m sitting at our desk, catching up on paperwork, but I can smell onions and garlic and maybe a bit of oregano. He’s making spaghetti again. Nick cooks one of three things while we are on duty—omelets, chili, or spaghetti. I can’t complain; left to my own devices, I’d be eating cereal at every meal.
“Are you saying she’ll grow out of it?” I ask. “I’m not sure I can wait that long.” This week Lauren and Taylor have alternated between absolute silence or screeching fights. Taylor called her mother a dyke, so Lauren cut off her phone privileges. Taylor snuck out and took her mother’s car in the middle of the night, and Lauren retaliated by taking Taylor’s bedroom door off the hinges. Ben took the easy out and asked to stay with his dad, and I came back to work, glad to be around sane people again.
From the window, I can see Leo, our pilot, in the yard washing the bird, his favorite pastime. He’s not much of a talker, and I think he likes to get out of the trailer, away from Nick and me.
“Give her some time,” Nick says.
I flip through the newspaper looking for the crossword, but someone has already gotten to it. Probably Leo. We don’t have much in the way of personal effects in the trailer: a few books, mainly crime novels, a calendar with black and white nature scenes, and a picture of our whole Air-Evac Crew at a company picnic. Lauren’s in the picture, too, although she’d protested and stood at the side with some of the other girlfriends, wives, and kids. Most of her face is hidden behind an oversized pair of sunglasses.
“Why don’t you have a kid?” His head pops around the corner again, and this time he shakes a big wooden spoon at me. “It’s not too late,” he says and disappears again.
I’m quiet, but I can’t help thinking that I already have two.
I turn on the radio; it’s set to the Oldies station, Leo’s doing. The Monkees are singing “I’m a Believer.” The speakers are ancient, so I put my head next to them to listen.
. . .
During dinner, we watch Jeopardy, and Nick tries to answer all the questions, even the ones he doesn’t know. When he gets one right, he smiles and a spaghetti noodle slips out of the corner of his mouth. I can’t imagine him back on the dating scene.
Leo’s the one who knows all the answers but he rarely participates. He’ll watch quietly, sipping coffee between forkfuls of spaghetti. He told me once the army had forced him to eat in short bursts in boot camp and he’d never quite recovered so he has to concentrate on eating slowly. I don’t know many of the questions onJeopardy, so I twirl my spaghetti and eventually go to my room to flip through a leftover copy of Outside.
Before I fall asleep, I check my cell phone for messages. I’ve been ignoring it most of the day, but I only have two. One from Rudy, asking me to pick up Ben from his swim practice on my way home tomorrow, and one from Lauren, telling me she’s sorry she’s been a jerk this week. She misses me and wants to talk, but this time I don’t want to. “We should all talk,” she says, “we’re a family.” Before I moved in, we discussed what it meant to be a family and what my role was as a stepparent—her word, not mine.
I check my gear, flight suit, and boots one more time. I turn my phone on mute and set the alarm before I roll over, pull the blanket over my shoulders, and close my eyes.
. . .
We get a call at four in the morning, a single-car accident way out on Highway 100 where it bends around rolling farms and horse pastures. I struggle into my boots, a little dizzy from the adrenaline, but the cool night air wakes me up, the rotors whipping my hair into my eyes.
The driver called 911 and according to him, the passenger was non-responsive and there was a lot of blood. The ride to the scene is quick and I almost wish we could stay up longer to enjoy the view. The moon is fat and low along the horizon. The light makes mirrors of shallow ponds and residential pools. The shadows of lone trees are eerie black holes in the open fields. Most of the houses and roads we pass are dark, but once in a while, a yellow porch light has been left on.
When we arrive, an ambulance is already on the scene. The paramedics have radioed ahead to give us the situation: two injuries, a nine-year-old female with penetrating injuries to the left abdomen, and a forty-something male with lacerations to the head and face. The medics have set some flares along the road, clearing a landing strip for us with a bright red glow. We set down as close as we can to the car, but the landing is tight. Nick and I jump out while Leo stays with the aircraft.
Headlights illuminate the scene. The car skidded off the road, crashed through a picket fence, and stopped at the base of a wide sycamore. The car is tilted slightly off-kilter, so the back wheel is propped up in the air. The windshield is shattered and green shards sparkle in the ambulance’s revolving lights. Pieces of the fence are everywhere like the old wood exploded. The driver’s face is caked with blood, and his clothes are soaked, sticking to his skin.
Nick talks to the other paramedics and I kneel by the girl, putting down my gear. She’s already strapped to a spineboard with a c-collar around her neck for support. A piece of metal protrudes from her left side, now wrapped with gauze to keep it stable. Although the medics on the scene told us they sedated her, she gasps for breath and looks panicked. The driver is kneeling next to her, grabbing at her hand, while blood drips from his chin onto the gauze on her chest. The bandages on his scalp are already saturated, and I can only imagine what’s underneath them.
“I should have stopped,” he says, “but we were almost home.” He doesn’t look away from the girl. “I want to go with her.” She tries to talk, but she coughs and winces instead. She probably has a punctured lung, possibly a ruptured spleen.
“I’m sorry, sir. You’ll be travelling by ground.” We only take the seriously injured. Nick and I take either side of the stretcher and begin to situate it in the helicopter. The girl’s feet will be in front with Leo, and Nick and I will sit on either side of her.
The ride to the hospital takes about a half an hour. I monitor her vitals and give her an extra dose of sedative through her IV. If she panics, we’ll have to intubate, which can be tricky with a little kid, especially in a helicopter. Nick holds the girl’s hand and gives her a play-by-play of what we’re flying over. We’ve given her a headset so she can hear us over the noise of the rotors. Nick’s voice is calm and even. “Here’s my old school,” he says, “Percy Priest. Can you imagine me as a kid? Buck teeth and glasses.” He draws his lower lip under his teeth and gives her a goofy smile. He laughs and squeezes her hand. “When you’re better, I’ll take you up again to see all this in the daylight.”
I wonder how many of these pacts we’ve made and how many we’ve been able to keep. We bank to the left, and I brace myself between the stretcher and the helicopter. The girl moans and her legs strain against the straps.
. . .
When we get back to the trailer, my alarm has been going off for hours. I can hear the beeping from outside like some kind of warning. We clean up, repack our gear in case we get called out again, and I take a little nap, pretending to read, a detective novel open on my lap.
After work, I pick up Ben as promised. He’s waiting in front of the swim club in soaking wet trunks and a towel thrown over his shoulder. He tosses his goggles onto the dash and his towel into the floorboard and slams the door.
“What’s wrong, buddy?”
“Gran wants to give me a birthday party.” He folds his arms over his chest and puts his feet on the dash.
“That doesn’t sound so bad,” I say. “I bet she’ll make you an awesome cake. A cool fish? Maybe even a shark eating Surfer Barbie.”
“No,” he whines, “I told everyone that I want to do something fun. Something cool.” He hits the automatic lock switch on the door. Open, close, open, close.
“Everyone? Did you tell your mom?”
Ben huffs in exasperation. “Yes. At the pizza place last night. Gran and Dad and Mom and Taylor. Everyone.”
This is the first I’ve heard of it.
He clicks the locks again.
“Quit that,” I snap.
He stops and leans his head against the window. We’re turning onto our street when I hear him sniffling. His eyes are red, and he smears a tear across his cheek along with milky traces of sunblock.
We pull into the driveway, and I let the car idle in the parking space. Neither of us gets out. “How about a helicopter ride for your birthday? How many kids do you know who get to do that?”
He looks at me out of the corners of his eyes. “Seriously?”
“Yep. Maybe I’ll even land a chopper right at your Gran’s house.” I immediately regret saying this. I don’t know if I can even get Leo to agree or what the landing area might look like.
“Awesome,” he says, smiling.
I stick out my hand and shake his clammy little palm.
. . .
I’m in trouble as soon as I tell Lauren, but Ben is too excited for her to say no. She asks me over and over again whether it’s safe and tells me I should have run it by her first.
“You’re sure you’re allowed to do this kind of thing?” she asks. She’s been cleaning her classroom, preparing for the first day of school, and she’s wearing a pair of overalls and one of my Air-Evac shirts.
“We do it all the time. Boy Scouts, country clubs.” I take two glasses out of the cabinet. “It’s good for PR. Gets people interested.”
“Listen,” I say, opening a bottle of wine. “Leo has to agree, so it could all come crashing down anyway.”
“Poor choice of words,” she says.
But Leo does agree. He’s got a kid he wants to take up too; his nephew wants to be a pilot. The plan comes together quickly and the only hitch is we can’t land in Lia’s yard or her neighbor’s, so we decide to land at the elementary school down the street. Ben invites his swim team to the party, and he asks me what it’s like to fly. “Are you ever scared?”
I want to tell him the truth, sometimes I am, sometimes my stomach still flips when we hit a funny air pocket or land in the dark knowing powerlines or tree limbs could easily bring us down, but I don’t want to frighten him. He’d probably tell Lauren and then I’d be in trouble again, so instead I say no.
. . .
The night before Ben’s birthday, we decide to grill burgers in the backyard and make banana splits. A thunderstorm moves in quickly, and I end up grilling under an umbrella. We eat in the dining room, but Lauren covers the table in a red and white picnic blanket and lights candles in the middle of the table.
“Just like a picnic.” She raises her voice over the rain slapping against the glass patio doors. We sit down to eat, Lauren says a quick blessing, and then the lights go out. The candles flicker.
“Perfect,” Taylor says.
“At least we have candles.” Lauren pulls out a drawer and lights a few more tea lights.
“I have a flashlight in my room.” Ben jumps up to go get it. “Maybe even a lantern,” he shouts down the hallway.
“Our Boy Scout hero,” Taylor says. She bites into her burger, and even in the semi-darkness, I can see ketchup dripping out the other side onto the tablecloth. But I’m not going to say anything. It doesn’t take much to start a fight.
Ben comes back with the lantern and a flashlight. The lantern is part of a toy camping set he got for Christmas, and it glows dimly. But he sets both on the table, proud to help out.
Lauren picks up the flashlight, puts it under her chin, and says, “Let’s tell ghost stories!” Her chin and cheeks bones are red with light, but her eyes are shadowed and dark. “Oooooh!” she says.
We laugh, she puts down the flashlight, and we eat our burgers. We talk about the party tomorrow, trying to guess at what kind of cake Lia will make, what theme decorations.
“What if it rains?” Ben asks.
“We’ll just have the party inside,” Lauren says.
“What about the helicopter ride?”
Lauren looks at me. “Well,” I say, “in that case, we might have to reschedule. But I’m sure the weather will be fine tomorrow.”
“But if it’s not, we won’t go?” Ben asks.
“Don’t be such a baby,” Taylor says. “You’re seven tomorrow. You’re a big boy now.” She picks up the flashlight, opens her mouth and puts the flashlight inside, turning her cheeks red. She flicks it on and off.
“You’re the baby,” Ben says, grabs his lantern, and storms away from the table. We hear the door to his room shut.
“Taylor,” Lauren sighs.
“What?” she mumbles, her mouth still full of flashlight.
. . .
Lia decided on an aircraft theme for the party. Everything has planes or helicopters or hot air balloons on it. Ben’s birthday cake is a bright blue sky with Snoopy as the Red Baron, dragging a sign behind his plane that says, “Happy Birthday, Ben!” Rudy decides to add to the fun by launching a few fireworks. Lauren stands by me for the show. “He’s going to lose a finger,” she says, linking her arm with mine. It’s only afternoon and there isn’t much payoff except for a little smoke and a few loud bangs. But the boys love Rudy’s fireworks. They shout and applaud after each one, and Rudy takes a few bows after the show is over.
Before we’ve cut the cake, I get a call from Leo. He’s on his way. The entire party walks to the end of the street to watch our departure. Leo lands perfectly in the open schoolyard, and the wind from the rotors knocks off Rudy’s baseball cap, sending him chasing after it. I run under the blades; Leo has turned them off but they are still spinning with momentum. I grab two helmets and headsets. I’ve already explained to Ben what the procedure will be. He’s standing next to Taylor, holding her hand. Something I’ve rarely seen, if ever. He’s wide-eyed and a little pale.
“Ready to go?” I ask. I hand him the helmet. It’s our smallest size, but it still looks enormous in his hands.
“He doesn’t want to,” Taylor says.
I kneel down in front of Ben. He’s biting his lip and won’t look at me. His hands tremble either from the weight of the helmet or sheer fear. I take the helmet back. “It’s okay,” I say. “Maybe another time?”
“I’ll go,” Taylor says.
I look at Ben, and he nods. I hand Taylor the helmet. Lauren walks up and wants to know what is going on. “I’m going,” Taylor says. Her hair flips out from under the helmet, curling around the edges.
Taylor and I load into the helicopter. Leo hits the rotors and turns on the headsets. He introduces his nephew Jake. Jake has black eyes, a strong, stubbled jaw, and a nice wide smile. If Taylor doesn’t like the ride, at least she’ll like the boy. Jake smiles and waves at us as if he forgets with all the noise that we can hear him in our headsets.
We lift off, gravity tugging just slightly, and Taylor says, “Whoa,” reaching out a hand and putting it on my arm. We wave to the party below, and I can see Ben is already involved in a game of chase. The kids dart around the adults, using them as obstacles, until Lia points to the open field and the kids take off running. Lauren is the only one who keeps waving and waving until we bank to the right and the party slips out of sight.
Jake asks Taylor a series of questions—where does she goes to school, where is she applying to college, what does she want to major in? He seems to be flirting, turning around in his seat to try to make eye contact, but Taylor doesn’t respond with more than a casual “Uh-huh” and she keeps looking out the window. Jake even asks me if I’m going to take Taylor on a college visit. He thinks I’m her mom. She doesn’t notice, and I don’t correct him.
Leo and I talked about our route last week. He wanted to fly along the river for a while, over Edwin Warner Park, and make a loop back towards the school. I only had one request—I wanted to fly over our neighborhood before it was too dark so Ben could see our house from above. Now, I wasn’t sure our house mattered; I wasn’t sure Taylor would care.
We glide along the river, the shadow of the helicopter reflected on the olive waves below us. We pass over pleasure boats and laugh when we see a water-skier wave to us and then beef it in a white puff of water. We fly over the park dotted with picnic blankets and people playing Frisbee. Leo hovers over a thick grove of woods, and the wind from the rotors turns the polished green leaves in a whirlpool. They flip over showing us their pale underbellies.
“This is amazing,” Taylor says.
Leo laughs and says, “You wanna do a loop-de-loop?”
He’s joking but Taylor doesn’t know it. She looks nervously at me, her fingers digging into the edges of her seat.
“Maybe next time,” I say.
We speed over the park and slow down to coast past our neighborhood. First, I see the church at the end of our street, brick and stained glass and a big empty parking lot where two skateboarders stop and put their hands up to their eyes to look. I see our neighbor’s swimming pool, fat and empty, but shiny as a sapphire.
Finally, I see the bright orange row of day lilies Lauren and I planted along the driveway and the yellow stripe of Slip-N-Slide Ben left in the back yard. My old green pick up and the pineapple welcome flag hanging by the front door flapping furiously in the wind.
I’m about to point it out to Taylor, but instead I feel a tug at my arm. “It’s our house,” she says, pointing out the window. Her voice is almost a whisper in my helmet. I nod and whisper back, “It’s our house.”