Corbin always thought his nose was too big. It was so big that sometimes he had trouble seeing past it. “It’s perched right in the middle of my face,” he would complain to his girlfriend, Naomi. “It draws too much attention to itself. I hate it.”
Naomi would simply smile, walk over and kiss it. “I love it,” she would say, “because it’s yours.”
“Precisely!” he’d say in return. “If it was yours, you’d hate it too.”
“But then you’d love it for me, wouldn’t you?”
Yes! Oh yes! How he loved that girl. So he learned not to hate his nose. And sometimes, when Naomi insisted on kissing it, he thought he might actually like it. But now as he gazed past it, up the runway before him, out beyond the line of trees in the distance where the earth dropped away and a grey sky concealed the early morning sun, he felt sad. It hadn’t been kissed in a long while.
Corbin was a pilot, or would become one today. He had passed the written exams, performed the required maneuvers and logged the needed flight time. All that stood between him and his license was the cross-country solo flight.
He would fly from his hometown of Smith, Nevada to Pinehurst, California, a one hundred and fifty mile flight. He would refuel and fly another one hundred and fifty miles to Sunny Vale, California. He would return home after dinner, flying directly to Smith from Sunny Vale, making the entire trip look like a triangle on the map that hung in his den. Even though his heart was heavy over Naomi, he was still looking forward to the flight, for today he would earn his wings.
It was a cloudy morning and the small airport was deserted. No one worked the control tower on Sunday. It made no difference, as long as Corbin recorded everything in his logbook. In fact he liked it better this way. Being the only soul at the airport added a certain adventure to the whole affair. He completed the pre-flight check on his airplane, climbed in and radioed the empty control tower. It wasn’t necessary, but he wanted to do everything by the book.
“November, Tango Romeo taxiing for departure on runway one.”
There was no reply.
He propelled his plane to the beginning of the runway. His eyes found where the trees met the pavement in the distance. These were the times when his eyes ignored his nose completely. Now that he thought about it, he never seemed to see the nose on his face when he flew. When he drove a car it was there. He once ran a red light because of it. He even got a ticket. Fifty dollars! But when he flew it disappeared. In fact, everything seemed to disappear when he flew.
“November, Tango, Romeo departing on runway one,” he called to the empty tower.
The reply was silence.
He opened the throttle wide and the plane surged forward, pitching Corbin back into his seat. As he accelerated down the runway, devouring the distance between him and the trees ahead, he recalled something his instructor once told him. “The most difficult mechanics of flight are the takeoff and landing. Flying, itself, is easy.” With an easy smile, he pulled back on the yoke and his craft rose quickly above the trees.
But there was trouble, and Corbin sensed it immediately. Something fought his ascent. Did he forget a vital pre-flight check? No, he thought quickly. Suddenly he was falling, not diving, just dropping out of the sky like a stone as if he had no wings at all. There was nothing he could do. He was going to crash into the trees below!
He tensed against the coming impact, his body a knot of panic as his airplane plummeted. He thought of Naomi then, of how much he loved her, how he missed her. He thought how appropriate it was, his life ending this way, and all at once he thought he wouldn’t mind dying. But the wind suddenly heaved beneath his wings, the force of it pressing him into his seat, pulling his breath from him, and all at once he was level, flying swiftly not ten feet off the treetops.
His hands shook as he pulled the plane upward. Low clouds loomed above him as he clawed his way back into the sky. Soon he was safely six hundred feet above the earth and he let out a long breath.
That had been too close. He had no intentions of writing that one down in his logbook. Shaking off his fear, he quickly checked his gauges. Everything looked normal.
He gazed out the window at the sea of trees below. Nothing broke the rolling green expanse that slid by beneath him. No houses, no roads. The airport had disappeared. He flipped on the radio for some music. Static. He turned it off and listened to the sound of the engine. It reminded him of the lonely hum of the big window fan that lulled him to sleep as a child, its steady drone hypnotic and tranquilizing.
Perhaps I’m not cut out to be a pilot after all, he thought suddenly. The yoke felt dangerous in his hands, like it had when he took it from his instructor at six thousand feet that first time up. He tried to shed the sudden loneliness that stole over him. He still had the entire flight ahead of him. He could see Naomi shaking her head at him, telling him to relax, that he could do it. It gave him some confidence.
Naomi had always believed in him. He had met Naomi at the airport, there to meet a friend of a friend who was flying in from the east coast. Little did he know he would be meeting the woman he would fall in love with, the woman who would change his life forever. That was nearly two years ago. Now he hadn’t seen Naomi in six months. Even now he could cry if he thought about how things had ended. Sometimes it hurt so badly that he couldn’t feel a thing, except the tears as they ran down his nose and across his face.
He took a deep breath and let out another long sigh. The land passed by below.
The flight from Smith to Pinehurst proved uneventful. The terrain that crept by was a checkered landscape of green and brown, the sky above grey. He flew low, beneath the cloud base. He could have flown higher and sought out the warmth of the sun, but he still felt uneasy, and the farmland below was a comforting sight. The first leg of his solo flight lasted two long hours. He reached Pinehurst at two o’clock.
Pinehurst airport was large and modern, with many other planes parked on the tarmac below. Corbin thought how unusual they all looked from the sky, like tiny skull-and-crossbones, or crucifixes. It made the airport look like a graveyard, lined with crosses for the dead. He called in, coordinated his approach, and landed.
He killed the engine and checked his fuel gauge. The tank was bone dry. How could that be? Did he forget to fuel up in Smith? Was there a leak? He clambered out and inspected the fuselage. Nothing. He shook his head as the fuel truck pulled up. He had to be more conscious of his gauges.
“Are you traveling on?” asked the fuel attendant.
“Yes, to Sunny Vale,” answered Corbin.
“Ah, good to hear you’re going up there. Should be a nice flight.”
The attendant finished fueling the airplane in silence. Corbin thought the man acted a bit strange but he shrugged it off as he went through his pre-flight checks. He wanted to travel on as soon as possible. With a curt waved goodbye, he strapped himself in and taxied back out to the runway. He was fifth inline, but within half an hour he was back in the air, winging his way toward Sunny Vale.
The weather had cleared, the last of the low, grey clouds simmering on the horizon. Corbin’s dark mood left him, and his spirits lightened. It was an entirely different world high up in the blue of the sky, almost a world without restrictions, certainly a world without the hard realities that seemed to overwhelm him down on the ground.
He relaxed and sat back comfortably in his seat, keeping his eyes on the skyline in front of him, waiting to catch a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean, that great blue expanse that signaled Sunny Vale was near. He didn’t notice the other small airplane that approached from the south and pulled beside him not thirty feet off his left wing. It wasn’t until he checked his gauges that he saw it, and when he did his heart stopped.
Peering at him through the passenger window was Naomi.
“My god!” he cried out without knowing he had.
The yoke slipped from his grasp and his plane dove sharply. He pulled it back up and tried to keep it steady, but he bobbed and swerved beside the other plane.
“Naomi? How can it be?” he whispered, wide-eyed and suddenly trembling.
She smiled at him, and blew him a kiss. He touched his nose. Then her plane broke away and headed back south.
He almost followed her, but he knew better. It couldn’t have been her. His eyes were playing tricks on him. He watched as her plane flew swiftly away, receding into the distance until it was gone from sight.
“It couldn’t have been her,” he said. “It couldn’t have been.”
Oh God, it could never be her.
Suddenly he was crying. He couldn’t forget any longer. It all came back to him in a rush of pain that punched the air from his lungs - her accident, the hospital, the grave-side funeral. All of it. And he knew it could never have been Naomi.
“Never,” he sobbed. “Never.”
He pushed the yoke forward and his plane nosed downward, diving toward the earth. This time he didn’t care. It was all too much. He didn’t want to go on without her, no matter what everyone told him. It was better to drive his plane into the ground like a spike than to keep trying to forget.
Better to die, he thought. In less than a minute it would be over. The pain, the loneliness. Soon it would all be over.
The engine whined in protest as his plane picked up speed. The ground drew nearer. He could see houses down below, could see cars parked in driveways.
"Soon," he whispered. Seconds now, that’s all that was left. Then he could join her forever. The earth lurched closer. He saw a bird in a tree, a child on a front lawn, the grass beneath the little boy’s feet. Seconds now . . .
But he pulled back on the yoke. He couldn’t join her this way. What would he tell her? No, he would have to wait. Someday he would fly to Naomi, but not like this.
If he could help it.
He hauled back on the yoke, desperate to pull the plan out of its dive. He realized there was no time, not enough altitude. But he fought with the controls anyhow, arched his back and pulled with the last vestige of his strength, like the spasm of a man in the last throes of his life, and fifty feet from the ground his airplane suddenly jumped and swung away from the earth, swooping eagerly back up into the sky.
He turned his face from the glaring sun. He would have to wait to see Naomi. He would just have to wait.
It had been six months since her accident. She'd been traveling home when the tire blew out from under her small Toyota, pulling her unexpectedly into the other lane. The driver of the oncoming truck never had time to hit his brakes, it had happened so fast. It had happened so fast that Naomi never knew what hit her. That’s what the police told him.
Corbin wondered, though. He still wondered. Who knew what that split second before death was like? Who knew? He shook his head and settled in for the remainder of his lonely, sad flight.
He reached Sunny Vale later than he expected. The airport was large, even larger than the one at Pinehurst, and there were many small planes arriving and departing. He landed and his plane was fueled and parked. He wanted to grab a bite before he flew his last leg home.
As he walked to the Terminal he thought of Naomi, of how long it would be before he could see her again. And he would see her again, someday, that much he knew.
He was driven from his thoughts as he caught sight of a newspaper rack and the bold headline that read on the Sunday Herald. He quickly picked it up.
SMITH MAN DIES IN PLANE CRASH.
He read on, wondering what had happened and who it could be. The article read, “Corbin Clay died today in the first fatal airplane crash at Smith Airport in Smith, Nevada. His airplane reportedly crashed upon takeoff. He was pronounced dead at the scene.”
Corbin dropped the paper in shock. He felt light headed. He looked around. He had to tell someone it was a mistake. It was all a mistake. He had to see the headline again. Someone tapped him on the shoulder and he spun around, forgetting the paper on the ground.
“Sir, your plane is fueled and ready to fly.”
It was fuel attendant. Corbin’s knees felt weak.
The man placed a hand on his shoulder to steady him. “Sir, your plane is fueled and ready to fly,” he repeated.
“Fly where?” asked Corbin, without realizing he had spoken at all.
The man led him back outside into the late afternoon sunlight. He pointed toward the horizon. The sun was a burning red ball dipping slowly into the ocean, and in its splendor Corbin could see the shadows and silhouettes of a great many small airplanes flying swiftly westward.