Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
GIVING THE DUVET A SHAKE, Carrie smoothed the creases with her hand. A whiff of fresh-cut grass drew her glance to the open window. The neighbor across the street mopped his face with the bottom of his shirt before closing the trash can full of lawn clippings with a clunk. Dragging it into the backyard, he gave a wave to a passing car, the loud music fading as it drove on. Behind her, in the bathroom, the shower shut off.
Carrie left the room.
“Mom, can I go outside?”
Scott stood at the bottom of the stairs holding a remote control car.
“Where’s your—” Carrie said, making her way downstairs.
The baby crawled into the room, blowing wet raspberries as she went. Reaching her brother’s feet, Elise grabbed onto his shorts and pulled herself up to a stand, her little body jerking subtly as she tried to find balance.
“Okay, did you bring your dishes to the sink?”
“Then you can, but only for ten minutes. Come back before your dad leaves, okay?”
The boy nodded and ran for the door.
“Nope,” Carrie called after him, placing Elise on her hip. “Shoes.”
The “whoops” baby ten years after the first kid had been overwhelming in the beginning. But as the family of three learned how to be four, Bill and Carrie realized the age gap meant big brother could do little things like watch-the-baby-while-I-get-dressed-and-make-the-bed. Things became more manageable after that.
Carrie was wiping the remnants of sweet potato and avocado off the high chair when she heard the front door open.
“Mom?” Scott hollered, a pinched alarm to his tone.
Hurrying around the corner, she found Scott staring up at a man she didn’t know. The stranger on the front porch wore a startled look, his hand frozen on its way to the doorbell.
“Hi,” Carrie said, shifting the baby to her other hip as she moved to place herself subtly between her son and the man. “Can I help you?”
“I’m with CalCom,” the man said. “You called about your internet?”
“Oh!” she exclaimed, opening the door wider. “Of course, come in.” Carrie cringed at her initial reaction, hoping the man hadn’t noticed. “Sorry. I’ve never had a repairman come on time, let alone early. Scott!” she yelled, her son pivoting at the end of the drive. “Ten minutes.”
Nodding, the boy ran off.
“I’m Carrie,” she said, closing the door.
The technician set his equipment bag down in the entryway and Carrie watched him take in the living room. High ceilings and a staircase to the second floor. Tasteful furniture and fresh flowers on the coffee table. On the mantel, family photos over the years, the most recent taken on the beach at sunset. Scott was a mini-me of Carrie, their same chocolatey-brown hair blowing in the sea breeze, their green eyes squinted with wide smiles. Bill, nearly a foot taller than Carrie, held a then-newborn Elise in his arms, her lily-white baby skin a contrast to his Southern California tan. The repairman turned with a small smile.
“Sam,” he said.
“Sam,” she said, returning the smile. “Can I get you something to drink before you get started? I was just about to make myself a cup of tea.”
“Tea would be great, actually. Thanks.”
She led him into the other room, bright, natural light filling the kitchen that opened into the toy-dotted family room.
“Thanks for coming on a Saturday.” Carrie sat the baby back in the high chair. Pounding her fists on the table, Elise giggled through a sparsely toothed grin. “This was the only appointment I could get for weeks.”
“Yeah, we’re pretty busy. How long has your internet been out?”
“Day before yesterday?” she said, filling a tea kettle with water. “English breakfast or green?”
“English breakfast, thanks.”
“Is it normal,” Carrie asked, watching the stove’s pilot light ignite to a full flame, “for our house to be the only one having issues? I asked a few neighbors who also have CalCom and theirs is fine.”
Sam shrugged. “That’s normal. Might be your router, maybe the wiring. I’ll run diagnostics.”
From the front room, heavy footsteps made their way down the stairs. Carrie knew the next sounds well: a suitcase and messenger bag set by the door, followed by hard-soled shoes crossing the entryway. In a handful of strides, he was in the kitchen, polished black dress shoes, crisply ironed pants, suit coat, and tie. Wings above his breast pocket displayed the Coastal Airways insignia, BILL HOFFMAN engraved boldly below. A matching pair adorned the front of the gold-trimmed hat he laid softly on the counter. His entrance felt oddly dramatic and Carrie noticed how much of a contrast his aura of authority made to the rest of the house. She’d never noticed it before; it wasn’t like he came to dinner in uniform. And it was probably only because there was another person in the room, a man who didn’t know him, didn’t know their family. But for whatever reason, today, it was conspicuous.
Bill placed his hands in his pockets with a polite nod to the technician before settling his attention on Carrie.
Lips pursed, arms crossed, she stared back.
“Sam, would you mind…”
“Yeah, I’ll, uh, get set up,” Sam said to Carrie, leaving the couple alone.
The clock on the wall ticked the seconds. Baby Elise banged a drool-covered teething ring on the tray before it slipped out of her fingers, falling to the floor. Bill crossed the kitchen and picked it up, rinsing it off in the sink and drying it with a dish towel before returning it to his daughter’s eager hands. Behind Carrie the tea kettle began a soft whistle.
“I’ll FaceTime when I get to the hotel to hear how the game—”
“New York, right?” Carrie cut him off.
Bill nodded. “New York tonight, Portland tom—”
“There’s a team pizza party after the game. With the three-hour time difference, you’ll be asleep before we get home.”
“Okay. Then first thing—”
“We’re getting together with my sister and the kids tomorrow morning,” she said, and shrugged. “So, we’ll see.”
Bill straightened with a deep inhale, the four gold stripes on his epaulets rising with his shoulders. “You know I had to say yes. If it’d been anyone else asking I wouldn’t have.”
Carrie stared at the floor. The kettle began to screech and she shut off the burner. The noise gradually softened until it was only the clock making noise again.
Bill checked his watch, cursing under his breath. Giving a kiss to the top of his daughter’s head, he said, “I’m gonna be late.”
“You’ve never been late,” Carrie replied.
He put on his hat. “I’ll call after I check in. Where’s Scott?”
“Outside. Playing. He’s coming back any minute to say goodbye.”
It was a test and she knew Bill knew it. Carrie stared at him from the other side of the unspoken line she’d drawn. He glanced at the clock.
“We’ll talk before I take off,” Bill said, leaving the room.
Carrie watched him go.
The front door opened and closed a few moments later and a hush settled over the house. Crossing to the sink, Carrie watched the leaves on the oak tree in the backyard flutter in the breeze. Distantly, Bill’s car started up and drove off.
Behind her, a throat cleared. Wiping her face hastily, she turned.
“Sorry about that,” she said to Sam with an embarrassed eye roll. “Anyway. You said English breakfast.” Tearing open the tea bag, she dropped it in a mug. Steam rose from the kettle as she poured the hot water. “Do you need milk or sugar?”
When he didn’t reply, she looked back.
He seemed surprised by her reaction. He had probably imagined she would scream. Maybe drop the cup. Start to cry, who knows. Some kind of drama he surely expected. When a woman, at home, in her own kitchen, turns to find a man she’s known for a mere handful of minutes pointing a gun at her, a big reaction would seem natural. Carrie had felt her eyes widen reflexively, like her brain needed to take in more of the scene to confirm that this was actually happening.
He narrowed his eyes, as if to say, Really?
Carrie’s heartbeat pounded in her ears while a cool numbness trickled down from the top of her spine to the back of her knees. Her whole body, her whole existence, felt reduced to nothing but a buzzing sensation.
But that was for her to know. She ignored the gun and focused on him instead, and gave him nothing.
Puckering and cooing, baby Elise threw her teething ring back to the floor with a squeal. Sam took a step toward the baby. Carrie felt her nostrils flare involuntarily.
“Sam,” Carrie said calmly, slowly. “I don’t know what you want. But it’s yours. Anything. I will do anything. Just please”—her voice cracked—“please don’t hurt my children.”
The front door opened and closed with a slam. Panic seized her throat and Carrie drew breath to yell. Sam cocked the gun.
“Mom, did Dad leave?” Scott called from the other room. “His car’s not here, can I keep playing?”
“Tell him to come in here,” Sam said.
Carrie bit her bottom lip.
“Mom?” Scott repeated with childish impatience.
“In here,” Carrie said, and closed her eyes. “Come here real quick, Scott.”
“Mom, can I stay outside? You said I could go—” Scott froze when he saw the gun. He looked at his mom and back at the weapon and back at his mom.
“Scott,” Carrie said, and motioned for him. The boy never took his eyes off the firearm as he crossed the kitchen to her, where she deliberately tucked him in behind her.
“Your children may be just fine,” Sam said. “Or they may not. But that’s not up to me.”
Carrie’s nostrils flared again. “Who is it up to?”
Bill could feel people watching him.
It was the uniform. It had that effect. He stood a little taller.
Bill was many things but the consensus seemed to be that he was first and foremost nice. Teachers and coaches growing up, girls he dated, his friends’ parents. Everyone knew Bill as the nice guy. Not that he minded. He was nice. But when he put on the uniform, something changed. Nice wasn’t the default description. It still made the list. But it wasn’t the only word on it.
Passengers’ heads popped up as he bypassed the never-ending line for security at Los Angeles International Airport, but it only took a peek at that hat and tie to dissolve indignation into curiosity. People didn’t dress like that anymore. It harkened back to a time when air travel was a rare privilege, a major event. Purposefully unchanged, the uniform kept a certain antiquated mystique alive. It elicited respect. Trust. It proclaimed a sense of duty.
Bill approached the lone TSA agent seated at a small podium set discreetly off to the side of passenger security. Scanning the barcode on the back of his badge, the machine beeped and the computer went to work.
“Morning,” Bill said, handing the woman his passport.
“It’s still morning?” she said, studying the information printed next to his picture. Comparing it to the information on his badge, she slid the passport under a blue light, holograms and hidden print appearing in the document’s blank space. Glancing up, she verified that the face in front of her matched the one on the IDs.
“I guess it’s not technically morning,” Bill said. “Just morning for me.”
“Well, it’s my Friday. So the day needs to hurry up.”
Bill’s badge photo and information popped up on the computer screen. After triple-checking all three forms of identification, she handed back the passport.
“Safe flight, Mr. Hoffman.”
Leaving the crew security checkpoint, he walked past the passengers tugging their shoes back on and returning liquids and laptops to their carry-on bags. On his last trip, Bill flew with a flight attendant who refused to retire simply because she didn’t want to give up her crew security clearance. She turned up her nose at the thought of having to travel like a mere mortal; waiting in line, liquid restrictions, limited to two carry-ons—which would be searched every single time, not just occasionally at random. Watching a man in his socks being patted down, Bill had to admit she had a point.
Claiming privacy at an unoccupied gate, Bill dialed home as promised. Watching a catering truck outside on the tarmac down below dodge about while rampers in neon vests loaded and unloaded bags from the cargo hold, he listened to the other end of the line ring over and over. An aircraft taxied out to the runway and in the distance, another took off.
He and Carrie didn’t fight often. Which was why when they did they were so bad at it. She had every right to be upset. Today was Scott’s Little League season opener and Bill had promised him he would be there. He made sure he didn’t have a trip on his line for the day of the game and the two days before and after. But when the chief pilot calls to ask you to fly a trip as a personal favor, you don’t say no. You can’t say no. Bill was the third-most senior pilot flying. When he was a new hire, no one was sure the company was even going to make it. Startup airlines almost never do. But he stuck it out nonetheless. And now, nearly twenty-five years later, the airline was a total success with both passengers and shareholders. Coastal was his baby. So when your boss says the operation needs you? You say yes. No isn’t even an option.
He had told Carrie as much. But he didn’t tell her that Scott’s game hadn’t crossed his mind when O’Malley asked if he was available. Or that even if it had, it wouldn’t have made a difference.
The phone rang and rang before finally, “Hi! You’ve reached Carrie. I can’t come…” Ending the call, he saw a family photo appear on the phone’s home screen before he pocketed it.
Catching a glimpse of his reflection in the window, Bill surveyed his dark, full hair. A betraying gray salted his temples. His eyes, a vibrant, deep blue.
Bill slapped the bell in the middle of the coffee table.
“Eyes. My eyes.”
“Final answer? This is for the win.”
“She said they’re like night swimming. When you can’t see the bottom. But it’s exciting. So, yes. My eyes. Final answer.”
Carrie’s jaw dropped.
Bill leaned forward. He could smell the beer on his own breath. “I overheard you say that to a friend on the phone once. I never told you, though. I love you so much, baby.” He blew Carrie a kiss.
The wives cheered, the husbands ribbed.
“All right, Carrie,” the party host said. “?‘His eyes.’ Was that your answer for what your favorite part about your husband is?”
Her cheeks turned pink. With a giggle she held up a piece of paper, her answer scribbled out: His butt.
The room erupted. Bill laughed hardest of all.
He adjusted his tie. I’m a good man, he reminded himself without wavering. His mind flashed to the image of Carrie’s look of disappointment as he walked out of the kitchen. He blinked, glancing away to follow a plane as it took off.