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“Putting it mildly,” Larry said.

Savannah filled out the check, then handed it to him. He stared at it like it was manna from heaven and muttered something about how he’d never say another unkind word about me as long as he lived.

I told Savannah I could never possibly repay her generosity.

“Take me to Tahoe, flyboy,” is all she said.

THREE

Pilots joke that a smooth landing is mostly luck, that greasing an airplane onto the runway twice in a row is all luck, and that three in a row is prevarication. Many aviators consider their ability to return a flying machine safely to the ground in reusable condition the ultimate measure of skill. Not me. For me, it’s all about passenger comfort. Looking over at Savannah napping peacefully in the right seat, snuggled under my leather flight jacket, her head propped against the door, I had every reason at that moment to consider myself among the greatest pilots who ever lived.

For any good airman, regardless of how relaxing he may claim it is, flying is rarely without worry. You worry about the ever unpredictable variability of weather. The fear of midair collision with another airplane ranks right up there. Little, however, contributes more to a pilot’s pucker factor than the potential of some catastrophic mechanical failure occurring miles above the earth, especially in an aging, single-engine bird like the Ruptured Duck. Ordinarily, I would’ve been constantly scrutinizing the gauges, fretting about the occasional creak or groan that all airplanes make—“Indian night noises,” the leather-helmeted old timers used to call them — all the while scanning the ground for suitable emergency landing sites in the event of “what-if?”

But not on that day. On that day, flying Savannah up to Lake Tahoe and what would be the beginning of Our Life Together, Chapter 2, my aging four-seat Cessna performed flawlessly. Invigorated by the cold at 10,500 feet, the Duck carried us through California’s Central Valley on air so silken that I flew virtually hands free, needing only to adjust the elevator trim every few minutes to maintain altitude.

Off our right wingtip, the sawtooth mountaintops of the Sierra Nevada beckoned as though dipped in powdered sugar. I was tempted to wake Savannah, to share the postcard view, but she looked so peaceful that I thought the better of it. She was, after all, sleeping for two. There’d be plenty of opportunities for sightseeing when we were a family. From perpetual foster child to the head of my own real clan. It had taken only more than four decades. I smiled inside.

A family. So this is what serenity must feel like.

After more than two hours in the air, I hooked a right northeast of Sacramento, then followed the highway that wended up from the little Gold Rush-era burg of Placerville, to the airport at South Lake Tahoe. That way, even if visibility deteriorated, which it showed no indication of doing, I could reasonably minimize the chances of becoming personally acquainted with any of the area’s 10,000-foot peaks. The Sierra was a veritable graveyard of airplanes whose pilots disrespected Mama Nature and paid the price. The Duck and I didn’t intend to join them.

We were twelve minutes from landing, according to the Garmin GPS mounted on my steering yoke. Oakland Center had just instructed me to squawk VFR and change to the advisory frequency for traffic pattern entry at South Lake Tahoe, when something on the ground a mile or so ahead of us and slightly to the north glinted brightly, almost blindingly. It looked to me like a signaling mirror, like somebody trying to get our attention. Whatever it was seemed to be coming from deep in the pines between two jagged, granite crests.

“Where are we?” Savannah said, stretching her arms and yawning.

“About ten miles out of Tahoe. Nice nap?”

“Wonderful nap. Very restful. What are you looking at?”

“I’m not exactly sure.”

I banked left to get a better look, hugging mountainsides as close as prudence would allow.

Had we taken off from Rancho Bonita one minute earlier that morning, or a minute later, the angle of the sun would’ve been lower or higher, and I might not have seen what I saw. I wouldn’t have seen it had there been more clouds, as the weather gurus initially predicted, or had I been focused on my prelanding checklist, as I probably should’ve been. The Buddha believes that what happens in life happens for a reason. I still don’t know the reason I saw what I saw that morning. But looking down through the pines as I flew over them, I glimpsed a large piece of polished aluminum protruding from the snow.

It looked like the twisted, skeletal remains of an airplane wing.

* * *

“South Lake Tahoe area traffic, Cessna Four Charlie Lima is five miles southwest of the field, descending through 8,000 feet. Crosswind entry, runway One-Eight, full-stop, South Lake Tahoe.”

I radioed our intentions and instinctively leaned forward in my seat, scanning the sky. If there were any other aircraft landing or departing the field, I couldn’t see them. The radio was silent. A good sign.

We turned base at pattern altitude. The view of Lake Tahoe off the Duck’s passenger side was spectacular. Whitecaps danced on water the color of gunmetal. Savannah gazed serenely out the window, smiling to herself. That was always one thing I loved about her, her willingness to let beautiful moments speak for themselves, rather than diluting them with the obvious, “Isn’t that beautiful?”

“South Lake Tahoe area traffic, Cessna Four Charlie Lima is turning final,” I radioed, “runway One-Eight, South Lake Tahoe.”

The Duck sniffed out the runway and settled onto the asphalt as gentle as a sigh. One of our better landings, if I do say so myself.

“You should think about being a pilot,” Savannah said, teasing me. “You’re not half bad at it.”

“Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll definitely give it some thought.”

I broadcast that we were “down and clear” of the runway, and taxied toward an arrow and a sign that said, “Transient parking.” A tall, gangly ramp attendant in his mid-twenties, wearing faded Levis and a florescent green safety vest over a hooded San Francisco 49ers sweatshirt, directed us to a tie-down spot in front of Summit Aviation Services, the local fixed-base operator. After I’d shut down the engine, he set the wheel chocks and began chaining down the Duck’s wings to the tarmac, then held Savannah’s door open for her.

“I’m Chad. Welcome to Tahoe,” he said, brushing his long, unkempt dirty blond hair out of his face. He had sallow eyes, ice blue. “Where’re you guys in from?”

I wanted to ask him at what point did people begin referring to both men and women synonymously as “guys?” But I didn’t.

“Rancho Bonita,” I said, “by way of Los Angeles.”

“Sweet. My girlfriend lives down in Rancho Bonita — actually, my former girlfriend. We still talk pretty much every day, though. One of those deals where we tell each other pretty much everything. No holding back. Maybe that’s why we broke up. Who knows, right?”

“Something to strive toward in any relationship, that degree of openness and emotional intimacy,” Savannah said, looking directly at me with one eyebrow raised. “Wouldn’t you agree, Logan?”

“Oh, absolutely.”

“Maybe you know her,” Chad said opening the Duck’s baggage door and taking out our luggage. “Her name’s Cherry Rosales. She works at Nordstrom, the store downtown. Sells jewelry.”

“Actually,” I said, “I’m more of a Sears kind of guy.”

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