Countdown to Action, Chapter 1 by Joan Marie Verba
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COUNTDOWN TO ACTION! copyright © 2008 by Joan Marie Verba

Dying in a Colorado wildfire was not what Jefferson Tracy, Air Force Academy class of 2031, had in mind to do that day. His orders, from the Air Force Academy commandant, at the Governor’s request, were to deliver firefighters to the danger zone and to dump chemicals on the blaze. So here he was, flying in close formation with his roommate and fellow pilot, Timothy Casey, right through the smoke and heat. He could see Tim flying the other plane through his own cockpit window. The modern firefighting jets were slightly larger than a commuter jet, and they required expert pilots such as Jeff and Tim to handle them.

“Whew, that was close!” Tim called over the radio.

“Yeah, that flame rushed up like a geyser,” Jeff replied. “I thought it would fry the plane for sure.”

“Lucky for us we’re the best pilots at the Academy,” Tim said immodestly, though Jeff could almost see Tim wink as Jeff glanced to his left. “Evasive action is second nature.”

“Well, we’ve delivered two dozen firefighters and dropped two loads of chemicals, so I guess it’s time to get back to base,” Jeff said.

“I bet we get back before the Colorado Air National Guard.”

“That’s easy, since they’re so spread out. They wouldn’t have called for Academy cadets if they weren’t short-handed there.”

“Still, I think we did as good a job as they do.”

“We sure did!” Jeff said proudly.

They flew eastward, high out of reach of the flames.  Jeff saw the wide firebreak ahead, cleared so that the flames would not reach inhabited areas. Scanning the ground near the deserted highway, Jeff radioed to Tim, “Say, Tim, I think I see three people down there.”


“Don’t seem to be. I’m going in for a closer look.”

“Jeff, the fire’s spreading this way, fast.”

“It’ll just take a minute.”

Jeff dipped the plane. He saw a car parked on the shoulder, and three figures lying in a roadside picnic area. They were not moving. “Tim, I’m going to land the plane on the road and take a closer look.”

“Jeff, the fire’s too close! You’ll get burned!”

“It’s not that close, yet. I think I have time.”

“Jeff, even if the fire doesn’t get you, it may be too hot for you to take off.”

“I don’t have to take off,” Jeff said. “All I have to do is taxi down the road.”

“The fire’s spreading too fast!”

Jeff, however, had already circled the plane into a landing position.

“Jeff, they may already be dead!”

“And they may not.”

“You’re crazy, Jeff, you know that.”

“May be.” The plane landed smoothly on the highway and Jeff braked to a stop near the picnic area. As quickly as he could, he got out and ran to the figures. A radio blared out music. Food scraps lay on the ground everywhere. A beer keg had been placed in the cleft of a large rock. Jeff went to the first man, who was not any older than Jeff, if that old. He shook him. The man groaned but did not open his eyes. “Come on, get up, there’s a fire!” He did the same to the second man, and the third, but nothing could rouse them. They reeked with the smell of beer and hard liquor–Jeff also saw bottles of whiskey nearby.

Jeff still wore his earpiece. “Jeff, you gotta get out of there!” Tim urged.

At five foot eleven, Jeff could bench press 200 pounds, and all that muscle was put to the test as he lifted each man using a fireman’s carry and dumped them into the plane. Hurriedly, he strapped himself into the pilot’s seat and started the engines.

“Jeff, the fire’s coming up right behind you!”

He taxied eastward, keeping an eye on the monitor on the instrument panel. The camera on the tail showed that Tim had not been exaggerating–the flames were rapidly catching up. Jeff accelerated to maximum, making fast forward progress, but otherwise all the plane did was hop up and down on the highway, the fire reaching for the plane all the way.

Suddenly, a gust of wind from the east lifted the wings. “Come on, baby, come on!” Jeff said, and climbed up from the highway…higher…higher….another surge of wind…and he was up again!

“Whew!” Tim let out a breath.

“Okay, let’s go!” Jeff had not cleared the firebreak, however, when the port engine sputtered.

“Oh, no!” Tim said, noticing.

“I can get home on one engine,” Jeff said.

“Provided the other one doesn’t go out.”

“Then I’ll glide in.” He looked down. “But I think I’ll unload my passengers, just in case. There’s an aid station near here. We can call them to pick up these guys.”

Again, Jeff landed on the highway…the area had been evacuated for miles around. With the huge firebreak now between them and the blaze, Jeff felt safe taking out the men and settling them in a grassy area next to the road. He took a toolkit and looked at the sputtering engine. 

“See anything?” Tim said from his vantage point, circling above Jeff and his plane.

“There’s dust and ash clogging the mechanism, not surprising. I’ll clear it out the best I can but it’ll probably go out again before we reach base.”

“As long as you can take off, you can make it.”

And he did. Once in the air, Jeff radioed the aid station to pick up the men.

“Any idea who they were?” Tim said as they flew back to base.

“Guys from the university, I think, judging from their jackets and t-shirts.”

“University emblem, eh?”


“They picked a dangerous place to party.”

“Well, the fire was a long way away last night, and there would be no one to arrest them, since the area was evacuated.”

“Still, pretty stupid, if you ask me.”

“No more stupid than that stink bomb you planted in the locker room of the visiting team during the big game.”

Tim chuckled. “You had to remind me of that!”

Jeff’s engine sputtered again. “There it goes.”

“We’re almost back at base.”

Jeff radioed for permission to land and explained his difficulty. The tower let him land before Tim; touchdown was a bit awkward, but Jeff put the plane in the hangar without further incident. He talked to the mechanics, and walked over to Tim as Tim left his plane.

The commandant came in. After both cadets saluted, and got an “at ease,” she said, “Good work, both of you. I’ll be sure that both of you get a commendation, and that the Governor hears of it.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” they answered.

“Take the rest of the weekend off. You’ve earned it.”

“Yes, ma’am!”


They walked back to senior quarters. As they walked into the lounge, which was empty, they saw that the television had been left on. Jeff stopped.

“What is it?” Tim asked.

“Those are the guys I rescued at the side of the road.”

“Oh, really?” Tim turned to the television.

One of the students said to the television reporter, “If it wasn’t for the aid workers finding us, we would have been fried!”

“How do you like that!” Tim said. “They’re taking credit for your rescue!”

Jeff waved a hand. “Doesn’t matter.” He turned to go to their room.

Tim followed. “You ought to call the television station and tell them what really happened.”

“Then they’d just think I was grandstanding,” Jeff said. “We’re getting a commendation, that’s all the recognition I need.”

“Sometimes I wonder about you, Jeff.” He put a hand on Jeff’s shoulder.  “Maybe I could call the station.”

Jeff shook his head. “It’s just our word. Without their remembering me, there’s really no proof.”

“I guess so…but I still think it’s unfair.”

When they reached their room, Tim took off his hat and flight jacket and slumped into a chair. “What do you want to do now?”

“This is the last night of the concert series over at the university. I thought I’d go see it.”

Tim scratched his head. “Well, you know I’m not the classical music type.” He sat up straight. “Hey, I just remembered…this is the opening weekend of that new action movie.” He checked his watch. “Just have time to catch the next showing.” He grabbed his jacket again and hurried out.

Since he did not own a suit, Jeff changed into his uniform and drove his 10-year-old car to the university. He bought a ticket for himself, and found his seat near the front, between two couples. The curtain was closed, but he could hear the musicians tuning their instruments from behind it. He applauded with the others when it opened. The musicians bowed, and the conductor introduced a piece by Mozart. As the music played, Jeff’s eyes wandered to the orchestra members, and fixed on the pianist. She was beautiful–a brown-haired, slim woman who appeared to be around his age. Soon, he could hear nothing but the piano, see nothing but the pianist as she swayed in time with the music. She smiled through the entire concert as if she was savoring every note. Jeff found himself floating away on a musical stream….

“Sir?” an usher interrupted his reverie.

“Huh? Hm?” he faced the young man, who was leaning toward him from the aisle.

“The concert is over. We’re closing.”

Jeff glanced around the room, suddenly realizing he was the only audience member left in the hall. “Oh. Sorry.” He picked up his hat and stood. As he angled his way toward the aisle, he saw the pianist gathering her music. He walked toward the stage. “Ma’am, that’s the best performance I ever heard.”

She smiled at him. “Thank you. It’s always nice to have an appreciative audience.”

He took the smile as an invitation and strode up the stairs to the stage. “Can I buy you a cup of coffee? There’s a coffee shop just across the street.”

Still smiling, she looked him up and down. “I’ve heard about you Air Force cadets…that a girl isn’t safe around you.”

Unfortunately, he knew exactly what she meant. Two of his senior-year classmates had already been expelled from the Academy for bad behavior, and there were three other cadets who were paying child support for kids they hardly knew, by mothers they had long since broken up with. He straightened up at attention and said with all the sincerity he could muster, “You’ll always be safe with me.”

She paused a moment before answering. Her smile faded slightly, then came back. “All right…Cadet Tracy.”

He realized she had read his name badge. He held out a hand. “Jeff Tracy.”

She took it. “Lucy Taylor.”

He extended an arm. “Shall we?”

“Let me get my sweater.” She took her music and left.

He watched her leave, realized that he had let her go. Would she come back? Was that just an excuse? Should he have gone with her? No, that would make it seem as if he were a stalker. If she did not come back, it probably meant she was not interested…or had a boyfriend already. An eternity of seconds later, she reappeared, hurrying toward him, wearing the sweater and carrying her purse. He grinned and extended his arm again. She took it and smiled back.

In the coffee shop, she ordered a latte. He ordered a carafe of black coffee. They found an out-of-the-way table for two and sat.

“So, what do you do now that the series is ended?” Jeff asked.

“Back to class. I just perform evenings and weekends.”

“Do you go to the University?”

“Yes. I’m a music major, and a minor in art.”

“Senior year?”

“Yes. You?”

Jeff nodded. “Is your family here?”

For the first time, she frowned. “My parents died three years ago, in a car accident. I’m an only child.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

She nodded. “Neither of my parents had siblings, either, and my grandparents are gone. I got a small inheritance, but I’m mostly living on student loans and jobs.”

“Do you get paid for the concerts?”

“Yes. Not a lot.”

“You seem to enjoy playing the piano.”

Her face brightened. “Oh, yes. Music has gotten me through the tough times. Life is never easy, but it can be what we make it.” She took a sip of latte. “What about your family?”

“Mom and Dad own a farm in Kansas. I’m an only child, too.”

“So, are you going to fly planes when you graduate?”

“Yes, I love flying. I’m going to get into experimental jets, and once I’ve got that experience under my belt, I’m going to apply to the astronaut corps.”

She inhaled sharply. “How exciting! I’ve always wondered what it would be like to go into space.”

“Well, passenger space flights shouldn’t be too far away. I’m hoping to get on the ground floor for the planned lunar colony. Some day you could live on the moon, if you wanted to.”

“Would you want to?”

“Only if you were there.” The words came out of his mouth without his really thinking about it. He wondered if he had been too forward. But she grinned, and he relaxed.

Eventually–it seemed such a short time, and yet, such a long time–he drove her home. For her, home was the senior dorm at the university. She escorted him past security and into the women’s wing. As Lucy led the way, other women passed them, turning their heads to look. One gave Lucy a “thumbs up” sign; another said, “Wow, Lucy, where have you been hiding him all this time?” Lucy did not answer her, but said to Jeff, “Just ignore them. They’ve never seen me bring a man to my room before.”

Jeff felt special. Was he the first? At the same time, he could not imagine that other men would not flock around his gorgeous woman. “You don’t go on dates?” he asked diplomatically.

Lucy put her key in the door. “Oh, dinner or a movie, occasionally. Nothing serious. I’m busy enough just trying to survive–besides going to classes, playing the piano, and painting.”

Jeff was just about to reply that his studies meant he did not date much, either, when he caught her last phrase. “Painting?”

She opened the door and motioned to the walls. His first reaction was that her room was not much larger than the one he shared at the academy with Tim. Then he saw the art. The wall was full of artwork–original artwork. Some were landscapes; some were moonscapes, or Marscapes; and some were shuttles suspended in space. An easel stood against another wall, holding a covered canvas. His jaw dropped. “Did you paint all of these?”

She smiled. “Yes. Do you like them?”

“They’re amazing!”

She motioned to a chair. “I’m afraid I just have one chair for guests.”

“Oh. That’s not necessary. I mean, I’d like to stay longer, but I have to get back to the academy. My car will be ticketed if I stay much longer, and I can’t really afford that.”

“Oh, yes, I should have known.”

“I’d like to see you again, though.”

“Me, too.” She went to the desk and grabbed a pen and a memo pad. She scribbled and tore off a page. “Here’s my number and text messaging address.”

He reached around her and took the pen and memo pad. When he was done, he handed her a page. “Here’s mine.” They exchanged papers. She put his on the desk; he folded hers and put it in his pocket. To Jeff’s everlasting surprise and delight, she kissed him. He gently took her in his arms and kissed her back.

“Mmmm, nice,” she said when she took a breath.

He pulled back a little. “We’ll have to do this again, soon.”

She nodded and motioned to the door. “I have to escort you out.”

He held out an arm. “I’ll escort you.”

When they got to the lobby, past security, they saw two students, a man and a woman, across the room. The man held a book above the woman while she snatched at it.

“Ed, give me my book!” the woman insisted.

“Not ’til you say you’ll go to the game with me.”

“Ed, I said I have to study for my exam!”

“What’s more important, Heather, the exam, or me?”

By this time, Jeff had rushed across the room. He grabbed the book from Ed’s hand, gave it back to Heather, and positioned himself right in front of Ed. “What’s the matter with you? Give the lady the book!”

“You Air Force guys think you can boss anyone around.”

“And bullies like you think you can get away with anything.” He motioned to the security officer, standing at the door, watching them. “Shall we ask security which one of us she thinks is right?”

“Awwww.” He waved his hand and skulked away.

“Thank you,” Heather said.

“You’re welcome.”

Heather left; Lucy walked up to Jeff. “You have a temper on you, Jeff, as my mother used to say.”


“Don’t be sorry! The world would be a better place if we all stood up to bullies like that.”

With every word she said, he loved her more and more.

A hot bubble of air had passed through Kansas that

April, so Jeff decided to fire up the grill in the back yard and cook hot dogs for dinner. The same weather front had collided with a mass of cold air from Canada, causing a blizzard in Alpine City, the posh resort in the Rockies where Lucy was exhibiting her artwork, or else she would have been home by now. In her last call, Lucy had said that the snow had stopped, and the roads had been plowed. She would be taking the hotel’s van to the airport, and expected to be home later that evening. The boys were thrilled–especially Scott, whose 13th birthday had been just days before. Lucy had given Scott a box that held only a note, promising that she would buy him the flight simulator for his computer right after she got back. Lucy had confirmed to Jeff over the phone that she had sold more than enough artwork to make the purchase.

As much as Jeff wanted Lucy home, he also relished having some time alone with his sons. He had only been able to return to his modest home three or four times a year between moon missions, and although he e-mailed home and spoke with his sons over webcam–which was awkward with the one-minute delay in communications between Earth and Moon–when he was away, the reunions always seemed awkward. It seemed as if there was always something in his sons’ lives that he missed when he was gone, and just as he thought he had caught up, he was off again. While Jeff loved his work building the moon base, he loved his wife and sons even more, and often thought there just had to be a way to combine his two loves more effectively.

Supper preparations continued as the boys smoothed the paper tablecloth over the picnic table and distributed the plates. Jeff had just put the last hot dog in the last open bun and handed the plate to Scott when his cell phone rang. He saw on the readout that it was Lucy.

Without waiting for her to speak first, he said, “That was fast! Are you at the airport already?”

“Jeff…something’s happened.” Her voice sounded strained.

He felt his skin turn clammy. “Tell me all about it.” His mind readied to give whatever solution the problem required.

“The van…went off the road. I think a ridge…above the highway… collapsed under the weight of the snow and hit us.”

“Are you all right?”

“No.” Her voice was calm.

“What’s wrong?”

“Hurt. Can’t move, except my right arm. Can’t feel my legs.”


“Internally, maybe. Something feels funny inside. No blood on my clothes.”

“Is anyone helping you?”

“There’s no one. The others…don’t answer when I call….”

“Okay. Just don’t move for now.” Jeff turned to John. “John, get upstairs on your radio and call Colorado Emergency Services. Give them your Mom’s cell phone number and tell them to track her GPS.”

John nodded and stood.

“I need to talk to John!” Lucy said desperately.

Jeff motioned John over. He held the phone to John’s ear, but angled so he could still hear Lucy himself.

“I’m here, Mom.”

“John…I want you to promise me…when you grow up…you choose what you want to do…not what you think someone else wants you to.”

“I will, Mom.”

“I love you, John.”

“I love you, too, Mom.”

Jeff took the phone back and whispered, “Go…go.”

John nodded and ran.

“Now listen to me, Angel,” Jeff said. “You’re going to be fine. Someone will come very soon.”

“I want to talk to the boys.”

Scott, Virgil, and Gordon had lined up beside Jeff. Three-year-old Alan continued to eat his hot dog at the table. Jeff gave the phone to Scott. “Keep your mother talking,” Jeff said in a low voice.

Scott nodded. “Mom….”

“Scott. You tell Dad you’re entitled to that flight simulator.”

“I don’t care about the flight simulator, Mom. Just come home.”

“I love you, Scott.”

“I love you, too, Mom.”

Jeff gestured at his second son. “Virgil,” he whispered.

“Hi, Mom!”

“Virgil…don’t be shy about telling Scott and your father that you want to be an astronaut, too.”

Scott turned to Virgil and said excitedly, “Virgil!”

Virgil looked a bit embarrassed, but said, “Okay, Mom.”

“I love you, Virgil.”

“I love you, too, Mom.” Virgil gave the phone to Gordon.

“Hi, Mom,” Gordon said.

Lucy answered slowly, but distinctly. “Gordon, remember…you don’t have to go to college if you don’t want to. If you want to enlist in the Navy or join the aquanauts right out of high school…tell your father that I said that was all right.”

“Okay, Mom.”

“I love you, Gordon.”

“I love you, too, Mom.”

Jeff brought the phone over to Alan, who had continued eating all this time. He put the phone up to Alan’s face. “Alan, your mom wants to talk to you.”

Alan turned until his lips nearly touched the phone. “Come home, Mommy!”

“I love you, Alan.”

“I love you too, Mommy!” Alan shouted into the receiver. “Come home!” He went back to eating.

Jeff took the phone back. “Angel, I need to know where you are. Are you still in the van, or outside?”

“Outside. In the snow.”

“Is your coat on?”

“Yes. I’m sort of under the van. I think a bunch of rocks hit it. It’s in pieces.”

“The important thing is to stay awake.”

“Yes. Ohhhh…”

“What?” Jeff said. When Lucy did not answer, he said, “Angel, talk to me. Angel. Say something.”

“I love you, Jeff.” He could barely hear her. “Take care of the boys.”

“I love you, too, Angel. We’ll take care of the boys together.”

“Ohhh….” Another groan.

The phone went dead.

Jeff desperately tried to call back, but could not get anything. Scott, Virgil, and Gordon looked on anxiously.

John ran toward them. “Dad…,” he took a breath. “They’re on their way.”

Jeff reached out and put a hand on his arm. “All right. Good work. Sit down and finish your supper.” He looked at his other sons. “Boys, you need to eat. You won’t help your mother by starving yourselves.”

Scott sat, but said “They’ll get to Mom okay, won’t they Dad?”

“Sure. Sure they will.” Jeff turned to his food, but his thoughts were elsewhere.


“Hm?” He looked up at Scott, and realized that he had lost track of time. His dinner was still untouched, cold. He found he was not hungry, anyway. Looking up, he saw John and Virgil quietly clearing the table.

“What’s for dessert?” Alan asked. “I want ice cream.”

There was nothing to do but wait for a call. They played a video of Alan’s favorite movie, which featured talking cars. No one but Alan paid attention. The rest of them sat on the sofa, just staring out into space, saying nothing.

Finally, the phone rang. Jeff walked over to get it. “Jeff Tracy speaking.”

A gray-haired woman appeared on the telecall screen. “Mr. Tracy? This is Mercy Hospital. I’m terribly sorry. I’m afraid I have bad news for you, Mr. Tracy….”

When the call ended, he saw his four eldest sons standing in the doorway of the kitchen, looking on anxiously. Jeff walked toward them, and put his arms around them, two sons on each side. “Come on, let’s sit down.”

Alan did not understand. “But why can’t Mommy come home?” he would say, even after they explained. When Jeff called his mother over to watch the boys while he flew to Colorado to get Lucy, Alan screamed that he wanted Mommy, not Grandma. Once Lucy’s body had been transferred to the funeral parlor, Jeff sat at the kitchen table with the boys, going over the arrangements. Alan became hysterical over the idea that Mommy would be buried, even if she would be buried next to Grandpa. They found a space in a mausoleum, instead. When they went to the visitation, surrounded by Jeff’s fellow astronauts and their spouses, Alan pushed a chair over to the coffin, climbed up, and pounded on Lucy’s chest. “Mommy, wake up!” he shouted. Jeff had to carry him out, kicking and screaming. The coffin was closed for the service. Alan had calmed down by then, and watched silently when the coffin was interred. Jeff thought that was the end of it. But a couple of weeks later, Alan walked up to Jeff after breakfast. “Daddy, can we go and bring Mommy home, now?”

Jeff did not answer. He sat at the table, head in his hands. Every time the wound seemed to be closing, Alan would open it again. The other boys had tried to explain death to their younger brother, too, but Alan did not believe them. Jeff had done his best to remain calm around the boys, confining his crying jags to when he was alone in the shower. As for the other boys, though they had cried and questioned and ranted about the unfairness of it all, at least he was able to get through to them. Then he remembered that NASA had a counseling service that he could call 24 hours a day. They had to have some answers for them.

As he reached for the phone, it rang. He had not been expecting a call; the condolence calls had long since stopped. “Jeff Tracy.”

A woman about Lucy’s age appeared on the screen. “Mr. Tracy, this is Alice Edgerton, Lucy’s agent. I don’t know if you remember me; I saw you at the funeral, but there were a lot of people there.”

“Oh, yes,” he said, though he had not remembered.

“Mr. Tracy, now that some time has passed, I wanted to warn you that you might be getting calls about Lucy’s paintings.”


“The value of an artist’s work always goes up when an artist dies, and I wanted to be sure that you didn’t part with them for less than they’re worth. I can help you with this, if you want.”

“Do you think I care about that!” he growled, and terminated the call. He turned and saw Alan, still there, looking at him expectantly. “Alan,” he said, as softly as he could, “we’ll talk about Mommy later.”

“Won’t Mommy ever come home?” he said sadly.

Jeff sighed heavily. “We’ll talk later, son. You run along.” After Alan slinked away, he dialed the counseling service. “This is Jeff Tracy. I need your help.”

A woman wearing glasses appeared on the screen. “Yes, Mr. Tracy. I heard about your wife, it was in all the papers. I’m so sorry. How can I help?”

“It’s my son. My youngest son, Alan. He thinks his Mother is still alive. He keeps asking for her, and I don’t know what to do. Can you tell me how to explain it to him?”

“And how are you doing, Mr. Tracy?”

“I’m not talking about me, I’m talking about my son!”

“Let me schedule an appointment for you, Mr. Tracy. You sound pretty shaken, yourself.”

Jeff terminated the connection. No one understood. He dialed Tim Casey.

“Jeff, you’re a mess,” Tim said after Jeff explained.

Jeff rubbed his forehead. “I don’t know what to do.”

“You need to take some time off, by yourself.”

“I can’t leave the boys, not now!”

“You’re no use to them as you are, either. You’ve had a shock, and you need some R&R to recover. Now, I and some of the others here at the base have a timeshare in Singapore. It’s empty right now and I’ll give you my key codes. Inside you’ll find a map. There’s a real quiet, restful place in Malaysia where we go and just decompress. It’s a day trip; just rent a car and pack a lunch. You’ll be all the better for it.”

Jeff sighed. “All right. I’ll call my mother to watch the boys.”

Scott walked in on him as he was packing. “Where are you going, Dad? I didn’t know there was another launch scheduled.”

“No, son, I’m still on bereavement leave. I’m going to Singapore.”

“But Dad, what if something happens to you?”

He turned to Scott. “Nothing’s going to happen to me, son. I know that you’re anxious because of your mother, but we can’t spend the rest of our lives in a cocoon. Many people spend all of their lives driving or flying and never have an accident bad enough to even send them to the hospital.”

Scott looked stricken. “Are you leaving because of me?”

“No, son!” Jeff said, genuinely surprised.

Scott walked over and hugged his father. “I’m sorry, Dad. It was my fault. If I hadn’t asked for that flight simulator, Mom would never have gone to Colorado.”

Jeff patted Scott on the back. “No, son, that’s not it at all. Your mother would have gone anyway, she’d planned on that exhibition for months.” Jeff held Scott at arm’s length so he could look him in the eye. “Son, it was my fault your mother died. I could have flown her to and from the exhibition myself. There was a small airfield just down the road from the hotel.”

“But Dad, I thought your plane was being repaired.”

Jeff’s private jet, purchased with the inheritance he had received when his father died and his mother sold the farm, was the only real asset the family had, besides the house and the two cars. Like Scott, Jeff had been waiting for Lucy to bring home some revenue so he could afford to get it fixed. In fact, he found later that the money had been transferred to their joint account before Lucy had even left the hotel; the plane was now airworthy again.

“One of the other astronauts would have loaned me a plane, if I’d asked, I’m sure.”

Scott shook his head. “It wasn’t your fault, either, Dad.”

“Son, if I’d just been there…your mother would have been safe.”

“But I heard Grandma tell you there was nothing you could have done to prevent Mom dying…it was just an accident, nothing more.”

Jeff just looked at the ceiling and shook his head.

“Please don’t go, Dad.”

He looked back at Scott. “I need to, son. I need to be alone. It’s not that I don’t love you and your brothers…I do. It’s hard to explain, and I know it’s hard for you to understand. Just know that it’s for a short time and I’ll be back. Your Grandma will take care of you while I’m gone.”

“Well, okay, Dad,” Scott said, but he still looked confused.

Once Jeff was in the air, he felt himself again. Flying always had this soothing effect on him, and space flight even more so. He looked forward to going to Singapore–he had been there with Tim when they were flying experimental aircraft for the Air Force. It was a place where he knew no one, and no one would know him except perhaps as a face they had seen in the news. Maybe Tim was right–he could think there, and figure out what he would do for the rest of his life.

He landed safely in Singapore, and took a day to get adjusted to the time difference. During that time, he stuck to the shops and restaurants with which he was familiar. A major technology center, Singapore electronics shops offered many intriguing gadgets, some of which he purchased for his sons: a battery-powered kiddie car for Alan, a radio controlled boat for Gordon, a high-powered sender/receiver for John, a model rocket for Virgil, and a programmable two-foot-high robot for Scott.

The next day, he rented a jeep and took the map/GPS to guide him on the way. As Tim suggested, he went to a restaurant and ordered a take out lunch and a thermos of coffee before getting on the road. The Malaysian border guard checked his identity card and waved him through. Within the hour, the highway became a road, which, after some twists and turns, became a gravel path.  Jeff reduced speed to a crawl as the vegetation on both sides of the road became more dense.

At last, the GPS told him he had arrived at his destination. He put the jeep in park, pocketed his sunglasses, took his lunch, and stepped out in to a wide clearing with stone ruins. Consulting the guidebook that Tim left for him, he read that this had been an ancient retreat for royalty, abandoned for centuries. Walking around, he saw wide steps leading to a platform, presumably the foundation for the main building. He also saw a huge field of gorgeous flowers, grown tall, almost waist height. Jeff had no idea what the name of the flowers might be, but they ranged in color from purple to red to orange to yellow. Their subtle scent filled the air.

Jeff sat on the top–fourth–step to eat his lunch and drink his coffee. A warm, moist breeze blew around him, caressing his skin. As he became attuned to the sights and sounds, he noticed a river running just beyond the field of flowers. The sound of the rush of water soothed his nerves. He moved his shoulders up and down, back and forth, as the tension in his muscles eased. He blew out a long breath. Yes, it was very peaceful here.

The soft noise of a small motor caught his attention. Glancing at his watch, he was surprised to see that he had been sitting there for about two hours. He stood to ease his muscles and saw a man in a small boat coming to the shore. The man stopped the motor, stepped out, and tied the boat to the tree. Then he walked into the field of flowers, carrying what appeared to be a small machete. He had not seemed to have noticed Jeff at all.

Jeff expected the man to gather flowers, but instead, as he watched, the man seemed to be cutting weeds. Once in a while, he would stop, examine a petal, and trim the plant without harming a bloom. Or he would bend down out of Jeff’s sight, and come up again, tossing some dead brush, or perhaps a rock, aside. He was gardening!

Intrigued by the man’s work, he strode down the steps. First, he packed his trash in the paper bag he carried his lunch in and stowed it in the jeep with the thermos. Then he picked his way through the flower field. It was slow going, since the plants were high and close together. Suddenly, he slipped on some loose dirt and found himself falling.

Splash! He fell into water, feet first, and found himself submerged. His first thought was that this must be an abandoned well. When he tried to swim to the surface, however, he found himself being sucked down. A drain? As much as he struggled, he could not make any headway. He was running out of air. All he could think was that if he did not reach the surface soon, his sons would be orphans….

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