She should have ignored the texts that were popping onto her screen, but Streem Durum didn’t get many juicy messages and never one announcing the fall from grace of one of her high school’s cheerleader-approved, A-lister, snooty girls. She slowed her steps to a crawl, then stopped, captivated by a flurry of texts about her sophomore classmate Claudia, an oh-so-perfect, top-of-the-social-ladder, popular girl who had been caught handing in a history paper written by a college junior. Did Claudia buy the paper online? Don’t think so. Is she seeing a college guy? Bet she is. Why’d she do it? Too busy dating the college guy!
     Ten minutes vanished in a flash, and suddenly Streem wasn’t going to be on time. She took off at a run for the Field Administration building and dashed into the pilot ready room, immediately blurting out an apology for being five minutes late. Geena held Streem’s eyes with her own, and, not smiling, pointed to the large clock on the wall.
     “Nine minutes late, not five,” she slowly and sternly intoned.
     “Yes, you’re right. I’m sorry.”
     “When you’re dealing with flying, you’ve got to be full-on responsible. Every detail counts when you’re piloting an aircraft. Understood?”
     “Yes, ma’am.”
     Geena smiled. “Ma’am? I may be old, but let’s go back to calling me Geena.”
     “I guess you scared me a little. I never heard your scary voice before.”
     “That’s good. I want you to be a little scared. It’ll help keep you sharp. Complacency can get a good pilot killed. Now let’s check the weather, pick a flight path and get into the air.”
     It was a beautiful day for flying and Streem had always wanted to fly. She was grateful to Geena, and all the other local pilots, who often invited her to tag along on afternoon flights, where she was known for asking countless questions and for catching on to concepts real quick. They all knew her ambition to get her pilot’s license and become an astronaut. Streem had been hanging around the airfield on weekends and after school for years, now splitting three days a week between doing odd jobs for the airport administrator and assisting the head aircraft mechanic. She was saving all her earnings to pay for flying lessons once she turned sixteen, completed her ground schooling and got her student certification.
     Strapped into their seats in Geena’s Cessna 172, they ran through the pre-flight checklists and prepared for takeoff in the blue-striped, single-engine airplane. Geena unwrapped and removed a pretty headscarf, deftly braided her silver-grey hair into a single, thick plait before slipping on her headphones. Taking the hint, Streem tamed her own straight, long, chestnut hair with a simple low pony tail and settled her headphones over her ears. With all items ticked off and the motor running, Geena asked Streem to declare their departure. Streem took the microphone in hand and announced their call sign, where they were heading and their imminent departure. They both checked the sky for other aircraft before Geena accelerated the airplane and lifted off the runway. Through a cloudless azure sky, they flew away from the airfield toward the gently rolling countryside. Below them the landscape shrank as they gained altitude. With the aircraft’s wing stretching out over the pilot’s cabin, the visibility was expansive and captivating.
     Streem liked Geena, a woman in her early sixties who led her own architectural design firm, and asked how long she’d been a pilot. As they climbed to their cruising altitude of five thousand feet, Geena spoke about her nearly fifty years of flying, and how Streem reminded her of herself as a teen when the flying bug bit her too. But as similar as their love of flying made them, Geena knew there also were big differences. She hadn’t spent much time with Streem before recognizing that the girl was exceptionally smart, and not just with her brain, but with her hands too. Geena had seen her dismantle an engine and reassemble it better than new. The seasoned pilot knew the girl was special, and, remembering her own struggles as a girl having her dream of learning to fly taken seriously, she very much enjoyed giving Streem informal flying lessons.
     “We’re coming up on our cruising altitude, Streem. What do you suggest for fuel management?”
     “We need to lean out the fuel mixture for a more efficient burn, since the air is less dense at our cruising altitude than at takeoff.”
    “That’s right. So I’ll ease back a bit on the mixture control.” Geena locked her hand around the big red knob. “Here we go. Keep an eye on engine RPM. I only need to …” Suddenly, a dark shape blurred Streem’s field of vision and the windshield exploded as a large, black turkey vulture slammed into Geena, bloodying her face, ripping off her headset and knocking her hard against the seat, unconscious.
     Streem screamed and reached for Geena, shouting her name, but to no avail. The woman was out cold. She resettled her own headphones and was irked that they failed by many decibels to seal out the noise of the raging one hundred and twenty mile per hour wind howling through the cabin. Her eyes were stinging from the onslaught of rushing air, and she desperately brought her hand to her face as a shield. Geena was bleeding from a wound somewhere near her hairline. Her sunglasses had been forced off her face and were clinging to the side of her head, one temple caught in her thick, silver hair. “Sorry, Geena, I need these.” Streem gingerly plucked the sunglasses from her friend, used her sleeve to wipe off Geena’s blood as best she could before sliding them over her own eyes. Immediately, the cabin came into clear focus and Streem saw the dead mass of blood and feathers that had slammed into the back seat. She wanted to retch but, now able to see the ragged bleeding cut, instead riveted her attention on Geena. She grabbed for her black web belt, loosened the buckle and pulled it free from her waist, then shoved her hand into Geena’s jacket pocket and tugged out her head scarf as the plane’s stall warning horn abruptly began to wail. Streem glanced back at the altimeter, and everything slowed as her mind methodically analyzed the instrument panel and the whirl of events around her. She fought the urge to lunge for the yoke, calculating that she could spare the twenty seconds she needed to fold the hair scarf into a thick, small square and clamp it over Geena’s wound with her belt. With that job done, Streem strapped herself back into the co-pilot’s seat and grasped the yoke. Now there was nothing else to attend to except keeping the plane from falling out of the sky.