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Olivia Reid clutched the counter of the galley with both hands as the aircraft lurched and shook. She had experienced turbulence during her two years as a flight attendant, but this felt ominous—as if the plane would fall apart at any moment. Was her overactive imagination at work again? She steadied herself, stepped out of the galley, and checked down the aisle for any trouble. Except for two passengers staring back at her, their faces flushed with dwindling fear, all seemed well.
Returning to her chores, Olivia peeked through the porthole of the galley door on South Air’s Flight 223 as it headed to Bogota, Colombia, from JFK International. The warm sunlight on her face immediately calmed her. She hated clear air turbulence—all you got were sudden jolts with no warning from the cockpit.
She grabbed two bags of regular and decaffeinated coffee from a drawer below the counter, filled both coffeepots, and listened as hot liquid trickled down through the ground coffee. Its rich aroma wafted through the air, and anticipation of the new destination she was about to explore filled her. One more of many.
Olivia walked to the entrance of the tourist class cabin and looked toward the aft galley. Good, the girls in the back are walking through the aisle with plastic bags to collect trash; soon they’ll be cleaning up the galley. Then, through the growl of the engines, she heard raised voices. They were coming from an elegant middle-aged woman in 8A, who busied herself lecturing the teenage girl sitting next to her. The young girl kept trying to speak.
“But, Mom . . . Mom, you’re not listening to me.” The woman paid no attention to her daughter’s protests; she kept talking at the top of her lungs and gesturing antagonistically with her hands. The teenage girl eventually relented, rolled her eyes, and let her mother rant on. The other passengers nearby glared at the woman as if to say “shut the hell up.”
Olivia cringed. My God, that reminds me of my mother. Her mother, Miss Birdie, was the most domineering person she knew, and she had decided to remove herself from maternal control as soon as she became an adult, and cast aside all family pressures, establish her own identity, travel the world—maybe she would even date someone from another part of the Earth. Olivia now passionately pursued her dream, flying to destinations that ranged from Port of Spain in Trinidad to Tel Aviv in Israel. Liberation had become her mantra.
As she poured a cup of coffee for a passenger sitting in 4A, Olivia thought how much she missed her grandmother, Sedith, who had raised her from when she was four years old at
Twickenham, the old sugarcane plantation in Jamaica that had been passed down through the generations. Then another thought disturbed Olivia’s peace; her mother had returned to Jamaica from England when Olivia was only eight, bringing with her a stronghold that both choked and stifled her.
But life is exciting now. Sharing the New York City crash pad with six flight attendants from different countries is an adventure all its own, Olivia thought as she balanced the tray loaded with cups, spoons, and cream and sugar in one hand and hefted the coffeepot in the other.
“Would you like a cup of coffee before we land, sir?” she asked the passenger in row 5.
“No thanks. But, I would like to know your name,” he said staring up at her with the most enchanting hazel eyes she had ever seen. She blushed as he seemed to drink in her appearance. Olivia was decked out in her navy-blue flight attendant pantsuit, black pumps, and a blue-and-beige silk scarf tied smartly around her collar. She wore her long wavy black hair parted down the middle and had it pulled back into an ample braid that flowed down her back. She proudly displayed the new pin on her jacket, which showed that after a recent promotion she was now an ISM—an International Service Manager.
“Olivia,” she responded.
“Niko Kostas, Olivia. Are you Brazilian?”
“Jamaican,” she answered. “Where are you from?”
Olivia’s eyes quickly took in his smooth olive complexion and the silky dark-brown hair that hung loosely on his broad shoulders. His lean, muscular body boasted a pair of light khaki pants and matching shirt, which was open in front. Underneath, a black silk T-shirt hugged his chest and flaunted his taut stomach.
He wore light-brown leather loafers and no socks; sleek short hairs wandered up his ankles. He was one gorgeous, exotic man.
“I’m from Greece, and you’re the most stunning woman I’ve ever seen,” he complimented.
Blood rushed to her face under his intense gaze.
“What are you?” he asked.
“I’m an ISM,” she said while pointing to her name tag.
“No,” he laughed, “what ethnicity?”
“Oh,” she answered with a chuckle. “I’m a mix of white, black, and East Indian.”
“Wow, what an exotic blend. Can you imagine the beautiful babies we’ll make together?” He flashed her a roguish smile.
“I beg your pardon—I plan to be married before I even think about having children, thank you very much.”
His eyes twinkled. “In that case, we better get to know each other right away.”
Flabbergasted, Olivia muttered something unintelligible and quickly moved on to the other passengers.
“Have dinner with me tonight in Bogota?” he called out.
What an arrogant, self-absorbed jerk, she thought as she headed back to the galley, not wanting him to see her flushed face. Maria Gonzalez joined her a moment later.
“Everything okay in the back?” Olivia asked.
“All except for a couple of passengers complaining about the turbulence,” Maria answered. “But we settled them down. Funny what a free cocktail can do.”
“Good, I’m not in the mood for any excitement today.” Olivia finished stowing the coffee and turned with a smile. “Come on, let’s catch up. You worked Europe and Tel Aviv all last month and we barely saw each other at the crash pad.”
“Great idea—let’s get out of this galley,” Maria said.
Maria was a spirited twenty-two-year-old Latina with a strong tropical flavor, and they had met and connected during training two years earlier. Olivia looked at her Puerto Rican friend and thought how beautiful she was—and what a big heart she had.
But there was a conflicted aura about her, and she sometimes expressed dread when she had to visit Puerto Rico to see her parents. When Olivia tried to get her to open up, her reply was always, “Someday—when the time is right.”
As they sat together on the front jump seat they shared during takeoff, Olivia said, “I just got back from spending time in Jamaica with my family.”
“Oh my God, how is that amazing grandmother of yours?”
“Sedith is wonderful,” she said.
“Is she still telling those great stories about the old sugarcane plantation? What’s it called again—Twicktham?” Maria asked.
“That’s close, girl. It’s Twickenham,” Olivia said. “Clinton and I had a great time. She nurtured us with good food and lots of love. And her stories—she keeps me centered.” Olivia smiled as she thought of her grandmother and her brother Clinton, who was now an FBI agent living in Los Angeles. “It was amazing spending time with two of my closest friends. Much needed. How was your trip to Puerto Rico? Is your family—?”
The phone on the wall above their heads shrilled. Olivia grabbed it. “Hello?”
“This is Captain Jackson. Get the other flight attendants together and come to the cockpit immediately.”
Uneasiness crawled up her spine. “Something is wrong, Maria. The Captain wants us in the cockpit, now.” She stood and gestured with her hand to the two flight attendants sitting on the aft jump seat. After they hurried to the front of the aircraft, she opened the cockpit door and all four of them quietly filed in.
First Officer Stewart was frantically flipping switches up, then down. The back of his neck was flushed red under his short-cropped brown hair. There was another jolt—followed by a more violent vibration. The aircraft’s floor felt as if it was about to give way beneath them. Olivia grabbed the back of the first officer’s chair, her heart leaping to her throat. Maria desperately held back tears. Amy and Francesca, the other flight attendants, clung to each other, their eyes bulging with trepidation.
At the controls, Captain Jackson turned around to face them.
The captain’s face was red, and the hair on his head was mussed and grayer than she remembered. Two deep lines furrowed his brow. “Ladies, prepare both galleys and all passengers for an emergency landing.” His carefully chosen words struck Olivia with dread. The other flight attendants stood around her, transfixed.
“We’ve lost engine one, and we’re expecting a dual engine flameout with loss of power in both engines. We need to land at the basin of the Orinoco River, about thirty miles from Bogota.
The good news—help is already on the way. The bad news—it’s a swamp with some of the largest crocs and anacondas this side of the world.”
Olivia breathed in deeply and shuddered as she struggled to maintain composure. She was about to die. They were about to die. She pursed her lips tightly so the others would not see them quivering. I must keep it together—I will not panic—we will survive this. I promised my grandmother I would help her pay the taxes on Twickenham now that Bartley, her no-good husband, has disappeared. Keep it together, Olivia.
Her thoughts were interrupted by Captain Jackson. “This is critical, so listen carefully: As soon as you get survivors off the plane, move them to drier ground immediately—no delays. It’s the only way to survive the swamp waiting for us below.”
The captain looked quickly at each of them, his jaw tight. His countenance softened, but the line between his brows grew deeper.
“Go on . . . and be brave!”
Pushing down panic, Olivia and her fellow flight attendants rushed to stow trays, coffeepots, and dishes. They fastened all latches in the galleys and above the passenger seats. If she survived, it would be on her to help all wounded passengers and keep them calm. After all, she was now the ISM.
The first-class passengers were restless. Niko Kostas was staring at her, a calm yet questioning look on his face. The obnoxious woman in Seat 4A stared at her, her lips shaking; her baby-blue eyes widened as the aircraft began to vibrate. Hands extended above her head, the woman began jerking up and down as she frantically tugged at the bell above her seat. Amy and Francesca forced a terror-stricken passenger back into his seat in the tourist-class cabin. The aircraft began to shake violently.
Captain Jackson’s calm and somber voice reverberated through the plane. “Ladies and gentlemen, the flight attendants are preparing the cabin for an emergency landing. We’re losing power in both engines and need to land now. Help is on the way and should get to us soon. It’s critical that you stay as calm as possible and do everything your flight attendants instruct you to do.”
“Oh my God, we’re going down—we’re going to die!” the passenger in seat 4A screamed.
“Jesus in heaven, help us,” yelled a passenger sitting in an aisle seat in the front row of the aft cabin, her fists tight and shaking. The airplane made a horrible grinding noise as it lurched forward. More screams, prayers, panic, tears, and questions filled the cabin as Olivia screamed instructions over the din. There was a dreadful, interminable silence as everyone froze with shock. Then the plan lurched and began a steep descent.
“Fasten your seat belts immediately,” Maria ordered, bringing an urgent end to the silence.
“Keep your heads down—grab your knees. Hold on for dear life!” Olivia yelled as the plane vibrated so uncontrollably, everyone shook in their seats.
Adrenaline rushing, Olivia checked one last time to make sure everyone was braced for the landing and spotted the strange sight of a man in seat 5A sitting calmly amid the mayhem. It was Niko Kostas. Suddenly, a thin gray smoke invaded the fuselage.
“Oh God,” Olivia whispered to Maria. Then she felt Captain Jackson beginning to perform his miracle. She glanced over to seat 5A; Kostas still sat calmly upright, and now he was staring out the window.
She screamed at him. “Get down and brace yourself, now!”
This time, he acquiesced.
Olivia shut her eyes as Flight 223 lost altitude and embarked on a torturous descent.
She knew that engine number two was gone, and she felt as if the aircraft had become a huge imposing glider. There was an eerie silence during what seemed an eternity.
Maria maintained a death grip on her right hand, and they locked arms tightly as they both chanted, “We must stay calm . . . stay calm . . . we must stay calm.”
Olivia’s body shook—it was all she could do not to pee in her pants and scream uncontrollably. She heard screams, moans, and cries for God as the aircraft touched down, slamming the ground violently. A deafening explosion punished her ears, followed by more horrible loud grinding noises. Olivia imagined the pilots struggling to bring the aircraft to a stop.
She wished she could see outside, but the porthole was way above her head, and rising from the jump seat was a bad idea.
From the sounds around her, she imagined they were plowing through trees and charging through marshlands. She quietly prayed.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil . . .”
Maria joined her. “For thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me . . . surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life . . .”
Cold sweat meandered down Olivia’s armpits and under her breasts, and she bristled. She felt Maria trembling next to her. Flight 223 moved erratically through dirt and lush vegetation, and Olivia had a sinking feeling that it would never stop.
As they got to “in the house of the Lord, forever, amen,” Olivia lifted her head from the braced position and cringed with disbelief at the sight before her. Jagged light streamed in from the ceiling of the aircraft. The back half of the plane’s fuselage trailed behind the rest of the aircraft at an angle, with sparks and smoke creating a hellish scene. Passengers in the seats behind the fuselage’s crack howled, their faces red with terror. They clutched their seat belts, hair askew and bodies vibrating as the plane sped frantically ahead. One passenger was slumped over, and his head dangled lifelessly—Olivia could tell that his neck was broken.
She glanced at the faces of the two flight attendants strapped to the aft jump seat. Her colleagues were howling too, their faces contorted with horror and pain.
The seats in the back of the plane vanished as the aircraft broke into two pieces and passengers in the back were sucked into a hole of blasphemous fire. The only thing missing was the brimstone Parson Mitchell used to preach about in Sedith’s old country church. Olivia clutched the edge of the jump seat, waiting for her heart to stop pounding. She shook as what was left of the aircraft sped ahead, the gaping hole in front of her splattered with crimson and gray as if from a boiling cauldron of blood and ashes. Olivia’s flesh stung as the salty sea wind blew sand and ashes violently into her face. Who would have thought that sand could be so fierce and scathing?
Olivia’s body was glued to the back of the jump seat as the plane came to a grinding halt. She grimaced with pain—the seat belt must have sliced her gut, but she couldn’t worry about that now. Oh God, she thought, I’m alive. Now I must get everyone ready to evacuate.
A dense silence filled the air. A folded baby stroller fell from the overhead bin over seat 10C, and passengers were frozen in their seats, grimacing with shock and fear. Olivia’s insides quivered with relief and dread.
Okay, so you thought you were fearless when you ran through the bushes of Twickenham as a child? Let’s see what you’re made of now, Olivia thought as what was left of the plane hissed and groaned into position on the swampland.