Raleigh already has the Buick opened up on the straightaway heading out of town. The glider stabilizes with the velocity and climbs a bit higher still. Huck feels the air shift, feels the temperature rise, and is wondering if this warm band in the ether might qualify as an actual thermal when the dead gold leaves of an oak reel by at eye level. The black silhouette of a cross towers into view.
Not a cross. Another power pole, with just enough pale moon behind to show it stark against the sky. He’s no sooner eclipsed it when he sees the backlit steeple of the Foursquare church, with its own smaller cross, set just back from the street. This he can’t mistake for a single other thing.
The road bends at the ball diamond, and Raleigh’s foot comes out of the pedal, he can tell by the drop in the motor. He moves his own foot to the release on the plank and kicks. The tether drops like a gallows rope.
The glider rolls to the left as though to follow the car by default, and he hears again the sound of rending fabric, remembers again the jolt with the sign on the New Deal. He levers the wings and rolls back the other direction and straightens out.
He soars of his own momentum over and past the hard curve in the road, glances to the side, and sees the Buick receding, angling away. Again he sees sparks jump, smaller this time, sporadic, like what fireflies out east must look like. The steel ring on the shock cord bounces and skips along the macadam behind the departing car. Then the glider rolls hard in the other direction as he loses speed, and his field of view rolls with it. The Buick vanishes for good.
He corrects the roll and has to keep back and forth on the levers to hold the ship steady. He’s losing altitude, sees the dark mass of the bleachers pass just below. He stays on the levers, works them against the wobble of the damaged wing.
Don’t die . . .
Even in the dim light of 4:00 a.m. the worn-dirt baseline comes at him like an actual runway.
The crash occurs somehow gently and disastrously at once. The ground lifts up and the wheels touch down and turn against the earth with none of their prior urgency, slow as he’s now going, and Huck’s just realizing he’s all right, just forming the words aloud to himself in utter wonder, when the left cookie-cutter hits some divot in the soil and breaks completely away.
The next thing Huck knows he’s airborne again and corkscrewing sidewise, the plank dropping out from under him and then hammering back into his hip, his legs totally akimbo over his head before the whole bucking, twisting contraption slams to a stop.
His head bounces off a wing strut. The sparks this time go up right inside his own brain.
He shuts his eyes, waits for the white lights to dim. When he hazards another look, he thinks he may be seeing actual stars, only in pairs, in twins. He blinks, blinks again, and finally holds just one eye open.
Orion. Betelgeuse. Whatever was out there on the other side.
Back along Main Street the New Deal alarm goes silent but Huck continues to hear the ghost of it ringing in his head, hammering on and on. He opens his other eye and half watches, half forces the merge of the twinned swimming stars. He begins to untangle from the wreck.
He hears the approach of a car, sees the bob and dip of headlights. Probably not Raleigh.
He gets himself loose, limps around on his hip. The ship leans sideways on its left wing, which is clearly broken through the spar. The tip hit the ground when the wheel broke loose, he’s sure of it. The right wing juts at a more or less proper cant and appears undamaged.
He’s thinking maybe he’ll nix the wing warping on Glider Number One and engineer actual ailerons. The left wing needs to be rebuilt anyway, and he’s pretty sure he can modify the intact right wing without completely tearing it down. Ailerons would dern sure keep the dern rolling under control.
The headlights are on him now, the car coming up fast and then braking to a hard stop at the edge of the field, and a third beam, like the blaze of the sun itself, hits him square in the eyes. He looks down at his hands, weird and white in the light.
His own name thunders through a loudspeaker as though uttered by God the Father Himself. “Houston Finn.” Cy Gleason, the town marshal.
He’s practically blind, squinting against the light. He shields his eyes with a hand.
Cy booms on. “If I wasn’t wearing pajamas, I would tan your cottonpickin’ hide. And your old man’s, too.”
Huck’s eyes go back to the ship, flooded with light, and in a flash of clarity he sees that ailerons alone won’t do it. The problem is that she’s tail-heavy, inherently unstable . . .
“Houston. Can you walk?”
His head throbs inside the leather football helmet. He finds his pipsqueak voice. “I think.”
“Then march. You’ve got a sidewalk full of glass to clean up.”
He squints toward the light, unsteady on his feet.
He’s not nixing the wing warping—he’s nixing Glider Number One altogether. He sees it now, plain as day in the beam of light. He’s done with gliders entirely.
“What on God’s green earth is that contraption, anyway? Wait, don’t answer. I don’t want to know.”
He takes step after step, the light brighter and brighter, says to himself over and over, I’m not fixing any dern glider. I’m going to build an honest-to-God airplane . . .
Of course, I admit some elders have to be shocked for everybody’s good now and then.
—Amelia Earhart, The Fun of It
She felt like she hadn’t slept in days and in fact had tried to will herself into an outright vigil, tried to summon the same resolve A.E. achieved as a matter of course, up there solo in a ship above the water.
The North Atlantic twice, South Atlantic once. Honolulu to California next. Then nonstop overland, Mexico City to Newark, New Jersey. A woman and her Lockheed like a steady red comet, covering continents in hours instead of months or years or eons. What a time to be alive, whether these nitwits around her realized it or not.
But still. What endless hours they must have become—dark much of the time, cold all of the time. Knocked around by air currents and light in the head from the reek of the gasoline sloshing right there behind her in the extra tanks. Even so, Annelise knew that Amelia used smelling salts to snap herself back when she needed to.
Annelise did not have smelling salts, and she certainly couldn’t smell diesel fuel from the sealed canister of a Pullman car, but she went ahead and drank coffee endlessly until her insides felt downright scoured. Her newspaper-shuffling father at first watched and pretended not to, and then tried to ignore her for real and couldn’t, and then attempted a conversation that she wouldn’t have, and finally resorted to pleading, which she both scorned and enjoyed in a manner exactly parallel to her own equal but opposite monosyllables.