By Morgan Fox
The jangling woke her, how crickets or grasshoppers can sound like sleigh bells in the emptiness of summer, the heat-distorted sound echoing across the prairie. But this was different, closer, it cut above the bugs to jingle right in her ear. She reached up, swatted it away, fingers knocking against something hard. Piety Ann opened her eyes. Mathis sat above her, dangling the Cessna’s keys in her face. The worn metal caught the pale light from the window, refracted in the plastic diamond hanging at the bottom of the keychain, casting fake stars across the walls. “C’mon P’yay,” he said. “It’s a clear night.”
Piety Ann pushed past him, scrambling to the window to see for herself. A smattering of stars like freckles dotted the broad dark face of the sky, cleaved by a sliver of a moon. The air practically crackled, while a crisp breeze curled through the trees. “There’s no dust,” she said.
“Nope. C’mon, let’s go.”
He was already dressed except for the duster, slung over one arm, the other holding out the flak jacket at her. Piety Ann pulled her dungarees over her shorts, thick woolen socks and then her boots, hardly stopping to tie the laces. A flannel button-down over her nightshirt and then the flak, its sleek black sleeves too long, oversized. She grabbed her helmet and goggles from the nightstand and followed Mathis out the door. They tiptoed through the hallway, jumped down the stairs two at a time to avoid the creaky boards, then Mathis stopped short at the bottom, holding up a hand to stop Piety Ann. Two steps higher than him, she could peer over his shoulder to see Pap, face-down and snoring in the middle of the main room.
“When did he come home?” she whispered in Mathis’s ear.
He shushed her, then a moment later patted her leg and said, “Piggyback.” Piety Ann slung her legs through his arms like stirrups, clasped her hands around his neck. He bounced her up higher into a more comfortable spot, then crept slowly toward the back door. Piety Ann buried her face in the duster’s cowl, breathed in the smell of her brother, of tobacco and dust and the heat of summer. She counted Mathis’s steps across the floor, imagining their progress, until Pap’s chainsaw snore cut through the room and Mathis stopped.
Piety Ann looked down. Pap’s head was half a foot from Mathis’s boot, and they had five more steps until the kitchen.
His hands squeezing her legs, Mathis shifted his weight, trying to edge around Pap, but they were already up against the wall. Piety Ann held her breath; she was starting to sweat under the flak jacket, her hands getting slick, and she gripped tighter as she felt herself start to slide. Pap snored again and grumbled, then threw a punch at some unseen adversary. His knuckles scraped the back of Mathis’s boot. Piety Ann stiffened, muscles so tight she thought she would snap, and Mathis clenched his elbows to her sides to keep her quiet. Pap barked, some drunken incoherent curse, jerked his head even closer to Mathis before flipping over, to fight the beast on the other side. Freed, Mathis took off like a bullet, not caring if he made noise, and then they were out the back door and into the night, whooping and hollering all the way to the Cessna.
“Goddamn that man!” Mathis said, pulling back the tarp from the plane. “Three weeks! Three weeks he hasn’t shown his face around here.”
“Why you think he came back?”
“Ran out of money, probably. Got thrown out of the bar finally. Does it matter?”
Piety Ann pulled the chocks from the plane’s wheels, the next question burning on her tongue, but she didn’t know how to ask, stifled by her fear of Pap.
“God I hate that man.” Mathis stood still beside the plane, crushing the tarp into a ball between his hands, gazing back emptily toward the farmhouse. “I’ll kill him. Mark my words, P’yay, it’ll either be him or me.” He snapped out of it, tossed the tarp aside and climbed into the Cessna. “C’mon, let’s get away from here.”
“What about the engine? You’re not worried it’ll wake them up?”
“Maybe, but so what? What are they going to do? They can’t fly, can they?” He held out a hand to help her up. Piety Ann glanced back once at the house, at the windows still darkened, then took his hand even though she didn’t need to and took her seat behind her brother. Mathis turned the keys in the ignition, and the plane roared to life.
The Cessna rolled and bounced over the rocky ground, gaining speed, and no matter how many times she’d flown Piety Ann’s stomach knotted and lurched, rocking in time to the plane’s jerky motions. When her hands started to shake she clasped them between her knees, and in that moment they lifted off, leaving the ground behind. How Mathis kept his hands steady, even with the engine rattling its power up into the controls, she couldn’t imagine. But Mathis, lean and wiry on the ground but always flighty, his movements unsuited to the solidity of gravity, always poised as if about to fly away. Mathis belongs in the air.
Maybe that would save him.
“Want to go higher?” Mathis called.
“Higher?” The ground below them had already turned black, empty, while the sky brightened, the stars peeking out of the void, filling every visible inch in every direction. Looking past Mathis and the nose of the plane at the horizon, it seemed to Piety Ann that they flew upside-down, the sky and the stars becoming more real than the ground. “How high can you go?”
Mathis didn’t respond except to laugh and pull the Cessna vertical, nosediving into the sky.
The wind grabbed at Piety Ann’s face, caught her surprised shriek and flung it away. After the shock she laughed, howled at the moon with the thrill of it all. Mathis leaned the Cessna into a corkscrew, and wing over wing they spiraled, accelerating and twisting tighter as they climbed until the stars became a blur, whirlpool of light drawing them in. Frost formed on the engine. We’re going to break the sky, Piety Ann thought. She saw them, crashing into the moon, the ice dome of the night splintering and cracking around the Cessna, and all the stars and all the planets falling to Earth like giant ice cubes, but they would be free. They would fly all the way to Neptune or Pluto, one of those cold blue planets that the sun would never reach, that would never dry out because they would never melt. And there would be no Ma. And there would be no Pap. And there would be no dust, except that left by the vapor trails of comets. There would only be her and Mathis and the Cessna, and they would fly and fly and fly.
Piety Ann opened her eyes. The sky was no closer. The stars still spun around them, but slower now, the engine going quiet as the plane approached its terminal altitude. And then, it stopped.
For a brief moment the Cessna hung suspended at the center point between the ground and the sky, as if waiting for its string to be cut in either direction and it would fall either with gravity or escape velocity. Air empty and cold all around: there would be nothing to catch them. Still. And then the plane started to fall, backwards, tailspin toward the ground below, and the weightless moment completed Piety Ann’s heart slammed into her stomach and the engine roared back to life and the Cessna banked and righted while Mathis laughed maniacally.
“Mathis Wilcox what are you playing at, you could’ve killed us!” Piety Ann shouted, once her pulse had settled.
“Killed? Not me!” Piety Ann knew the smile he flashed then, even though she couldn’t see it. Full teeth, lips pulled back, the dimple in his left cheek. He even smiled like a fighter jet. “Nosiree, I’m the best damn pilot in all of Arklatex!”
And one of these days he would fly away, and leave her here. Piety Ann turned, watching the horizon as it edged around the end of the world. She wanted to enjoy the rest of the night, drink the cold air like water. But as she watched, the line between the ground and the sky blurred. Dust. Somewhere some distant wind was kicking up the dryness, blowing it up and around until it obscured all again. And the sun will rise. And with the sun will come the orange heat. And this night will end. And to watch it all would be unbearable.
“I don’t want to see the sun rise!” Piety Ann shouted.
“The sun!” she said, pointing to the eastern horizon, just starting to lighten. Mathis nodded, and banked for home.
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