Sarah, what happened? Jenny thought for the millionth time in two weeks. Joe, what went wrong?
They were the best of the best. Six generations of Howards flying the same pair of Stearman 75s since they were built in 1934. Next year they were planning a cross-country centennial tour that was going to put the Howard name back on the national county fair circuit.
Sarah was always the fearless one in the air. She loved flying when Daddy picked her up spun her around overhead. Jenny was the water baby. She swam underwater with her eyes wide open and a big grin from the first time they filled the bathtub deep enough. Rose was their earth child, from mud pies to award-winning gardener. Daddy always said it was a good thing they only had three children. He would have been worried about what a fire child would get up to.
Jenny hated flying. The noise, the vibration, the being so high off the ground. She always got a fierce earache or nausea. Daddy took them all up and taught them how to fly and how to walk the wings, but when Jenny was eight, she had an accident and refused to fly after that. She was on the right wing, Rose was on the left, and Sarah was cheering them on from the front cockpit. They flew through a cloud, and Jenny fell down, stretched out on the wing, clinging with all her might. Daddy took them down fast and level, and as soon as they landed on the dirt strip by their house, he leaped over the side to reach Jenny. She climbed in his arms and clung while he carried her up to the house. She wouldn’t talk about what happened. And she wouldn’t walk the wings again.
Daddy and Sarah traveled the fair circuit. After he had a stroke in 27, their cousin Joe took over as pilot. He’d flown planes since he could reach the instruments—before he could drive a car. He’d wanted to get into Virgin’s space flight program, but he couldn’t pass the physical, and there were no gremlins to help him. So he came back and flew the regional Life Flight birds, until he took over for Daddy and started flying the Stearman.
How could you do this? She asked them both.
Jenny gripped the wing strut and leaned out as far as she could looking up to the low, heavy rain clouds that raced by. She turned back to Ben. “I want to go up.”
“Baby, it’s gonna rain. I’ll take you up as soon as it clears.”
“It’s not raining yet. I want to go up. Now.”
Ben threw his cigar to the ground and gave her a long look. Then he nodded, again without comment, and strapped in. Jenny clipped on the safety belts and held on to the struts, hanging between them with her feet planted on the wing, just like Daddy always taught them. Feel the wing beneath you like the earth. It’s no different than walking on the ground.
Jenny gasped as they raced down the runway and lifted, the thrust pushing against her whole body. Sarah did this every day. She had loved it.
They climbed quickly, and Jenny forced her eyes open, forced herself to look around. The view was spectacular. The silver, gray, and white of the clouds above, with a sliver of brilliant blue on the horizon between the clouds and the earth. The rich patchwork of browns and greens, the patterns of fields, tree lines, and homesteads spread out before her—a living work of art. This is what Bierstadt would have painted if he had flown. This is what Ansel Adams saw, even though he had stayed on the ground.
Jenny felt her fear flow away, streaming behind her in the wind. She looked over at Ben and gave him a thumbs up. He nodded, and she walked the wing for the first time in 20 years. It was exhilarating. She stood in the middle and held her arms wide. This was how Sarah felt.
She opened her eyes as they flew into the cloud. When she was little, she had imagined they were as fluffy as they looked from the ground. Now, the water droplets, to tiny to see, streamed across her face and quickly soaked her hair. She held her hands up to catch water against her palm. She took a step closer to the edge. The water streamed around her, pressing close against her skin, her clothes. Another step, toes to the front edge. She saw Ben waving to her, trying the get her attention, but she didn’t turn her head to look at him.
Water and air. There was no fire child. Fire consumed Sarah. There was nothing to put in the earth for Rose to tend. Air and water. Sarah was alone up here. Out there. Jenny looked at Ben once more and smiled. She leaned into the wind and swan-dived off the front of the wing and disappeared into the clouds.
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