His father is talking to him on the radio, explaining something, but John’s too excited to pay attention. The whole plane is vibrating with the pulse of engine and propeller and the need to get off the ground—John’s vibrating too in sympathy, as he has been for the past two hours, ever since he found out what his father had planned for the day.
The plane starts rolling forward, bouncing a little as it picks up speed, and it reminds John of driving down dirt roads with his mother. (She sometimes lets him sit in her lap and steer, if there aren’t any other cars in sight.) Pretty soon the whole plane is going up and down, like it’s trying to jump into the air, and the forest surrounding most of the airfield is approaching pretty fast.
He can feel it, feel it in his bones and the pit of his stomach. If he cranes his neck, he can see around the wing and clear down to the ground—it looks kind of fuzzy from up here—but even if he were blind, he’d know. The wind feels different up here.
“Want me to do a barrel-roll?” His father sounds tinny over the too-large headset John’s wearing, but relaxed in a way he’s never been while on the ground. John’s never felt this way before either, so he thinks he understands.
He nods his head furiously, not trusting himself to say the right thing. ‘Yes’ seems inadequate, somehow. And when the world begins to tilt, and he presses his hands against the wooden sides of the cockpit, it feels like he’s part of the plane, like he is the plane, and he doesn’t want to ever touch earth again.
But they do, after a while, because it’s John’s birthday and there’s cake waiting for them at home, and the plane belongs to someone else, anyway. John’s father spends the trip back telling John all about planes and becoming a pilot, words spilling out of him in a way that’s as strange and familiar as the happiness in his voice. “There’s nothing like it,” he tells John, trying to describe seeing the sunrise from twenty thousand feet up.
The last thing he says, just before they pull into the driveway, is, “No matter what anyone tells you, John, it’s worth it. Being in the air is worth anything they put you through, no matter what. Never forget that.” John nods again, because he knows he would do any number of things to get another chance to go flying.
Then John’s mother comes out of the house, stiff like a displeased cat, and that’s strange and wrong, because she’s always been all loose limbs and easy smile. The joy and animation drains out of John’s father at the sight of her, and it’s like he’s a whole different man.
“What’s wrong, Ana?” he says, but he sounds like he already knows. John climbs out of the car, although the engine’s still running, and the door slams shut behind him like a gunshot. John’s mother has her arms wrapped around herself as if she’s cold, but it’s early July and sunny, and the neighbor’s kids are playing in the sprinkler.
“It’s your brother, Rob,” she says finally, and John’s father goes absolutely still, frozen in the act of opening the car door, hand on the latch. “It’s Johnny. He—” Her eyes flicker over to John, and she’s obviously editing what she says because there’s something she doesn’t want him to hear. “He—died this morning. Your mother called about twenty minutes after you left. She was—upset.” John can’t imagine his grandmother upset, can’t imagine her as anything but calm and quiet and utterly in control of herself and whatever situation she’s in.
And Johnny—his laughing uncle who’s in the marines and plays catch and brings him comic books John’s mother pretends she doesn’t know about—his uncle Johnny can’t be dead. John knows what it means to be dead. He’s buried plenty of mice and garter snakes and baby birds, and he can’t (won’t) picture his uncle limp and still and dull-eyed. If his uncle is dead, then anyone can die. John’s parents can die, and John refuses to believe that.
“Rob,” John’s mother says, gently, like the time she was trying to coax a mouse out of the stove. “Rob, you need to come inside and call your mother.”
“Right,” John’s father says, and gets out of the car. The door doesn’t latch when he closes it, but he goes inside anyway, John’s mother trailing behind him, eyes down. The screen door doesn’t latch behind them either, but it never does.
John doesn’t follow them, choosing to sit on the front stoop instead, where he can watch the clouds. The sky is full of them, barely any blue left—just enough to make a Dutchman’s trousers, as his mother would say. He was up there, an hour ago, up high enough to touch the clouds, if they’d been there then. But the earth is solid beneath his feet now, and all his father’s joy is gone, and John wishes they had never come down.
“John,” his mother calls from inside the house, “Would you like some cake?”