Reggie took them up to about a thousand feet and banked gently to the left, just getting a feel for the stick. The biplane tilted to the side, turning in a wide arc over Grimbly Hall so the two of them could see, for the first time, the place they called home as birds saw it. Or dragons. The cupola observatory glinted in the sun and dead leaves skittered across the flat roof.
He turned again, this time to the right, and they passed over the woods that made up the bulk of the estate. The Jenny ate up the air, cruising along at sixty miles an hour, and the world unrolled beneath them. They passed over barns and silos and fields harvested down to stubble. They saw the little abandoned chapel in the woods that they drove past every time they went into town. Pinemont, the village, was a cluster of little houses and shops bisected by the main road, which looked like just a dusty track from up high.
To the west the Hudson River gleamed, a shining ribbon of silver. Reggie took them up higher and banked east, over Long Island Sound. They watched barges lining up to head south toward New York City. Higher still and they saw clouds, long wispy clouds like an old woman’s hair. Reggie pulled back on the stick, gently, until they flew right through the clouds, the world turning to shimmering whiteness for a moment, perfect and peaceful and pure, and then suddenly they were up above the clouds and he gasped in wonderment. The sun hung before them, brilliant and round. The clouds below them like a landscape of combed cotton. Above them a blue so brilliant, so clean it almost turned to black straight above. The sky felt limitless and huge.
He’d forgotten what it could look like. How peaceful it was up there. The noise, the rush of the wind disappeared and you were alone with the sky, alone to think and—
“My turn!” Neville shouted.
“What?” Reggie asked.
“I’ve been reading about how to do this,” the mummy said. And then the stick moved in Reggie’s hand, mirroring whatever Neville was doing behind him. The biplane’s nose shot up and the ‘plane stood on its tail, climbing hard for the zenith.
The mummy was trying to loop.
First-time pilots always wanted to stunt. They’d seen the graceful ‘planes rolling and twisting through the sky, so effortless, so easy, and convinced themselves they could do that too. It was why so many pilot recruits in the Army died before they ever saw combat.
To his credit, Neville kept the stick perfectly straight as he sent them shooting upward. If he’d moved it even a little to the left or the right the ‘plane would have twisted over on its side and most likely its wings would have snapped off. He had, however, forgotten, or perhaps he just hadn’t read about it, that when you climbed like that you needed to open the throttle all the way or the engine was likely to stall—at which point the ‘plane would turn into a somewhat aerodynamic rock, and do what rocks did when you put them in the sky. Fall down.
“Neville! Let go of the controls!” Reggie shouted. He yanked open the throttle and listened closely as the engine started to sputter. There was no turning back now. He pulled back hard on the stick and the ‘plane arced up, up, and over on its back, the two of them pressed down in their seats by centrifugal force. The engine missed a stroke and Reggie was convinced to an absolute certainty they were both about to die.
The nose came back down. The wings creaked, the struts holding them together groaned. The engine missed another stroke, and another. Reggie fought the stick, fought the ‘plane with sheer willpower as it finished its loop—or tried to. Before it could level back out the stick went dead in Reggie’s hand and the Jenny started to gain speed. Its nose was pointed right at the clouds below, the sky and the sun all in the wrong positions. They were diving, streaking toward the earth and that was when the engine just gave up.
“That doesn’t sound right,” Neville said. Reggie could hear him quite clearly now that the engine wasn’t making any noise at all.
He slapped the starter, trying to get the engine going again. The propeller was turning, spun by the wind of their descent, but the engine just wouldn’t catch. He hit the starter again and again. A puff of black smoke belched out of the exhausts, but it meant nothing.
They passed back through the clouds, much faster this time. Suddenly the ground was right there, green and brown and very solid-looking.
He knew what he had to do. He pushed the stick forward. Sent them into an even steeper descent. That would get the propeller moving faster, maybe get the engine up to enough rotations to let it catch. The ground came up at a startling rate.
He slapped the starter again and again and again. Got more black smoke, whole long puffs of it and then, with a roar—power. The engine caught and started thrumming as angry as a nest of hornets and he had power, he could feel the whole ‘plane shake with it.
He pulled the stick back just moments before they were due to crash into a field of broken rocks on the side of a mountain. The ‘plane shrieked in protest but the nose jumped up and he was level again. With power.
He flew back to Grimbly Hall. Let up on the throttle, used his control surfaces to shed some speed. Lined up with the strip of lawn, brought his nose up just a hair at the last second. The landing skid at the back of the ‘plane touched the earth. Then the wheels. The ‘plane juddered and fish-tailed back and forth as it slowed, slowed, slowed, stopped.
Mrs. P and the ushabtis stood at attention in the garden, right where they’d left them. Neville leapt from his cockpit and waved merrily at them, his scarf blowing up across his face as it was caught by the last of the propeller’s wash. The mummy took a bow as if he were the reincarnation of Wilbur Wright. The ushabtis duly applauded.
Reggie didn’t care. He was too busy quivering in his pilot’s seat, his hands gripping the stick so tight he couldn’t seem to let go.