Let Go the Brakes

Let Go the Brakes

An excerpt from Breathe the Sky: A Novel Inspired by the Life of Amelia Earhart, by Chandra Prasad (pictured).

* * *

It started, officially, with the note. In her mind it started with the little torn scrap he passed in the minutes before that first doomed leg of her flight around the world. He passed it from the back of the plane to the front, on the end of the bamboo fishing pole: their modest communication system.

As she took the note, the metal clip at the end of the pole gave a surprisingly ferocious squeak. Like a Pavlovian dog, she heard the sound as a harbinger of something palatable. Not that it had been that way at first. She’d always detested even the slightest distraction while flying. Some pilots liked to hum, listen to a loudly ticking watch, snap their chewing gum, or sing. A.E. found all of these inappropriate, somehow, as if any earthly sound disrupted the purity of being in the air. But now, well, when the clip squeaked, it squeaked. She didn’t mind so much.

Good luck, my brave girl, the note read.

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It was the “my” that made her think. “My”: a surprisingly possessive word choice. She smiled, lips shut. She’d trained herself to smile this way. No teeth, better for the photographs, G.P. had told her.

“Gives you an unreachable, magisterial look, like a bygone queen.”

This declaration struck her as funny in the torpid heat of the cockpit, where stains were already blooming at her armpits, where gasoline, grease, and sea smells commingled not entirely sociably.

My brave girl.

G.P. wouldn’t like that, she decided, folding the note into a tight, perfect square and tucking it into one of the front pockets of her jumpsuit, along with the other mementoes she was carrying: the silver pilot’s wings of the U.S. Air Service and a letter from a young fan in Connecticut named Cecilia DeRisio. Most prized, perhaps, was a list of intrepid women A.E. had collected through the years: a pistol shot champion out of Texas named Grace, the first woman in India to be admitted to the bar, Oklahoma’s only female bank president, the United States Civil Service Commissioner, who also called herself a homemaker, and so on, all the pioneering women she’d heard and read about, their names recorded in tiny cramped scrawl, front and back.

As for Fred’s note, well, she might sneak it out and read it again hours from now, if the sky were clear, if she could afford to look askance.

Outside, the crowd that had gathered before dawn was cheering raucously. Their voices drowned by the whir of machinery, the people looked like hapless mimes. She ignored the attention. She didn’t favor crowds, and especially reporters, when starting a high-risk venture. Only when finishing it.

On the 3000-foot hard surface runway of Luke Field, she blinked through the windshield of the cockpit. An earlier rain had left a million liquidy finger-streaks. The air still hung heavily with condensation. At her request, the floodlights came to life, seeming to illuminate more shadows than they vanquished. The gothic contours of the landscape jarred her. She gave the engineers another signal and the lights went off. Her pupils minimized as the terrain resettled into normalcy, the military shacks and makeshift buildings and tanks in the immediate distance no longer hulking nascent monsters, and farther away, the mountains now serene, haloed in soft white mist. She started both engines. The plane’s wheel chocks were hauled away. A firm-postured lieutenant issued the all-clear signal and she guided her Lockheed Vega to the end of the runway. Scores of flashlights cut through the early morning light. Little dancing glints, like fireflies, she thought. At the line on the ground A.E. braked, turned the engines to idle, rechecked the pressure and temperature gauges. Normal. Everything normal. The small army of engineers on base had inspected every inch of the Lockheed in the last twenty-four hours, and they’d addressed all problems, including a deposit of sediment in the fuel tank. Her confidence was bolstered by their thoroughness, and also by her crew. Manning and her note-giver, Noonan, sat in the navigator’s compartment. They were two of the most knowledgeable, reliable comrades a pilot could have, surely. She’d expressed this exact sentiment to G.P., although he hadn’t looked convinced.

The note was in a far corner of her mind as she let go the brakes and advanced the throttles.

* * *

Breathe the Sky by Chandra Prasad
Author Website | Buy the Book

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