As was custom over the past few fetid, Ohio summers, Milly Hamilton abandoned her father in the beer tent of the Tri County Air Show. She marched past picnic tables filled with wrinkled men in farm implement caps hunched over plates of chicken and noodle bake, white rolls, overcooked green beans, and sliding piles of cherry delight. It was 11am and, even though the nights were getting cooler, the grass already gave off a little steam mixed with the scents of new corn and diesel tractor exhaust.
Milly made for the grandstands, cursing silently as she remembered the Henry County High sweatshirt in backseat of the car. It might have saved the backs of her thighs from the searing metal benches, but there wasn’t time to go back. The old timers were already up there, clamoring for favorite seats, heads bobbing like chickens. She trotted faster, wading through a shimmering buzz of crickets.
Heather Donnelly strode out from the doorway of one of the arts and crafts barns.
“Where have you been? I made plans?” Heather’s voice was whiny and authoritative all at once. Milly tried to push down her disappointment.
“I didn’t forget. I promise. But. Can we… later? I just want to see one thing.”
“You don’t care about this shit, do you? Seriously. You can be replaced, you know.”
Milly wanted to tell her to go ahead. She wasn’t interested in Heather’s new stash of pot or tubes of shoplifted lipgloss or her dream tryst with the Wexelrod twins. Milly failed at being type of girl who wanted keep up with Heather. The lies she’d constructed to supplement her own personality were so complex she could barely remember half of them.
It was two years before she could leave. Work, college, whatever. There was nothing here for her in Ohio. Maintaining détente with her father was complicated. They ate silently and passed each other in echoing hallways. When they did exchange words, they were the obligatory where she’d been and who she’d been with and when she was coming back. She told him she was sixteen and he said he knew. She capitulated and he settled back into his ratty recliner and cracked a Bud.
The air show was something they’d always enjoyed as a pair, but it was different than when she was six. Now he wanted to jaw with the rest of the volunteer firefighters. And by de facto, Milly was granted an entire day she didn’t have to answer for.
But with Heather, there was always something to answer for. The one day she needed to do something for herself.
She knew it was futile and tried anyway. “I’ll come back after the show, Heather. I promise. Half hour.”
“Don’t go all prude on me. I got beer. And Ray Wexelrod really wants to see you. You said you were cool.”
Beer and the Wexelrods. It was probably a miracle she’d dodged the event this long. It had been at the top of Heather’s To-Do list for the last two summers. “Won’t he still be there in half an hour?”
Heather looked her up and down. “What’s your malfunction?”
She opened her mouth and shut it again. Milly needed to see the new aerobatic pilot, the woman. Just in case. It wasn’t, of course it wasn’t. But it could be. Heather wouldn’t understand because she had everything whole and complete in her life and could afford to piss it all away. She’d say Milly was being a moron. It was possible that Heather would be right.
Milly followed Heather into the art barn, arms crossed. She closed the steel door behind her by taking three steps backward, the cool metal on her back, the air sucking in around her.
She hadn’t ever told Heather about the old letter from her mother. The one saying how much her mother missed her. That she was sorry. That she wondered what Milly looked like. That she’d named her after Amelia Earhart so Milly would be brave and strong and wild. That she’d left to feel the wind, be true to herself, to live up to her potential. That she had started flying lessons in California, hoping to become a stunt pilot.
How many women stunt pilots could there be? She could have changed her name. Her father, in a rare moment of divulgence, had once said her mother had a unique way of testing people. So it could be maybe this was a test. Maybe if she showed up at the right time, her mother would deem her worthy and take her away to California. To Adventure. Whatever. It wasn’t probable. But it was possible. Possibility was the important part.
The Wexelrod twins were sprawled over a pair of folding chairs in the center of the barn, all long limbs and shaggy brown hair. Heather wove a path toward them, hips first, between screens and easels hung with stained glass baubles, dried flower wreaths, and gingham-ribboned welcome signs. The cool air smelled of paint and acetone. Portraits of barns and chickens and sunsets were repeated from stall to stall with slight variations pastoral, realistic, amateur, cartoonish.
One of the Wexelrods burped and the other gave a laugh that cracked like the beer can hanging from the tips of his fingers. They both looked at Heather. Milly turned around to look at the frame of light around the door.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Heather. “The Rotary women won’t be here for hours.”
“No. It’s just…I…”
“She’s worried about missing the Great Baroness.” The twin in the red shirt laughed.
“Gertrude Martin,” Milly mumbled.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Heather folded herself into her warning pose.
Milly could hear the engines starting outside and she let the hopelessness crest over her.
“It’s no big deal,” she said. Heather handed her a beer and Milly drank it, watery and warm, in three long swigs.
“Look at that,” said the twin in the black shirt. “We got ourselves a professional.”
Milly didn’t feel any different. Heather handed her another can, then produced a pipe from the pocket of her cutoffs. She pointed to the back of the darkened barn. Everyone got up and shuffled after her, resettling on a half circle of hay bales. Milly glanced up at the roof joists. The planes were overhead, like angry horseflies, closer, then further away.
“What’s the deal with this airplane broad anyway?” asked the Wexelrod in red.
“She’s, um, attempting a maneuver, a trick, I guess you’d call it. It hasn’t been done in the type of plane she flies.”
“Something with the silo, right?” said the twin at her shoulder. She could almost see the white lettering on his black shirt. He must have been Ray.
“Yeah,” Milly tried to sound nonchalant. She could feel Heather’s glare in the darkness, beyond the red glow of her pipe. “She’ll be the first person, not just the first woman.”
“Dude, that’s never gonna be me,” said the other Wexelrod. “Only morons try to run perfectly good airplanes into the ground.”
“Who gives a shit?” Heather’s voice had turned thick. “It’s the same stupid crap every year, all fired up for geriatrics and losers.”
Ray handed Milly the pipe and she pretended to take a hit, finally grateful for the darkness. Milly liked alcohol, but she didn’t get pot. She got up to return the pipe, but as she got closer, she could see Heather and the other Wexelrod twin locked together. She set the pipe at Heather’s feet and returned to her hay bale. A small plane zipped overhead, then again.
“How long have you been an aviation fan,” Ray asked, his voice tight with smoke.
“My dad and I come every year.” It wasn’t really an answer, but it was all she could think of to say. She opened a third beer.
“So you want to fly planes someday?”
“No. I mean, I don’t know. Maybe.” It was difficult to explain. She didn’t want to be in the cockpit, but she wanted to feel the roar in the air. The ripple up her spine. The thrill of the near miss.
Ray was giving up on the one-sided conversation. “Right on.” He stretched an arm behind her back. “So.”
She bolted as much of the beer as she could, feeling his arm snake up her bicep.
Something pulsed deep and it made her feel flushed and angry. Another plane screamed overhead. Ray took her chin with his hand and turned her toward him. The beer roiled in her chest. His hands were everywhere, her face, her thighs, her arms, burning their way over bare skin. He was kissing her face, his lips overly wet. The crowd outside began to cheer and clap and Ray’s right hand moved over her breast and squeezed. Hard. She gasped. “Ow.”
“Sorry, sorry,” he said and patted her hair awkwardly. “Some girls, you know, like it when…”
She lay back against the bales behind her, willing whatever was going to happen to be over with. She could hear the announcer in the grandstands, but not the individual words. The thrum in the air matched the thrum in her hips. She didn’t want either and part of her wanted both. She did want more beer. She kept her hands on Ray’s shoulders, unsure where else to put them. She could smell his nerves under a funk of pot and beer. Her stomach reeled and she wished she’d eaten something and, as he moved his hands down her hips, glad she hadn’t.
“Are you paying attention?” he asked, slipping his hand under her shirt. “I’ll be careful this time.”
His fingers moved over her bra and her pulse lurched. Think about airplanes.
“Is that better?”
“Yeah,” she said. She reached under his tee. His skin was damp and warm, covered with fine hair. He shuddered beneath her hands as she ran them up his ribs. It was a strange cause and effect. She did it again. What if that’s your mother out there? She willed herself to stop thinking. This was what girls did. Girls that were going somewhere. Popular girls. Girls getting tickets up, tickets out. That was what Heather said, at any rate. Heather, who was now in her underwear on the dusty concrete.
What if this is your only chance?
She hoped Ray didn’t think they were headed for the ground in their underwear. She felt wrong. She felt sober. She didn’t have a promise ring or anything, but she at least expected to be in love the first time. She didn’t think it had to mean forever, but it should mean something. Anything. It should be somewhere besides the art barn.
“Ray?” She pulled her arms from under his shirt and he leaned forward, pinning her.
“Shh.” He grabbed her hands and tried to put them back. Outside, an engine sputtered and then caught.
“Seriously,” she hissed.
What if she’s expecting you? What if she’s waiting for you?
He froze. “What?”
What if you fail this time? What if you’re like the mail that never gets through? What if it’s your fault? What if it has always been your fault?
She wriggled out from beneath him. “I have to go. I mean. I have to pee.”
“Oh. Oh!” He scooted away from her, hands up like a felon.
Milly threw open the back door, the one nearest the hay bales and Heather cursed her as sunlight leapt onto their hideout. Milly’s eyes refused to focus in the sunlight. She had to find her mother. She would pass the test. They would be together.
The sounds outside were wrong, a whine and a cough. The crowd was too quiet. Milly pulled the hem of her t-shirt down with her right hand and shaded her eyes with the left. Propellers sliced through the air, too close to the silo, too close to the ground. The plane skipped over the field, smoke and debris. The crowd was on its feet, screams sucking in the precious oxygen of the dense air. A few began running toward the fire trucks in the parking lot and still others bolted for the field. Milly stumbled sideways, batting the tears out of her eyes. A breeze had started up from somewhere and the sky was no longer blue, but a heavy grey. Smoke roiled up from the airplane first black and then blending in with the sky. The cockpit door swung open and the pilot tumbled out, curls spilling from her helmet. She held her right arm up and waved gingerly. Milly’s heart jumped into her throat.
It wasn’t her mother. Just some stupid woman tempting fate. She thought about finding her father, but then she thought about the beer on her breath, about Ray Wexelrod. He’d be in the fire truck, anyway, making his way to the smoking wheat stalks.
It was too hot. There was too much noise. She found herself backing up toward the barn as the crowd edged closer to the chaos.
Heather and the Wexelrods were making their way out the door, tucking shirts and smoothing hair. “What the hell’s going on out there?” Heather squinted and crossed her arms.
There was nothing in that field for Milly. Nothing inside the barn, either. No first time feats. No first time on the barn floor. No control. No airshow. No beer. No best friend. No father. No mother.
“Nothing,” Milly said. It felt good to finally tell the truth.
About the Author: Camille Griep lives and writes in Seattle, Washington. Her work has recently been published in The First Line, Bound Off, and Treehouse. She is the winner of the 2013 Lascaux Review Prize for flash fiction. She is afraid of car washes.
Story Song: “I Feel That Too” by Jessie Baylin