The blimp passed first, silver with six white fins at the tail, like a
giant bullet fired slowly through the sky. It glided far above the sugar-pea
field, too high to cause a stir. Its long black shadow skated over the dirt road
between the rows of bright green plants, over the barn beyond, and then the
blimp was gone and for a long moment all was as before. A spotted rabbit
scampered out into the road, sniffed the air, then darted back into the
trellised stalks just as Preston Bristol's Model T came crashing through,
trailing a high plume of dust and chalk. The car was weather-beatenone
headlight missing, the other yellowed and cracked, the tires patched with
flapping runs of tape. As it bounced along, tiny continents of rust rattled
loose from the peeling hood and were whisked up and off.
Inside the car,
Pres had his right foot slammed on the gas and his left foot pressed on top of
his right. He squinted through the sunlit windshield at the blimp up ahead,
still unable to accept it as a fixture of the sky and not something conjured up
by his eye, a floater, a stain. He'd lost the blimp in a towering gold
cloud over the Arkansas border and hadn't seen or heard mention of it in
nearly a week. Now, suddenly, here it was, right in front of him, coasting along
not even a quarter mile ahead. Pres could see the black hem of its shadow
skimming over the cows grazing beyond the pea field. He could see the windows of
the blimp's cabinthe windows! He tried to spy Claire behind one of
them, but as always the curtains were drawn shut. Pres had never been inside the
blimpthis, two, maybe three hundred yards behind it, was the closest
he'd ever gottenbut still he could picture its empty dining room,
the booths of buttoned velvet, the golden maple dance floor across which he
imagined someone, a man, swinging Claire past all those drawn curtains, pressing
the stiff, blond brush of his mustache into her ear. Pres glanced at the hat on
the seat next to him, under which lay his nickel-blue .38, and wondered whether
anyone up there would try to stop Claire from coming home. He stuck his head out
of the car and listened for her voice.
"Claire!" he yelled at
the blimp. "Claire, can you hear me?" but there was only the roar of
the wind in his ears.
As the pea field gave way to grazing land, the front
of the car nosed inside the blimp's shadow. Pres felt a gust of joy blow
through him. He would catch it this time. He had it! As if in agreement his map,
weighted down in the backseat by a rock, began to beat its corners against the
Pres had started after the blimp in late February of 1918, and though now
it was only the middle of spring, the past couple of months seemed to him like a
cannon through which he'd been shot, from twenty-one years young straight
into the sagging net of old age. His hands ached at the joints. His ankles
swelled. His back was sour from hunching over the wheel. Last week, while
undressing for bed, he'd noticed a dusting of silver in his tall sweep of
black hair. He wondered if Claire would look any different to him, if all that
time up in the air had changed her somehow. As the car splashed through a series
of deep puddles in the road, he imagined her emerging from the blimp a radiant
version of herself, tanned as a pancake and sugared with freckles, her eyes the
brilliant green of the stripe inside a marble. He wondered what he'd say
to her, how it would feel to touch her. She was his fiancée and his best
friend, his only friend, and yet he had no idea what to do when he encountered
her again. Kiss her? Crush her against him? Maybe she would talk first, he
thought. Maybe she would grab him by the ears and cry into his neck and tell him
exactly what had happened, why she'd left at all.
A cloud appeared
ahead of the blimp, simply rolled in from nowhere. More than a cloud, it was a
vast island, beginning as a thin shore of vapor and quickly thickening to
tangled, cottony fields before billowing up into tall forests of green and black
thunderheads. Sadness seized Pres so fiercely he began to shake. Not yet, he
thought, his eyes fixed on the blimp, which even now was nearing the first wisps
of haze. He was close enough to see the biplane parked in the hooded deck
hanging below the blimp's cabin. So close he could make out the red and
white candy stripes at the tips of its coppery propeller. He reached for the gun
on the seat beside him. In his mind, he blasted six large holes in the
blimp's gas cells. The helium poured out, making flutelike music as the
airship deflated and settled gently to the ground. But even while he scrambled
for the hat, he knew that the gun was too small to do any real damage, that he
himself was a tiny harmless thing.
Pres watched as the cloud swallowed the
top of the balloon, then its silvery bulk, until only the cabin was visible,
sailing along beneath the cloud's pillowy underside. He watched until the
blimp was gone.
For a long while after, Pres kept the car pointed down the
same road. Every few moments he checked the cloud cover for punctures or tears,
any hole that might afford him a glimpse. How much time passed this way he
couldn't tellan hour? two?but when the clouds suddenly
lifted, revealing nothing behind them but a bare tabletop of blue sky, Pres
stopped watching the air altogether and scanned the ground for clues.
the past he'd found things thrown down from the blimp, Claire's
things. Back in Cayuga he'd discovered one of her shoes stuck in the road
like a dart. When he'd pulled it from the ground he saw the impression of
Claire's foot still inside, a soft dent where her heel had been.
He'd torn the shoe apart looking for a message, anything she'd
written beneath the fabric, or maybe carved into the heel. Outside Pittsburgh
he'd found her flowered hat floating in a pond, half pecked apart by
birds. A few times he'd come upon the smashed remains of cola bottles,
Dapper Boy's Pop, Claire's favorite. The bottle tops were always
sealed, the caps care-fully twisted back on to the severed necks. Pres believed
Claire was using them to send messages to him, that she wrote desperate notes
and sealed them inside these bottles, which she then flung from the blimp,
hoping they'd find a soft landing. Each time he caught sight of a bottle
he slammed the car to a stop and searched for her notepicking through
grass, checking bushes and treesbut it always managed to blow away before
he came looking.
Pres had met Claire in a wax museum near Buffalo when he was twenty and
just orphaned with a pinch of money. She was nineteen. Her job was to stand very
still among the dummies and then come to life and scare people. The first day
Pres came by, the museum's manager had Claire sitting on a bench among
figures sculpted to look like they were waiting for the train. By her feet was a
round valise mapped in exotic stickers, and her hat drooped over one eye. To one
side of her a young boy in overalls sucked on his ticket, to the other a plump
man frowned through a monocle at a pocket watch chained to his vest. Pres had
never seen such a pretty girl. Her hair was short, shorter even than his, and it
ended at her ear in a soft curling point that made him think of a beckoning
finger. She looked so ready to leave, too, so eager, leaning forward with her
hands on the edge of the bench, her neck craned to see down the tracks. Her lips
were parted a touch in the middle, as if she were kissing the stationher
whole lifegoodbye. When Pres leaned in close he saw her tongue inside,
pink and wet in the flickering light from the lamp on the wall. He wanted to
kiss her, but even more he wanted to be the one she was waiting for, who was
coming to collect her. He tried to position himself so she was looking right at
him, into his face, but every time he tried she shifted her eyes. She did it
slowly, rolling them a bit so that she was always looking just over his head or
beyond his ear. Only when she couldn't hold it in anymore and burst out
laughing did he realize she was a real girl, playing with him.
out through Pres's face; she was laughing at him so hard she had to hold
on to her hat.
"Enough already, birdie. I knew it was you," he
"Sure, I could tell," she said, and rolled her eyes at
"I did. I saw you shaking. You make a worthless
"So get out of here so I can keep on being worthless at
it," she said, and then she started arranging her pose, settling back into
place like a clay figure hardening under a flame. A bolt of fear shot through
Pres's chest as he watched her straighten her skirt, place her hands back
at the edge of the bench.
"Fine with me. I got a real job to get to
anywaya serious job," he said a little too loudly, as if she were
already out of earshot. "I work at the falls of Niagara on the new patrol.
I watch for people trying to go over in barrels."
She blinked a few
times and looked at him like she'd only just noticed him standing there.
"Oh, you're still here? Get going already. Someone's
Pres heard the brush of shoes on carpet approaching from
around the corner. "They use young guys like me to spot barrels because we
got good eyes, see?" he said, and crossed his eyes at her.
"Fine, fine, you goon. Now shut it. I need to concentrate."
"If I don't warn the guy on hook before the barrel gets into
the rapids, that's it, it's over."
she hissed through the corner of her mouth. "I can't stay steady
with you talking. You'll get me fired!" She cocked her head to peer
down the tracks again.
"I mean they're dead. Swept
She grabbed his hand and pulled him down to the bit of
bench between herself and the man with the pocket watch, and then she was
kissing Pres. It wasn't a good kiss; she mashed her whole face against his
straight on, jammed her nose into his, her forehead into his brow. He could feel
the ridge of her teeth behind her lips. But he liked it, the feeling of being
pressed into this girl, of having collided with her. He was about to kiss her
back when he became aware of someone else in the room, watching them, and he
froze. He stayed with his lips to hers, his wrists pulsing against her cool
hands, waiting for the person to leave. It occurred to him that whoever was
looking at them probably assumed that Claire was kissing him goodbye before
leaving on the train, and it felt dizzyingly strange to think of someone
standing there, saddened by the portrait of parting lovers who were really only
All that summer, on bright evenings when the ground was lit by wide ramps
of moonlight, Pres would drive through the city to Claire's parents'
home. Reaching the yard, he would slow the car to a quiet roll and open the
passenger-side door and then Claire would creep from the hedge and jump in. The
two of them would speed through town with the headlights off, taking the unlit
streets, some of them old gravel horse paths, until they reached the forest at
the city's northern limit. There, Pres would tuck the car behind a screen
of bushes and they'd walk along the railroad tracks through two miles of
woods to the clearing which had once been home to an old umbrella factory, but
which was now the place where blimps were made.
A high gate blocked them
from getting close to the hangar, but through gaps in the trees they could see
the fireworks of construction blazing across its translucent wallsarcs of
bouncing blue sparks, sizzling loops of flame. Pres and Claire would spread
their blanket on the grass by the fence and watch along with the other lovers
who'd come from town and who were visible only during particularly fierce
bursts of color. Claire often brought snacks while Pres offered up a jelly jar
of apple wine bought from one of the men who made it in his tub at the boarding
house near Pres's place. As the two of them sipped and ate, they would
whisper back and forth, guessing who the other spectators were, who might be
behind those two glowing cigarette tips, what woman was being kissed there with
her hands above her head, her fingers laced through the fence. Pres figured that
all the people at the clearing were from nearby, people they knew, but Claire
liked to pretend they'd ventured there from the kinds of places she read
about in travel magazines.
"I bet she's from Spain. See how her
hair's pulled to the side? That's a Spanish style." Or,
"That man beneath the tree, he's got fat on him like a Russian. They
need it because of the tundra."
She knew things about places
he'd never heard of, cities with white and green rivers for streets,
countries where for part of the year the sun never dropped below the horizon,
where a single day lasted for weeks.
Pres had trouble visualizing such
places. His family had lived in Niagara for four generations, and Pres himself
had never ventured more than fifty miles from the city. Since his parents'
passing, he'd taken great comfort in knowing that his neighborhood
contained all the artifacts of their lives: two streets west of their house was
the tannery where his father had worked. Three blocks toward the river, Harbor
Lights, the restaurant above which his mother had grown up. Here was the chapel
where his parents had married; there, the cemetery where they lay.
then, nearly a year after their deaths, Pres had trouble imagining himself going
much of anywhere at all. But sometime early in the summer Claire started using
we instead of I when she talked about traveling. We. For
Pres, that tiny word transformed the whole future into a hot little secret
between just the two of them.
The whole summer seemed full of secrets. In the moonlit forest blimps were
being built for reasons which, though clearly explained by the city's
naval officers as part of a national "contract," still were hooded
in mystery. Every few months another blimp emerged from the woods, glided over
City Hall, and moored on the high-school baseball field for a brief celebration.
The blimps had summery names: The Mayfly, Honeysuckle Rose, The Raindrop,
which boasted a cabled observation basket that could be lowered from the clouds
like a periscope. AnotherThe Roosthad a ladder to hang from
its cabin so airplanes could cling to it in midair like trapeze artists. No one
knew for sure where the blimps flew off to afterward; some people said to a
naval base in New Jersey, but others claimed out to sea.
architects and engineers had come from Germany. In the spring the city's
naval officers had moved them into a house on Jemmison Street, right near the
city center, but they hardly ever allowed themselves to be spotted in public.
They were large, blocky men, as broad-shouldered as umpires. And yet they seemed
so helpless, so lost all the time, startled by the passing clatter of a police
horse, frightened into apologetic fits of nodding and waving by a simple hello
from someone passing on the sidewalk. One of them, a man named Heitmeyer, never
went anywhere without a parasol to keep off the sun. Pres knew his name because
he'd gone into the diner right behind Heitmeyer one morning and seen him
write it in the guest book. As Pres ate his breakfast, he kept glancing over at
Heitmeyer, who sat in a booth against the far wall. He was studying what Pres
guessed was some kind of blueprint spread before him on the table. Every now and
then Heitmeyer took up his pencil and began working on whatever it was, bending
close to the paper, creating a little fort around it with his arm. Pres got so
curious that he pretended to have to go to the men's room just to catch a
glimpse. What he saw, though, when he passed the booth wasn't a blueprint
at all, but a drawing, a fanciful sketch of a sky filled with blimps of all
shapes and sizes: fleets of blimps layered one on top of the next, stretching up
into the atmosphere. An elegant network of ladders and rope bridges and
spiraling glass tubes connected the blimps, creating a city in the sky, a
floating metropolis protected by a vast, blue moat. How wild to get to live
someplace like that, Pres thought. But even as the sketch disappeared behind
Heitmeyer's arm, Pres found himself wondering how great it would really
be. What if lightning popped one of the blimps? What if they ran out of food?
What if someone living up there wanted to come down?
There were other
secrets that summer, too. More people than ever before were going over the
falls. For years no one had done such a thing, simply stepped into a barrel and
shoved off toward the rapids, but now there were jumps all the time. The jumpers
were always local people, not daredevils from Buffalo or Albany, not publicity
hounds or stuntmen, but people everyone had known for years: Gideon Wells, who
delivered milk and ice and butter every week, and pretty Laura, who kept minutes
at City Hall. No one knew why they did it, but all around the city people
wondered who would be next.
Claire loved hearing Pres's stories of
what it was like to work on the patrol. She loved it so much it made him blush
with pride there in the pine-scented darkness. Over and over he told her about
Pipe Island where he worked, the slender strip of land at the edge of the falls,
shaped like a corncob pipe. He told her about the squat, stone tower at the bowl
end of the island, where he spent his days listening to the roar of the drop and
scanning the river for barrels. He even taught her how to spot jumpers. First
thing, he explained, laying his head on her leg, was to watch the shore. Barrels
were cumbersome, and the brush along the riverbanks was leafy even in winter.
More often than not, people could be spotted before they got within a hundred
feet of the water. It happened all the time, he said. He'd be looking
through the binoculars, scanning the American, then the Canadian side of the
river, and he'd catch a rustling in the bushes near the top of one of the
banks. All of a sudden, a lady in a bathing dress and a frilly swimming cap
would be rolling a fat brown barrel down the bank and splashing it out into the
river. Occasionally though, the barrels were already in the water by the time he
saw them, already rushing toward him.
I'll bet you think that barrels
float, he said, that they bob along like corks. Well they don't, not at
all. In fact, he told her, they tumble forward underwater, hardly ever rising to
the surface. They come at you like mice moving beneath a carpet, little swells
in the current, nothing more. Winter was even worse, he said. The barrels often
drifted beneath ice floes headed downriver and were only visible as shadowy
spots on the white plates of ice. And once a jumper made it past the patrol,
chances were no one would ever see him or her again; the jumper would just
vanish into the white curtain of the falls. Poof. Gone.
Staring up at Claire
from the cushion of her lap, the stars visible behind her head, he told her
everything. He told her about Dexter, his partner, the boulder of a man who
always sat smoking at the tip of the island with his back to Pres and the long,
hook-ended metal pole across his lap. Dex, whose son had been killed in the war
overseas, in the Argonne Forest. Dex, with that sad look to him, sitting there
staring at the passing water all day. Pres explained how, when he did see a
barrel coming, he'd ring the bell and Dex would spring to his feet and
ready himself, holding the pole tightly in those hands of his, pouched and
leathery as baseball mitts. While Pres radioed the crew of the Maid of the
Mist, trolling below the falls, and warned them to prepare their rescue gear
just in case, Dex would wait like thatpole across his thighs, feet
planted at the rocky edge of the islanduntil the barrel was close enough
to be seen, cartwheeling there beneath the surface. Then, in one swift motion,
Dex would thrust the pole out into the driving water and yank it back so the
hook caught deep in the wood before he finally hauled in whoever was
"Is this kind of how he hooks them?" Claire said calmly,
before lunging at Pres, digging her fingers into his ribs, making him squirm and
laugh until he was coughing into her back.
They spent long hours wondering
why people went over the falls at all, the two of them lying chest to chest with
their shirts off. For the life of him Pres couldn't figure out why anyone
would do something so foolish, why they'd let themselves be so charmed by
what amounted to a giant hiccup in the river. He told himself it was nothing
more than hysteria. After all, he'd lived not two miles from the falls his
whole life and he'd never felt the slightest tug. But even so, Pres found
himself deeply troubled, as though his failure to understand the lure of the
river pointed to some larger flaw.
"Maybe they just want to go
somewhere," Claire said one night toward the end of summer. "Like an
escape. Maybe they don't think about it."
Pres was now deeply in
love with her, and wanted to tell her so, though he refused to say anything
until he could compose an adequate description of his feelings, which,
frustratingly, he never felt able to do. The best comparison he'd come up
with involved an exhibit on hydroelectricity he'd seen at a fair downtown
when he was a child. The exhibit was of a clear, life-size figure, a glass man
filled with miniature wheels and paddles and belts hung with tiny wooden
buckets. When water was poured through a hole at the top of the man's
head, the machinery inside him whirred to life and one by one a series of bulbs
strung through his legs and arms and head lit up like the points of a
constellation until, finally, a large heart-shaped bauble of glass in the
man's chest flickered on and shined brighter than the other
lightsso bright that Pres was forced to shield his eyes. Best he could
figure, that was how he felt for Claire, how he would always feel: aglow.
Pres brushed his fingers over her thigh.
"Maybe they just look
at the falls too long and get hypnotized, like by a snake charmer," she
said. She put her arms out in front of her and stared at the flashing hangar.
Seeing her like thather gaze focused yet eerily vacant, her expression
one of muted expectationsent a slight chill through Pres's chest.
He didn't like the naturalness of her pose, the facility with which
she'd assumed it. It was the way she'd appeared when he'd
first laid eyes on her; when, no matter how he'd tried to hold her eyes
with his, they'd looked past him. Even as he was thinking this, though,
she tackled him and blew her cheeks out on his belly and all his worrying
collapsed into laughter.
Pres woke to find the map illuminated in front of his face. It had somehow
tumbled up from the backseat and spread itself flat against the windshield,
where the sun, just now rising, lit the paper as if it were stained glass. There
had been no sign of the blimp in Gum Junction and he was two days' drive
past the city limit, though where exactly he didn't know. He'd
fallen asleep while driving again, just passed out of consciousness. Since he
didn't feel ready to look out the windshield and find the car hammered
into a tree or teetering on the edge of a cliff, the front tires hanging over
the drop, he just sat and stared at the map for a while. Each of the forty-eight
states was a different hueArkansas crimson, Texas mint-jelly green. The
map's colorful design was projected onto his chest and face. He found his
pen lying against the inside of the door and drew a heavy black check mark where
he assumed Gum Junction, Arkansas, to be.
Neighboring mountain towns like
Holly and Bonanza Springs had gotten rich off their mineral springsthey
were all marble and peach treesso Pres had been surprised to find Gum
Junction a shabby and cheerless affair, as if the town's own mountain were
a sharp knee over which it had been snapped. The only building open the evening
Pres arrived was the public bathhouse. When he opened the door and stepped
inside, he found a single, steam-clouded room lined with changing stalls, its
wooden floor pocked with deep holes fizzing with bubbling water. Inside each
hole was an old man. Some, submerged up to their chins, bobbed up and down,
their beards and the tips of their long white mustaches dipping in and out of
the water. Others were spilling water over themselves from jars of poor, purpled
glass. To Pres's eye they looked like a garden of ruined fountains.
"Excuse me, sir," Pres said to the man nearest him, his voice
muffled by the hiss and sputter of the springs. "Did you happen to see an
airship pass by here a little while ago? A flying machine?"
was frail, his chest kicked in by time, his shoulders covered in a feathery gray
down. "You ought to wet those down, boy," he said, gesturing to
Pres's hands. When Pres looked down, he saw that his hands had clawed up
from gripping the steering wheel. "Go on," the man said. "It
only costs to take it with you."
"Six cents for the
glass," said a man in a hole near the window, his arms great hammocks of
Pres knelt down and dipped his hands in the water. It was a hundred
and fifteen degrees, easy, and within moments he felt the tightness in his
knuckles melt away.
"Feels good, don't it?" called
someone too far back to see, a shadow behind the curtain of steam.
"That's arsenic and iron working on you."
Pres nodded; it
felt so good he thought he might cry.
"What's this airship look
like?" said the man nearest him.
"It's a long balloon with
a kind of house attached to the bottom," Pres said.
hanging from an observation balloon?" said the man near the window. He was
smirking in a way that made Pres's heart sink; it was clear that these men
were about to laugh at him. He'd been laughed at by so many people in such
a number of places that by now he could feel it coming, could sense it rumbling
up through a person before it erupted.
Pres sat back and studied the blimp's path for a sign of where it
might go next. He'd marked the few places he'd seen the blimp
himself with a check on the map, everywhere it had been spotted by others
he'd talked to along the road with a question mark, and still the pattern
eluded him. He'd chased it down the icy New Jersey coast by trail of
rumor, spotted it once near the Virginia border rising from a marine hangar
floating out in the middle of a lake and, assuming it was going down to the
Carolinas or maybe even to Florida, he'd rushed south and overshot it,
getting himself lost for nearly two weeks in the lush jumble of the Smokey
Mountains. He finally caught wind of it again near Nashville, where he wound up
spotting it near two in the morningtunneling like a whale through the
starry sky, the fins at its tail a spacey blue in the moonlightonly to
lose it again above the bubbling hot-springs towns of the Ozarks.
traced the marks on the map with his finger. Connected, the sightings formed a
kind of quivering, larger check mark starting high in the Northeast, dipping
through the sunny states, then swooping back up toward the country's
middle. But would the blimp continue north toward the Dakotas, or plunge back
down for the striped canyons of the Western Desert? What if he couldn't
find its trail again?
Worse than all this, though, was the plain fear that
the blimp would make it to the West Coast ahead of him and head off over the
Pacific, to Europe or Asia, somewhere he'd never be able to follow. He
knew somehow that this was its course, that it was trying to get to the ocean
before he could catch it.
Pres steeled himself, tore the map away from the
windshield, and found that he was parked in an endless sea of yellow grass. It
stretched out from the car in all directions, no trees, no buildings, just
grassland, flat and golden. Fear rippled across his belly: this had to be
Oklahoma; so far west already. He started the car and searched until he came
upon a trampled path, then drove on into the baking afternoon.
The world was level forever. Pres felt like he was negotiating the arena of
a giant board game, his car a luckless charm. Every hour or so a solitary
farmhouse appeared in the distance, and at each he stopped to inquire after the
blimp. He asked through doorways held open just wide enough to see a
wife's frightened eye peering out. He asked men in heavy gloves, rolling
barbed wire out against fence posts beside the road. He asked children playing
on their porch steps with a spotted frog, tying its feet to the ends of a scarf
and then tossing it so high the scarf filled with wind and the kicking frog was
swung out over the yard before being rocked back down to earth.
the houses stopped coming altogether and there was nothing to the landscape but
Pres and the occasional prairie dog, poking its head up from the ground to look
quizzically at him, before ducking back beneath the grass. The expressions on
their little twitching faces were hardly different from those he encountered
everywhere he told his story. Why are you still chasing her? the eyes seemed to
say. Why go on? Even after he stopped mentioning Claire, everyone appeared to
know that he was chasing after a woman who'd left him, a woman who
probably didn't want to be found.
But that's not how it was,
Pres thought, as the grass changed from yellow to a dry, papery brown beneath
the wheels of the car. He might not know why Claire had left, but what he did
know, beyond a doubt, was that she wanted him to bring her home.
first summer on Pipe Island he'd watched a number of jumpers pulled live
from their barrels, and it always went the same way. First, the lid would come
off with a suck of air not unlike a gasp, and Dex would reach into the barrel
and try to loosen whoever was curled up inside. He'd take them gently by
the elbows and hoist them up, blue-lipped and blinking into the sunshine. Then,
whap! He'd slap them across the face with those enormous hands of
his, and again, thwap! After that, Dex propped them on their wobbling
feet, still in the barrel, and he and Pres waited for the crying to start.
Because even though it sometimes took a while for the sobbing to bubble up
through the throat and brim over that trembling lower lip, it always did come,
and in fierce, wracking heaves. It was like seeing someone shaken painfully into
his skin the way a pillow is jerked down into its case.
No matter how hard
the jumpers had tried to make it over the cataract, once caught they were
grateful. Days after the person had recovered and resumed teaching chemistry or
policing the streets, Dex and Pres would invariably receive a note or gift, or
even a visit at the falls. Joe Greeble had sent them smart, banded hats from his
men's store, which they wore even when it was too hot for Irish wool. Mrs.
Mishara had met them herself on the rickety hanging bridge to Pipe
Islandshe still had stitches above her eye where she'd taken a bump
in the rapidsand she'd kissed them both and taken their hands and
blessed them right there with the same water that had almost killed
When Pres turned his thoughts back to the road, he found that the
prairie had become endless desert, the grass cooked down to a fine, pink sand.
The sky was powder blue, too bright to look at, and the ground was an endless
unfurling of light. A hot wind kept up outside, butting against the car, rocking
it on its wheels and eliciting frightened squeaks. Pres realized he must have
been staring into the light for some time, as a steady rain of colored spots was
falling at the edges of his vision, drops of blue and orange and black. He kept
his hat low and drove on, ignoring them until only one lingered in the corner of
his eye. He glanced at the spot, figuring it would scatter or vanish altogether,
but it remained there on the horizon. He turned the car toward it, and still it
stood its ground.
The air swayed with heat, but as Pres approached, the spot
took on shape: it grew a boxy frame, its roof rose to a point. A fence appeared
around the sitea sign warned that it was still under
constructionbut the gate stood wide open, and Pres raced through. He knew
what it was, the thing in the distance. A chill climbed the knuckles of his
spine. Though he'd seen two hangars so far, he was never able to get close
enough for a good look. From a distance, they'd all looked the same to
him, like barns made out of glass or wood or even bone-white canvas. But the
binoculars hadn't accounted for their sheer size. As he neared its gaping
entrance, the hangar's true proportions became apparent and he found
himself trying to blink away his incredulity. It was at least fifteen stories
tall, the highest structure he'd ever laid eyes on. There were no other
buildings around save some shacks out back. No trees in the area, just scattered
bunches of desert four o'clocks and some tongue-leafed cacti.
skidded to a stop just outside the hangar's mouth. High, spidery
scaffolding buttressed its walls on both sides, and though there was no one
working now, Pres could see pails and rags scattered along the planking. A pair
of overalls draped over a banister whipped back and forth in the wind. Pres
pulled his suspenders up over his undershirt and slipped the .38 into his
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