Last Updated June 6, 2023.
Thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson is on his way to the rugged Canadian wilderness, where his father works in the oil fields in the far northern area bordering the tundra. Brian is the lone passenger in a Cessna 406 bushplane, which is also carrying some drilling equipment and a survival pack to be used in case of an emergency. The plane’s pilot, a taciturn man in his mid-forties, has said little to Brian since directing him to take the copilot’s seat just before takeoff in Hampton, New York.
In the beginning, Brian had been consumed with the excitement of his first trip in a single-engine plane. He had observed with interest the scenery as well as the myriad instruments and controls on the dashboard in front of him. Eventually, though, the drone of the engine and the endlessly forested terrain all around had become monotonous, and Brian had been left with time to think about the events leading up to this lonely trip.
Brian’s parents have recently divorced, and it seems that everything has happened quickly since Brian’s mother asked for the split. The courts have decreed that Brian should live with his mother during the school year and spend the summers with his father in Canada. Brian feels as if his entire world has come apart, and the pressure upon him is intensified because he is privy to a secret about his mother that he knows is the underlying cause of the breakup.
Brian looks over at the pilot, and after a while the man seems to open up a bit and acknowledges him. Learning that this is his passenger’s first ride in the copilot’s seat of a plane, he begins to explain some of the controls and instruments, and he even lets Brian take the wheel and work the pedals that steer the aircraft. At the end of the impromptu lesson, the pilot is distracted by a pain in his left shoulder. Attributing his discomfort to the aches and pains of growing old, the pilot lapses into silence again, and Brian resumes looking out the window and thinking.
Brian had been sullen on the ride to the airport with his mother. Although she had asked him repeatedly what was bothering him, he had been unable to confront her with “The Secret.” Despite his recalcitrance, Brian’s mother had given him a present just before they reached the airport. The present was a hatchet, “the kind with a steel handle and a rubber handgrip,” enclosed in a case he could wear on his belt.
Brian’s attention is diverted from his reverie by a bad smell that suddenly permeates the plane. It is body gas, and when Brian looks over at the pilot, he sees that the man is grimacing in agony, alternately clutching his stomach and his left arm. As Brian looks on helplessly, the pilot switches on his mike and tries to call for help, but before he can identify himself he is gripped with an intense jolt of pain that slams him back in his seat “like a hammerblow.” Crying out desperately, “Oh God, my chest is coming apart,” the pilot writhes violently in his seat one more time, then his eyes roll back in his head and he is still.
In the terrible silence broken only by the humming of the engine, Brian is stricken “with a white-flash of horror” as he realizes the seriousness of his situation. He is alone, in a bushplane roaring along at seven thousand feet over empty wilderness, with a pilot who is most certainly either dead or very close to it.