“Every generation revolts against its fathers and makes friends with its grandfathers.” –Lewis Mumford
Fifteen-year-old Keisha Davis sat on the concrete steps of the dilapidated warehouse with tears streaking her mocha cheeks. Her Grandpa’s journal was resting in her lap as she read the same paragraph over and over.
“I’ll never forget the first time I saw Keisha. She was perfect. My little grandbaby was only a few hours old and had just finished suckling at her Mama’s breast. Her Papa handed her to me and everyone except for the baby was grinning. I held her as gently as I could as I placed her over my shoulder. Holding this most precious life in my arms, I realized I had never known such a peace before.”
Isaiah Maximilian Covington had died in his bed at the age of seventy-six, his brilliant mind and robust physique both destroyed by murderous cancer. He’d refused chemotherapy, saying it killed a person quicker than the disease it was supposed to cure, and when he passed, Keisha’s Papa grudgingly consented to the old man’s wishes and had him cremated.
Keisha and her older brother Josiah scattered his ashes at Pepperwood Lake, his favorite “fishin’ hole.” The journal, key ring, and hatpin were delivered to her by messenger a week later.
Papa thought he’d had them sent to her as remembrances. If he’d read the note from Grandpa tucked behind the front cover, he’d have taken everything away from her and burned them to ashes, just like the author.
She wiped the tears from her face and turned the page.
It was Grandpa’s engineering journal, a complete record of every single project he’d created, from initial research to final construction. Five years ago, he’d bought what Papa called a rat hole, and spent night and day there tinkering at one project after another.
Keisha didn’t see much of Grandpa after her tenth birthday, and after all of the fishing trips, hikes, county fairs, Star Wars marathons, and endless engineering projects (she’d programmed her first robot using Raspberry Pi when she was six) they’d shared, it didn’t just hurt that he’d disappeared, it broke her heart. By then, Josiah was in high school, and he had moved on to other interests, but besides Mama and Papa, Grandpa was the person she loved the most in the whole world.
She’d read the journal cover to cover, or as much of it as she could understand. Most of it was pretty technical, but having a love for tinkering just like the old man, she understood more than she expected. Interspersed between the diagrams and the jargon, were little notes about how much he loved Keisha, and how he was doing everything for her.
“Please don’t hate me, little one. If I could, I’d spend every moment with you. If there were time, I’d teach you about all of my work, each tiny detail, but I’ve got to get this done in time. The cancer’s going to take me, and if I fall before I finish, you won’t have a world left in which to grow up, my darling.”
“Damnit, I hate crying.”
She wiped her face on her sleeve and then slammed the book shut. Keisha stood up carrying the tome in her left hand while fishing the key ring out of her jeans pocket. Her backpack carried everything else she’d need from home.
Fingering the various keys, she arrived at the one marked “lab.” It slipped easily into the lock, and in spite of the chipped paint, weather worn concrete and corrugated steel, the doors and windows provided impregnable security. She’d have five seconds to get inside and disable the security alarm.
The door slammed shut behind her as she dropped the journal at her feet and hastily worked the keypad. Entering the combination, she pressed the scanner with the thumb of her right hand. Only two fingerprints in the world would be recognized by the computer, and the other thumb no longer existed.
She thought there’d be a stench, especially since most of the warehouse’s inside looked as bad as the outside, but the air mostly smelled of dust and age, like the old book in her hand. She steered her way through the haphazard arrangements of arcane machinery, all in a state of becoming, but never being.
Her Papa said never to visit here, telling her that whatever Grandpa had been doing was a reflection of an old man’s mind slowly going crazy. Something happened between Papa and Grandpa after Mama died, but neither of them talked about it.
She found Grandpa’s desk, his blackboard, a real one that you had to write on with chalk, slide rules, T-squares, a drafting board, and the other evidence of his ramshackle office. It was set up near the middle of a vast space populated by tin, brass, and pine wood creations, misshapen behemoths and leviathans from a bygone era.
Keisha set the journal down on the desk next to a big, metal electric calculator which must have been almost fifty years old, one of the few concessions to “modern” computing she saw around her. All this stood in contrast to the photos of him as a young man just hired on as one of NASA’s first African-American engineers, the awards he’d gotten, including one from the President for creating the computers that let the Apollo astronauts go to the Moon, photos of the semi-conductor companies he’d created and then later sold for a fortune, a newspaper clipping that called him one of the top five finest minds of his generation.
He had always looked forward toward the next innovation, the next technological revolution. Why did he turn his back on all of that five years ago and start making machines that looked like the backdrop to a Steampunk convention?
Taking off her backpack, she put it down on his chair and unzipped it. She took out the diagram of where she could find the airship. It really did take a map to navigate through a warehouse as confusing and crowded as the one at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
She didn’t even know what a hatpin was until she read the notes addressed to her at the end of the journal. It was the most essential piece of the puzzle he had given her to solve, because without it, she’d never even get started.
Setting it down next to the journal, she opened up the big drawer at the bottom right of the desk. The costume was inside. That’s what it looked like. She pulled out each item and set it on the desktop.
“You’ve got to be kidding, Grandpa.” She knew he wasn’t, and that she had to wear it before going on to the next part of the plan.
She still looked around, even knowing she was totally alone, before beginning to unbutton her shirt. Keisha had been shy about undressing ever since she was in seventh grade. She wished she had Mama to talk to about it because she was too embarrassed to tell Papa.
Putting her regular clothes in the backpack, she pulled on the baggy canvas pants, the white, cotton top, and then the leather flight jacket. For some reason, Grandpa had a full-length mirror next to the blackboard, and Keisha stood in front of it.
She looked like someone in an old movie. Prancing back to the desk, she took the scarf with her to the mirror and tossed is around her neck with flourish.
Laughing at herself, she bowed to an imaginary audience. “Thank you, thank you very much.”
She had to set the backpack on the floor to sit in Grandpa’s chair so she could put on the boots. The pants legs were supposed to fit inside, which didn’t make pulling them up any easier.
When she stood and walked, she thought made a clip-cloppy sound like a horse.
Finally the last part, the old leather cap with the attached goggles. The airship’s cockpit was fully enclosed, but Grandpa’s notes said she had to wear the whole thing.
Under the desk was an old, canvas bag. She dragged it out and opened the top, then dumped everything from her backpack into it. The keys went in her pockets. Then she picked up the journal and placed it gently on top of the pile in the bag.
Before closing it, she felt around inside for her smartphone and pulled it out. Dad had texted three times asking her when she’d be leaving the library. That’s where he thought she was, studying with Danielle and Marcus.
One more hour Love you Bye Papa
She didn’t know if she’d ever see her Daddy again.
Closing the bag she lifted it up. She was ready. Grandpa’s instructions said she was supposed to leave her phone here, but she slipped it in her trouser pocket anyway. You never knew. She’d memorized the warehouse map, so she left it on the desk.
It took another ten minutes for her to reach the airship at the far side of the warehouse.
“Graceful Delight,” she read aloud the words on the gondola’s side next to a painting of a girl in lace and leather. Of all the anachronistic mechanisms Grandpa had built in the past half-decade, this was the only one that worked. It looked kind of like an old-fashioned dirigible, except the cigar-shaped balloon part was filled with something other than Helium.
The metal fittings were brass, iron, and tin, and carved in ornate designs for decoration rather than function. She took one step at a time up to the gondola, which looked like the inside of the Nautilus in that ancient Disney movie about the Jules Verne book.
Inside, she found the control room. The main console was at the very front just below the glass windscreen. The taking the open hatch in the rear, she found the small kitchen, bedroom with a hammock for a bed, a tiny sink, shower, and toilet, and then a doorway labeled “Engine Room: Do Not Enter!” Grandpa’s notes were pretty definite about her not going in, and this time, she decided to go along with his program, well, for the moment.
She stowed the duffel in the “Captain’s Quarters,” and after retrieving the hatpin, made her way back to the Control Room.
The instructions said you could pilot the vessel from what looked like an old-time ship’s steering wheel. Pulling or pushing it let you take the ship into a climb or dive, and turning the wheel did was supposed to do just what you’d expect. Everything was connected to a series of exposed cogs, gears, and control rods, like the inside of an old grandfather clock.
The next part of his notes was kind of vague, since there was no way to pilot an airship out of an enclosed warehouse, but he wrote that she should trust him.
She did and so she took her seat. To her right was a small hole which could have meant that a screw or bolt fell out, but that’s not what happened. Keisha pushed the hatpin all the way into the hole and the machine around her started humming. Gears and cogs started clicking and spinning, and rods and pistons pushed in and out, up and down. To the left of the wheel was a big red button.
Keisha reached into the jacket pockets and pulled out a pair of soft, kid gloves. They felt smooth and warm as she put them on. Then she pulled the goggles over her face, and placed her thumb over the big, red button.
“Contact!” She cried out as she mashed it down.
But instead of motors whirring and engines humming, she heard a loud, metallic “BANG!” and the Delight shuddered and trembled like a dog shaking off water.
Staring out the windscreen, Keisha saw she wasn’t inside the workshop anymore. It was a huge aircraft hangar, all steel beams, and corrugated metal. The Delight’s propellers were spinning up. She was lifting off the floor and up toward huge fan blades set in the ceiling. She remembered the wheel and started to steer, pushing forward to keep the ship from rising, and then navigated straight ahead. A large aperture on the far side of the building was opening, and beyond that was a city she had never seen or even imagined before.
“Here we go.” Her hand were shaking as the Delight cleared the hanger doors and took to the brilliant blue sky. Keisha’s grand adventure had finally begun, and it would end when she found the only man who could help her now; her Grandpa.
“Grandfathers are for loving and fixing things.” –Anonymous
In the past week, I’ve written two very small stories, Keisha’s Grand Adventure and Keisha Takes Off. A few people have suggested that I develop the idea a little more, so I crafted his “experimental” first chapter. It’s pretty rough, but I wanted to see how I could flesh things out.
Think “steampunk” meets “dieselpunk” and you’ll come close to the right idea.
Keisha’s adventure continues in Aerial Encounter.