The story begins with Brian Robeson staring out the window of a small plane. He's on his way to the first-ever dinosaur amusement park. Oh wait, wrong book.
Brian is thirteen years old, and he's the only one on the plane, other than the pilot. Given that he can't remember the pilot's name, we're guessing they haven't bonded much. Our soon-to-be protagonist came with his mother to a small airport in Hampton, New York, to catch the plane. He's sitting in the copilot's seat, and—sure enough—the pilot hasn't spoken to him since the plane took off. This ain't no one-on-one date on The Bachelor.
Thinking back over the events that have led to his being where he is, Brian thinks about the word "divorce." It is, he thinks, "a tearing, ugly word that meant fights and yelling, lawyers" (1.9).
Brian also thinks about the word "secrets," or rather, about the Secret (with a capital S) that he knows about his mother, a secret that he hasn't shared with anyone. We aren't told what the secret is. Come on, Brian.
Thinking about all this, Brian feels his eyes start to burn and tear up, but he doesn't cry. He glances at the pilot to make sure the tears weren't noticed, and the pilot smiles, asking Brian if he's ever flown in the copilot's seat before. Brian says no, he hasn't.
The pilot shows Brian the plane's rudder pedals and the steering controls, telling him that a "plane like this almost flies itself" (1.19). Yeah, right.
He lets Brian take over for a little while, helping him steer the plane and bring the nose up and down a bit. Then he takes the controls back, rubbing his left shoulder and telling Brian that he's got aches and pains, and he must be getting old.
Brian returns to gazing out the window, and to his thoughts and memories about his parents' divorce. He's kind of freaking out about the whole thing. Brian's father, we find out, didn't understand what had caused the divorce—it was Brian's mother who wanted the split.
Brian is supposed to spend school years with his mother and summers with his father. Brian is not psyched about the arrangement, and he's definitely not happy with all the judges and lawyers who have made all these decisions about his life.
Suddenly the plane lurches to the right a bit, and Brian notices that the pilot is rubbing his shoulder again. He smells gas in the plane (not the fuel kind, the stinky human kind), and thinks the pilot must be having stomach problems. Wow, trapped in a plane with Mr. Gasman—great way to start your summer vacation.
This will be Brian's first summer spent with his father since the divorce (which was only finalized a month before). His father is a mechanical engineer working in the oil fields of Canada. The plane Brian is on is also carrying drilling equipment and, Brian remembers, a "survival pack" (1.39) that holds supplies in case the plane has to make an emergency landing. Wow, think that might be important later?
The smell in the plane is stronger now (eww), and Brian notices that the pilot is still rubbing his arm.
Back to his memories—did we mention he's a little overwhelmed?—Brian thinks about the car ride he took with his mother to catch the plane. They spent almost the whole two and a half hour trip in silence. Brian's mother asked if they could talk about things at one point, but Brian, thinking of the divorce, had shaken his head no, and just looked out the window. Not exactly warm and cuddly family times here.
When they were close to the airport, though, Brian's mother had given him a gift. It was a hatchet for him to use while he's with his father in the Canada woods. At his mother's urging, Brian attached it to his belt.
The smell in the plane is even stronger now, and Brian glances at the pilot, only to see him grimacing in pain and rubbing his shoulder again. Suddenly he spasms, gripping his stomach. He tries to use the plane's communication system to call for help, but before he's able to, he's wracked by another horrible spasm. This is definitely not looking good.
Suddenly Brian realizes what's happening—the pilot is having a heart attack. Even as Brian realizes this, the pilot slams back into his seat one more time, jerking the controls so the plane twists to the side. Houston, we have a problem.
Brian, shocked by the sudden turn of events, doesn't know what to do.
In the plane there is "a strange feeling of silence and being alone" (1.70), and Brian is filled with terror.