Praise for Elizabeth Hand:
"Fiercely frightening yet hauntingly beautiful."—Tess Gerritsen, author of The Silent Girl
"A sinful pleasure."—Katherine Dunn, author of Geek Love
No one is innocent, no one unexamined in award-winner Elizabeth Hand's new collection. From the summer isles to the mysterious people next door all the way to the odd guy one cubicle over, Hand teases apart the dark strangenesses of everyday life to show us the impossibilities, broken dreams, and improbable dreams that surely can never come true.
Elizabeth Hand's novels include Shirley Jackson Award–winner Generation Loss, Mortal Love, and Available Dark.
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errantry strange stories
By elizabeth hand
Small Beer PressCopyright © 2012 Elizabeth Hand (elizabethhand.com)
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon
Being assigned to The Head for eight hours was the worst security shift you could pull at the museum. Even now, thirty years later, Robbie had dreams in which he wandered from the Early Flight gallery to Balloons & Airships to Cosmic Soup, where he once again found himself alone in the dark, staring into the bland gaze of the famous scientist as he intoned his endless lecture about the nature of the universe.
"Remember when we thought nothing could be worse than that?" Robbie stared wistfully into his empty glass, then signaled the waiter for another bourbon and Coke. Across the table, his old friend Emery sipped a beer.
"I liked The Head," said Emery. He cleared his throat and began to recite in the same portentous tone the famous scientist had employed. "Trillions and trillions of galaxies in which our own is but a mote of cosmic dust. It made you think."
"It made you think about killing yourself," said Robbie. "Do you want to know how many time I heard that?"
"Five thousand." The waiter handed Robbie a drink, his fourth. "Twenty-five times an hour, times eight hours a day, times five days a week, times five months."
"Five thousand, that's not so much. Especially when you think of all those trillions of galleries. I mean galaxies. Only five months? I thought you worked there longer."
"Just that summer. It only seemed like forever."
Emery knocked back his beer. "A long time ago, in a gallery far, far away," he intoned, not for the first time.
Thirty years before, the Museum of American Aviation and Aerospace had just opened. Robbie was nineteen that summer, a recent dropout from the University of Maryland, living in a group house in Mount Rainier. Employment opportunities were scarce; making $3.40 an hour as a security aide at the Smithsonian's newest museum seemed preferable to bagging groceries at Giant Food. Every morning he'd punch his time card in the guards' locker room and change into his uniform. Then he'd duck outside to smoke a joint before trudging downstairs for morning meeting and that day's assignments.
Most of the security guards were older than Robbie, with backgrounds in the military and an eye on future careers with the D.C. Police Department or FBI. Still, they tolerated him with mostly good-natured ribbing about his longish hair and bloodshot eyes. All except for Hedge, the security chief. He was an enormous man with a shaved head who sat, knitting, behind a bank of closed-circuit video monitors, observing tourists and guards with an expression of amused contempt.
"What are you making?" Robbie once asked. Hedge raised his hands to display an intricately patterned baby blanket. "Hey, that's cool. Where'd you learn to knit?"
"Prison." Hedge's eyes narrowed. "You stoned again, Opie? That's it. Gallery Seven. Relieve Jones."
Robbie's skin went cold, then hot with relief when he realized Hedge wasn't going to fire him. "Seven? Uh, yeah, sure, sure. For how long?"
"Forever," said Hedge.
"Oh, man, you got The Head." Jones clapped his hands gleefully when Robbie arrived. "Better watch your ass, kids'll throw shit at you," he said, and sauntered off.
Two projectors at opposite ends of the dark room beamed twin shafts of silvery light onto a head-shaped Styrofoam form. Robbie could never figure out if they'd filmed the famous scientist just once, or if they'd gone to the trouble to shoot him from two different angles.
However they'd done it, the sight of the disembodied Head was surprisingly effective: it looked like a hologram floating amid the hundreds of back-projected twinkly stars that covered the walls and ceiling. The creep factor was intensified by the stilted, slightly puzzled manner in which The Head blinked as it droned on, as though the famous scientist had just realized his body was gone, and was hoping no one else would notice. Once, when he was really stoned, Robbie swore that The Head deviated from its script.
"What'd it say?" asked Emery. At the time, he was working in the General Aviation Gallery, operating a flight simulator that tourists clambered into for three-minute rides.
"Something about peaches," said Robbie. "I couldn't understand, it sort of mumbled."
Every morning, Robbie stood outside the entrance to Cosmic Soup and watched as tourists streamed through the main entrance and into the Hall of Flight. Overhead, legendary aircraft hung from the ceiling. The 1903 Wright Flyer with its Orville mannequin; a Lilienthal glider; the Bell X-1 in which Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. From a huge pit in the center of the Hall rose a Minuteman III ICBM, rust-colored stains still visible where a protester had tossed a bucket of pig's blood on it a few months earlier. Directly above the entrance to Robbie's gallery dangled the Spirit of St. Louis. The aides who worked upstairs in the planetarium amused themselves by shooting paperclips onto its wings.
Robbie winced at the memory. He gulped what was left of his bourbon and sighed. "That was a long time ago."
"Tempus fugit, baby. Thinking of which" Emery dug into his pocket for a Blackberry. "Check this out. From Leonard."
Robbie rubbed his eyes blearily, then read.
Subject: Tragic Illness
Date: April 6, 7:58:22 PM EDT
I just learned that our Maggie Blevin is very ill. I wrote her at Christmas but never heard back. Fuad El-Hajj says she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer last fall. Prognosis is not good. She is still in the Fayetteville area, and I gather is in a hospice. I want to make a visit though not sure how that will go over. I have something I want to give her but need to talk to you about it.
"Ahhh." Robbie sighed. "God, that's terrible."
"Yeah. I'm sorry. But I figured you'd want to know."
Robbie pinched the bridge of his nose. Four years earlier, his wife, Anna, had died of breast cancer, leaving him adrift in a grief so profound it was as though he'd been poisoned, as though his veins had been pumped with the same chemicals that had failed to save her. Anna had been an oncology nurse, a fact that at first afforded some meager black humor, but in the end deprived them of even the faintest of false hopes borne of denial or faith in alternative therapies.
There was no time for any of that. Zach, their son, had just turned twelve. Between his own grief and Zach's subsequent acting-out, Robbie got so depressed that he started pouring his first bourbon and Coke before the boy left for school. Two years later, he got fired from his job with the County Parks Commission.
He now worked in the shipping department at Small's, an off-price store in a desolate shopping mall that resembled the ruins of a regional airport. Robbie found it oddly consoling. It reminded him of the museum. The same generic atriums and industrial carpeting; the same bleak sunlight filtered through clouded glass; the same vacant-faced people trudging from Dollar Store to SunGlass Hut, the way they'd wandered from the General Aviation Gallery to Cosmic Soup.
"Poor Maggie." Robbie returned the Blackberry. "I haven't thought of her in years."
"I'm going to see Leonard."
"When? Maybe I'll go with you."
"Now." Emery shoved a twenty under his beer bottle and stood. "You're coming with me."
"You can't driveyou're snackered. Get popped again, you lose your license."
"Popped? Who's getting popped? And I'm not snackered, I'm" Robbie thought. "Snockered. You pronounced it wrong."
"Whatever." Emery grabbed Robbie's shoulder and pushed him to the door. "Let's go."
Emery drove an expensive hybrid that could get from Rockville to Utica, New York, on a single tank of gas. The vanity plate read MARVO and was flanked by bumper stickers with messages like GUNS DON'T KILL PEOPLE: TYPE 2 PHASERS KILL PEOPLE and FRAK OFF! as well as several slogans that Emery said were in Klingon.
Emery was the only person Robbie knew who was somewhat famous. Back in the early 1980s, he'd created a local-access cable TV show called Captain Marvo's Secret Spacetime, taped in his parents' basement and featuring Emery in an aluminum foil-costume behind the console of a cardboard spaceship. Captain Marvo watched videotaped episodes of low-budget 1950s science fiction serials with titles like PAYLOAD: MOONDUST while bantering with his co-pilot, a homemade puppet made by Leonard, named Mungbean.
The show was pretty funny if you were stoned. Captain Marvo became a cult hit, and then a real hit when a major network picked it up as a late-night offering. Emery quit his day job at the museum and rented studio time in Baltimore. He sold the rights after a few years, and was immediately replaced by a flashy actor in Lurex and a glittering robot sidekick. The show limped along for a season then died. Emery's fans claimed this was because their slacker hero had been sidelined.
But maybe it was just that people weren't as stoned as they used to be. These days the program had a surprising afterlife on the internet, where Robbie's son, Zach, watched it with his friends, and Emery did a brisk business selling memorabilia through his official Captain Marvo website.
It took them nearly an hour to get into D.C. and find a parking space near the Mall, by which time Robbie had sobered up enough to wish he'd stayed at the bar.
"Here." Emery gave him a sugarless breath mint, then plucked at the collar of Robbie's shirt, acid-green with SMALLS embroidered in purple. "Christ, Robbie, you're a freaking mess."
He reached into the backseat, retrieved a black T-shirt from his gym bag. "Here, put this on."
Robbie changed into it and stumbled out onto the sidewalk. It was mid-April but already steamy; the air shimmered above the pavement and smelled sweetly of apple blossom and coolant from innumerable air conditioners. Only as he approached the museum entrance and caught his reflection in a glass wall did Robbie see that his T-shirt was emblazoned with Emery's youthful face and foil helmet above the words O CAPTAIN MY CAPTAIN.
"You wear your own T-shirt?" he asked as he followed Emery through the door.
"Only at the gym. Nothing else was clean."
They waited at the security desk while a guard checked their IDs, called upstairs to Leonard's office, signed them in and took their pictures before finally issuing each a Visitor's Pass.
"You'll have to wait for Leonard to escort you upstairs," the guard said.
"Not like the old days, huh, Robbie?" Emery draped an arm around Robbie and steered him into the Hall of Flight. "Not a lot of retinal scanning on your watch."
The museum hadn't changed much. The same aircraft and space capsules gleamed overhead. Tourists clustered around the lucite pyramid that held slivers of moon rock. Sunburned guys sporting military haircuts and tattoos peered at a mockup of a F-15 flight deck. Everything had that old museum smell: soiled carpeting, machine oil, the wet-laundry odor wafting from steam tables in the public cafeteria.
But The Head was long gone. Robbie wondered if anyone even remembered the famous scientist, dead for many years. The General Aviation Gallery, where Emery and Leonard had operated the flight simulators and first met Maggie Blevin, was now devoted to Personal Flight, with models of jetpacks worn by alarmingly lifelike mannequins.
"Leonard designed those." Emery paused to stare at a child-sized figure who seemed to float above a solar-powered skateboard. "He could have gone to Hollywood."
"It's not too late."
Robbie and Emery turned to see their old colleague behind them.
"Leonard," said Emery.
The two men embraced. Leonard stepped back and tilted his head. "Robbie. I wasn't expecting you."
"Surprise," said Robbie. They shook hands awkwardly. "Good to see you, man."
Leonard forced a smile. "And you."
They headed toward the staff elevator. Back in the day, Leonard's hair had been long and luxuriantly blond. It fell unbound down the back of the dogshit-yellow uniform jacket, designed to evoke an airline pilot's, that he and Emery and the other General Aviation aides wore as they gave their spiel to tourists eager to yank on the controls of their Link Trainers. With his patrician good looks and stern gray eyes, Leonard was the only aide who actually resembled a real pilot.
Now he looked like a cross between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Willie Nelson. His hair was white, and hung in two braids that reached almost to his waist. Instead of the crappy polyester uniform, he wore a white linen tunic, a necklace of unpolished turquoise and coral, loose black trousers tucked into scuffed cowboy boots, and a skull earring the size of Robbie's thumb. On his collar gleamed the cheap knockoff pilot's wings that had once adorned his museum uniform jacket. Leonard had always taken his duties very seriously, especially after Margaret Blevin arrived as the museum's first Curator of Proto-Flight. Robbie's refusal to do the same, even long after he'd left the museum himself, had resulted in considerable friction between them over the intervening years.
Robbie cleared his throat. "So, uh. What are you working on these days?" He wished he wasn't wearing Emery's idiotic T-shirt.
"I'll show you," said Leonard.
Upstairs, they headed for the old photo lab, now an imaging center filled with banks of computers, digital cameras, scanners.
"We still process film there," Leonard said as they walked down a corridor hung with production photos from The Day the Earth Stood Still and Frau im Mond. "Negatives, old motion picture stockpeople still send us things."
"Any of it interesting?" asked Emery.
Leonard shrugged. "Sometimes. You never know what you might find. That's part of Maggie's legacywe're always open to the possibility of discovering something new."
Robbie shut his eyes. Leonard's voice made his teeth ache. "Remember how she used to keep a bottle of Scotch in that side drawer, underneath her purse?" he said.
Leonard frowned, but Emery laughed. "Yeah! And it was good stuff, too."
"Maggie had a great deal of class," said Leonard in a somber tone.
You pompous asshole, thought Robbie.
Leonard punched a code into a door and opened it. "You might remember when this was a storage cupboard."
They stepped inside. Robbie did remember this placehe'd once had sex here with a General Aviation aide whose name he'd long forgotten. It had been a good-sized supply room then, with an odd, sweetish scent from the rolls of film stacked along the shelves.
Now it was a very crowded office. The shelves were crammed with books and curatorial reports dating back to 1981, and archival boxes holding God knows whatLeonard's original government job application, maybe. A coat had been tossed onto the floor in one corner. There was a large metal desk covered with bottles of nail polish, an ancient swivel chair that Robbie vaguely remembered having been deployed during his lunch-hour tryst.
Mostly, though, the room held Leonard's stuff: tiny cardboard dioramas, mockups of space capsules and dirigibles. It smelled overpoweringly of nail polish. It was also extremely cold.
"Man, you must freeze your ass off." Robbie rubbed his arms.
Emery picked up one of the little bottles. "You getting a manicurist's license?"
Leonard gestured at the desk. "I'm painting with nail polish now. You get some very unusual effects."
"I bet," said Robbie. "You're, like huffing nail polish." He peered at the shelves, impressed despite himself. "Jeez, Leonard. You made all these?"
"Damn right I did."
When Robbie first met Leonard, they were both lowly GS-1s. In those days, Leonard collected paper clips and rode an old Schwinn bicycle to work. He entertained tourists by making balloon animals. In his spare time, he created Mungbean, Captain Marvo's robot friend, out of a busted lamp and some spark plugs.
He also made strange ink drawings, hundreds of them. Montgolfier balloons with sinister faces; B-52s carrying payloads of soap bubbles; carictatures of the museum director and senior curators as greyhounds sniffing each others' nether quarters.
It was this last, drawn on a scrap of legal paper, which Margaret Blevin picked up on her first tour of the General Aviation Gallery. The sketch had fallen out of Leonard's jacket: he watched in horror as the museum's deputy director stooped to retrieve the crumpled page.
"Allow me," said the woman at the director's side. She was slight, forty-ish, with frizzy red hair and enormous hoop earrings, wearing an indian-print tunic over tight, sky-blue trousers and leather clogs. She snatched up the drawing, stuffed it in her pocket and continued her tour of the gallery. After the deputy director left, the woman walked to where Leonard stood beside his flight simulator, sweating in his polyester jacket as he supervised an overweight kid in a Chewbacca T-shirt. When the kid climbed down, the woman held up the crumpled sheet.
"Who did this?"
The other two aidesone was Emeryshook their heads.
"I did," said Leonard.
The woman crooked her finger. "Come with me."
"Am I fired?" asked Leonard as he followed her out of the gallery.
Excerpted from errantry strange stories by elizabeth hand Copyright © 2012 by Elizabeth Hand (elizabethhand.com). Excerpted by permission of Small Beer Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Return of the FIre Witch
The Far Shore
The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In Errantry, the latest book by Elizabeth Hand, we are presented with ten distinctly unique stories. Every one of these odd little tales draws you in and doesn't ever really let you go again. From the tale of a man who folds pages from magazines and fast food wrappers into works of art that evoke the oldest of memories, to a singular observation of creatures who only exist for any two people at one time, these are stories every bit as dangerous as any of Ms. Hand's novels. Once you have read a single one of them, you will never be able to view life in that same way ever again. And you will return again and again, to explore more fully each of the worlds she has introduced you to.