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 times I heard that?”
“Five thousand.” The waiter handed Robbie a drink, his fourth. “25 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 drive — you’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 back seat, 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 knock-off 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 stock — people 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 legacy — we’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 place — he’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 what — Leonard’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 aides — one was Emery — shook 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.
“Nope. I’m Maggie Blevin. We’re shutting down those Link Trainers and making this into a new gallery. I’m in charge. I need someone to start cataloging stuff for me and maybe do some preliminary sketches. You want the job?”
“Yes,” stammered Leonard. “I mean, sure.”
“Great.” She balled up the sketch and tossed it into a wastebasket. “Your talents were being wasted. That looks just like the director’s butt.”
“If he was a dog,” said Leonard.
“He’s a son of a bitch, and that’s close enough,” said Maggie. “Let’s go see Personnel.”
Leonard’s current job description read Museum Effects Specialist, Grade 9, Step 10. For the last two decades, he’d created figurines and models for the museum’s exhibits. Not fighter planes or commercial aircraft — there was an entire division of modelers who handled that.
Leonard’s work was more rarefied, as evidenced by the dozens of flying machines perched wherever there was space in the tiny room. Rocket ships, bat-winged aerodromes, biplanes and triplanes and saucers, many of them striped and polka-dotted and glazed with, yes, nail polish in circus colors, so that they appeared to be made of ribbon candy.
His specialty was aircraft that had never actually flown; in many instances, aircraft that had never been intended to fly. Crypto-aviation, as some disgruntled curator dubbed it. He worked from plans and photographs, drawings and uncategorizable materials he’d found in the archives Maggie Blevin had been hired to organize. These were housed in a set of oak filing cabinets dating to the 1920s. Officially, the archive was known as the Pre-Langley Collection. But everyone in the museum, including Maggie Blevin, called it the Nut Files.
After Leonard’s fateful promotion, Robbie and Emery would sometimes punch out for the day, go upstairs and stroll to his corner of the library. You could do that then — wander around workrooms and storage areas, the library and archives, without having to check in or get a special pass or security clearance. Robbie just went along for the ride, but Emery was fascinated by the things Leonard found in the Nut Files. Grainy black-and-white photos of purported UFOs; typescripts of encounters with deceased Russian cosmonauts in the Nevada desert; an account of a Raelian wedding ceremony attended by a glowing crimson orb. There was also a large carton donated by the widow of a legendary rocket scientist, which turned out to be filled with 1950s foot fetish pornography, and 16-millimeter film footage of several Pioneers of Flight doing something unseemly with a spotted pig.
“Whatever happened to that pig movie?” asked Robbie as he admired a biplane with violet-striped ailerons.
“It’s been de-accessioned,” said Leonard.
He cleared the swivel chair and motioned for Emery to sit, then perched on the edge of his desk. Robbie looked in vain for another chair, finally settled on the floor beside a wastebasket filled with empty nail polish bottles.
“So I have a plan,” announced Leonard. He stared fixedly at Emery, as though they were alone in the room. “To help Maggie. Do you remember the Bellerophon?”
Emery frowned. “Vaguely. That old film loop of a plane crash?”
“Presumed crash. They never found any wreckage, everyone just assumes it crashed. But yes, that was the Bellerophon — it was the clip that played in our gallery. Maggie’s gallery.”
“Right — the movie that burned up!” broke in Robbie. “Yeah, I remember, the film got caught in a sprocket or something. Smoke detectors went off and they evacuated the whole museum. They got all on Maggie’s case about it, they thought she installed it wrong.”
“She didn’t.” Leonard said angrily. “One of the tech guys screwed up the installation — he told me a few years ago. He didn’t vent it properly, the projector bulb overheated and the film caught on fire. He said he always felt bad she got canned.”
“But they didn’t fire her for that.” Robbie gave Leonard a sideways look. “It was the UFO — ”
Emery cut him off. “They were gunning for her,” he said. “C’mon, Rob, everyone knew — all those old military guys running this place, they couldn’t stand a woman getting in their way. Not if she wasn’t Air Force or some shit. Took ‘em a few years, that’s all. Fucking assholes. I even got a letter-writing campaign going on the show. Didn’t help.”
“Nothing would have helped.” Leonard sighed. “She was a visionary. She is a visionary,” he added hastily. “Which is why I want to do this —”
He hopped from the desk, rooted around in a corner and pulled out a large cardboard box.
“Move,” he ordered.
Robbie scrambled to his feet. Leonard began to remove things from the carton and set them carefully on his desk. Emery got up to make more room, angling himself beside Robbie. They watched as Leonard arranged piles of paper, curling 8x10s, faded blueprints and an old 35mm film viewer, along with several large manila envelopes closed with red string. Finally he knelt beside the box and very gingerly reached inside.
“I think the Lindbergh baby’s in there,” whispered Emery.
Leonard stood, cradling something in his hands, turned and placed it in the middle of the desk.
“Holy shit.” Emery whistled. “Leonard, you’ve outdone yourself.”
Robbie crouched so he could view it at eye level: a model of some sort of flying machine, though it seemed impossible that anyone, even Leonard or Maggie Blevin, could ever have dreamed it might fly. It had a zeppelin-shaped body, with a sharp nose like that of a Lockheed Starfighter, slightly uptilted. Suspended beneath this was a basket filled with tiny gears and chains, and beneath that was a contraption with three wheels, like a velocipede, only the wheels were fitted with dozens of stiff flaps, each no bigger than a fingernail, and even tinier propellers.
And everywhere, there were wings, sprouting from every inch of the craft’s body in an explosion of canvas and balsa and paper and gauze. Bird-shaped wings, bat-shaped wings; square wings like those of a box-kite, elevators and hollow cones of wire; long tubes that, when Robbie peered inside them, were filled with baffles and flaps. Ailerons and struts ran between them to form a dizzying grid, held together with fine gold thread and monofilament and what looked like human hair. Every bit of it was painted in brilliant shades of violet and emerald, scarlet and fuchsia and gold, and here and there shining objects were set into the glossy surface: minute shards of mirror or colored glass; a beetle carapace; flecks of mica.
Above it all, springing from the fuselage like the cap of an immense toadstool, was a feathery parasol made of curved bamboo and multicolored silk.
It was like gazing at the Wright Flyer through a kaleidoscope.
“That’s incredible!” Robbie exclaimed. “How’d you do that?”
“Now we just have to see if it flies,” said Leonard.
Robbie straightened. “How the hell can that thing fly?”
“The original flew.” Leonard leaned against the wall. “My theory is, if we can replicate the same conditions — the exact same conditions — it will work.”
“But.” Robbie glanced at Emery. “The original didn’t fly. It crashed. I mean, presumably.”
Emery nodded. “Plus there was a guy in it. McCartney —”
“McCauley,” said Leonard.
“Right, McCauley. And you know, Leonard, no one’s gonna fit in that, right?” Emery shot him an alarmed look. “You’re not thinking of making a full-scale model, are you? Because that would be completely insane.”
“No.” Leonard fingered the skull plug in his earlobe. “I’m going to make another film — I’m going to replicate the original, and I’m going to do it so perfectly that Maggie won’t even realize it’s not the original. I’ve got it all worked out.” He looked at Emery. “I can shoot it on digital, if you’ll lend me a camera. That way I can edit it on my laptop. And then I’m going to bring it down to Fayetteville so she can see it.”
Robbie and Emery glanced at each other.
“Well, it’s not completely insane, “ said Robbie.
“But Maggie knows the original was destroyed,” said Emery. “I mean, I was there, I remember — she saw it. We all saw it. She has cancer, right? Not Alzheimer’s or dementia or, I dunno, amnesia.”
“Why don’t you just Photoshop something?” asked Robbie. “You could tell her it was an homage. That way —”
Leonard’s glare grew icy. “It is not an homage. I am going to Cowana Island, just like McCauley did, and I am going to recreate the maiden flight of the Bellerophon. I am going to film it, I am going to edit it. And when it’s completed, I’m going to tell Maggie that I found a dupe in the archives. Her heart broke when that footage burned up. I’m going to give it back to her.”
Robbie stared at his shoe, so Leonard wouldn’t see his expression. After a moment he said, “When Anna was sick, I wanted to do that. Go back to this place by Mount Washington where we stayed before Zach was born. We had all these great photos of us canoeing there, it was so beautiful. But it was winter, and I said we should wait and go in the summer.”
“I’m not waiting.” Leonard sifted through the papers on his desk. “I have these —”
He opened a manila envelope and withdrew several glassine sleeves. He examined one, then handed it to Emery.
“This is what survived of the original footage, which in fact was not the original footage — the original was shot in 1901, on cellulose nitrate film. That’s what Maggie and I found when we first started going through the Nut Files. Only of course nitrate stock is like a ticking time bomb. So the Photo Lab duped it onto safety film, which is what you’re looking at.”
Emery held the film to the light. Robbie stood beside him, squinting. Five frames, in shades of amber and tortoiseshell, with blurred images that might have been bushes or clouds or smoke damage, for all Robbie could see.
Emery asked, “How many frames do you have?”
Emery shook his head. “Not much, is it? What was it, fifteen seconds?”
“Times 24 frames per second —so, out of about 400 frames, that’s all that’s left.”
“No. There was actually less than that, because it was silent film, which runs at more like 18 frames per second, and they corrected the speed. So, about 300 frames, which means we have about a quarter of the original stock.” Leonard hesitated. He glanced up. “Lock that door, would you, Robbie?”
Robbie did, looked back to see Leonard crouched in the corner, moving aside his coat to reveal a metal strongbox. He prised the lid from the top.
The box was filled with water— Robbie hoped it was water. “Is that an aquarium?”
Leonard ignored him, tugged up his sleeves then dipped both hands below the surface. Very, very carefully he removed another metal box. He set it on the floor, grabbed his coat and meticulously dried the lid, then turned to Robbie.
“You know, maybe you should unlock the door. In case we need to get out fast.”
“Jesus Christ, Leonard, what is it?” exclaimed Emery. “Snakes?”
“Nope.” Leonard plucked something from the box, and Emery flinched as a serpentine ribbon unfurled in the air. “It’s what’s left of the original footage — the 1901 film.”
“That’s nitrate?” Emery stared at him, incredulous. “You are insane! How the hell’d you get it?”
“I clipped it before they destroyed the stock. I think it’s okay — I take it out every day, so the gases don’t build up. And it doesn’t seem to interact with the nail polish fumes. It’s the part where you can actually see McCauley, where you get the best view of the plane. See?”
He dangled it in front of Emery, who backed toward the door. “Put it away, put it away!”
“Can I see?” asked Robbie.
Leonard gave him a measuring look, then nodded. “Hold it by this edge —”
It took a few seconds for Robbie’s eyes to focus properly. “You’re right,” he said. “You can see him — you can see someone, anyway. And you can definitely tell it’s an airplane.”
He handed it back to Leonard, who fastidiously replaced it, first in its canister and then the water-filled safe.
“They could really pop you for that.” Emery whistled in disbelief. “If that stuff blew? This whole place could go up in flames.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.” Leonard draped his coat over the strongbox, then started to laugh. “Anyway, I’m done with it. I went into the Photo Lab one night and duped it myself. So I’ve got that copy at home. And this one —”
He inclined his head at the corner. “I’m going to take the nitrate home and give it a Viking funeral in the back yard. You can come if you want.”
“Tonight?” asked Robbie.
“No. I’ve got to work late tonight, catch up on some stuff before I leave town.”
Emery leaned against the door. “Where you going?”
“South Carolina. I told you. I’m going to Cowana Island, and …” Robbie caught a whiff of acetone as Leonard picked up the Bellerophon. “I am going to make this thing fly.
* * *
”He really is nuts. I mean, when was the last time he even saw Maggie?” Robbie asked as Emery drove him back to the mall. “I still don’t know what really happened, except for the UFO stuff.”
“She found out he was screwing around with someone else. It was a bad scene. She tried to get him fired; he went to Boynton and told him Maggie was diverting all this time and money to studying UFOs. Which unfortunately was true. They did an audit, she had some kind of nervous breakdown even before they could fire her.”
“What a prick.”
Emery sighed. “It was horrible. Leonard doesn’t talk about it. I don’t think he ever got over it. Over her.”
“Yeah, but ...” Robbie shook his head. “She must be, what, twenty years older than us? They never would have stayed together. If he feels so bad, he should just go see her. This other stuff is insane.”
“I think maybe those fumes did something to him. Nitrocellulose, it’s in nail polish, too. It might have done something to his brain.”
“Is that possible?”
“It’s a theory,” said Emery broodingly.
Robbie’s house was in a scruffy subdivision on the outskirts of Rockville. The place was small, a bungalow with masonite siding, cracked cinderblock foundation and the remains of a garden that Anna had planted. A green GMC pickup with expired registration was parked in the drive. Robbie peered into the cab. It was filled with empty Bud Light bottles.
Inside, Zach was hunched at a desk beside his friend Tyler, owner of the pickup. The two of them stared intently into a computer screen.
“What’s up?” said Zach without looking away.
“Not much,” said Robbie. “Eye contact.”
Zach glanced up. He was slight, with Anna’s thick blonde curls reduced to a buzzcut that Robbie hated. Tyler was tall and gangly, with long black hair and wire-rimmed sunglasses. Both favored tie-dyed t-shirts and madras shorts that made them look as though they were perpetually on vacation.
Robbie went into the kitchen and got a beer. “You guys eat?”
“We got something on the way home.”
Robbie drank his beer and watched them. The house had a smell that Emery once described as Failed Bachelor. Unwashed clothes, spilled beer, marijuana smoke. Robbie hadn’t smoked in years, but Zach and Tyler had taken up the slack. Robbie used to yell at them but eventually gave up. If his own depressing example wasn’t enough to straighten them out, what was?
After a minute, Zach looked up again. “Nice shirt, Dad.”
“Thanks, son.” Robbie sank into a beanbag chair. “Me and Emery dropped by the museum and saw Leonard.”
“Leonard!” Tyler burst out laughing. “Leonard is so fucking sweet! He’s, like, the craziest guy ever.”
“All Dad’s friends are crazy,” said Zach.
“Yeah, but Emery, he’s cool. Whereas that guy Leonard is just wack.”
Robbie nodded somberly and finished his beer. “Leonard is indeed wack. He’s making a movie.”
“A real movie?” asked Zach.
“More like a home movie. Or, I dunno — he wants to reproduce another movie, one that was already made, do it all the same again. Shot by shot.”
Tyler nodded. “Like The Ring and Ringu. What’s the movie?”
“Seventeen seconds of a 1901 plane crash. The original footage was destroyed, so he’s going to re-stage the whole thing.”
“A plane crash?” Zach glanced at Tyler. “Can we watch?”
“Not a real crash — he’s doing it with a model. I mean, I think he is.”
“Did they even have planes then?” said Tyler.
“He should put it on Youtube,” said Zach, and turned back to the computer.
“Okay, get out of there.” Robbie rubbed his head wearily. “I need to go online.”
The boys argued but gave up quickly. Tyler left. Zach grabbed his cellphone and slouched upstairs to his room. Robbie got another beer, sat at the computer and logged out of whatever they’d been playing, then typed in MCCAULEY BELLEROPHON.
Only a dozen results popped up. He scanned them, then clicked the Wikipedia entry for Ernesto McCauley.
McCauley, Ernesto (18?? — 1901) American inventor whose eccentric aircraft, the Bellerophon, allegedly flew for seventeens seconds before it crashed during a 1901 test flight on Cowana Island, South Carolina, killing McCauley. In the 1980s, claims that this flight was successful and predated that of the Wright Brothers by two years were made by a Smithsonian expert, based upon archival film footage. The claims have since been disproved and the film record unfortunately lost in a fire. Curiously, no other record of either McCauley or his aircraft has ever been found.
Robbie took a long pull at his beer, then typed in MARGARET BLEVIN.
Blevin, Margaret (1938 — ) Influential cultural historian whose groundbreaking work on early flight earned her the nickname “The Magnificent Blevin.” During her tenure at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American Aeronautics and Aerospace, Blevin redesigned the General Aviation Gallery to feature lesser-known pioneers of flight, including Charles Dellschau and Ernesto McCauley, as well as …
“’The Magnificent Blevin?’” Robbie snorted. He grabbed another beer and continued reading.
But Blevin’s most lasting impact upon the history of aviation was her 1986 bestseller Wings for Humanity!, in which she presents a dramatic and visionary account of the mystical aspects of flight, from Icarus to the Wright Brothers and beyond. Its central premise is that millennia ago a benevolent race seeded the Earth, leaving isolated locations with the ability to engender huiman-powered flight. “We dream of flight because flight is our birthright,” wrote Blevin, and since its publication Wings for Humanity! has never gone out of print.
“Leonard wrote this frigging thing!”
“What?” Zach came downstairs, yawning.
“This Wikipedia entry!” Robbie jabbed at the screen. “That book was never a bestseller — she snuck it into the museum gift shop and no one bought it. The only reason it’s still in print is that she published it herself.”
Zach read the entry over his father’s shoulder. “It sounds cool.”
Robbie shook his head adamantly. “She was completely nuts. Obsessed with all this New Age crap, aliens and crop circles. She thought that planes could only fly from certain places, and that’s why all the early flights crashed. Not because there was something wrong with the aircraft design, but because they were taking off from the wrong spot.”
“Then how come there’s airports everywhere?”
“She never worked out that part.”
“’We must embrace our galactic heritage, the spiritual dimension of human flight, lest we forever chain ourselves to earth,’” Zach read from the screen. “Was she in that plane crash?”
“No, she’s still alive. That was just something she had a wild hair about. She thought the guy who invented that plane flew it a few years before the Wright Brothers made their flight, but she could never prove it.”
“But it says there was a movie,” said Zach. “So someone saw it happen.”
“This is Wikipedia.” Robbie stared at the screen in disgust. “You can say any fucking thing you want and people will believe it. Leonard wrote that entry, guarantee you. Probably she faked that whole film loop. That’s what Leonard’s planning to do now — replicate the footage then pass it off to Maggie as the real thing.”
Zach collapsed into the bean bag chair. “Why?s”
“Because he’s crazy, too. He and Maggie had a thing together.”
Zach grimaced. “Ugh.”
“What, you think we were born old? We were your age, practically. And Maggie was about twenty years older —”
“A cougar!” Zach burst out laughing. “Why didn’t she go for you?”
“Ha ha ha.” Robbie pushed his empty beer bottle against the wall. “Women liked Leonard. Go figure. Even your Mom went out with him for a while. Before she and I got involved, I mean.”
Zach’s glassy eyes threatened to roll back in his head. “Stop.”
“We thought it was pretty strange,” admitted Robbie. “But Maggie was good-looking for an old hippie.” He glanced at the Wikipedia entry and did the math. “I guess she’s in her 70s now. Leonard’s in touch with her. She has cancer. Breast cancer.”
“I heard you,” said Zach. He rolled out of the beanbag chair, flipped open his phone and began texting. “I’m going to bed.”
Robbie sat and stared at the computer screen. After a while he shut it down. He shuffled into the kitchen and opened the cabinet where he kept a quart of Jim Beam, hidden behind bottles of vinegar and vegetable oil. He rinsed out the glass he’d used the night before, poured a jolt and downed it; then carried the bourbon with him to bed.
* * *
The next day after work, he was on his second drink at the bar when Emery showed up.
“Hey.” Robbie gestured at the stool beside him. “Have a set.”
“You okay to drive?”
“Sure.” Robbie scowled. “What, you keeping an eye on me?”
“No. But I want you to see something. At my house. Leonard’s coming over, we’re going to meet there at six-thirty. I tried calling you but your phone’s off.”
“Oh. Right. Sorry.” Robbie signaled the bartender for his tab. “Yeah, sure. What, is he gonna give us manicures?”
“Nope. I have an idea. I’ll tell you when I get there, I’m going to Royal Delhi first to get some takeout. See you —”
Emery lived in a big townhouse condo that smelled of Moderately Successful Bachelor. The walls held framed photos of Captain Marvo and Mungbean alongside a lifesized painting of Leslie Nielsen as Commander J.J. Adams.
But there was also a climate-controlled basement filled with Captain Marvo merchandise and packing material, with another large room stacked with electronics equipment — sound system, video monitors and decks, shelves and files devoted to old Captain Marvo episodes and dupes of the Grade Z movies featured on the show.
This was where Robbie found Leonard, bent over a refurbished Steenbeck editing table.
“Robbie.” Leonard waved, then returned to threading film onto a spindle. “Emery back with dinner?”
“Uh uh.” Robbie pulled a chair alongside him. “What are you doing?”
“Loading up that nitrate I showed you yesterday.”
“It’s not going to explode, is it?”
“No, Robbie, it’s not going to explode.” Leonard’s mouth tightened. “Did Emery talk to you yet?”
“He just said something about a plan. So what’s up?”
“I’ll let him tell you.”
Robbie flushed angrily, but before he could retort there was a knock behind them.
“Chow time, campers.” Emery held up two steaming paper bags. “Can you leave that for a few minutes, Leonard?”
They ate on the couch in the next room. Emery talked about a pitch he’d made to revive Captain Marvo in cellphone format. “It’d be freaking perfect, if I could figure out a way to make any money from it.”
Leonard said nothing. Robbie noted the cuffs of his white tunic were stained with flecks of orange pigment, as were his fingernails. He looked tired, his face lined and his eyes sunken.
“You getting enough sleep?” Emery asked.
Leonard smiled wanly. “Enough.”
Finally the food was gone, and the beer. Emery clapped his hands on his knees, pushed aside the empty plates then leaned forward.
“Okay. So here’s the plan. I rented a house on Cowana for a week, starting this Saturday. I mapped it online and it’s about ten hours. If we leave right after you guys get off work on Friday and drive all night, we’ll get there early Saturday morning. Leonard, you said you’ve got everything pretty much assembled, so all you need to do is pack it up. I’ve got everything else here. Be a tight fit in the Prius, though, so we’ll have to take two cars. We’ll bring everything we need with us, we’ll have a week to shoot and edit or whatever, then on the way back we swing through Fayetteville and show the finished product to Maggie. What do you think?”
“That’s not a lot of time,” said Leonard. “But we could do it.”
Emery turned to Robbie. “Is you car road-worthy? It’s about twelve hundred miles roundtrip.”
Robbie stared at him. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“The Bellerophon. Leonard’s got storyboards and all kinds of drawings and still frames, enough to work from. The realtor’s in Charleston, she said there wouldn’t be many people this early in the season. Plus there was a hurricane a couple years ago, I gather the island got hammered and no one’s had money to rebuild. So we’ll have it all to ourselves, pretty much.”
“Are you high?” Robbie laughed. “I can’t just take off. I have a job.”
“You get vacation time, right? You can take a week. It’ll be great, man. The realtor says it’s already in the 80s down there. Warm water, a beach — what more you want?”
“Uh, maybe a beach with people besides you and Leonard?” Robbie searched in vain for another beer. “I couldn’t go anyway — next week’s Zach’s spring break.”
“Yeah?” Emery shook his head. “So, you’re going to be at the store all day, and he’ll be home getting stoned. Bring him. We’ll put him to work.”
Leonard frowned, but Robbie looked thoughtful. “Yeah, you’re right. I hadn’t thought of that. I can’t really leave him alone. I guess I’ll think about it.”
“Don’t think, just do it. It’s Wednesday, tell ‘em you’re taking off next week. They gonna fire you?”
“I’m not babysitting some — ” Leonard started.
Emery cut him off. “You got that nitrate loaded? Let’s see it.”
They filed into the workroom. Leonard sat at the Steenbeck. The others watched as he adjusted the film on its sprockets. He turned to Robbie, then indicated the black projection box in the center of the deck.
“Emery knows all this, so I’m just telling you. That’s a quartz halogen lamp. I haven’t turned it on yet, because if the frame was just sitting there it might incinerate the film, and us. But there’s only about four seconds of footage, so we’re going to take our chances and watch it, once. Maybe you remember it from the gallery?”
Robbie nodded. “Yeah, I saw it a bunch of times. Not as much as The Head, but enough.”
“Good. Hit that light, would you, Emery? Everyone ready? Blink and you’ll miss it.”
Robbie craned his neck, staring at a blank white screen. There was a whir, the stutter of film running through a projector.
At the bottom of the frame the horizon lurched, bright flickers that might be an expanse of water. Then a blurred image, faded sepia and amber, etched with blotches and something resembling a beetle leg: the absurd contraption Robbie recognized as the original Bellerophon. Only it was moving — it was flying — its countless gears and propellers and wings spinning and whirring and flapping all at once, so it seemed the entire thing would vibrate into a thousand pieces. Beneath the fuselage, a dark figure perched precariously atop the velocipede, legs like black scissors slicing at the air. From the left corner of the frame leaped a flare of light, like a shooting star or burning firecracker tossed at the pedaling figure. The pilot listed to one side, and —
Nothing. The film ended as abruptly as it had begun. Leonard quickly reached to turn off the lamp, and immediately removed the film from the take-up drive.
Robbie felt his neck prickle — he’d forgotten how weird, uncanny even, the footage was.
“Jesus, that’s some bizarre shit,” said Emery.
“It doesn’t even look real.” Robbie watched as Leonard coiled the film and slid it in a canister. “I mean, the guy, he looks fake.”
Emery nodded. “Yeah, I know. It looks like one of those old silents, “The Lost World” or something. But it’s not. I used to watch it back when it ran a hundred times a day in our gallery, the way you used to watch The Head. And it’s definitely real. At least the pilot, McCauley — that’s a real guy. I got a big magnifier once and just stood there and watched it over and over again. He was breathing, I could see it. And the plane, it’s real too, far as I could tell. The thing I can’t figure is, who the hell shot that footage? And what was the angle?”
Robbie stared at the empty screen, then shut his eyes. He tried to recall the rest of the film from when it played in the General Aviation gallery: the swift, jerky trajectory of that eerie little vehicle with its bizarre pilot, a man in a black suit and bowler hat; then the flash from the corner of the screen, and the man toppling from his perch into the white and empty air. The last thing you saw was a tiny hand at the bottom of the frame, then some blank leader, followed by the words THE MAIDEN FLIGHT OF MCCAULEY’S “BELLEROPHON” (1901). And the whole thing began again.
“It was like someone was in the air next to him,” said Robbie. “Unless he only got six feet off the ground. I always assumed it was faked.”
“It wasn’t faked,” said Leonard. “The cameraman was on the beach filming. It was a windy day, they were hoping that would help give the plane some lift but there must have been a sudden gust. When the Bellerophon went into the ocean, the cameraman dove in to save McCauley. They both drowned. They never found the bodies, or the wreckage. Only the camera with the film.”
“Who found it?” asked Robbie.
“We don’t know.” Leonard sighed, his shoulders slumping. “We don’t know anything. Not the name of the cameraman, nothing. When Maggie and I ran the original footage, the leader said “Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon.” The can had the date and ‘Cowana Island’ written on it. So Maggie and I went down there to research it. A weird place. Hardly any people, and this was in the summer. There’s a tiny historical society on the island, but we couldn’t find anything about McCauley or the aircraft. No newspaper accounts, no gravestones. The only thing we did find was in a diary kept by the guy who delivered the mail back then. On May 13, 1901 he wrote that it was a very windy day and two men had drowned while attempting to launch a flying machine on the beach. Someone must have found the camera afterward. Somebody processed the film, and somehow it found its way to the museum.”
Robbie followed Leonard into the next room. “What was that weird flash of light?”
“I don’t know.” Leonard stared out a glass door into the parking lot. “But it’s not overexposure or lens flare or anything like that. It’s something the cameraman actually filmed. Water, maybe — if it was a windy day, a big wave might have come up onto the beach or something.”
“I always thought it was fire. Like a rocket or some kind of flare.”
Leonard nodded. “That’s what Maggie thought, too. The mailman — mostly all he wrote about was the weather. Which if you were relying on a horse-drawn cart makes sense. About two weeks before he mentioned the flying machine, he described something that sounds like a major meteor shower.”
“And Maggie thought it was hit by a meteor?”
“No.” Leonard sighed. “She thought it was something else. The weird thing is, a few years ago I checked online, and it turns out there was an unusual amount of meteor activity in 1901.”
Robbie raised an eyebrow. “Meaning?”
Leonard said nothing. Finally he opened the door and walked outside. The others trailed after him.
They reached the edge of the parking lot, where cracked tarmac gave way to stony ground. Leonard glanced back, then stooped. He brushed away a few stray leaves and tufts of dead grass, set the film canister down and unscrewed the metal lid. He picked up one end of the coil of film, gently tugging until it trailed a few inches across the ground. Then he withdrew a lighter, flicked it and held the flame to the tail of film.
“What the —” began Robbie.
There was a dull whoosh, like the sound of a gas burner igniting. A plume of crimson and gold leaped from the canister, writhing in the air within a ball of black smoke. Leonard staggered to his feet, covering his head as he backed away.
“Leonard!” Emery grabbed him roughly, then turned and raced to the house.
Before Robbie could move, a strong chemical stink surrounded him. The flames shrank to a shining thread that lashed at the smoke then faded into flecks of ash. Robbie ducked his head, coughing. He grasped Leonard’s arm and tried to drag him away, glanced up to see Emery running toward them with a fire extinguisher.
“Sorry,” gasped Leonard. He made a slashing motion through the smoke, which dispersed. The flames were gone. Leonard’s face was black with ash. Robbie touched his own cheek gingerly, looked at his fingers and saw they were coated with something dark and oily.
Emery halted, panting, and stared at the twisted remains of the film can. On the ground beside it, a glowing thread wormed toward a dead leaf, then expired in a gray wisp. Emery raised the fire extinguisher threateningly, set it down and stomped on the canister.
“Good thing you didn’t do that in the museum,” said Robbie. He let go of Leonard’s arm.
“Don’t think it didn’t cross my mind,” said Leonard, and walked back inside.
* * *
They left Friday evening. Robbie got the week off, after giving his dubious boss a long story about a dying relative down south. Zach shouted and broke a lamp when informed he would be accompanying his father on a trip during his spring vacation.
“With Emery and Leonard? Are you fucking insane?”
Robbie was too exhausted to fight: he quickly offered to let Tyler come with them. Tyler, surprisingly, agreed, and even showed up on Friday afternoon to help load the car. Robbie made a pointed effort not to inspect the various backpacks and duffel bags the boys threw into the trunk of the battered Taurus. Alcohol, drugs, firearms: he no longer cared.
Instead he focused on the online weather report for Cowana Island. 80 degrees and sunshine, photographs of blue water, white sand, a skein of pelicans skimming above the waves. Ten hours, that wasn’t so bad. In another weak moment, he told Zach he could drive part of the way, so Robbie could sleep.
“What about me?” asked Tyler. “Can I drive?”
“Only if I never wake up,” said Robbie.
Around six Emery pulled into the driveway, honking. The boys were already slumped in Robbie’s Taurus, Zach in front with earbuds dangling around his face and a knit cap pulled down over his eyes, Tyler in the back, staring blankly as though they were already on I-95.
“You ready?” Emery rolled down his window. He wore a blue flannel shirt and a gimme cap that read STARFLEET ACADEMY. In the hybrid’s passenger seat, Leonard perused a road atlas. He looked up and shot Robbie a smile.
“Hey, a road trip.”
“Yeah.” Robbie smiled back and patted the hybrid’s roof. “See you.”
It took almost two hours just to get beyond the gravitational pull of the Washington Beltway. Farms and forest had long ago disappeared beneath an endless grid of malls and housing developments, many of them vacant. Every time Robbie turned up the radio for a song he liked, the boys complained that they could hear it through their earphones.
Only as the sky darkened and Virginia gave way to North Carolina did the world take on a faint fairy glow, distant green and yellow lights reflecting the first stars and a shining cusp of moon. Sprawl gave way to pine forest. The boys had been asleep for hours, in that amazing, self-willed hibernation they summoned whenever in the presence of adults for more than fifteen minutes. Robbie put the radio on, low, searched until he caught the echo of a melody he knew, and then another. He thought of driving with Anna beside him, a restive Zach behind them in his car seat; the aimless trips they’d make until the toddler fell asleep and they could talk or, once, park in a vacant lot and make out.
How long had it been since he’d remembered that? Years, maybe. He fought against thinking of Anna; sometimes it felt as though he fought Anna herself, her hands pummeling him as he poured another drink or staggered up to bed.
Now, though, the darkness soothed him the way those long-ago drives had lulled Zach to sleep. He felt an ache lift from his breast, as though a splinter had been dislodged; blinked and in the rearview mirror glimpsed Anna’s face, slightly turned from him as she gazed out at the passing sky.
He started, realized he’d begun to nod off. On the dashboard his fuel indicator glowed red. He called Emery, and at the next exit pulled off 95, the Prius behind him.
After a few minutes they found a gas station set back from the road in a pine grove, with an old-fashioned pump out front and yellow light streaming through a screen door. The boys blinked awake.
“Where are we?” asked Zach.
“No idea.” Robbie got out of the car. “North Carolina.”
It was like stepping into a twilight garden, or some hidden biosphere at the zoo. Warmth flowed around him, violet and rustling green, scented overpoweringly of honeysuckle and wet stone. He could hear rushing water, the stirring of wind in the leaves and countless small things — frogs peeping, insects he couldn’t identify. A nightbird that made a burbling song. In the shadows behind the building, fireflies floated between kudzu-choked trees like tiny glowing fish.
For an instant he felt himself suspended in that enveloping darkness. The warm air moved through him, sweetly fragrant, pulsing with life he could neither see nor touch. He tasted something honeyed and faintly astringent in the back of his throat, and drew his breath in sharply.
“What?” demanded Zach.
“Nothing.” Robbie shook his head and turned to the pump. “Just — isn’t this great?”
He filled the tank. Zach and Tyler went in search of food, and Emery strolled over.
“How you holding up?”
“I’m good. Probably let Zach drive for a while so I can catch some Z’s.”
He moved the car, then went inside to pay. He found Leonard buying a pack of cigarettes as the boys headed out, laden with energy drinks and bags of chips. Robbie slid his credit card across the counter to a woman wearing a tank top that set off a tattoo that looked like the face of Marilyn Manson, or maybe it was Jesus.
“Do you have a restroom?”
The woman handed him a key. “Round back.”
“Bathroom’s here,” Robbie yelled at the boys. “We’re not stopping again.”
They trailed him into a dank room with gray walls. A fluorescent light buzzed overhead. After Tyler left, Robbie and Zach stood side by side at the sink, trying to coax water from a rusted spigot to wash their hands.
“The hell with it,” said Robbie. “Let’s hit the road. You want to drive?”
“Dad.” Zach pointed at the ceiling. “Dad, look.”
Robbie glanced up. A screen bulged from a small window above the sink. Something had blown against the wire mesh, a leaf or scrap of paper.
But then the leaf moved, and he saw that it wasn’t a leaf at all but a butterfly.
No, not a butterfly — a moth. The biggest he’d ever seen, bigger than his hand. Its fan-shaped upper wings opened, revealing vivid golden eyespots; its trailing lower wings formed two perfect arabesques, all a milky, luminous green.
“A luna moth,” breathed Robbie. “I’ve never seen one.”
Zach clambered onto the sink. “It wants to get out —”
“Hang on.” Robbie boosted him, bracing himself so the boy’s weight wouldn’t yank the sink from the wall. “Be careful! Don’t hurt it —”
The moth remained where it was. Robbie grunted — Zach weighed as much as he did — felt his legs trembling as the boy prised the screen from the wall then struggled to pull it free.
“It’s stuck,” he said. “I can’t get it —”
The moth fluttered weakly. One wing-tip looked ragged, as though it had been singed.
”Tear it!” Robbie cried. “Just tear the screen.”
Zach wedged his fingers beneath a corner of the window frame and yanked, hard enough that he fell. Robbie caught him as the screen tore away to dangle above the sink. The luna moth crawled onto the sill.
“Go!” Zach banged on the wall. “Go on, fly!”
Like a kite catching the wind, the moth lifted. Its trailing lower wings quivered and the eyespots seemed to blink, a pallid face gazing at them from the darkness. Then it was gone.
“That was cool.” For an instant, Zach’s arm draped across his father’s shoulder, so fleetingly Robbie might have imagined it. “I’m going to the car.”
When the boy was gone, Robbie tried to push the screen back into place. He returned the key and went to join Leonard, smoking a cigarette at the edge of the woods. Behind them a car horn blared.
“Come on!” shouted Zach. “I’m leaving!”
“Happy trails,” said Leonard.
Robbie slept fitfully in back as Zach drove, the two boys arguing about music and a girl named Eileen. After an hour he took over again.
The night ground on. The boys fell back asleep. Robbie drank one of their Red Bulls and thought of the glimmering wonder that had been the luna moth. A thin rind of emerald appeared on the horizon, deepening to copper then gold as it overtook the sky. He began to see palmettos among the loblolly pines and pin oaks, and spiky plants he didn’t recognize. When he opened the window, the air smelled of roses, and the sea.
“Hey.” He poked Zach, breathing heavily in the seat beside him. “Hey, we’re almost there.”
He glanced at the directions, looked up to see the hybrid passing him and Emery gesturing at a sandy track that veered to the left. It was bounded by barbed wire fences and clumps of cactus thick with blossoms the color of lemon cream. The pines surrendered to palmettos and prehistoric-looking trees with gnarled roots that thrust up from pools where egrets and herons stabbed at frogs.
“Look,” said Robbie.
Ahead of them the road narrowed to a path barely wide enough for a single vehicle, built up with shells and chunks of concrete. On one side stretched a blur of cypress and long-legged birds; on the other, an aquamarine estuary that gave way to the sea and rolling white dunes.
Robbie slowed the car to a crawl, humping across mounds of shells and doing his best to avoid sinkholes. After a quarter-mile, the makeshift causeway ended. An old metal gate lay in a twisted heap on the ground, covered by creeping vines. Above it a weathered sign clung to a cypress.
WELCOME TO COWANA ISLAND
NO DUNE BUGGIES
They drove past the ruins of a mobile home. Emery’s car was out of sight. Robbie looked at his cellphone and saw there was no signal. In the back, Tyler stirred.
“Hey Rob, where are we?”
“We’re here. Wherever here is. The island.”
“Sweet.” Tyler leaned over the seat to jostle Zach awake. “Hey, get up. ”
Robbie peered through the overgrown greenery, looking for something resembling a beach house. He tried to remember which hurricane had pounded this part of the coast, and how long ago. Two years? Five?
The place looked as though it had been abandoned for decades. Fallen palmettos were everywhere, their leaves stiff and reddish-brown, like rusted blades. Some remained upright, their crowns lopped off. Acid-green lizards sunned themselves in driveways where ferns poked through the blacktop. The remains of carports and decks dangled above piles of timber and mold-blackened sheetrock. Now and then an intact house appeared within the jungle of flowering vines.
But no people, no cars except for an SUV crushed beneath a toppled utility pole. The only store was a modest grocery with a brick facade and shattered windows, through which the ghostly outlines of aisles and displays could still be glimpsed.
“It’s Iike 28 Days,” said Zach, and shot a baleful look at his father.
Robbie shrugged. “Talk to the man from the Starfleet Academy.”
He pulled down a rutted drive to where the hybrid sat beneath a thriving palmetto. Driftwood edged a path that led to an old wood-frame house raised on stiltlike pilings. Stands of blooming cactus surrounded it, and trees choked with honeysuckle. The patchy lawn was covered with hundreds of conch shells arranged in concentric circles and spirals. On the deck a tattered red whirligig spun in the breeze, and rope hammocks hung like flaccid cocoons.
“I’m sleeping there,” said Tyler.
Leonard gazed at the house with an unreadable expression. Emery had already sprinted up the uneven steps to what Robbie assumed was the front door. When he reached the top, he bent to pick up a square of coconut matting, retrieved something from beneath it then straightened, grinning.
“Come on!” he shouted, turning to unlock the door; and the others raced to join him.
* * *
The house had linoleum floors, sifted with a fine layer of sand, and mismatched furniture — rattan chairs, couches covered with faded barkcloth cushions, a canvas seat that hung from the ceiling by a chain and groaned alarmingly whenever the boys sat in it. The sea breeze stirred dusty white curtains at the windows. Anoles skittered across the floor, and Tyler fled shouting from the outdoor shower, where he’d seen a black widow spider. The electricity worked, but there was no air conditioning and no television; no internet.
“This is what you get for three hundred bucks in the off season,” said Emery when Tyler complained.
“I don’t get it.” Robbie stood on the deck, staring across the empty road to where the dunes stretched, tufted with thorny greenery. “Even if there was a hurricane — this is practically oceanfront, all of it. Where is everybody?”
“Who can afford to build anything?” said Leonard. “Come on, I want to get my stuff inside before it heats up.”
Leonard commandeered the master bedroom. He installed his laptop, Emery’s camera equipment, piles of storyboards, the box that contained the miniature Bellerophon. This formidable array took up every inch of floor space, as well as the surface of a ping pong table.
“Why is there a ping pong table in the bedroom?” asked Robbie as he set down a tripod.
Emery shrugged. “You might ask, why is there not a ping pong table in all bedrooms?”
“We’re going to the beach,” announced Zach.
Robbie kicked off his shoes and followed them, across the deserted road and down a path that wound through a miniature wilderness of cactus and bristly vines. He felt lightheaded from lack of sleep, and also from the beer he’d snagged from one of the cases Emery had brought. The sand was already hot; twice he had to stop and pluck sharp spurs from his bare feet. A horned toad darted across the path, and a skink with a blue tongue. His son’s voice came to him, laughing, and the sound of waves on the shore.
Atop the last dune small yellow roses grew in a thick carpet, their soapy fragrance mingling with the salt breeze. Robbie bent to pluck a handful of petals and tossed them into the air.
“It’s not a bad place to fly, is it?”
He turned and saw Emery, shirtless. He handed Robbie a bottle of Tecate with a slice of lime jammed in its neck, raised his own beer and took a sip.
“It’s beautiful.” Robbie squeezed the lime into his beer, then drank. “But that model. It won’t fly.”
“I know.” Emery stared to where Zach and Tyler leaped in the shallow water, sending up rainbow spray as they splashed each other. “But it‘s a good excuse for a vacation, isn’t it?”
“It is,” replied Robbie, and slid down the dune to join the boys.
* * *
Over the next few days, they fell into an odd, almost sleepless rhythm, staying up till two or three A.M., drinking and talking. The adults pretended not to notice when the boys slipped a Tecate from the fridge, and ignored the incense-scented smoke that drifted from the deck after they stumbled off to bed. Everyone woke shortly after dawn, even the boys. Blinding sunlight slanted through the worn curtains. On the deck where Zack and Tyler huddled inside their hammocks, a treefrog made a sound like rusty hinges. No one slept enough, everyone drank too much.
For once it didn’t matter. Robbie’s hangovers dissolved as he waded into water warm as blood, then floated on his back and watched pelicans skim above him. Afterward he’d carry equipment from the house to the dunes, where Emery had created a shelter from old canvas deck chairs and bedsheets. The boys helped, the three of them lugging tripods and digital cameras, the box that contained Leonard’s model of the Bellerophon, a cooler filled with beer and Red Bull.
That left Emery in charge of household duties. He’d found an ancient red wagon half-buried in the dunes, and used this to transport bags of tortilla chips and a cooler filled with Tecate and limes. There was no store on the island save the abandoned wreck they’d passed when they first arrived. No gas station, and the historical society building appeared to be long gone.
But while driving around, Emery discovered a roadside stand that sold homemade salsa in mason jars and sage-green eggs in recycled cardboard cartons. The drive beside it was blocked with a barbed-wire fence and a sign that said BEWARE OF TWO-HEADED DOG.
“You ever see it?” asked Tyler.
“Nope. I never saw anyone except an alligator.” Emery opened a beer. “And it was big enough to eat a two-headed dog.”
By Thursday morning, they’d carted everything from one end of the island to the other, waiting with increasing impatience as Leonard climbed up and down dunes and stared broodingly at the blue horizon.
“How will you know which is the right one?” asked Robbie.
Leonard shook his head. “I don’t know. Maggie said she thought it would be around here —”
He swept his arm out, encompassing a high ridge of sand that crested above the beach like a frozen wave. Below, Tyler and Zach argued over whose turn it was to haul everything uphill again. Robbie shoved his sunglasses against his nose.
“This beach has probably been washed away a hundred times since McCauley was here. Maybe we should just choose a place at random. Pick the highest dune or something.”
“Yeah, I know.” Leonard sighed. “This is probably our best choice, here.”
He stood and for a long time gazed at the sky. Finally he turned and walked down to join the boys.
“We’ll do it here,” he said brusquely, and headed back to the house.
Late that afternoon they made a bonfire on the beach. The day had ended gray and much cooler than it had been, the sun swallowed in a haze of bruise-tinged cloud. Robbie waded into the shallow water, feeling with his toes for conch shells. Beside the fire, Zach came across a shark’s tooth the size of a guitar pick.
“That’s probably a million years old,” said Tyler enviously.
“Almost as old as Dad,” said Zach.
Robbie flopped down beside Leonard. “It’s so weird,” he said, shaking sand from a conch. “There’s a whole string of these islands, but I haven’t seen a boat the whole time we’ve been here.”
“Are you complaining?” said Leonard.
“No. Just, don’t you think it’s weird?”
“Maybe.” Leonard tossed his cigarette into the fire.
“I want to stay.” Zack rolled onto his back and watched sparks flew among the first stars. “Dad? Why can’t we just stay here?”
Robbie took a long pull from his beer. “I have to get back to work. And you guys have school.”
“Fuck school,” said Zach and Tyler.
“Listen.” The boys fell silent as Leonard glared at them. “Tomorrow morning I want to set everything up. We’ll shoot before the wind picks up too much. I’ll have the rest of the day to edit. Then we pack and head to Fayetteville on Saturday. We’ll find some cheap place to stay, and drive home on Sunday.”
The boys groaned. Emery sighed. “Back to the salt mines. I gotta call that guy about the show.”
“I want to have a few hours with Maggie.” Leonard pulled at the silver skull in his ear. “I told the nurse I’d be there Saturday before noon.”
“We’ll have to leave pretty early,” said Emery.
For a few minutes nobody spoke. Wind rattled brush in the dunes behind them. The bonfire leaped then subsided, and Zach fed it a knot of driftwood. An unseen bird gave a piping cry that was joined by another, then another, until their plaintive voices momentarily drowned out the soft rush of waves.
Robbie gazed into the darkening water. In his hand, the conch shell felt warm and silken as skin.
”Look, Dad,” said Zach. “Bats.”
Robbie leaned back to see black shapes dodging sparks above their heads.
“Nice,” he said, his voice thick from drink.
“Well.” Leonard stood and lit another cigarette. “I’m going to bed.”
“Me too,” said Zach.
Robbie watched with mild surprise as the boys clambered to their feet, yawning. Emery removed a beer from the cooler, handed it to Robbie.
“Keep an eye on the fire, compadre,” he said, and followed the others.
Robbie turned to study the dying blaze. Ghostly runnels of green and blue ran along the driftwood branch. Salt, Leonard had explained to the boys, though Robbie wondered if that was true. How did Leonard know all this stuff? He frowned, picked up a handful of sand and tossed it at the feeble blaze, which promptly sank into sullen embers.
Robbie swore under his breath. He finished his beer, stood and walked unsteadily toward the water. The clouds obscured the moon, though there was a faint umber glow reflected in the distant waves. He stared at the horizon, searching in vain for some sign of life, lights from a cruiseship or plane; turned and gazed up and down the length of the beach.
Nothing. Even the bonfire had died. He stood on tiptoe and tried to peer past the high dune, to where the beach house stood within the grove of palmettos. Night swallowed everything,
He turned back to the waves licking at his bare feet. Something stung his face, blown sand or maybe a gnat. He waved to disperse it, then froze.
In the water, plumes of light coiled and unfolded, dazzling him. Deepest violet, a fiery emerald that stabbed his eyes; cobalt and a pure blaze of scarlet. He shook his head, edging backward; caught himself and looked around.
He was alone. He turned back, and the lights were still there, just below the surface, furling and unfurling to some secret rhythm.
Like a machine, he thought; some kind of underwater windfarm. A wavefarm?
But no, that was crazy. He rubbed his cheeks, trying to sober up. He’d seen something like this in Ocean City late one night — it was something alive, Leonard had explained, plankton or jellyfish, one of those things that glowed. They’d gotten high and raced into the Atlantic to watch pale-green streamers trail them as they body-surfed.
Now he took a deep breath and waded in, kicking at the waves, then halted to see if he’d churned up a luminous cloud.
Darkness lapped almost to his knees: there was no telltale glow where he’d stirred the water. But a few yards away, the lights continued to turn in upon themselves beneath the surface: scores of fist-sized nebulae, soundlesss and steady as his own pulse.
He stared until his head ached, trying to get a fix on them. The lights weren’t diffuse, like phosphorescence. And they didn’t float like jellyfish. They seemed to be rooted in place, near enough for him to touch.
Yet his eyes couldn’t focus: the harder he tried, the more the lights seemed to shift, like an optical illusion or some dizzying computer game.
He stood there for five minutes, maybe longer. Nothing changed. He started to back away, slowly, finally turned and stumbled across the sand, stopping every few steps to glance over his shoulder. The lights were still there, though now he saw them only as a soft yellowish glow.
He ran the rest of the way to the house. There were no lights on, no music or laughter.
But he could smell cigarette smoke, and traced it to the deck where Leonard stood beside the rail.
“Leonard!” Robbie drew alongside him, then glanced around for the boys.
“They slept inside,” said Leonard. “Too cold.”
“Listen, you have to see something. On the beach — these lights. Not on the beach, in the water.” He grabbed Leonard’s arm. “Like — just come on.”
Leonard shook him off angrily. “You’re drunk.”
“I’m not drunk! Or, okay, maybe I am, a little. But I’m not kidding. Look —”
He pointed past the sea of palmettos, past the dunes, toward the dark line of waves. The yellow glow was now spangled with silver. It spread across the water, narrowing as it faded toward the horizon, like a wavering path.
Leonard stared, then turned to Robbie in disbelief. “You idiot. It’s the fucking moon.”
Robbie looked up. And yes, there was the quarter-moon, a blaze of gold between gaps in the cloud.
“That’s not it.” He knew he sounded not just drunk but desperate. “It was in the water —”
“Bioluminescence.” Leonard sighed and tossed his cigarette, then headed for the door. “Go to bed, Robbie.”
Robbie started to yell after him, but caught himself and leaned against the rail. His head throbbed. Phantom blots of light swam across his vision. He felt dizzy, and on the verge of tears.
He closed his eyes; forced himself to breathe slowly, to channel the pulsing in his head into the memory of spectral whirlpools, a miniature galaxy blossoming beneath the water. After a minute he looked out again, but saw nothing save the blades of palmetto leaves etched against the moonlit sky.
* * *
He woke several hours later on the couch, feeling as though an ax were embedded in his forehead. Gray light washed across the floor. It was cold; he reached fruitlessly for a blanket, groaned and sat up.
Emery was in the open kitchen, washing something in the sink. He glanced at Robbie then hefted a coffee pot. “Ready for this?”
Robbie nodded, and Emery handed him a steaming mug. “What time is it?’
“Eight, a little after. The boys are with Leonard — they went out about an hour ago. It looks like rain, which kind of throws a monkey wrench into everything. Maybe it’ll hold off long enough to get that thing off the ground.”
Robbie sipped his coffee. “Seventeen seconds. He could just throw it into the air.”
“Yeah, I thought of that too. So what happened to you last night?”
“Nothing. Too much Tecate.”
“Leonard said you were raving drunk.”
“Leonard sets the bar pretty low. I was — relaxed.”
“Well, time to unrelax. I told him I’d get you up and we’d be at he beach by eight.”
“I don’t even know what I’m doing. Am I a cameraman?”
“Uh uh. That’s me. You don’t know how to work it, plus it’s my camera. The boys are in charge of the windbreak and, I dunno, props. They hand things to Leonard.”
“Things? What things?” Robbie scowled. “It’s a fucking model airplane. It doesn’t have a remote, does it? Because that would have been a good idea.”
Emery picked up his camera bag. “Come on. You can carry the tripod, how’s that? Maybe the boys will hand you things, and you can hand them to Leonard.”
“I’ll be there in a minute. Tell Leonard he can start without me.”
After Emery left he finished his coffee and went into his room. He rummaged through his clothes until he found a bottle of Ibuprofen, downed six, then pulled on a hooded sweatshirt and sat on the edge of his bed, staring at the wall.
He’d obviously had some kind of blackout, the first since he’d been fired from the Parks Commission. Somewhere between his seventh beer and this morning’s hangover was the blurred image of Crayola-colored pinwheels turning beneath dark water, his stumbling flight from the beach and Leonard’s disgusted voice: You idiot, it’s the fucking moon.
Robbie grimaced. He had seen something, he knew that.
But he could no longer recall it clearly, and what he could remember made no sense. It was like a movie he’d watched half-awake, or an accident he’d glimpsed from the corner of his eye in a moving car. Maybe it had been the moonlight, or some kind of fluorescent seaweed.
Or maybe he’d just been totally wasted.
Robbie sighed. He put on his sneakers, grabbed Emery’s tripod and headed out.
A scattering of cold rain met him as he hit the beach. It was windy. The sea glinted gray and silver, like crumpled tinfoil. Clumps of seaweed covered the sand, and small round discs that resembled pieces of clouded glass: jellyfish, hundreds of them. Robbie prodded one with his foot, then continued down the shore.
The dune was on the north side of the island, where it rose steeply a good fifteen feet above the sand. Now, a few hours before low tide, the water was about thirty feet away. It was exactly the kind of place you might choose to launch a human-powered craft, if you knew little about aerodynamics. Robbie didn’t know much, but he was fairly certain you needed to be higher to get any kind of lift.
Still, that would be for a full-sized craft. For a scale model you could hold in your two cupped hands, maybe it would be high enough. He saw Emery pacing along the water’s edge, vidcam slung around his neck. The only sign of the others was a trail of footsteps leading to the dune. Robbie clambered up, using the tripod to keep from slipping on sand the color and texture of damp cornmeal. He was panting when he reached the top.
“Hey Dad. Where were you?”
Robbie smiled weakly as Zach peered out from the windbreak. “I have a sinus infection.”
Zach motioned him inside. “Come on, I can’t leave this open.”
Robbie set down the tripod, then crouched to enter the makeshift tent. Inside, bedsheet walls billowed in the wind, straining at an elaborate scaffold of broom handles, driftwood, the remains of wooden deck chairs. Tyler and Zach sat crosslegged on a blanket and stared at their cellphones.
“You can get a strong signal here,” said Tyler. “Nope, it’s gone again.”
Next to them, Leonard knelt beside a cardboard box. Instead of his customary white tunic, he wore one that was sky-blue, embroidered with yellow birds. He glanced at Robbie, his gray eyes cold and dismissive. “There’s only room for three people in here.”
“That’s okay — I’m going out,” said Zach, and crawled through the gap in the sheets. Tyler followed him. Robbie jammed his hands into his pockets and forced a smile.
“So,” he said. “Did you see all those jellyfish?”
Leonard nodded without looking at him. Very carefully he removed the Bellerophon and set it on a neatly folded towel. He reached into the box again, and withdrew something else. A doll no bigger than his hand, dressed in black frockcoat and trousers, with a bowler hat so small that Robbie could have swallowed it.
“Voila,” said Leonard.
“Jesus, Leonard.” Robbie hesitated, then asked, “Can I look at it?”
To his surprise, Leonard nodded. Robbie picked it up. The little figure was so light he wondered if there was anything inside the tiny suit.
But as he turned it gently, he could feel slender joints under its clothing, a miniature torso. Tiny hands protruded from the sleeves, and it wore minute, highly polished shoes that appeared to be made of black leather. Under the frock coat was a waistcoat, with a watch-chain of gold thread that dangled from a nearly invisible pocket. From beneath the bowler hat peeked a fringe of red hair fine as milkweed down. The cameo-sized face that stared up at Robbie was Maggie Blevin’s, painted in hairline strokes so that he could see every eyelash, every freckle on her rounded cheeks.
He looked at Leonard in amazement. “How did you do this?”
“It took a long time.” He held out his hand, and Robbie returned the doll. “The hardest part was making sure the Bellerophon could carry her weight. And that she fit into the bicycle seat and could pedal it. You wouldn’t think that would be difficult, but it was.”
“It — it looks just like her.” Robbie glanced at the doll again, then said, “I thought you wanted to make everything look like the original film. You know, with McCauley — I thought that was the point.”
“The point is for it to fly.”
“You don’t need to understand,” said Leonard. “Maggie will.”
He bent over the little aircraft, its multi-colored wings and silken parasol bright as a toy carousel, and tenderly began to fit the doll-sized pilot into its seat.
Robbie shivered. He’d seen Leonard’s handiwork before, mannequins so realistic that tourists constantly poked them to see if they were alive.
But those were life-sized, and they weren’t designed to resemble someone he knew. The sight of Leonard holding a tiny Maggie Blevin tenderly, as though she were a captive bird, made Robbie feel lightheaded and slightly sick. He turned toward the tent opening. “I’ll see if I can help Emery set up.”
Leonard’s gaze remained fixed on the tiny figure. “I’ll be right there,” he said at last.
At the foot of the dune, the boys were trying to talk Emery into letting them use the camera.
“No way.” He waved as Robbie scrambled down. “See, I’m not even letting your Dad do it.”
“That’s because Dad would suck,” Zach said as Emery grabbed Robbie and steered him toward the water. “Come on, just for a minute.”
“Trouble with the crew?” asked Robbie.
“Nah. They’re just getting bored.”
“Did you see that doll?”
“The Incredible Shrinking Maggie?” Emery stopped to stare at the dune. “The thing about Leonard is, I can never figure out if he’s brilliant or potentially dangerous. The fact that he’ll be able to retire with a full government pension suggests he’s normal. The Maggie voodoo doll, though ...”
He shook his head and began to pace again. Robbie walked beside him, kicking at wet sand and staring curiously at the sky. The air smelled odd, of ozone or hot metal. But it felt too chilly for a thunderstorm, and the dark ridge that hung above the palmettos and live oaks looked more like encroaching fog than cumulus clouds.
“Well, at least the wind’s from the right direction,” said Robbie.
Emery nodded. “Yeah. I was starting to think we’d have to throw it from the roof.”
A few minutes later, Leonard’s voice rang out above the wind. “Okay, everyone over here.”
They gathered at the base of the dune and stared up at him, his tunic an azure rent in the ominous sky. Between Leonard’s feet was a cardboard box. He glanced at it and went on.
“I’m going to wait till the wind seems right, and then I’ll yell ‘Now!’ Emery, you’ll just have to watch me and see where she goes, then do your best. Zach and Tyler — you guys fan out and be ready to catch her if she starts to fall. Catch her gently,” he added.
“What about me?” called Robbie.
“You stay with Emery in case he needs backup.”
“Backup?” Robbie frowned.
“You know,” said Emery in a low voice. “In case I need help getting Leonard back to the rubber room.”
The boys began to walk toward the water. Tyler had his cellphone out. He looked at Zach, who dug his phone from his pocket.
“Are they texting each other?” asked Emery in disbelief. “They’re ten feet apart.”
“Ready?” Leonard shouted.
“Ready,” the boys yelled back.
Robbie turned to Emery. “What about you, Captain Marvo?”
Emery grinned and held up the camera. “I have never been readier.”
Atop the dune, Leonard stooped to retrieve the Bellerophon from its box. As he straightened, its propellers began turning madly. Candy-striped rotators spun like pinwheels as he cradled it against his chest, his long white braids threatening to tangle with the parasol.
The wind gusted suddenly: Robbie’s throat tightened as he watched the tiny black figure beneath the fuselage swung wildly back and forth, like an accelerated pendulum. Leonard slipped in the sand and fought to regain his balance.
“Uh oh,” said Emery.
The wind died, and Leonard righted himself. Even from the beach, Robbie could see how his face had gone white.
“Are you okay?” yelled Zach.
“I’m okay,” Leonard yelled back.
He gave them a shaky smile, then stared intently at the horizon. After a minute his head tilted, as though listening to something. Abruptly he straightened and raised the Bellerophon in both hands. Behind him, palmettos thrashed as the wind gusted.
“Now!” he shouted.
Leonard opened his hands. As though it were a butterfly, the Belllerophon lifted into the air. Its feathery parasol billowed. Fan-shaped wings rose and fell; ailerons flapped and gears whirled like pinwheels. There was a sound like a train rushing through a tunnel, and Robbie stared open-mouthed as the Bellerophon skimmed the air above his head, its pilot pedaling furiously as it headed toward the sea.
Robbie gasped. The boys raced after it, yelling. Emery followed, camera clamped to his face and Robbie at his heels.
“This is fucking incredible!’ Emery shouted. “Look at that thing go!”
They drew up a few yards from the water. The Bellerophon whirred past, barely an arm’s-length above them. Robbie’s eyes blurred as he stared after that brilliant whirl of color and motion, a child’s dream of flight soaring just out of reach. Emery waded into the shallows with his camera. The boys followed, splashing and waving at the little plane. From the dune behind them echoed Leonard’s voice.
Robbie gazed silently at the horizon as the Bellerophon continued on, its pilot silhouetted black against the sky, wings opened like sails. Its sound grew fainter, a soft whirring that might have been a flock of birds. Soon it would be gone. Robbie stepped to the water’s edge and craned his neck to keep it in sight.
Without warning a green flare erupted from the waves and streamed toward the little aircraft. Like a meteor shooting upward, emerald blossomed into a blinding radiance that engulfed the Bellerophon. For an instant Robbie saw the flying machine, a golden wheel spinning within a comet’s heart.
Then the blazing light was gone, and with it the Bellerophon.
Robbie gazed, stunned, at the empty air. After an endless moment he became aware of something — someone — near him. He turned to see Emery stagger from the water, soaking wet, the camera held uselessly at his side.
“I dropped it,” he gasped. “When that — whatever the fuck it was, when it came, I dropped the camera.”
Robbie helped him onto the sand.
“I felt it.” Emery shuddered, his hand tight around Robbie’s arm. “Like a riptide. I thought I’d go under.”
Robbie pulled away from him. “Zach?” he shouted, panicked. “Tyler, Zach, are you —”
Emery pointed at the water, and Robbie saw them, heron-stepping through the waves and whooping in triumph as they hurried back to shore.
“What happened?” Leonard ran up alongside Robbie and grabbed him. “Did you see that?”
Robbie nodded. Leonard turned to Emery, his eyes wild. “Did you get it? The Bellerophon? And that flare? Like the original film! The same thing, the exact same thing!”
Emery reached for Robbie’s sweatshirt. “Give me that, I’ll see if I can dry the camera.”
Leonard stared blankly at Emery’s soaked clothes, the water dripping from the vidcam.
“Oh no.” He covered his face with his hands. “Oh no …”
“We got it!” Zach pushed between the grownups. “We got it, we got it!” Tyler ran up beside him, waving his cellphone. “Look!”
Everyone crowded together, the boys tilting their phones until the screens showed black.
“Okay,” said Tyler. “Watch this.”
Robbie shaded his eyes, squinting.
And there it was, a bright mote bobbing across a formless gray field, growing bigger and bigger until he could see it clearly — the whirl of wings and gears, the ballooning peacock-feather parasol and steadfast pilot on the velocipede; the swift silent flare that lashed from the water then disappeared in an eyeblink.
“Now watch mine,” said Zach, and the same scene played again from a different angle. “Eighteen seconds.”
“Mine says twenty,” said Tyler. Robbie glanced uneasily at the water.
“Maybe we should head back to the house,” he said.
Leonard seized Zach’s shoulder. “Can you get me that? Both of you? Email it or something?”
“Sure. But we’ll need to go where we can get a signal.”
“I’ll drive you,” said Emery. “Let me get into some dry clothes.”
He turned and trudged up the beach, the boys laughing and running behind him.
Leonard walked the last few steps to the water’s edge, spray staining the tip of one cowboy boot. He stared at the horizon, his expression puzzled yet oddly expectant.
Robbie hesitated, then joined him. The sea appeared calm, green-glass waves rolling in long swells beneath parchment-colored sky. Through a gap in the clouds he could make out a glint of blue, like a noonday star. He gazed at it in silence, and after a minute asked, “Did you know that was going to happen?”
Leonard shook his head. “No. How could I?”
“Then — what was it?” Robbie looked at him helplessly. “Do you have any idea?”
Leonard said nothing. Finally he turned to Robbie. Unexpectedly, he smiled.
“I have no clue. But you saw it, right?” Robbie nodded. “And you saw her fly. The Bellerophon.”
Leonard took another step, heedless of waves at his feet. “She flew.” His voice was barely a whisper. “She really flew.”
* * *
That night nobody slept. Emery drove Zach, Tyler and Leonard to a Dunkin Donuts where the boys got a cellphone signal and sent their movie footage to Leonard’s laptop. Back at the house, he disappeared while the others sat on the deck and discussed, over and over again, what they had seen. The boys wanted to return to the beach, but Robbie refused to let them go. As a peace offering, he gave them each a beer. By the time Leonard emerged from his room with the laptop, it was after three A.M.
He set the computer on a table in the living room. “See what you think.” When the others had assembled, he hit Play.
Blotched letters filled the screen: THE MAIDEN FLIGHT OF MCCAULEY’S BELLEROPHON. The familiar tipsy horizon appeared, sepia and amber, silvery flashes from the sea below. Robbie held his breath.
And there was the Bellerophon with its flickering wheels and wings propelled by a steadfast pilot, until the brilliant light struck from below and the clip abruptly ended, at exactly seventeen seconds. Nothing betrayed the figure as Maggie rather than McCauley; nothing seemed any different at all, no matter how many times Leonard played it back.
“So that’s it,” he said at last, and closed his laptop.
“Are you going to put it on Youtube?” asked Zach.
“No,” he replied wearily. The boys exchanged a look, but for once remained silent.
“Well.” Emery stood and stretched his arms, yawning. “Time to pack.”
Two hours later they were on the road.
The hospice was a few miles outside town, a rambling old white house surrounded by neatly-kept azaleas and rhododendrons. The boys were turned loose to wander the neighborhood. The others walked up to the veranda, Leonard carrying his laptop. He looked terrible, his gray eyes bloodshot and his face unshaved. Emery put an arm over his shoulder and Leonard nodded stiffly.
A nurse met them at the door, a trim blonde woman in chinos and a yellow blouse.
“I told her you were coming,” she said as she showed them into a sunlit room with wicker furniture and a low table covered with books and magazines. “She’s the only one here now, though we expect someone tomorrow.”
“How is she?” asked Leonard.
“She sleeps most of the time. And she’s on morphine for the pain, so she’s not very lucid. Her body’s shutting down. But she’s conscious.”
“Has she had many visitors?” asked Emery.
“Not since she’s been here. In the hospital a few neighbors dropped by. I gather there’s no family. It’s a shame.” She shook her head sadly. “She’s a lovely woman.”
“Can I see her?” Leonard glanced at a closed door at the end of the bright room.
Robbie and Emery watched them go, then settled into the wicker chairs.
“God, this is depressing,” said Emery.
“It’s better than a hospital,” said Robbie. “Anna was going to go into a hospice, but she died before she could.”
Emery winced. “Sorry. Of course, I wasn’t thinking.”
Robbie leaned back and shut his eyes. He saw Anna sitting on the grass with azaleas all around her, bees in the flowers and Zach laughing as he opened his hands to release a green moth that lit momentarily upon her head, then drifted into the sky.
“Robbie.” He started awake. Emery sat beside him, shaking him gently. “Hey — I’m going in now. Go back to sleep if you want, I’ll wake you when I come out.”
Robbie looked around blearily. “Where’s Leonard?”
“He went for a walk. He’s pretty broken up. He wanted to be alone for a while.”
“Sure, sure.” Robbie rubbed his eyes. “I’ll just wait.”
When Emery was gone he stood and paced the room. After a few minutes he sighed and sank back into his chair, then idly flipped through the magazines and books on the table. Tricycle, Newsweek, the Utne Reader; some pamphlets on end-of-life issues, works by Viktor Frankl and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.
And, underneath yesterday’s newspaper, a familiar sky-blue dustjacket emblazoned with the garish image of a naked man and woman, hands linked as they floated above a vast abyss, surrounded by a glowing purple sphere. Beneath them the title appeared in embossed green letters.
Wings for Humanity!
The Next Step is OURS!
by Margaret S. Blevin, PhD
Robbie picked it up. On the back was a photograph of the younger Maggie in a white embroidered tunic, her hair a bright corona around her piquant face. She stood in the Hall of Flight beside a mockup of the Apollo Lunar Module, the Wright Flyer high above her head. She was laughing, her hands raised in welcome. He opened it to a random page.
... that time has come: With the dawn of the Golden Millennium we will welcome their return, meeting them at last as equals to share in the glory that is the birthright of our species.
He glanced at the frontispiece and title page, and then the dedication.
For Leonard, who never doubted
“Isn’t that an amazing book?”
Robbie looked up to see the nurse smiling down at him.
“Uh, yeah,” he said, and set it on the table.
“It’s incredible she predicted so much stuff.” The nurse shook her head. “Like the Hubble Telescope, and that caveman they found in the glacier, the guy with the lens? And those turbines that can make energy in the jet stream? I never even heard of that, but my husband said they’re real. Everything she says, it’s all so hopeful. You know?”
Robbie stared at her, then quickly nodded. Behind her the door opened. Emery stepped out.
“She’s kind of drifting,” he said.
“Morning’s her good time. She usually fades around now.” The nurse glanced at her watch, then at Robbie. “You go ahead. Don’t be surprised if she nods off.”
He stood. “Sure. Thanks.”
The room was small, its walls painted a soft lavender-gray. The bed faced a large window overlooking a garden. Goldfinches and tiny green wrens darted between a bird feeder and a small pool lined with flat white stones. For a moment Robbie thought the bed was empty. Then he saw an emaciated figure had slipped down between the white sheets, dwarfed by pillows and a bolster.
The figure turned its head. Hairless, skin white as paper, mottled with bruises like spilled ink. Her lips and fingernails were violet; her face so pale and lined it was like gazing at a cracked egg. Only the eyes were recognizably Maggie’s, huge, the deep slatey blue of an infant’s. As she stared at him, she drew her wizened arms up, slowly, until her fingers grazed her shoulders. She reminded Robbie disturbingly of a praying mantis.
“I don’t know if you remember me.” He sat in a chair beside the bed. “I’m Robbie. I worked with Leonard. At the museum.”
“He told me.” Her voice was so soft he had to lean close to hear her. “I’m glad they got here. I expected them yesterday, when it was still snowing.”
Robbie recalled Anna in her hospital bed, doped to the gills and talking to herself. “Sure,” he said.
Maggie shot him a glance that might have held annoyance, then gazed past him into the garden. Her eyes widened as she struggled to lift her hand, fingers twitching. Robbie realized she was waving. He turned to stare out the window, but there was no one there. Maggie looked at him, then gestured at the door.
“You can go now,” she said. “I have guests.”
“Oh. Yeah, sorry.”
He stood awkwardly, then leaned down to kiss the top of her head. Her skin was smooth and cold as metal. “Bye, Maggie.”
At the door he looked back, and saw her gazing with a rapt expression at the window, head cocked slightly and her hands open, as though to catch the sunlight.
* * *
Two days after they got home, Robbie received an email from Leonard.
Maggie died this morning. The nurse said she became unconscious early yesterday, seemed to be in pain but at least it didn’t last long. She had arranged to be cremated. No memorial service or anything like that. I will do something, probably not till the fall, and let you know.
Robbie sighed. Already the week on Cowana seemed long ago and faintly dreamlike, like the memory of a childhood vacation. He wrote Leonard a note of condolence, then left for work.
Weeks passed. Zach and Tyler posted their clips of the Bellerophon online. Robbie met Emery for drinks ever week or two, and saw Leonard once, at Emery’s Fourth of July barbecue. By the end of summer, Tyler’s footage had been viewed 347,623 times, and Zach’s 347,401. Both provided a link to the Captain Marvo site, where Emery had a free download of the entire text of Wings for Humanity! There were now over a thousand Google hits for Margaret Blevin, and Emery added a Bellerophon t-shirt to his merchandise: organic cotton with a silk-screen image of the baroque aircraft and its bowler-hatted pilot.
Early in September, Leonard called Robbie.
“Can you meet me at the museum tomorrow, around eight-thirty? I’m having a memorial for Maggie, just you and me and Emery. After hours, I’ll sign you in.”
“Sure,” said Robbie. “Can I bring something?”
“Just yourself. See you then.”
He drove in with Emery. They walked across the twilit Mall, the museum a white cube that glowed against a sky swiftly darkening to indigo. Leonard waited for them by the side door. He wore an embroidered tunic, sky-blue, his white hair loose upon his shoulders, and held a cardboard box with a small printed label.
“Come on,” he said. The museum had been closed since 5, but a guard opened the door for them. “We don’t have a lot of time.”
Hedges sat at the security desk, bald and even more imposing than when Robbie last saw him, decades ago. He signed them in, eying Robbie curiously then grinning when he read his signature.
“I remember you — Opie, right?”
Robbie winced at the nickname, then nodded. Hedges handed Leonard a slip of paper. “Be quick.”
“Thanks. I will.”
They walked to the staff elevator, the empty museum eerie and blue-lit. High above them the silent aircraft seemed smaller than they had been in the past, battered and oddly toylike. Robbie noticed a crack in the Gemini VII space capsule, and strands of dust clinging to the Wright Flyer. When they reached the third floor, Leonard led them down the corridor, past the Photo Lab, past the staff cafeteria, past the library where the Nut Files used to be. Finally he stopped at a door near some open ductwork. He looked at the slip of paper Hedges had given him, punched a series of numbers into the lock, opened it then reached in to switch on the light. Inside was a narrow room with a metal ladder fixed to one wall.
“Where are we going?” asked Robbie.
“The roof,” said Leonard. “If we get caught, Hedges and I are screwed. Actually, we’re all screwed. So we have to make this fast.”
He tucked the cardboard box against his chest, then began to climb the ladder. Emery and Robbie followed him, to a small metal platform and another door. Leonard punched in another code and pushed it open. They stepped out into the night.
It was like being atop an ocean liner. The museum’s roof was flat, nearly a block long. Hot air blasted from huge exhaust vents, and Leonard motioned the others to move away, toward the far end of the building.
The air was cooler here, a breeze that smelled sweet and rainwashed, despite the cloudless sky. Beneath them stretched the Mall, a vast green gameboard, with the other museums and monuments huge gamepieces, ivory and onyx and glass. The spire of the Washington Monument rose in the distance, and beyond that the glittering reaches of Roslyn and Crystal City
“I’ve never been here,” said Robbie, stepping beside Leonard.
Emery shook his head. “Me neither.”
“I have,” said Leonard, and smiled. “Just once, with Maggie.”
Above the Capitol’s dome hung the full moon, so bright against the starless sky that Robbie could read what was printed on Leonard’s box.
“These are her ashes.” Leonard set the box down and removed the top, revealing a ziplocked bag. He opened the bag, picked up the box again and stood. “She wanted me to scatter them here. I wanted both of you to be with me.”
He dipped his hand into the bag and withdrew a clenched fist; held the box out to Emery, who nodded silently and did the same; then turned to Robbie.
“You too,” he said.
Robbie hesitated, then put his hand into the box. What was inside felt gritty, more like sand than ash. When he looked up, he saw that Leonard had stepped forward, head thrown back so that he gazed at the moon. He drew his arm back, flung the ashes into the sky and stooped to grab more.
Emery glanced at Robbie, and the two of them opened their hands.
Robbie watched the ashes stream from between his fingers, like a flight of tiny moths. Then he turned and gathered more, the three of them tossing handful after handful into the sky.
When the box was finally empty Robbie straightened, breathing hard, and ran a hand across his eyes. He didn’t know if it was some trick of the moonlight or the freshening wind, but everywhere around them, everywhere he looked, the air was filled with wings.