Excerpt from Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Hummingbird Salamander

by Jeff VanderMeer

Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer X
Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer
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  • Published:
    Apr 2021, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Daniela Schofield
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[0]

Assume I'm dead by the time you read this. Assume you're being told all of this by a flicker, a wisp, a thing you can't quite get out of your head now that you've found me. And in the beginning, it's you, not me, being handed an envelope with a key inside … on a street, in a city, on a winter day so cold that breathing hurts and your lungs creak.

A barista leans out onto the sidewalk from your local coffee shop to say, "I almost forgot."

The before of those words and the after, and you stuck in the middle. "I almost forgot." Except the barista didn't forget, was instructed to make it happen that way. "Time sensitive."

You turn in surprise to receive what someone has left for you, but you don't refuse it. Bodies don't work that way—a person hands you something, you take it. A reflex. You worry about what it is later.

Or who wants you to have it. Because the barista doesn't know. No one in the coffee shop knows. From the night before. A different shift. No chain of evidence. The barista retreating into the coffee shop sudden, like a monster grabbed him in its jaws and pulled him back inside. As if he never wanted to talk to you in the first place, except someone paid him. Who? How much? No answer.

You're left holding an envelope, breath like a chain-smoker's, trees all around stripped of leaves and imprisoned in concrete. Your hand is all that burns, attacked by the cold, the sound of your nail ripping the envelope flap almost urgent.

Do you have a secret admirer? That feels both new and old, like the snooze button you hit three times that morning as your husband mumbled on the bed next to you. Your usual routine has been dull and kind of fucked up for too long.

Inside the envelope, along with the key, is an address and a number. The number is 7. The key is a trap, but you don't know that yet.

On the back of the envelope, someone has scrawled "If you received this, I am already gone. You're on your own. But not alone."

Maybe it's the heat in your body giving itself over to the cold in a rush, something to do with absolutes, but you can't withhold a surge of raw, rough emotion. Not alone.

The idea of going on to work feels ever more muffled, distant, under all your layers. Yet you crumple the envelope in that cold hand, a smolder at the presumption in those words.

Standing there on the sidewalk. Black slush of snow pushed to the sides of the street. A dead robin in the gutter, one torn wing spread toward the drain like an invitation to the underworld.

* * *

Another winter morning in a city in the Pacific Northwest.

Where, exactly? I won't tell you.

Who am I? I won't tell you. Exactly.

But you can call me Jane.

Jane Smith. If that helps.

I'm here to show you how the world ends.


DIORAMA

[1]

I went to the address in the note because I didn't want to go to work. The car came for me, dark and chrome and sleek, its shadow leaking across the windows of fast-food places, gas stations, and tanning salons. The radio whispered panic about the elections, and my driver, unsolicited, had already imagined, in a soft voice, black drones congregating at night to listen in on our conversations. Yet I knew from my job that this was old news.

I had no reason to remember the driver. Back then, I thought I was smart, for all the details I caught, but there was so much I never saw. He had a beard. He might have had an accent. I remember I feared he came from some place we were bombing. We didn't talk about anything important. Why would we?

The driver might have believed I was a reasonable person, a normal person. Just a little larger than most. I dressed, in those days, in custom-made gray business suits because nothing store-bought fit right. I had an expensive black down coat. I didn't think much about where the softness came from, at what cost. My faux heels were decoys: comfortable, just worn to preserve some ritual about what women should wear.

Excerpted from Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer. Copyright © 2021 by Jeff VanderMeer. Excerpted by permission of MCD. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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