(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)
The year is 1994.
Dan woke in his bedroom, frozen with fear. His eyes darted in the dark, finding faces surveilling from afar. His mouth was dry, but he tried to swallow, tightening his throat. A scream died in his neck.
Eventually Dan managed to move his toes. He barely tensed them, so his blankets stayed flat. He knew monsters could sense motion and the subtlest disturbance in his blankets would alert them, so he lay struggling to control his body yet unwilling to take any action which would get him gobbled.
A creature jumped into bed with him. Dan tried to shout, but only twitched with all his arms and legs. He breathlessly watched the creature slink up. It exhaled moistly on his neck and dug claws into his chest. Four fangs filled its face. “Oh,” said Dan, “hi Django.” The cat kneaded the blankets and purred. Now adjusted to the darkness, Dan saw the surveilling faces were toys on shelves and cabinets. “Django, help me. I gotta go to my parents’ room, okay? Can you take me through the hall?” Django the cat leaned on Dan and curled into a circle. It licked its fur and settled in to sleep. “Okay.” Dan sat up on his own. He checked for monsters under his bed before setting his feet on the floor. He selected a stuffed animal—a purple Teddy Bear—and flipped his bedroom light-switch.
Django blinked in the light and swayed its orange, stripey tail. “Mrow.” It hopped to the floor and followed Dan to the door. “Mrow.”
“You wanna come?” Dan peered down the hallway. His purple Teddy Bear checked every corner for movement. “It’s not so far. We can make it.”
“Mrow.” Django slunk through Dan’s legs and sauntered to the kitchen. It turned to see if Dan was following. Its eyes gleamed green. “Mrow.”
“Oh,” said Dan. “You want food.”
Dan followed the cat to the kitchen. Django sat by an empty bowl beside a sealed container of kibble. “Mrow.”
Dan put his Teddy on the tile floor and put both hands on the container’s lid. To remove the lid, Dan had to grunt and twist with his entire body. Django stood on its hind legs to stick its head in the container and smell the dry food. “Just a little, Django.” Dan scooped whole handfuls of kibble into the cat’s bowl. “Just a little.”
“Jillian?” Dan spun to see a latina in a white bathrobe and a black man in boxers enter the kitchen. “Jillian, are you okay?” The man knelt to Dan. He had wire glasses and a close haircut. “It’s past midnight. Why are you out of bed?”
“Django was hungry,” answered Dan.
“Django’s fine, Sweetie.” The woman lifted Dan in one arm and his Teddy in the other. “Your father will feed him when he leaves for his flight in a few hours. Right, Dear?”
“Sure thing.” His father hoisted Django by the armpits and held the cat to Dan’s face. “Wanna say goodnight, Jillian?”
“Wait! I remember!” Dan kicked the air. “I woke up because I had a nightmare!”
“Oh, Sweetie.” The woman brushed his hair back. “Let’s get you back to bed and you can tell me all about it, or I can read you a story.”
“Thanks, Honey.” His father ambled back to their bedroom. “Jillian, my plane takes off before you’ll wake for breakfast, but I’ll call home tonight when I land at my layover. Be nice to your mommy, okay?”
Dan said nothing as his mother carried him to bed. She tucked him under the covers and set his purple Teddy Bear beside him. “I’m sorry you had a bad dream, Jillian. What happened?”
“I was in a desert with my friend Faith,” said Dan, “and we went in a hole in the ground, and in the hole there was a monster with arms and legs. And it ate me!” He waved all his limbs emphatically, like he was making a snow-angel.
“Faith?” His mother pulled the covers to Dan’s chin. “I don’t know Faith. Did you meet her in preschool?”
“Preschool?” Dan looked at his hands as if for the first time. “Mommy, how old am I?”
“You’re four years old, Sweetie.” She felt Dan’s forehead for fever. “Why?”
Dan sat up. “What do you keep calling me?”
“No, what’s my name?”
“Jillian,” she said. “Your name is Jillian Diaz-Jackson.”
Jillian inspected her fingers like they’d changed. “Was it always?”
“Of course.” She felt her daughter’s forehead again. “Are you okay? You seem confused.”
“I don’t wanna go to bed.”
“Oh,” cooed her mother. “Poor thing. Did you know I had nightmares too, when I was young?” She tucked Jillian’s long hair behind her ears. “I had the same nightmare every night, so I learned to realize when I was asleep, and then I knew the nightmare couldn’t hurt me. In fact, I could control my dreams, and fly, and have fun! So do you remember what that monster looked like?”
Jillian frowned and nodded. “I’m scared I’m gonna meet it again! I know I’m gonna!”
“But if you do, you’ll know you’re dreaming! You can count your fingers to make sure: you’re supposed to have ten, but in a dream, you’ll have more. Then you can tell the monster, ‘you can’t hurt me! Make me a sundae!’ “
“Yeah!” Now Jillian smiled. “Make me a sundae!”
“That’s right!” She bumped her forehead against Jillian’s and they both laughed. “I’ll wake you in the morning, Sweetie. Tell me about your sundae on the drive to preschool, okay?”
Jillian had trouble sleeping after that. The name ‘Dan’ wouldn’t leave. Dan. Jillian. Dan. Jillian. DanJillian.
Jay. A great name. He’d keep it for himself.
The year is 2012.
Jay’s mother pulled into the high-school parking-lot. Jay unbuckled his seat-belt and counted his fingers: he had ten, so he was certainly awake. The morning-bell rang and Jay groaned. “New school, first day of Senior year, and I’m late for class. And it’s a hundred and twelve degrees. What a waking nightmare.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t expect the traffic.” His mother parked and unlocked the doors. “We’ll learn the streets soon, I promise.”
“It’s okay. I gotta go. It’s just…” Jay stepped out and slipped his backpack over his shoulders. “I wish you’d listened when I said I didn’t want to move. I don’t know anyone in California.”
“I know. But moving to LA means your father can spend less time on an airplane and more time with you!” This didn’t make Jay smile, so his mother sighed and looked away. “Jilli, what’s that TV show you like?”
Jay rubbed his forearm. “Which TV show?”
“The anime with giant space-robots.”
“Which anime with giant space-robots?”
“Begins with an L sound? Your father brought you the DVD-set from Japan?”
“Oh,” said Jay, “LuLu’s Space-Time Acceleration. Why?”
“Look.” His mother pointed at a boy jogging to the school doors. When he stopped to stuff some bulky books in his backpack, Jay saw an orange robot printed on his T-shirt. “Is that LuLu’s robot?”
“Pft, haha. No, that’s Z-Orange. It’s Fumiko’s robot. She’s sort of a side-character.” Jay covered his mouth and giggled. “That guy’s not just a dweeb. He’s an ultra-dweeb.”
“Don’t be mean. Maybe he can help find your homeroom!”
“Alright, alright.” Jay waved goodbye. When he ran into the school, he spotted the boy jogging down a hallway. The books in his backpack must have been heavy, because he caught up to him at a brisk walk. “Hey! Nice shirt.”
“Oh!” The boy jumped when she spoke. All the books in his backpack clunked against each other. “Thanks.” He blushed, apparently ashamed to discuss his geeky fandom.
Jay decided to embarrass himself to confirm their allegiance. “My favorite robot’s Z-Purple. Assembling Z-PORKY is easily the best arc of the show, even if it’s just filler.” He pointed to Zephyr-Orange on the boy’s shirt. “I guess you like Fumiko?”
“Um. Yeah.” The space-robot filled most of his shirt, but Fumiko’s silhouette in the cockpit was obvious up-close. “Have you read the manga?” Jay shook his head. “The first volume is all about life on Earth in 2399. It gives a lot of insight into how the twins grew up.”
“Neat.” Jay’s tank-top was purple like his favorite Zephyr, but it didn’t have any space-robots on it. He’d have to look into LuLu’s merchandise. “I’m new here. Could you point me to Room 120?”
“That’s my homeroom too,” said the boy. “I’ll lead you there.”
In Room 120, a girl waved him and Jay to a table for four. She was just under four-foot-six with short white-blonde hair, and she picked at an eraser with her sharp fingernails to spread pale crumbs across her quadrant of the table. The girl sitting next to her was six-foot-one with hair like maple-syrup dripping down her neck as she read a well-worn Bible. The boy sat across from the shorter girl with the eraser and unloaded books from his backpack onto the table, but never looked away from the taller girl with the Bible. Jay sat across from her.
The homeroom-teacher chalked her name on the blackboard. “Alright, I recognize some faces from my freshman art-class, but you’re new here, aren’t you? Yes, you,” she said, pointing at Jay. “Introduce yourself.”
“Oh, sure.” The whole class was looking at him. He hadn’t prepared himself for this spotlight. Jay cleared his throat. “I’m Jillian Diaz-Jackson. I just moved here from New York.” The shorter girl with white-blonde hair smiled and waved at him, then plucked more crumbs from her eraser.
“Ms. Jillian, tell us something about yourself.”
“Um… My dad travels for business as a financial consultant, so he learns lots of languages,” said Jay. “He paces the house chanting foreign phrases to memorize them. So I learn languages, too, whether I like it or not, but only words related to money and international tax-law. Whenever he comes back from another country, he shares all his cool selfies with me.”
“Ms. Jillian, how do you like LA?”
“It’s a little hot,” said Jay, “and I don’t know anyone here.”
“Now you do.” The teacher pointed at the boy beside her. “What’s your name?”
“Dan Jones.” Dan pulled his gaze from the taller girl with the Bible to shake Jay’s hand. Jay thought the name sounded familiar, but he couldn’t quite place it. Had the two met before?
“Danny-Boy Jones,” repeated the teacher. “Tell us about yourself.”
Dan struggled to think of anything about himself interesting enough to share. “I visited my father over the Summer. He was a professor of Religious-Studies. I think religions are really interesting.” He peeked at the girl with the Bible, but she buried herself in the book. “He showed me lots neat books before he died.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear about that, Danny-Boy. What’s your favorite book he ever showed you?”
“Dante’s Inferno,” said Dan.
“Because,” said the shorter girl destroying her eraser, “his nickname is Dainty. It’s like he’s the star!”
“Is that so? What makes you Dainty, Danny-Boy?”
“He’s so cleanly. Watch!” She blew the white eraser crumbs onto Dan’s side of the table. He cringed, brushed the crumbs into his hand, and tossed them in a trashcan. “See? He didn’t even brush ’em on the floor!”
“What’s your name? And confess your motives for mutilating your poor eraser.”
“My name is Faith Featherway, and I’m sculpting a fox!” Faith held up her eraser with pride. “But it’s not coming out well. It looks more like a cloud, or a blob.”
The teacher smirked. “I remember you from my art-class. You never did stop with the foxes, did you?”
“They’re the best!” Faith penned a black nose on her eraser.
“Not many foxes in Los Angeles,” said the teacher.
“Coyotes are honorary foxes!”
“Are they? You, last at the table. Which animal do you think is best?”
The taller girl with maple-syrup hair put down her Bible. “Birds, I guess? They have wings, like angels.”
“And what’s your name?”
“Beatrice,” said Beatrice. Dan smiled dumbly as she spoke, but she didn’t look at him. “Beatrice Baxter.”
“BeatBax,” said Faith. “Sounds way cooler.”
After the rest of the class introduced themselves, the teacher took a stack of fliers from her desk. “The school wants us to educate our homeroom about illegal bugs. You might’ve seen your parents smoke roaches before, but who here has heard of crickets?” Jay almost raised his hand, but decided against it and kept his hands on the desk. A bald boy in dark sunglasses raised his hand, and so did Faith, and most of the class followed suit. Finally Jay raised his hand, joining everyone but Dan and Beatrice. “That many? Really?” The teacher shook her head. “It was different when I was your age. You, with the sunglasses,” she said, having forgotten his name already, “take off your sunglasses. What do you know about crickets?”
“Bug-sticks,” he corrected. He kept the sunglasses on. “I know you can make bank selling ’em, ’cause they get you totally bug-eyed!”
Some students chuckled. The teacher shushed them before she admonished him. “They’re a dangerous hallucinogen. Never smoke them. One puff is enough,” she quoted from the fliers she passed to each table, “to end up in the rough. So don’t touch the stuff! And take off the sunglasses!”
Jay skimmed the flier. At the top was a photo of a raw cricket which still had its limbs, antennae, and stem. At the bottom was a photo of a prepared specimen, plucked, dried, and wrapped in its own wings. Jay had always found their ten black eyes somehow familiar, like he’d seen them in a dream.
The year is 2013.
The school-year was born in hot California summer, and after a brief, parched winter and a misty spring, it threatened to die with the sweltering heat of its birth. Thankfully the end-of-the-year field-trip had great air-conditioning. An hour in the art-museum dried Jay’s sweat from his forehead. While Dan studied a painting, Jay photographed it with his digital camera.
“Early 1300s, the Harrowing of Hell,” Dan recited without reading the placard. “After the crucifixion, Christ barges into the underworld so triumphantly he crushes Satan under the gates.” He tugged his shirt hem. It was his favorite T, featuring Fumiko in her orange cockpit. “My dad gave me a book about it.”
“Neat.” Jay wrote Dan’s comments next to the painting’s thumbnail in the brochure. “Over Winter-break, my dad brought me on business abroad and I toured lots of art-galleries. Look here: the next hallway has a Grecian statue which is part of a pair. I saw the other statue in Italy, so I get to take pictures of both!”
Dan rubbed his chin at the pillars in the brochure. “Artemis and Apollo, twin children of Zeus and Leto. Their bows are drawn to kill the children of Niobe because she boasted about them.” He sighed. “I’m honestly jealous, Jillian. I waste all my time reading about this stuff, but you go there and see it.”
“You’re not wasting your time, Dan. You learn about all sorts of things. Maybe next time I go somewhere I should give you a call. You can tell me what the hell I’m looking at.” Jay flipped to a page of the brochure which he had dog-eared. “What do you know about this statue?”
Dan examined the picture Jay pointed to. It looked like two different statues put together: the left side was a man in rags, but the right side was a woman in a long dress with an exposed breast. It had four arms with each hand in a different pose, and its eyes were wide open like it saw through anything and everything. Dan didn’t need to read the caption. “That’s Ardhanarishvara making classic mudra, symbolic hand gestures. In Hinduism, the destroyer, Shiva, on the left, married an incarnation of the creator Adi Shakti, Parvati, on the right. It’s more complicated than I’m making it out to be, but putting them together like this demonstrates the all-pervasiveness of the Godhead.”
“Ooh. I like that.” Jay wrote in the brochure: deities could be combined like giant anime space-robots. “He? She?”
“Um. I think that’s been a theological argument since the Puranas.”
“I like that, too. Let’s go see Ardhanarishvara.”
Dan swallowed and put both hands in his pockets. “Can we double-back and find another way to the sculptures?”
Jay cocked an eyebrow at him. “Why not finish this hall? I thought you enjoyed all these religious paintings.”
“I do.” Dan turned away from him and rubbed his lips with his index finger. “But there’s a Bosch over there, and I can’t look at it. Eternal torture makes me fidget.”
“You love Dante’s Inferno, and you could handle the Harrowing of Hell.”
“I can read about it, I can’t look at it. And the Harrowing is a success-story.”
“Then let’s just look at paintings on the other side of the hall.”
Dan shook his head, apparently helpless. “You go on. I’ll take the long way around. Oh no,” he said, mid-stride. Faith and Beatrice had entered the hallway. Beatrice sat across from a painting of the Virgin Mary while Faith tore paper from her notebook and folded it.
“What’s wrong?” asked Jay. Dan stared silently at Beatrice. “Hey, this is your chance. You know all about that painting, right? Go impress her.” Dan covered his mouth and looked at the floor. “Dan, we all see the way you look at Beatrice. Tell her, ‘the artist used so-and-so technique to highlight Mary’s eyes. Looking at your eyes, Ms. Baxter, you must’ve been painted the same way.’ But less corny than that, obviously. Then ask her out and get it over with.”
“That’s… not… I don’t want to date Beatrice. We tried that, once, and we didn’t work well together. I want to… appreciate her? Admire her?” His anxious gesticulating looked like frantic mudra. “I’ve learned not to bother Beatrice with religious small-talk. Besides, it’s not my place to ask her out.”
Before Jay could ask what he meant, Faith held two folded paper animals to Beatrice: a fox and a bird. Beatrice took the bird and they played with the animals together. The fox and bird touched muzzle to beak, and Faith jumped up to kiss Beatrice on the cheek. Beatrice smiled, which was rare for her. “Oh. Huh,” said Jay. “That’s news to me.” How had he missed this? They’d eaten lunch together all year. “But Dan, we’re in an art-museum. It’s normal to tell friends about art in an art-museum. Appreciate Beatrice by being her friend. Don’t overthink it.”
Faith spotted Dan and Jay down the hallway. She pointed them out to Beatrice and the couple walked over holding hands. “I thought we’d find you here, Dainty. Talking Jilli’s ear off?”
“Ha, yeah,” Dan managed. He smiled sheepishly at Beatrice, but when she looked away, he turned back to Faith. “Enjoying the museum?”
“We’re headed for the sculptures,” said Beatrice.
“Interested? Dainty? Jilli?” Faith pulled Beatrice behind her. “C’mon!” Jay followed.
“Wait!” Dan stumbled after them. “You’re skipping the best paintings!” He pointed both hands at an enormous landscape cluttered with tiny nudes. “Like this Bosch. He’s famous for painting Hell.” Faith and Beatrice approached with trepidation. Jay winced when Dan made himself look at the canvas. “Devils flay a man’s flesh.” He bit his fingernail. “Demons drop a woman in boiling tar.” He bit the skin around the nail until it bled. “A crowd screams inside the mouth of a giant head, but even that head is in agony, obviously one of the damned.”
“Geez. That’s pretty metal,” said Faith. “Let’s go see the sculptures, BeatBax.” As they all walked away together, Faith released Beatrice’s hand and lingered to speak with Jay. “Is Dainty okay?”
“He said he couldn’t even look at the Bosch,” said Jay, “but I told him to explain a painting for you two, and that’s the one he chose.”
“Huh.” Faith shrugged. “Who’s the girl on his shirt? He wears it all the time, but when I ask him about it, he gets all flustered. She’s hella cute.”
“Oh, that’s Fumiko from LuLu’s Space-Time Acceleration. It’s an anime Dan and I like. Wanna watch it over the summer?”
Jay’s parents were in Portugal for the weekend, so he and Faith had the house to themselves for a slumber-party. Beatrice was spending the Summer volunteering at a hospital in Canada, and Dan turned down his invitation without explanation. They were missing out on a lot of licorice: Faith brought vines of every color. Her favorite was the white mystery-flavor. “Didn’t you say this anime’s mascot was a white fox? Where’s the fox?”
“It’s in the last episode. I warned you the show went on hiatus mid-climax.” Around midnight, Jay inserted the last LuLu’s DVD. “Now that she’s got the Wheel, do you think Commander Lucille and her Galaxy Zephyr stand a chance against the Hurricane?”
“Of course! The good guys always win in this sort of thing.” Faith bothered Django as the cat tried to sleep on the couch. “Right?”
“I’m afraid we’ll never know for sure. The anime stopped when the manga went on hiatus, like, a decade ago, and the author Tatsu was always anonymous, so we can’t pester them or anything.” Jay sat beside Faith and ate a purple licorice-vine: grape. “Ready to watch?” He started an episode.
“Wait.” Faith played with the pink pads on Django’s paws. “Your parents are out of the country, right, Jilli?” She looked up from Django’s toe-beans. “Do you wanna try something naughty?“
Jay blinked and paused the TV during the opening theme. “What do you mean?”
Faith pulled a cricket from the pocket of her torn jeans. Its wings were poorly wrapped, like mummy-linens. “I bought this from that bald prick in our homeroom who always wears dark sunglasses. He says he smokes them all the time, and they’re not dangerous at all. Shall we share a bug-stick?”
“Hm.” Jay took the cricket and held it to his nose, as if by muscle memory. It smelled like foreign spices, but he couldn’t put his finger on where he’d encountered the scent before. “What do we do? Did he say what it’s like being bug-eyed?”
“First we open a door so we don’t stink up the place, and then we light the eyes.” Faith sparked a purple lighter she took from her other pocket. “He couldn’t really describe it. He just kept making sound-effects and exploding motions with his hands.”
Jay passed back the cricket. “How about you smoke, and I watch?”
“But Jilli, I’m scared!” Faith laughed and wiggled her shoulders. “I hoped you could start it for me.”
Jay sighed. On the TV, paused during the LuLu’s theme, the space-robot’s crew of ten thousand all crossed their arms across their chests. Together they directed their giant robot to cross its arms across its chest, the sum of their confidence. “You open the back door and I’ll light it.”
“Really? You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
“Pass it over.” Jay took the cricket and lighter. Faith pranced to the back door and Django followed her.
“Djingo, Django, baked into a pie! Djingo, Django, wanna go outside?”
“When he’s in, he wants out. When he’s out, he wants in. He never stays in one place too long.” Jay lit the cricket’s eyes on fire. Embers spread through the papery wings. “Now what?”
“Pretend you’re sucking a straw, just for a second.” Faith kicked the door open and Django hopped into the night. “Keep the smoke in your open mouth until it cools. Then inhale, hold it, and exhale.”
Jay sputtered smoke and bent over coughing. “Oh! Oh my gosh.” He held his head. “I feel it already.” He counted his fingers to make sure he was awake, but only counted to five because his other hand was still holding the cricket.
“Here, lemme try.” Faith took the cricket puffed smoke out the door. The cricket’s eyes cooled from cherry-red to ash-gray. “Oh, wow.”
“Faith, did I ever tell you…” Jay rubbed his eyes. “I think I’m trans?”
“That’s not quite it. I’m complicated.” Jay took another puff and clarified after coughing. “My first memory was a nightmare—a rusty desert which looked a little like Uzumaki, actually. I was nude and I had a dong. I was near a red mountain with a white fox, and a monster ate us. I’ve never talked about it, but I still feel that masculinity in me.”
“I’m glad you told me, then! That’s super interesting, especially the fox.” Faith’s last puff burned the cricket to its stem. She swayed, eyes unfocused. “Oh boy, I’m flying through time. Ha.” They both stared through the TV. “Do you have a new name lined up?”
“Jay,” said Jay.
“Jay Diaz-Jackson.” Faith grinned. “Start the episode, JayJay!”