From Dan to Jay

(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)

On a cold, misty morning outside the white-walled monastery of Sheridan, beside a stone statue of a bird sheltering a man with its wings, Virgil Blue leaned on his cane and surveyed the coastline far below. Two distant islands glittered in the sunrise, and his own island thrust a mountainous peak into the clouds, but these paltry sizes didn’t impress him anymore. The Mountain whose peak pierced the Heavens waited in the next eternity, in the red desert on the original sun.

Virgil Blue heard whirring in the sky. A helicopter-drone dropped a package next to him and flew away. Through the compound-eyes of his silver mask, Virgil Blue read the package-sender’s Kansas City address. Inside the package was a volume of manga about colorful space-robots, and a note which read ‘The End Is Here.’ He tucked the volume up a navy sleeve. If he had any doubt before, it was gone now.

Virgil Blue wandered like the mist into his monastery halls. Bright tapestries dripped dew down alabaster walls. He stepped around puddles to save the hems of his navy robes and stopped beside an orange sliding paper door. “Oran dora, Danny. Are you ready for the end of the eternity?”

Dan hid his smartphone and slid the paper door open from inside. “Is it really time for us to leave, Virgil Blue?” Dan was about thirty-five years old with short brown hair, pale skin, and spotless orange robes. The same orange fabric lined the walls of his cramped quarters. Books of every color were open, cluttering the floor. “But I haven’t finished annotating the last volume of emph{LuLu’s}, and there’s still so much in the library I haven’t read yet!”

“Seven years is enough monastic study for anyone, Danny.” Virgil Blue put Dan’s latest annotated volume up a navy sleeve. “Let’s skip breakfast. Today our worms return to the desert, and I promise, yours will stick together all the way to the Mountain. Pick up your books and we’ll bring them back under the bell-tower.”

“Well… If you say so, Virgil Blue.” Dan collected thirty pounds of books. He hefted them with both arms to join the Virgil in the hallway.

Virgil Blue closed the sliding paper door behind them with his cane, a curious object taller than him to compensate for a limp in his left hip on cold mornings like this. “This way, Danny. We should leave before the other students wake up. The Biggest Bird awaits us!”

Dan brushed wrinkles from his orange robes by rubbing his books against them. “I can’t thank you enough for accepting me into your monastery. But I don’t think I’m done yet! I’m still so full of Earthly concerns.”

“That’s just your worms doing their job.” Virgil Blue pointed his cane’s gnarled, spotted tip down the hallway and led Dan from the monks’ quarters. “When our worms meet the Mountain, the Biggest Bird will eat such doubts. Whisper them to me and my worms will help you carry them.”

Their whispers echoed in the musty library, where bookshelves reached to the top of the bell-tower. Older titles were near the bottom and newer titles near the top, so Dan had to climb seven or eight shelves high to sort some of his books. He was mournful at the spines of those he hadn’t finished reading. “I’m worried for my friends, like Faith, and Jay, and Beatrice. They died without learning from you the way I did! Their worms must be so lost.”

“I’m sure the worms of Faith and Jay are as stuck together as yours and mine. As for Beatrice, we’ve never met, but there’s no sense worrying about the dead. Her worms are on their way to the Mountain, perhaps in you. Or perhaps she’s already saved some of your worms?” When Dan shelved the last of his books, Virgil Blue used a magician’s slight-of-hand to produce from his navy sleeves every volume of manga Dan had annotated, plus the new volume delivered by drone. “Shelve these, too.”

“What? LuLu’s, on the library shelves? But I thought you said it was only real to me.” Dan looked over the covers, paralyzed by the last one. “This is—post-hiatus?

“The final volume.”

“Please, I have to read it!”

“Danny, in the next eternity, we won’t appear in the same time or place. I won’t be there to guide you. I need you to show me you can drop your attachments.” Under his navy hood and silver mask, Virgil Blue could only show his pity by tilting his head a little. “You’ll live this last volume, Danny. You, me, Faith, Jay, Beatrice, and everyone else. It’s the fate of all worms.”

Dan climbed the shelves almost to the top of the bell-tower to leave the manga where it belonged chronologically. He couldn’t bring himself to climb down, mourning at the manga’s spines. “All worms? You promise?”

“All worms. The Biggest Bird won’t leave a single one behind.” Dan finally descended. Virgil Blue tapped his back with his cane’s gnarled, spotted tip to urge him onward, out of the bell-tower.

“What about Anihilato? Isn’t it keeping lost worms to itself?”

“Anihilato?” Virgil Blue stopped walking. His silver mask’s buggy glare was overpowering. “Where did you hear about Anihilato?”

Dan gulped. He knew nothing about it besides the name. “I’ve never told you, but I once smoked centipede and landed in the next eternity. I didn’t mean to! The Biggest Bird told her white fox to take my bad worms to the largest worm, Anihilato, the King of Dust.”

“Bad worms?” Under a navy sleeve, Virgil Blue wagged a finger disapprovingly. “I didn’t tell you about Anihilato because it’s so easily misinterpreted. That’s why lost worms are tricked into its scheme. The King of Dust can’t keep you from the Biggest Bird, Danny. Not unless you let it. I’ve seen the Mountain in you.” Virgil Blue gestured with his head, pointing with the feathers atop his silver mask. “If Anihilato worries you, a washcloth is all you’ll need.” Beyond a meager dining-hall where cushions flanked squat tables, they entered the kitchen. With his cane’s butt, Virgil Blue swept a washcloth from a counter-top into Dan’s hands. “Keep it until its purpose is clear.”

Dan folded the washcloth as they walked. He wasn’t sure if Virgil Blue actually intended the washcloth to be useful somehow, or if giving it to him was just a way to calm his nerves. “Did you read many books when you lived in America, Virgil Blue?”

“I did, but that was decades ago. Why do you ask?”

“This washcloth is right out of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”

“Take wisdom where you can find it, Danny. There are no coincidences. You read those books on the path to the Mountain in the next eternity, where your worms will complete their journey to join the Zephyrs in their fight against the Hurricane.” At the heart of the monastery, Virgil Blue rapped the wall with his cane’s butt. The cobblestones cradled a hinged panel smeared with ash and grime. “Would you open the furnace? I’m not so limber in the morning.”

“Can I take off my robes? I’d like to keep them clean.”

“First clean the furnace. Then remove your robes. You can’t take them with you to the original sun.”

Dan swallowed. Virgil Blue was making him overcome his own spotlessness. “Yes, Virgil Blue.” He pried the panel ajar. The furnace vomited black ash over his orange robes. He pulled soot from the furnace with his bare hands.

“Are you sure the furnace is your path to the next eternity?” Virgil Blue watched Dan dirty himself. “Just because my way out has to be so unpleasant doesn’t mean yours has to be, too.”

“I’ll be contributing to the monastery.” Dan smiled thinking of LuLu’s, where characters could either proudly sacrifice themselves for the sake of others or vainly sacrifice themselves to escape their reality. Dan was determined to make his death the former. “Sometimes I feel like being warm is all I’m really good for.”

“Then I’ll be back soon. I’ve got a parting gift for you, Danny.”

“Virgil Blue?” The teacher met his student eye-to-compound-eye. Dan’s smile faltered and he looked out a window at the ocean. “I’m also worried about…” He pat his blackened hands on his washcloth. “The Screeching Teeth. My bad worms made some, and even though the white fox took those worms to Anihilato, I’m sure their teeth are still inside me. Will the Mountain accept me like that?”

The Virgil froze. Under the silver mask, he opened his mouth as if to speak, but found no words. Compassion bent his wrinkled brow. “You’re not worried about the Screeching Teeth. The Screeching Teeth is worry, Danny! Leave worry behind. Your worms are ready.” Dan nodded. “I’ve got a parting gift for you.” Virgil Blue limped away. Dan scraped ash from the furnace until he was caked in soot. From the storeroom nearby he brought ten logs of fresh firewood, just enough to warm the monastery. After loading the furnace, he removed his robes. He was nude underneath, with a hungry build. “Here you are, Danny.” Virgil Blue hobbled to Dan with an outstretched navy sleeve. “I planted this cricket myself. I dried it, cured it, plucked it, and wrapped it in its wings.”

Dan held the insect to his nose. It was three inches long, smooth along the shaft, tan in color, and had ten black eyes encircling its gnarled head, like a tiny version of the Virgil’s cane. “You flatter me, Virgil Blue.” Dan tucked the cricket behind his ear and climbed into the furnace, cracking kindling underfoot. “Can I have the incense?”

“Of course.” Virgil Blue guarded the smoldering end of an incense stick while Dan settled cross-legged atop the logs. Virgil Blue stood the incense in the tinder.

Dan watched embers light the kindling. “I’ll give the Biggest Bird a good word for you, sir.”

“I’ve never been good at saying goodbye.”

“Goodbye, Virgil Blue.”

“Goodbye, Danny.” Virgil Blue shut the furnace with his shoulder. The monastery warmed. Dan kicked and screamed. Virgil Blue thawed his hands by the furnace door. Then he left the white-walled monastery and climbed his island all the way above the clouds, never to return.

The desert sand was baked rust-colored. Mile-high dunes crawled over infinite plains. The mustard-yellow sky veiled a red mountain on a natural stone step so massive its hazy features extended into space. Pink earthworms fell from the stars one at a time like rare raindrops, hit the sand, and immediately dug themselves deep.

A lone, cottony cloud zipped across the yellow sky spilling vapor in its wake. It hovered over a particular valley between two dunes, apparently satisfied with them. Then the cloud fell six feet left and six feet right, beginning a corkscrew descent. With each downward loop, it thickened and cooled. Soon the cloud was a falling hailstone, but on impact with hot sand, it popped like a bubble into forty pounds of pure white snow.

The snow jumped and steamed and clumped together. “Oh! Ow, hot, hot, hot!” The snow’s voice was feminine. “Damn.” She shook out some slender legs and used them to brush ice from her cold blue eyes. She sharpened her claws in the sand and used them to sculpt crystal whiskers on her snout. She kicked frost from her hind feet, leaving a fluttery, airy tail behind her, and tiptoed to the shadow of a dune, where the sand was cooler.

After a quick nap, she dug at the dune, pausing only to eat the earthworms she uncovered, and any which landed nearby. She finally excavated a cobblestone wall with a hinged panel. She sat before it, straightening her tail and biting sand from her fur.

Eventually the hinged panel clicked. A sand-curtain fell to reveal the wall was one side of a gray stone box. “Well, it’s about time!” She strutted to the box. “Come out already.” The monk in the box pushed the panel open. It was Dan, sitting crossed-legged in a cramped compartment, nude. Soot smeared his pale skin. “How am I supposed to fly you to the Mountain? You’re way too big for me.” She hopped her front paws onto the lip of the compartment, and gagged inspecting him. “Get a loincloth! It’s too early in the morning to look at monk junk.”

Dan leaned over her. She reminded him of the white powder spewed into the Wheel to begin the eternities. “Something’s wrong. You’re that white fox!”

“And you’re a hobo,” said the snow-white fox. “What’s so wrong with a fox, huh?”

“When I smoked centipede, you took some of my worms to Anihilato.”

“I’ll take bad worms to Anihilato. I’ll take good worms to the Mountain. It’s really up to me, so if you think you’re attaining Zephyrhood naked and sooty, you’ve got another think coming!”

“But my worms are stuck together, aren’t they?” Dan checked his hands to make sure he was one solid piece, no extra teeth or anything. “I thought that meant the Biggest Bird would collect me in person.”

“Bug-Bird sent me,” said the fox. Dan had heard the Biggest Bird called ‘the Heart of the Mountain,’ but the nickname ‘Bug-Bird’ was news to him. “Who sent you?

“Virgil Blue.”

The fox stopped wagging her tail and returned to all fours. “Really? You’re one of Virgil Blue’s?”


“Well, maybe you’re alright, then.” She sat on her haunches. “Clean yourself up quick and let’s start moving. In the desert, it’s only a matter of time before Anihilato finds us. I can just fly away from it, but you look like you’re landlocked.”

Dan pulled himself from the stone box, pouring soot onto the sand. “Somehow I knew Anihilato would be a problem for me. The idea of worms being kept from the Mountain—even bad worms—it just doesn’t sit right.” Dan used his washcloth to wipe off all the ash he could. “I’m not sure why I could take a washcloth to the next eternity but not my robes. I guess the desert’s too hot for robes anyway.” He pulled the washcloth around his waist and tied it into a loincloth. “Is that better?”

Much better.” The fox brushed Dan with her tail as she turned to lead him away. “I usually rein in a few worms at a time, so there ain’t no way I can carry you. You’re right, Bug-Bird should be doing this instead of me.”

“I’m kind of relieved, actually.” Dan followed her up a steep dune. He struggled with the slippery slope, but Faith walked like she was weightless. “I’ve studied with monks and Virgils for the last seven years. The way Sheridanians describe the Biggest Bird sounds pretty intimidating. What’s your name? Are you a Zephyr?”

“Faith,” she said. “I’m a Will-o-Wisp.”

Dan had never heard of a Will-o-Wisp in Sheridanian folklore, not even in LuLu’s, but he recognized the fox’s name. “Faith? Faith Featherway?”

Faith the fox looked back to him. “Do I know you?”

He pat his chest. “It’s me! Dan Jones! I should’ve known it was you!”

“Dainty! No wonder Bug-Bird sent me!” Faith leapt up and hovered on water-vapor to walk next to him. “Gosh, you’re older than I last saw you. I didn’t recognize you all covered in soot. Good ol’ Dainty Jones… We’ve got a nice long hike ahead of us, so we’ve got plenty of time to catch up on our way to the Mountain.”

Atop the dune, Dan saw the red mountain sitting on a tall plateau like a throne. He stopped to let its impossible heights fulfill him, but he couldn’t smile quite yet. “Is Beatrice there with you?”

Faith sighed. “If she is, I haven’t seen her. But just look at me! If BeatBax’s worms have made it to the Mountain, I probably wouldn’t recognize them.” She dropped from the air to wait by Dan’s feet. “You’re filthy, Dainty. Are you sure you’re okay?”

Dan swallowed and stared at the empty yellow sky. His hands twitched. “If Beatrice isn’t in the Mountain, the King of Dust might take her worms for itself.”

“I hope not. Anihilato’s such an ass. I don’t deliver it many worms, but when I do, I drop them from really, really high up. The one time we did meet, it tried to grab me.”

“Then I definitely want to meet. You said we’re in its desert, right? Let’s try taking some of its worms to the Mountain with us.”

“Do it yourself.” Faith turned to the Mountain and climbed empty air like a staircase to leave Dan behind atop the dune. “I don’t wanna see that thing again.”

“I’ll protect you, I promise!” Dan chased after her, but could only slide down the dune while she ascended away from him. “I just have to make sure Beatrice is alright. You know how I worry about her. I’ve even brought Anihilato an offering.” Dan took his cricket from behind his ear and held it up for her to see. “A cricket from Virgil Blue! You can help us smoke it.”

“Well… okay.” Faith circled back and glided down to him like she was on a playground slide. “But only ’cause there’s nothing but cockroaches over here. I can’t stand it!” Faith walked down the dune with Dan. “Lemme light that cricket for you, Dainty! We’ll get bug-eyed on the way.”

“We’ve got to share it. We’ll bum a lighter off the King of Dust.”

When worms dropped from the yellow sky onto the dry sand, they dug deep into the darkness, seeking cool moisture. Larger worms left tunnels in their wakes. The largest worm carved caverns with twenty arms and twenty legs, eating all the other worms it found along the way. When it exhaled, it filled its labyrinths with frost.

The largest worm cradled ten eggs, one in each pair of hands. Their yolks radiated warmth alien to the underground, like distant stars at night. It admired them with six eyes on a head shaped like a man’s, but larger, cracked, and dry. It bent its head to the first egg and continued bending, coiling around its eggs three times. Then its ten pairs of legs gripped its body with its knees, holding the worm in a tight disk. Secured like this, it slept.

It woke when it heard a voice. “Yo, Dainty. Over here.” It unwound to sight the intruders with all three pairs of eyes. A snow-white fox and a monk in a grimy loincloth had entered its lair. “I don’t like this. It’s bigger than the last time I saw it!”

Dan counted the largest worm’s limbs as it uncurled like a cobra. It had ten pelvises connected in series, and ten stacked torsos held upright with serpentine musculature. “Anihilato? O King of Dust?” It crawled to a dark corner of its cave and whispered gibberish as it stuck each egg in the wall. “I’m Dan Jones, I’m a monk. This is my friend Faith Featherway, she’s a Will-o-Wisp from the Biggest Bird. She once brought you some of my worms.”

The largest worm blinked its six eyes at them one eye at a time. It had no nose, but slim nostrils. “Anihilato? King of Dust? Don’t forget, mortal, I’m the Master of Nihilism, too!”

“I’m still learning.” Dan held out the cricket. “Do you have a lighter?”

Anihilato, King of Dust, Master of Nihilism, said nothing, just appraising its invaders. Its long body threatened to surround and constrict them. “C’mon, Dainty. Let’s scram.” Faith turned to the exit. “I told you this was thing was freaky.”

“I’m the Master of Nihilism,” Anihilato repeated, “and all worms are rightfully mine.” It illustrated this by eating worms off the ground, becoming slightly larger with each one. Dan was revolted knowing some of his own worms contributed to the monster’s mass, but he kept his disgust to himself for now. Its mouth had no lips, so when worm-blood leaked, Anihilato wiped its chin and licked its hands. “If the fox let you keep some of your worms, then she didn’t do her job right.”

“Cool it,” said Faith. “Bug-Bird sent me to bring him in, ’cause Dainty here’s basically a Zephyr—his worms are all stuck together! You’re lucky he’s decided to visit you on his way to the Mountain, because that’s where his worms belong!”

You’re lucky,” said Anihilato. “Your worms are about to join the winning team and contribute to my ultimate victory. I’m almost large enough to eat the Biggest Bird, so eating you will help secure my inevitable triumph. But the monk’s worms are stuck together, so before I swallow him whole, I’ll do the supreme favor of proving I own him, and why that’s for the best.” It retreated to the darkness and returned dragging a metal filing-cabinet eight cabinets high, four feet deep, and almost as long as Anihilato’s whole body. It looked absolutely out of place in the worm’s grungy lair, as if it came from an abandoned office-building. “The Heart of the Mountain gave me this box of souls with a certificate for every worm.”

Anihilato’s twenty arms opened and searched through all the filing-cabinets at once. Dan peeked inside: each cabinet had countless compartments, and each compartment held a Rolodex full of pink business-cards. Anihilato plucked more cards from these Rolodexes than it seemed possible for a Rolodex to hold. Was this filing-cabinet legitimately from the Biggest Bird? Where else could it’ve come from? Dan bobbed the cricket. “If you help light it, you can help smoke it.”

“Dan Jones.” Anihilato slammed all the cabinets shut, holding innumerable pink cards in every hand. It read through the cards with three eyes while the other three squinted at Dan. “See? Make no claims to Zephyrhood while I hold your worm-certificates.”

“Uh, this guy was sent by Virgil Blue.” Faith’s tail puffed aggressively. “Are you gonna tussle with Virgil Blue?

“I already have!” said Anihilato. “Your Blue Virgil’s worms were among the first I ever ate!”

Faith leapt like she was pinning down a snake. “Nuh-uh! No way!

“Faith, it’s fine.” Dan didn’t believe a single word from Anihilato, but he’d play along to learn more about the filing-cabinet. If Anihilato actually believed in the merit of these certificates, then they might be a way to save some worms—and if Anihilato was almost large enough to eat the Biggest Bird, Dan had to save every worm he could! He tucked the cricket behind his ear. “Can I have my worm-certificates? I want to read them.”

Anihilato hesitated, but, with a sigh, gathered the pink cards into one pair of hands. The innumerable cards miraculously stacked to the mere thickness of a poker-deck. “I’m only humoring you because the Blue Virgil’s worms make me so patient with fools.” It passed the pink cards to the monk.

Dan nodded appraising the cards as if he accepted their legitimacy. Each card’s text was uninterruptible mathematical symbols. “Why did the Heart of the Mountain give you permission to eat all these worms, O Master of Nihilism?”

“The Mountain can’t collect worms for itself, and thinks I’m collecting worms on its behalf.” Anihilato grinned. Its dull teeth had no gums. “If I’m large enough when the Biggest Bird comes to fetch the worms I’ve collected, I’ll eat it alive, and I won’t need its paperwork for permission. Then I’ll be large enough to eat the whole Mountain at once! You should be glad I’m eating your worms. I’m carrying them toward absolute conquest.”

“Hmm.” Dan still wasn’t sure Anihilato was telling the truth, but a betrayal of the Biggest Bird was worth opposing regardless. “Well, Virgil Blue always told me the Biggest Bird made our worms from dust. As the King of Dust, I guess it just makes sense that you’d own me.” Dan shuffled the pink cards together and forcefully folded them in half. “If you had my worm-certificates.”

Anihilato’s jaw hung open. “…I do.

“Then what am I holding?” Dan held up the folded cards.

Anihilato shook its head and pointed back to its filing-cabinet. “You saw me take those from my box of souls mere moments ago.”

“I sure did.”

“So all your worms belong to me.”

“I don’t follow. You don’t have my worm-certificates.”

Anihilato reared, bumping the filing-cabinet. Its flared limbs were like a manta’s mantle. “Mortal, I’ll explain it one more time!” It jabbed at Dan with pointing fingers. “You think you deserve to be an immortal facet of the Mountain, but, you came to me first. I, therefore, claim you, here and now!”

Faith whispered over her shoulder. “Let’s get outta here, Dainty. This gives me the creeps.”

Dan just smiled. “Maybe the Mountain already reclaimed my worm-certificates, and you just forgot?”

Frustration bent Anihilato’s limbs. Froth bubbled between its teeth. “I gave them to you less than a minute ago!”

Now you remember.” Dan tucked the folded cards into his loin-cloth. “I’ve seen the Mountain in me. I asked for my worm-certificates, and the Mountain asked for my worm-certificates. You gave them to me, and you gave them to the Mountain. Everything’s in order. My worms are my own.”

Anihilato stomped so hard the caverns shook and knocked over the filing-cabinet. The quakes made Faith jump. “You can’t escape me by faking knowledge you don’t comprehend! Such awful students make the best eggs, Dan Jones! You escape on technicality while I pretend to follow the Biggest Bird’s command, but when I’m large enough to ignore paperwork and eat the Mountain, I’ll slurp you out of it and make you a delicious egg!”

“Pleasure doing business, Anihilato.”

“You Zephyrs are crazy.” Faith forced a worried smile with her vulpine muzzle. “I found this guy naked in a box, Anihilato. He’s the real deal, I promise!” She leapt and floated on cave-moisture. “Can’t you see it’s dangerous here, Dainty? Lemme take you to the Mountain.”

“Don’t talk like you’re leaving, wisp. You still belong to me.” Anihilato’s next breath sucked wind from every corner of the endless caverns.

Faith yelped as her airy tail drifted towards the King of Dust. “Help! Dainty! Make it stop!” She tried to run, but slipped backward each step.

Dan grabbed the fox in both hands. Snow flew through his fingers. “Anihilato, quit it! Now!”

Faith fought the wind that ripped her snowflakes away. “Help, help!”

“I’m so sorry, I didn’t—” Her body vanished bit-by-bit until finally her terrified eyes flew into Anihilato’s lipless mouth. “She’s my friend. Let her go.”

“Your friend is mine.” Anihilato’s legs rolled an egg over the cavern-floor. Its bottom arms passed the egg to its top arms, which held the egg to its face. “She’s an awful egg. Pale color. Too transparent. Why, she hardly has any worms at all!”

“Hatch her. Please.” Dan knelt and pressed his nose into the dirt. “She met Virgil Blue. Twice. They traded gifts. If you really have his worms, you know this would devastate him.”

“I’ll let her hatch when her worms are separated and digestible.” Anihilato slithered to the egg-wall. “Begone, Dan Jones.”

“I’ll bet you my worms for hers.”

Anihilato looked back at the monk. Dan unfolded his worm-certificates and rest them reverently before the largest worm. “…I’ll allow this,” said Anihilato, “because you say you’re a student of Virgil Blue. Having eaten your master’s worms, I can’t resist administering a test.” It swapped Faith’s egg for another from the wall and carried the new egg to Dan. “For Virgil Blue I’ll allow this unwashed, nude, and prostrate fool the honor of wagering his worms for the sake of a frigid rat who didn’t even make a nice egg.” It set the new egg before him. “But your challenge will prove fatal if you lied! Only a true disciple of Virgil Blue could hope to survive.”

Eggshell isolated it, an ivory wall. Egg-whites pulsed with its subtle heartbeat. Yellow yolk sunned its joints. Prematurely, it was gripped by desire for birth. It pecked and spread wings to breach its shell and release the egg-whites. It felt dirt in its claws. Behind, Anihilato snacked on eggshell and licked yolk from each fingertip. “Your challenge, Dan Jones.”

It was fist-sized with blue feather-fluff. Its beak bore a scythe’s curve, but its one eye held an innocent youth. Where its other eye would’ve been, its left side was a mess of boils and teeth with crowns and roots jutting out at odd angles. “Is it a bird?” asked Dan.

“It’s a hobby,” said Anihilato. “My spawn never live long before I consume them. My eggs are useful only for warmth—and for reducing self-assured mortals like you to easily-digestible worms.”

“And the teeth?”

“Virgil Blue must’ve taught you of the Screeching Teeth… if you did study with him, of course. Surely you know the danger of locking eyes with the afflicted?” As the words left Anihilato’s lipless mouth, Dan found his gaze fixed on the bird’s beady black eye. His pupils tightened in concentration. The two stared motionlessly. Anihilato wriggled near to whisper in Dan’s ear. “Virgil Blue’s worms make me invulnerable to the teeth. My spawn aren’t so lucky—and they’re infectious!”

“I’m beyond the teeth.” Dan tried to leave worry behind. “You took my bad worms. That’s all you’ll ever get from me.”

“Your trembling disagrees.” Anihilato put three hands on both Dan’s shoulders. “Blink, Jones, and you’ll succumb to the Screeching Teeth. To end your unimaginable suffering, I’ll claim you. Your worms will soak in an egg until your ego melts, and then I’ll eat your soul!

The bird turned its head so its eye faced him head-on, but thoughts of the teeth on the other side still tickled Dan’s brain. He imagined a molar embedded in his throat. He felt a canine burrowing behind his cheekbone. “Peep,” said the bird. It looked down and pecked the dirt. Dan released his breath.

“Well done, Danny-boy!” The King of Dust slapped his back. “Perhaps you really have met Virgil Blue, once or twice.”

“Where’s Faith?” Dan crossed his legs and covered his eyes. “I won’t look until I hear her voice!”

“Oh, hush, Jones. I’ll hatch her, but I’m keeping her worm-certificates.” It climbed over the filing-cabinet to choose Faith’s egg from the wall. “If she returns, I’ll reclaim her—and once I’m large enough to eat the Mountain, she’s mine, just like you, whether I’ve got your worm-certificates or not.”


Anihilato faced the bird and closed five eyes to match its gaze. “Begone!” The bird blinked. Its flesh bubbled and darkened until it was a black centipede with wriggling orange legs. Anihilato slurped it down alive. Satisfied, Anihilato gave Faith’s egg to Dan. “Faith Featherway, you’ve been conjured from the edge of oblivion.”

The egg cracked. Faith gasped from the crack in a cloud of fog. “Holy shit!”

“Faith! Are you okay?” Dan hugged her, but she evaded his arms like steam. “I’m so sorry, I couldn’t—“

“Let’s go!” She deposited behind him into shambling snow. She made a crude leg and shook it at the exit. “Dainty, run!”

“Faith—” Dan held himself back and shook his head. “Leave without me. I’ll be up soon.”

“What?” Faith produced another snow-leg and hobbled away. “Don’t tell me you wanna stay down here!”

“I just bet my worm-certificates for your safety.” Dan pointed at Anihilato’s box. “That means I’m not done. Anihilato’s already bigger than any bird I’ve ever seen, and I’ll be damned if I let it get any bigger. What’s in all those other eggs it plans to eat? I can’t leave if Beatrice’s worms might be trapped here—or anyone’s, really. Every worm deserves the Biggest Bird, and the Biggest Bird deserves every worm. Anihilato, let’s make another wager.”

“Are you kidding?” Faith’s eyes emerged from the snow to glare at Dan. She carved herself a sharp snout. “Dainty, you’ve used up all our luck already!” When Dan didn’t turn, she jumped and shouted. “You’re a Zephyr! You’re supposed to go to the Mountain!

“The Mountain is in me.” Dan stayed seated to show he wasn’t afraid of Anihilato, but Faith saw fear in his shaking hands. “I’ll join you up there when I’ve got Beatrice’s worm-certificates. And Jay’s. At least. Don’t they belong in the Mountain?”

“Dan! I miss them too, but there’s an order to things here!” She growled and bared her teeth. “Did you spend seven years in a monastery just to gamble your worms for old pals?”

“No, but now that I know it’s an option, I can’t think of a better reason to spend seven years in a monastery. I should’ve devoted my whole life to this!”

Faith tssk‘d. “You’re a bad liar, Dainty. This was your plan all along. You’re right where you meant to be.” She turned tail to him. “I’m flying to the Mountain to tell Bug-Bird why I’m late.”

As she left, Anihilato squinted at Dan with three left eyes. “I won’t waste eternity gambling with you, monk. If I can’t have your worms, I can find more elsewhere.”

“Then let’s make it quick.” Dan pushed his pink cards toward the King of Dust. “I wager all my worms against your entire box of souls, right here, right now. I’ll drag you to the Mountain myself.”

“…You cur! If you dare to challenge me, shut your mouth and match my gaze!” Anihilato stormed up to Dan in a flurry of limbs. “Lock eyes with the Master of Nihilism and feel your consciousness shred!” Its six shining eyes transfixed him. He couldn’t even breathe. “I’ve got you now, monk.” Dan closed his left eye. When his right eye burned, he opened his left eye and closed his right. “Don’t waste my time, Jones. With your worms, I’ll swallow the Heart of the Mountain whole.”

A tooth broke the skin on Dan’s neck. He shuddered as blood trickled down his chest. He’d tried dying for Beatrice—for the Mountain! For everyone! But now he knew it was only ever vanity.

Dan blinked.

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 rest 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 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 it has.” 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?”


“Yeah!” 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 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. “Then the next time you see it, 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?”

As her mother pulled into the high-school parking-lot, Jillian counted her fingers: she had ten, so she was certainly awake. The morning-bell rang and Jillian groaned. “New school, first day of Senior year, and I’m late for class. What a waking nightmare.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t expect the traffic.” Her mother parked and unlocked the doors. “We’ll learn the streets soon, I promise.”

“It’s okay. I gotta go. It’s just…” Jillian stepped out and slipped her backpack over her 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 Jillian smile, so her mother sighed and looked away. “Jilli, what’s that TV show you like?”

Jillian rubbed her 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 Jillian, “LuLu’s Space-Time Acceleration. Why?”

“Look.” Her mother pointed at a boy jogging to the school doors. When he stopped to stuff some bulky books in his backpack, Jillian 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.” Jillian covered her 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.” Jillian waved goodbye. When she ran into the school, she spotted the boy jogging down a hallway. The books in his backpack must have been heavy, because she 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.

Jillian decided to embarrass herself 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.” She 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?” Jillian shook her head. “The first few volumes are all about what life is like on Earth in 2399. It gives a lot of insight into the twins.”

“Neat.” Jillian’s tank-top was purple like her favorite Zephyr, but it didn’t have any space-robots on it. She’d have to look into LuLu’s merchandise. “I’m new here. Could you point me to Room 120?”

“That’s my homeroom too. I’ll lead you there.”

In Room 120, a girl waved him and Jillian 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 white 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. Jillian 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 Jillian. “Introduce yourself.”

“Oh, sure.” The whole class was looking at her. She hadn’t prepared herself for this spotlight. Jillian cleared her throat. “I’m Jillian Diaz-Jackson. I just moved here from New York.” The shorter girl with white-blonde hair smiled and waved at her, 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 Jillian. “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 Jillian, “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 Jillian’s hand. Jillian thought the name sounded familiar, but she 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.

“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?” Jillian almost raised her hand, but decided against it and kept her hands on her desk. A bald boy in dark sunglasses raised his hand, and so did Faith, and most of the class followed suit. Finally Jillian raised her 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, “what do you know about crickets?”

“Bug-sticks,” he corrected. “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!”

Jillian 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. Jillian had always found their ten black eyes somehow familiar, like she’d seen them in a dream.

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 Jillian’s sweat from her forehead. While Dan studied a painting, she photographed it with her 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.” Jillian 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.” Jillian flipped to a page of the brochure which she had dog-eared. “What do you know about this statue?”

Dan examined the picture she 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 all secrets. 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.” Jillian wrote in the brochure: deities could be combined like giant anime space-robots. “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?”

Jillian cocked an eyebrow at him. “Why not finish this hall? I thought you enjoyed all these religious paintings.”

“I do.” Dan turned away from her 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 Jillian. 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. I want to… appreciate her? Admire her?” His anxious gesticulating looked like frantic mudra. “Besides, I’ve learned not to bother Beatrice with small-talk like that. And it’s not my place to ask her out, it never has been.”

Before Jillian 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. “Oh. Huh,” said Jillian. “That’s news to me.” How had she 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 Jillian 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!” Jillian 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. Jillian 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 Jillian. “Is Dainty okay?”

“He said he couldn’t even look at the Bosch,” said Jillian, “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?”

Jillian’s parents were spending the weekend in Portugal, so she and Faith had the house to themselves for a slumber-party. Beatrice couldn’t come, busy volunteering at a hospital, and Dan turned down his invitation without explanation. They were missing out on a whole lot of licorice: Faith brought vines of every color.

Around midnight, Jillian 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.” Jillian sat beside Faith and ate a purple licorice-vine: grape. “Ready to watch?” She 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?

Jillian 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.” Jillian took the cricket and held it to her nose, as if by muscle memory. It smelled like foreign spices, but she couldn’t put her finger on where she’d encountered the scent before. “What do we do? What’s it 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.”

Jillian 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.”

Jillian 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.” Jillian 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.” Jillian 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.”

Jillian sputtered smoke and bent over coughing. “Oh! Oh my gosh.” She held her head. “I feel it already.” She counted her fingers to make sure she was awake: ten.

“Here, lemme try.” Faith puffed smoke out the door. The cricket’s eyes cooled from cherry-red to ash-gray. “Oh, wow.”

“Faith, did I ever tell you…” Jillian rubbed her eyes. “I think I’m trans?”


“That’s not quite it. I’m complicated. I think I’m more than just a man.” Jillian took another puff and clarified after coughing. “My first memory was a nightmare—a nightmare which looked a little like Akayama stranded on Uzumaki, actually. I was nude and I had a dong. I was in a rusty desert 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.”


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