(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)
About six years later, Jay disembarked a plane in Australia. Compared to the winter he’d left in Los Angeles, the walk across the runway into Sydney Airport was sweltering. That season-swap across the equator always made him count his fingers: he had ten, so he was certainly awake. He turned off his smartphone’s airplane-mode and called his father. His father had worked in every country on Earth, so he always deserved the first call, but they also both just liked to talk. “Hey, it’s your son. Just wanted to let you know I’ve landed safely in Sydney.”
“Oh, Jay!” He heard his father pull himself out of bed. “Have you taken any good photos yet?”
Jay uncapped the digital camera hanging from his neck. He took a picture of the Sydney skyline through an airport window. “Now I have, but I’m getting right back on another plane, to the outback. There’s been some ancient aboriginal art discovered near Uluru, so I’m collecting photos and quotes for an article I’m writing.”
“A giant sandstone formation, a few hundred miles from Alice Springs.” Jay’s life fit in his suitcase, so he walked past fellow passengers stuck getting their luggage off conveyor-belts.
“Ah. Last time I visited, that was mostly called Ayer’s Rock.”
“I thought you’d done business in Australia.” A bar looked like a nice place to rest for a minute. “Anything I should know?”
“That Simpsons episode where they visit down-under is surprisingly popular there. If people around the airport can tell you’re American, they might make a reference just to catch you off-guard. Please, send me a link to the article once it’s published! I always like seeing your work.”
“I will.” Jay sat on a bar-stool and set down his suitcase, wondering if he could pass for Australian. “Just soda, mate,” he told the bartender. He felt he’d flubbed it. “You sound pretty tired, Dad. It’s about noon, here. Isn’t it late-afternoon in LA?”
“I’m not in LA. I’m on business in Egypt. It’s almost four AM.”
“Oh! Sorry about that. I’d ask you to pass the phone to Mom, but you can’t do that across the globe, can you?”
“It’s alright! Hold on, let me get your mother in on this call, she’d love to hear you’ve landed.”
Jay and his father listened to the phone ring. The bartender gave Jay his soda. His mother answered. “Hello?”
“It’s Jay and me,” said his father. “He just called to tell us he’d landed in Sydney.”
“Oh, Jay! Thanks for calling me.”
“No problem. “
“I always worry if you’re safe when you’re traveling, you know?”
“Because—” Jay checked over both shoulders. No one in the bar seemed interested in his phone-call, but he spoke quieter anyway. “Because I’m black? Or because I’m trans?”
“Because traveling is dangerous, Sweetie! But neither of those really help in some areas, do they?”
“Really, son, keep your eyes open,” said his father. “I’ve met some pretty unsavory characters out in the world.”
Jay wanted to tell them he often felt safer traveling, now that he presented as male, but he decided not to complicate the conversation. “Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Dad. I’m gonna let you get back to sleep. I gotta call my friend Dan before I forget. I always contact him when I land somewhere new. Maybe you should give him a call, Dad. He could tell you all about the pyramids, or whatever Egyptology catches your interest.”
“Bye, Jay,” said his father.
“Bye! Good luck!” said his mom.
“Buh-bye.” Jay hung up. He sipped soda and dialed Dan’s number. “Hey, Dan!”
“Jay? You must’ve landed somewhere new.”
“I’m in Australia, headed for Uluru, Ayer’s Rock. What can you tell me about aboriginal culture?”
“Oh, wow. Jealous, jealous, jealous. The aboriginal dreamtime is one of the oldest religions on the planet. It’s hard to say anything concretely, though, since there’s a whole lot of variety, and modern pop-culture has recontextualized a lot of it beyond recognition.” Jay heard Dan pull books from a shelf and flip through the pages. Jay reached into his pockets for a notepad and pen. “As I understand it, the basic idea is that the world’s creation was carried out by cultural icons and folk-heroes. For instance, some say wars between serpents gave Uluru its modern shape. A person’s ancestry links them all the way back to that ancient era, so there’s this notion of accruing worldly knowledge from then to now, before our birth and after our death.”
Jay wrote that in his notepad. “Pft. Haha.”
“It’s silly, but… this kinda reminds me of that anime, LuLu’s. You know, because Professor Akayama is simulating a world to gather data about Earth’s life in a bunch of worms.”
“Like I said, pop-culture borrows from religions all the time. Lots of belief-structures involve creation-myths and connection to ancestors. Uluru probably inspired Uzumaki’s red mountain, too.” Dan sighed and shut his books. “I lent my LuLu’s DVDs to Faith and Beatrice.”
“Great! Faith liked that show. I’m sure Beatrice will, too.”
“I hope so. I…” Dan was silent for so long, Jay wondered if his phone had dropped the call. “I’m trying to get back on their good side after I made a scene at a party last year.”
“Yeah? What happened?”
“I’d rather not talk about it. Maybe you could call them for me?”
“Well, alright. Thanks as always for the theology, Dan.”
“Buh-bye.” Jay hung up.
The bartender saw Jay finish his soda. “That’ll be nine hundred dollary-doos.” Jay pretended he was caught off-guard. The bartender guffawed. “I’m joshin’ ya, mate! Four bucks fifty.”
He left a fiver and left the bar. As he walked to his next terminal, he dialed Faith’s number. He felt a little like Zephyr-Purple, connecting disparate groups together. “Hey, Faith.”
“JayJay! You’re on speakerphone.” He heard the LuLu’s theme playing in the background.
“Hi, Jay,” said Beatrice. “We’re just watching TV before bed.”
“Dan told me he lent you LuLu’s.” Jay showed his tickets to an airport agent at the gate. “Are you enjoying it?”
“Yep! BeatBax and I just finished the first episode.”
“I like the biblical scale,” said Beatrice. “First episode, boom, the observable universe is Hell now. Fix it.“
“Dan, um.” Jay boarded his next plane. “Dan told me he made a scene at a party, and he was trying to apologize.”
“Um. Yeah.” Faith paused the DVD as the theme-song finished. “Dainty tried to start a fight. Don’t get me wrong, the other guy was being a total shithead, but I didn’t think Dainty handled the situation well.”
“Dan and I had talked about this guy creeping on me for a while, so Dan got all worked up over him,” said Beatrice. “He always tries too hard to relate to me.”
“Dan’s still learning to be himself.” Jay found himself a window-seat. “I think it’d be nice if we swung by for his birthday.”
“When’s Dainty’s birthday?”
“Same day as mine,” said Jay. “Two weeks from now.”
“What do you say, BeatBax?”
Beatrice huffed. “If I decide he’s putting me on some stupid pedestal, I’m leaving.”
“We’ll give you some nice excuse to leave early if you need to,” said Jay.
“I’ll bring some religious-lit to distract him, too,” said Faith. “I’ve still got that red card-stock pamphlet from the Islands of Sheridan!”
Jay chuckled to himself. “The one you got from those monks you didn’t make up?”
“That’s the one! The monks gave me powdered centipede with the pamphlet, too. Maybe Dainty can help me smoke it. I know he’s got a cool bong.”
Jay was more incredulous than ever. He’d thought LuLu’s made up centipedes until a street-merchant tried selling him one in Ukraine. “Beatrice, she’s joking, right? Did Faith actually meet these monks, or is she just making excuses for having illegal bugs?”
“If she’s making it up, she’s really going the extra mile,” said Beatrice. “She actually has that pamphlet, so either she got it from monks or she made it herself.”
When Jay reached Uluru, he took plenty of pictures. The massive rock formation over half a mile high touched something primal in him, especially when the sunset painted it bright red, but he couldn’t shake a disappointment which made him ashamed of himself. Here he was, at a world-famous natural landmark, legendary object of myth, immeasurable in size and importance, but he’d expected it to be bigger, like a mountain he’d seen once in a dream. Dan was right: LuLu’s had spoiled him.
The night of his birthday, Dan Jones couldn’t tear his gaze from the bus-stop outside his apartment. He washed clean dishes again and again just to stand near the window in his kitchenette watching buses unload passengers every quarter-hour. By the time Faith disembarked the 8:30 PM bluebird-line, Dan’s fingers were raw and prune-like. He waited at the peephole for Faith to knock on his door. “Dainty! Ready to help me smoke my centipede?”
“Faith! Come in before you say things like that!” Dan opened the door and received from Faith a vanilla-frosted cupcake with the number twenty-four written in cinnamon candies.
“Happy birthday, Dainty.” Faith kissed him on the cheek and lounged on his couch. “Share that cupcake with JayJay. It’s his birthday, too! Can I hold your bong?”
“Thanks, Faith.” Dan put the cupcake on the coffee-table by the couch and passed Faith a glass pipe. “It’s not a bong, it’s a water-pipe. I named it Lio, after you-know-who. I use it for powdered cricket I buy from some guys on-campus, but it’ll work with centipede, too. Is Beatrice coming?”
“JayJay and BeatBax missed the bus. They’ll be on the next one.” Faith looked into the water-pipe like a microscope. Dan had cleaned Lio to crystal clarity. It had two chambers, and inside the top chamber was a percolator like a tiny glass tree with five branches like fingers dipping slotted nails in ice-water. Ten glass buboes circled the mouthpiece for a solid grip. Lio’s erect stem poked from the bottom chamber and held up a tiny bowl to fill with powdered bugs. “I’m nervous,” Faith giggled. “I’ve had this centipede-powder for years, but I’ve never had the nerve to try it.”
Dan took the pipe from her and set it gingerly on the coffee-table. “Where did you get it? I’ve always wondered where centipedes came from.”
“I got it visiting my uncle in Wyoming, right after high-school graduation. You’ll like this, Dainty, it’s about a religion!” Faith passed him a red card-stock pamphlet from her purse. He opened it to see a plastic-baggie filled with brown powder taped inside. He scanned the pamphlet, a religious introduction with text in ten languages, but he focused on the hand-drawn illustrations, some of which seemed copied right out of LuLu’s Space-Time Acceleration. “Monks from the Islands of Sheridan were lecturing in, um, Sheridan.”
Dan was about to open the baggie, but now decided against it. It sounded like Faith was riffing on LuLu’s to hide the true source of her centipede. Was the red card-stock pamphlet printed off a fan-site? “Maybe you shouldn’t smoke this, even with all of us here to trip-sit you. Taking bugs from strangers is ill-advised at best.”
“It’s okay. I’d met one of the monks before, apparently.”
“You must have impressed them. This is a lot. There’s enough to share with Jay and Beatrice, if they want to join you.”
“JayJay might, but ever since BeatBax started working as a nurse, she’s bugged me to cut back on the bugs. And… um…” Faith stared into Lio, refusing to meet Dan’s eyes, and took a deep breath. “You know, Dan, sometimes the way you’re transfixed by Beatrice makes her uncomfortable.”
Dan covered his face. “I know,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. I mean, I’m certainly obsessed with her, so I know where you’re coming from.”
“I’m… attracted to her, but not like that. I promise you, it’s courtly.” He wandered back to the kitchenette to watch the vacant bus-stop through his window. “I think she’s inspirational. She awes me like a seraph. I’ll tell her that when she gets here. Then she’ll understand.”
“Um. Maybe don’t?” Faith suggested. “We’re all friends here. Just give her enough space to be your friend.” Dan nodded. Faith tried to smile at him. “Hey Dainty, look at this!” In her purse she carried a cardboard-box. She unfolded its flaps: it was filled with dirt. Six raw crickets were stuck eyes-down in the moist earth, sprouting buds which had their own black, beady eyes. “They’re propagating! I told you we could grow our own. If I dried them, would you wrap the wings? You’ve got a knack for meticulous work like that.”
“I could try.” Dan compared the budding crickets to a hand-drawn illustration in the red card-stock pamphlet. “I should show this pamphlet to my professors. It’s funny to cook up a brochure for a fictional religion like this, with centipedes as a sort of entheogen.”
“It’s not fictional!” Faith pouted. “The monks seemed reclusive. It makes sense no one knows about them.”
“But you said they lectured in Wyoming. Were they lecturing across America?”
“No, just the one lecture in Wyoming. They made a point to mention they would never return.”
Dan closed the pamphlet. “Well, what was the lecture about?”
“Nothing. It was a silent lecture.”
“Did they… make hand motions?”
“I don’t know. I wasn’t in the room.”
“And you want to smoke centipede-powder they gave you?” Dan wrung his hands. “I’ve smoked centipede, Faith. It’s a harrowing experience at the best of times.”
“This powder was prepared by Virgil Blue. Are you gonna tussle with Virgil Blue? This is the way it’s meant to be!”
“If you say so.” Dan poured half the centipede-powder into Lio’s bowl and packed it tight. He brought a black blowtorch from his bookshelf. “Did Virgil Blue tell you to drink cold orange-juice when you smoke centipede?”
“Virgil Blue didn’t say anything. They were the silent one. But Virgil Skyy didn’t mention orange-juice, either!”
“Then call me Virgil Orange, because I just saved you a sore throat. I’ll be right back.”
Dan hurried to the refrigerator. Faith stole his spot by leaning across the couch. “This is a nice apartment, Dainty.”
“Thanks. It was my dad’s, before he died.” Dan poured three cups of orange-juice and looked at the bus-stop outside his kitchenette window. Passengers disembarked the 8:45 PM bluebird-line. “There’s Beatrice and Jay. I haven’t seen Jay in person since he started transitioning—he’s always out of the country. He looks great. What should I tell him?”
“Tell him you like his T-shirt.” When she heard them knock at the door, Faith shouted. “JayJay, BeatBax, help me smoke some bug!”
Jay’s T-shirt featured Zephyr-Purple standing on the moon. Japanese characters spelled LuLu’s Space-Time Acceleration over the stars. While Dan puzzled over the kanji, Beatrice surreptitiously sat left of Faith on the couch. “Can you read it?” asked Dan.
“Of course,” said Jay. “RuRu no Jikuu-Kasoku! I learned the pronunciation the first time I visited Japan. Plus, I know Chinese, and lots of characters carry over.” The symbols had complex sub-parts made of multiple strokes. “Whenever I end up in Asia, I always check whether the manga’s off its hiatus.”
Dan nodded and counted pilots in their cockpits. When Dan and Jay stood face-to-face, it seemed a mirror stood between them: Dan was pale and Jay was dark, but they had the same haircut, similar jawlines, and indistinguishable builds. “Here, Jay, sit down. Faith has extra centipede-powder if you’d like to try some. Beatrice and I could trip-sit both of you. Oh, and happy birthday! Faith brought us a cupcake.”
“Oh! Thanks, Faith.” Jay sat on Faith’s right. “And, hey, Dan… Beatrice told me she might need to leave early. She’s on-call at the hospital tonight.”
Faith taunted Beatrice with Lio, the water-pipe. “It won’t bite, BeatBax!”
Beatrice wrung her maple-syrup hair. “You promised you’d cut back on bug-sticks.”
“It’s not cricket, it’s centipede! And from now on I’ll only smoke my home-grown bug-sticks. They’re organic!”
“Does that really mean anything?” Beatrice sniffed the bowl of powdered centipede. “Ick. Do you know what you’re getting into, Faith?”
“Nope! You’re the nurse. Tell me!”
Beatrice showed Faith a website on her phone warning of roaches, crickets, and centipedes. “The psychedelic high from smoking centipede lasts minutes, but it can feel like hours—and some people have lifelong psychological complications after one dose. It’s not just a big bug-stick.”
“I didn’t peg you for such a bug-head, Dan,” said Jay.
“With anxiety like mine, you have to be.” Dan set the three cups of orange-juice on the coffee-table and sat right-most on the couch. “Who’s partaking? Drink a little juice.” Faith and Jay sipped orange-juice. Beatrice did not. “Allow me to demonstrate proper procedure.” Dan held up the pipe for them to see. “I’ll light the powder and plug this little hole with my thumb. Start breathing nice and slow.” He mimed igniting the blowtorch while plugging a hole near Lio’s stem on the bottom chamber. “When I unplug the hole, inhale, hold it, exhale, and chug the rest of your orange-juice.”
Dan inhaled through the pipe. The water in Lio rumbled quicker when he unplugged the hole. Faith leaned close to listen to the bubbling. “Neat!”
“Who wants to go first?” Dan held the pipe to Faith and Jay.
Jay folded his arms like the robot on his shirt. “Hell, I’ll go first. Let’s get this over with and see if I like it.”
“Thanks, JayJay.” Faith wiggled her shoulders. “He knows I’m nervous,” she said to Beatrice.
“Don’t be,” Beatrice chastised. “Panicking is the worst option on a psychedelic.”
Jay sipped more orange-juice. “I’ll try to keep that in mind.” He inhaled through Lio. Dan torched the centipede-powder. Its white smoke slipped through the percolator’s slotted glass fingertips and burbled up ice-water into the top chamber. Dan shut off the blowtorch, but Jay’s inhalation stoked the embers until the smoke looked like milk.
Dan unplugged the hole. “Now.” Jay gasped the smoke deep into his lungs. His coughs spilled orange-juice on the carpet. He threw his head back to quaff the remaining juice, and when he put down the cup, he froze and stared through the wall.
“Wow.” Faith couldn’t pry the pipe from Jay’s grip. Dan rubbed Jay’s knuckles until he released his grasp. “Maybe I should wait until he comes down to take my toke?”
Dan cleared ash from Lio’s bowl with a paperclip and packed the last of the centipede-powder. “Take it now. I’ve heard it’s better with company.”
When Faith brought the bong to her lips, she met Beatrice’s gaze and coyly kissed the glass buboes around the mouthpiece. “Can BeatBax light it for me?”
Beatrice shook her head. “No. I can’t. I’m barely comfortable watching.”
“Okay. I’m sorry, BeatBax. Thanks for being here for me.” Faith sipped orange-juice. “Light me, Dainty!”
Dan scorched the powder. Faith grinned at the cloud she caught in the top chamber. Dan unplugged the hole. “Now.” She gasped up the cloud and coughed it into her orange-juice, spilling everything. Dan gave her the extra cup. “Sorry Beatrice, I guess there’s no orange-juice left for you.”
“Hm,” acknowledged Beatrice. She watched Faith chug the juice and sit stock still. “Now what?”
Dan rearranged the pillows to help Jay relax. “We should make sure they don’t choke on vomit or chew their own tongues off, but otherwise they’ll be fine.” Beatrice sighed. Faith still held the pipe like a vise, so Beatrice rubbed her knuckles like Dan had rubbed Jay’s and put the pipe on the coffee-table. The four friends sat on the couch. None looked at another. “I like your outfit,” said Dan.
“Thank you,” said Beatrice. It was a plain brown scrub. “It’s what all the nurses wear for work.”
Dan smiled and chanced a glance at her. Beatrice fiddled with her phone. “I always knew you’d make it into medicine. It’s so like you to help people.”
“Thank you,” Beatrice said definitively.
Dan shrank. “Faith told me I can make you uncomfortable. I wanted to apologize.”
“There’s really no need.”
“I know. She told me that, too. Can we still be friends?” He extended a hand for her to shake. Beatrice considered it, and finally shook hands without eye-contact. “Are you enjoying LuLu’s? Faith told me you liked Princess Lucia the most, but I think you’d fit right in as medical-personnel aboard a giant space-robot.”
She rolled her eyes. “I need to go,” she said
“Sorry.” Dan covered his face. “I didn’t mean to chase you away.”
“You know I’m on-call today. I have to go to the hospital.” She stood and picked up her purse. “Goodbye, Dan. Take care of Faith and Jay. Make Faith text me when she’s able to.”
Beatrice shut the door behind her. Through his kitchenette window, Dan watched her leave for the bus-station. While he wondered if it was ordinary for nurses to take the bus to work, he saw the 9:00 PM bluebird-line strike Beatrice head-on and smear her across the intersection. Her death was instant and painless, but unspeakably bloody. Dan held his head and screamed.
Jay didn’t hear him. Jay just stared at the birthday-cupcake while the world fell away. He didn’t know why Dan raced out of the apartment, wringing his hands. He didn’t recognize Faith barely breathing beside him. Finally the coffee-table, walls, and floor all spun into the void.
When Jay blinked, he sat naked halfway up a dune. Heat from the mustard-yellow sky baked the sand rust-colored. “Oh no.” An earthworm fell from space and landed on his left. It dug into the sand leaving a little hole behind. Another worm fell to his right and dug its own hole, too. Worms were falling like occasional hailstones as far as he could see. “Oh, no!“
He tried to stand, but his legs buckled under him. He rolled down the dune’s hot slope. Deeper sand was cooler and damper until he tumbled into a moist, shadowy gorge. He pressed his limbs against the narrow walls as he fell, but found little purchase with the sand. Falling sand revealed more tiny tunnels left by worms.
At the bottom of the gorge, Jay panted and desperately felt his body. No bones broken. Two arms, two legs. He counted his fingers. “One, two, three, four, five,” he counted on his left hand. “Six, seven, eight, nine, ten,” he counted on his right. This only worried him. In a dream, he was safe, but if he had ten fingers, he really was lost in a desert where the sky wasn’t even the right color, dropping worms at him from the Heavens.
He stood using the east and west gorge-walls for leverage and looked north and south. To the north, the gorge steepened into an overhanging sand-cliff. To the south, the gorge expanded into a wide valley. He limped south.
As his hands traced the walls, Jay noticed more worm-tunnels. Some seemed dug by worms thick as wrists. Could this gorge be the collapsed tunnel of a worm four feet wide? The ground now seemed to undulate beneath him. He sprinted out of the gorge into the valley.
Safe from danger, he hoped, he sat on warm sand. The dunes still surrounded him, but the dune to his south was barely half a mile high with a shallow slope. A red mountain’s rounded summit peeked over that dune. To be visible from Jay’s deep vantage point and from many miles away, it must have been titanic. Olympian, even.
As he rested, he noticed he was nude. This would be fine in a dream, but in this very real desert he would shrivel like a raisin. He also noticed he had no genitals. His crotch was round like the summit of the red mountain over the dune. He didn’t even have a belly-button, or nipples.
The idea made him anxious. When a worm fell from the sky and bounced off his back, he decided to move. He stood and jogged up the southern dune. He had to scramble on all fours as it steepened. The dune eclipsed a forty-degree angle halfway up, so his climbing made loose sand flow like a waterfall. He had to crawl like a meticulous caterpillar.
When he finally crested the dune, he surveyed the desert. He couldn’t shake the feeling he’d seen it before. The red mountain sat on a mesa like it ruled the rippling sand from a throne. The sky was cloudless, and the sun seemed too small. It led two tumbling moons like misshapen potatoes.
Jay noticed a sky-blue triangle on the mountainside. He squinted, deciding if its rounded curves were those an animal or if its sharp angles meant it was man-made. The triangle widened. Sapphire wings unfolded. The shape rocketed skyward on a burst of steam. “What the hell?” Jay put his hands on his hips and watched the shape surpass the red mountain’s peak on a vapor-trail. When the sound of liftoff reached him, it was a cannon-shot. He puzzled over the shape until he realized it was coming right for him. “Oh, shit!”
Jay jumped down the way he’d climbed up. He slid down the dune on his back and steered with his hands to avoid the sharpest rocks. At the bottom of the valley, he turned to see if the shape had followed him. A giant bird with great green bug-eyes joined the mountain in peeking at Jay over the dune. The bird stepped into full view: twenty feet tall in billowing sky-blue robes, it glided down the dune on a forty-foot wingspan.
Jay backed into the gorge like a worm into its tunnel. He was deep in the gorge before he heard the thunder of wing-beats behind him. The bird landed without visible legs or claws, just robes-to-sand. It withdrew its wings into its sleeves and inserted its head into the gorge, but was too wide to follow Jay. It opened its squat yellow beak. “You’ve arrived with your worms stuck together so the Chain can be pulled,” it said. Jay retreated further. “I am the Heart of the Mountain. Be not afraid! I thought you’d be larger, but I chose you because you’ll quickly understand your necessity within the Wheel.”
Jay backed away until he bumped against the steep north wall of the gorge. “What are you?”
“I just said: I’m the Heart of the Mountain. It seems we’re speaking the same language, but my inflection is anachronistic and impenetrable to you. You’ll have to forgive my directness.” The bird’s body morphed under its robes. From its right sleeve, a blue tentacle puckered slimy suckers. “Your fate is with the Zephyrs in the Mountain.” The tentacle snaked through the gorge and wrapped around Jay’s waist. Jay clawed at the sand-walls, kicking and shouting as the tentacle dragged him away. “Speed is quintessential!”
Having said that, the bird flung Jay over the dunes. He screamed in an arc over the sand, feeling one of the falling worms. The desert below was wrinkled like an old pink peach. The sky above was tinted honey-gold as he neared the zenith of his trajectory. The pink and gold spun so quickly he saw only whirling apricot. He shut his eyes and hoped his death would be swift.
A sonic boom opened his eyes. The bird zipped so close it caught Jay in its exhaust. Jay coughed and choked on the frozen fog. Through panic, he noted how lucky he’d be to die cold in a scorching desert. Anyone else would die of heatstroke or thirst, but he’d shatter on the red mountain like ice. An interesting first!
His tumbling stabilized and he saw the bird land in a foggy cloud. As Jay fell the final forty feet, he felt that fog compress beneath him like cream. The cold mist set him on the mountainside.
Before Jay could catch his breath, the bird snared his waist with a tentacle. It lifted Jay to show him the mouth of a cave. “So declares the Heart of the Mountain: today you attain Zephyrhood!”
It tried to cram Jay into the cave. Jay braced his limbs against the hole’s rocky mouth. “No! Stop! Hey!”
“You’ll enter the Mountain so the Chain can be pulled!” repeated the bird. It mushed Jay against the hole. “Enter! It is your destiny to enter!”
The cave was so dark Jay couldn’t guess how deep it ran. He beat the tentacle with his fist. “Let me go! What did I do to deserve this?”
“I arranged for your arrival.” The bird blinked its green compound eyes. “Something is wrong. I shouldn’t have to coerce you. I expected you to swiftly accept your role!”
Jay struck the tentacle with a red rock. Four suckers released, and Jay squirmed from its grasp. The hard terrain hurt his feet as he ran. The tentacle swiped at him, but he leapt into lingering clouds of exhaust. He ran blind, only hoping not to fall into a hole.
The bird beat its wings to blast the clouds away. Jay sprinted to stay with the flying fog. He tripped. When he rolled and scrambled to his feet, his protective fog had fled. “Please, no!”
The bird loomed over him, and what had tripped him—a white fox with a fluffy tail. The Heart of the Mountain retracted its wings and demanded, “Who are you?”
The fox’s ears lay flat. “Where am I, is more like it.” On the red mountain, she and Jay looked down on mile-high dunes. “How’d I get here?”
“This is the Mountain. I am its Heart.” From each sleeve, the bird extended five blue arms of normal thickness but five times normal length. They plucked the fox by the scruff of her neck and pinned Jay to the ground. “Which of you is the Zephyr I prophesied?”
“Hey! Put me down!” The fox couldn’t shake the grip on her neck. “Help!” Her body turned to fine snow. The Heart’s hands slipped through her. She fell in a pile beside Jay.
“Time runs short! Which of you is the Zephyr? One of you should want to be buried!” The bird scooped the snow next to Jay and compressed them both in place with all ten hands. “What are your names?”
“Faith,” popped the pile. Snow flecked onto Jay.
“Jay,” said Jay.
“How did you get here?” demanded the bird.
“You threw me,” said Jay.
“No!” said the bird, “how did you get to the desert?“
“JayJay?” Faith’s eyes surfaced on the snow. “Oh, JayJay! We’re still sitting on Dainty’s couch!”
“Yes! That’s right!” Jay sighed in relief. “We smoked centipede-powder. We’re hallucinating. No wonder this is just like a LuLu’s episode.”
The bird blinked. The facets of its compound eyes disbanded and most of them retreated into its skull. The remaining eyes scrutinized them both. “Centipede-powder?”
“Uh-huh. From Virgil Blue!” said Faith, “by way of Virgil Skyy, taken under the supervision of Virgil Orange.”
The bird relieved pressure from its palms. Jay squirmed away, but Faith couldn’t control her snow-body. “That explains you two,” said the bird, “but I called for a Zephyr who would accept my invitation into the Wheel, and allow the Chain to be pulled! Where is it?”
“How should we know?” Jay stood and brushed dust from his body. He crossed his arms over his chest. “I’m not even sure what you mean by Zephyr!”
“Really?” The bird retracted its arms and became a sky-blue cloth cone, like a tepee. It regenerated its compound eyes. “We’re all Zephyrs, one way or another. But this Zephyr I chose because it would understand its duty to join all Zephyrs in the Mountain!”
“Virgil Skyy didn’t even mention Zephyrs!” Faith grew a slender limb and used it to shape a snout on her face. “He talked a lot about mountains, though.”
A sound like a gong bowled over Faith and Jay. The roar ruffled feathers on the bird’s head. It cast its gaze to the sky. “Ah, thank goodness! I knew the first one should be so large.”
Jay and Faith were awestruck by the Zephyr: a shiny brown sphere floating in the sky like a polished coconut. “It’s beautiful,” said Faith, the quivering snow-pile.
“It’s huge.” Jay couldn’t block it from view with both hands at arm’s length. Seams split open along the brown sphere’s surface to reveal a golden interior. “And growing!“
“Indeed,” said the bird, “but however many worms it accounts for, the Mountain will swallow it.”
“Cool!” Faith pointed her only paw at the brown sphere’s seams peeling at the corners and fraying into golden feathers. “Are those wings?” Yes, golden wings peeled from the sphere in sheets. When they flapped, the now-golden Zephyr drifted like an awkward dirigible. “How can you swallow it from all the way up there?”
“It’s not the only one with wings.” The bird unfolded its forty-foot wingspan. Faith oohed and aahed. The bird turned them both a stern gaze. “Don’t get into trouble.”
“What’s in this pit?” Faith used her paw to crawl to the cave. “Can we climb inside?”
“Only if you intend never to resurface.” Reconsidering, the bird stomped and the cave sealed seamlessly. “Better safe than sorry,” it said. Then it initiated liftoff. The bird zoomed toward the golden-winged Zephyr on thin steam.
Its exhaust flooded over Faith and Jay. Jay only fell, but Faith flew for meters like an autumn leaf. “Help! JayJay! I’m too aerodynamic!” Jay blocked the breeze with his body and Faith fluttered down safely. She shook out another forelimb. “Can you give me a hand? I’m having trouble making myself.”
“You want me to, uh…” Jay mimed squeezing legs from her bulk. “Like, play-doh you?”
“Wait, I’ve got it.” Faith waggled out two hind legs and kicked frost from their feet. “I like being a fox! We gotta smoke centipede more often.”
Jay was distracted watching the bird cross the mustard-yellow sky. “Sorry, what?”
“Centipede! We should smoke more!”
“Oh yeah. We smoked centipede.” He watched Faith shape her ears. “Smoke without me. I don’t like being bullied by a bird. This is like watching LuLu’s bug-eyed out of my goddamn mind.”
Faith gasped with glee. Kicking frost had left a fluttery tail behind her. “Oh, hohoho! Look at this!” When her tail left the lee made by Jay, it was almost stolen by the breeze. Faith huddled on her haunches in safety. “Can you sculpt yourself, JayJay?”
“If the wind blows you away, maybe I shouldn’t try. We’d both be blasted across the mountain.” As Jay spoke, the Heart of the Mountain met the golden Zephyr. Its massive wings threatened to smack the robed bird from the air, but the bird barreled right to narrow in. Blue tentacles spilled from its sleeves and wrapped the golden wings like vines. The golden Zephyr went limp and allowed the tentacles to direct it, as if realizing its true purpose. “Do you think the mountain can really swallow that thing?”
“Bug-Bird seems to have a handle on it.” Faith watched the Heart of the Mountain lead the golden Zephyr through the sky. “Do you think Dainty and BeatBax can hear us talk?”
“Dan and Beatrice. They’re on the couch with us!”
“Oh. Right.” Jay wiped sweat from his brow. The birds’s tentacles slung the golden Zephyr in an easy arc. “I mean, we can hear each other, so we’ve gotta be speaking aloud. Yeah, they can hear us.”
“Wow!” Faith watched the golden Zephyr sail through the air. The bird shot on a burst of steam to beat the Zephyr to the red mountain’s peak, where it phased into the rocky cliff-face. “Oh. Weird!”
The ground shook. Rocks rolled off the mountain’s edge. Jay stood. “What was that?” Just before the massive golden Zephyr collided with the peak, the peak collapsed into a caldera. The caldera widened and the mountain wobbled. Jay braced himself against the shaking. The golden Zephyr landed in the caldera like a hand in a glove, and the caldera deepened to drag it into the red mountain with world-shattering quakes.
“Woo!” Faith let volcanic convulsions throw her through the air. “Fun, huh JayJay?” Each ripple knocked Jay’s feet from under him. A heavy fall snapped both his knees backwards. Jay screeched. “Oh! JayJay!” Faith landed beside him. “Are you okay?” Somehow Jay’s knees were intact and rightward bent, but he hyperventilated and then held his breath. His hands shook. “JayJay?” Faith raised a paw to his face. “Jay, can you hear me?” Jay retched and held his neck. With a spasm, he spat a tooth on a line of saliva. “Oh!” Faith reared from the tooth. “Oh, no! Jay!” Jay hacked up three more teeth and spat blood. “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh.” Faith gathered the teeth, but they sank into her snow. She gave up and pat Jay’s shoulder with a paw. “Okay, okay, let it out,” she whispered. “C’mon, breathe with me, man, breathe with me!”
“I can’t—” Jay vomited a whole mouthful of teeth. Some were broken and chipped. “They’re—stuck—in m—” He coughed bloody shark-teeth. “My—“
“You smoked centipede!” Faith locked eyes with him. “This isn’t real! Hold onto yourself!” She looked into Jay’s throat. His esophagus churned with canines and molars. Shark-teeth swam amid the mix. Faith turned her tail to him. “Open wide.” She dipped her tail’s tip down his neck. The teeth soaked into her fur and she pulled them from his mouth. “There, is that better?”
Jay panted and gave Faith a thumbs-up. He rubbed his throat. “It felt like throwing up thumb-tacks,” he managed. “Maybe I didn’t drink enough orange-juice.” He spat more blood and closed his eyes to clear his tears. “Thanks, Faith. I don’t know what I would’ve done without you.” She was gone. Jay stood and looked around. He saw white steam rolling up the red mountain. “Faith?” He waved at the retreating steam. “Faith! Wait!”
The steam didn’t stop. With a sigh, he climbed the mountain after it, but Faith’s steam flew faster than Jay could clamber. Soon Jay lost sight of her, but having nothing else to do, he continued to trudge up the slopes.
The red mountain’s last digestive quakes forced Jay to drop flat and cling to the ground. He wondered if these rumbles were the golden Zephyr adjusting to its subterranean tomb. Why did he fear falling? When his knees broke, they righted themselves—but the sound of snapping tendons and the sight of inverted kneecaps had rattled him regardless. Even the mere thought of his great height made him feel teeth take root in his throat.
Then the red mountain was immobile. In the stillness, Jay appreciated the sky. Its mustard tone had melted to honey-gold as he climbed. The sun wore a blue halo which burned orange as it set, escorting twin moons below the horizon. Purple night blanketed the desert, painting rusty sand like crushed ruby, and the sky’s honeyed heights turned mud-colored, sprouting stars. Jay thanked those lucky stars as the air cooled and he knew he wouldn’t bake to death.
He counted his fingers. “One, two three, four, five,” he counted on his left hand. “Six, seven, eight, nine, ten,” he counted on his right. “I’m not dreaming. I’m awake right now.”
He stood and kept climbing, despite having forgotten why he was climbing in the first place. He’d already surpassed the steepest slopes, so now each footstep rose easier than the last. When his feet cracked thin frost on the red mountain’s summit, he jogged so effortlessly that each leap threatened to throw him into orbit. Since he wasn’t dreaming, he knew he must be escaping the planet’s gravity. He was high enough. He relaxed on the mountainside.
Above him, the muddy sky burned royal indigo. Stars drifted so quickly that Jay saw the ebb and flow of galactic clouds. These cosmic eddies outlined a figure against the black background of space. This grand human shape crossed muscular arms over its chest.
Jay looked up from the purple robot his T-shirt. He hadn’t moved an inch since smoking centipede. Dan had left his apartment. Faith had slumped into Beatrice’s vacant space on the couch. Jay stared at the birthday-cupcake until he could speak. “Faith. Hey, Faith.”
Faith wriggled against the left armrest. “Beatrice.”
“No, it’s me. Jay.” He rubbed his stiff neck. “Are you awake? Can you see me?”
She buried her face in the couch. “I’m flying through time.”
“My centipede had more space in it than time, I think,” said Jay, “but I’m back, here and now. Did Dan and Beatrice leave somewhere?”
“BeatBax?” Faith snuggled a cushion. “Beatrice…”
Jay gave up. His throat was too raw to carry such a one-sided conversation. He reached—with considerable effort—for the cups of orange-juice to drink their last drops. The citrus only tickled his esophagus.
The apartment-door opened. Dan entered pale, shaking, and teary-eyed. He leaned on the kitchenette counter and yelped when he saw Jay was cognizant. “You’re awake!”
“I think?” Jay counted his fingers: ten. “Yes.” Dan closed the kitchenette window-blinds. He doubled over the sink like he would vomit. “Do you have more orange-juice?” asked Jay. “My throat itches.” Dan brought the gallon of orange-juice from the refrigerator. He unscrewed the cap and spilled juice on the coffee-table. Jay took the gallon and drank directly from its mouth. Dan squeamishly wiped the spill with paper-towels. “Aaah!” Jay finished chugging. “I left half for Faith. Did Beatrice take off early?”
“Um.” Dan covered his face. “Yeah.”
“Faith misses her already,” said Jay. She hugged cushions to her chest. Dan sobbed. When he wiped his tears, Jay swore his nose slid away. “Dan, you’re melting.”
“You’re still hallucinating.”
Jay counted his fingers again. He had ten, but they lengthened and shortened with sickening sensation. “No… My hands, my hands are changing!”
“You’re hallucinating. I promise.” Dan sat on the couch’s right armrest and collected his breath. “Jay, I think I need to be alone for a minute.”
“Take your nose.” Jay passed him the orange-juice cap.
Dan humored him and traded the cap for Faith’s red card-stock pamphlet. “When you can read, you’re done hallucinating. Have Faith try, too.” With that, Dan limped to the bathroom as if internally wounded.
Jay squinted until he understood that the hand-drawn cover of the red card-stock pamphlet depicted a bird sheltering fledglings with its wings. He tried reading the cover’s title, but the cursive refused to cooperate. He opened the pamphlet hoping for more legible typography.
Three islands are the sole inhabitants of the area known as ‘Point Nemo.’ Stranded in international waters equidistant from New Zealand, Chile, and Antarctica, the Islands of Sheridan are at least a thousand miles from foreign shore in every direction.
During the ongoing fight between Zephyrs and the Hurricane, the Biggest Bird descended from the Mountain on the original sun to build the Islands of Sheridan as her paradise on Earth. She taught the first man, Nemo, what to eat, and how to eat, and bore him sons and daughters from an egg. She declared Nemo the first Virgil Blue, leader of the Sheridanian congregation, and ever since, the title has passed from generation to generation. Lesser Virgils guide students’ understanding of the Blue Virgil’s sacred truth.
After leaving her islands behind, the Biggest Bird erected the rest of Earth. Thusly, her influence is seen in art, ideology, and philosophy the world over. Virgil Blue’s monastery on the main island houses a library of texts from every earthly area and every time-period, annotated to outline featherprints from the Biggest Bird’s act of creation. Her wisdom is found in fiction and nonfiction. In physics and magic. In sand and sky. There are no coincidences.
Doesn’t that sound familiar, Jay?
Jay squinted at the text. Yes, this did sound familiar: this must have been the red card-stock pamphlet Faith claimed the monks gave her in Wyoming. But the art wasn’t Faith’s style, and the text didn’t sound like her at all. Did Beatrice help her fabricate a religion inspired by LuLu’s, just to baffle him? Was Dan involved, too?
Today the Biggest Bird resides on her Mountain on the original sun in the next eternity, where our worms will someday join her. It is therefore speculated that altitude marked her seal of approval when she made the Earth. Foothills grew beneath her flight-path and mountains sprouted where she deigned to land. This brands Sheridan as the holiest area on Earth: the main island extends from the seafloor to a permanent cap of clouds. Including its height beneath the ocean, it is the tallest mountain on Earth.
The Islands of Sheridan bear a population of sparse thousands, mostly ancestors of the egg-born. Almost a quarter devote years of their lives to monasticism. Virgil Blue’s monastery is home to a hundred students and a circle of lesser Virgils. Satellite-groups exhibit unique and varied practices like masked dancing festivals, deity-visualization exercises, and spiritual agriculture. Only three commandments assert themselves across all islanders:
Never harm or photograph birds.
Never consume centipede except when prepared by Virgil Blue.
Never climb above the permanent cloud-cover. Sheridan’s peak is always obscured. It must remain so.
Jay Diaz-Jackson, remember these rules when you visit Sheridan. We expect you shortly.
Jay closed the pamphlet and examined the fist-sized fledglings drawn on its front. He covered the left half a fledgling’s face with his thumb. More familiar by the moment. “Dan, have you ever seen birds like this before?” He’d forgotten Dan had left. He was still in the bathroom, quietly sobbing for some reason.
Jay turned to the pamphlet’s next page. On the left side, hand-drawn crickets budded from soil just like in Faith’s cardboard-box. On the right side, the largest of three islands was crowned with clouds.
Tourists to the islands generally belong to one of three categories: those interested in bird-watching (but not bird-photography, we emphasize), those interested in smuggling bugs back to their home country (which we frown upon), and those whose international flights require refueling at our airport and who decide to stretch their legs on our runway. All three categories are impressed by the bounty of the Biggest Bird, including fresh air, breathtaking vistas, and tasteful gift-shops. We encourage you to visit our islands and discover your connection to the Mountain in the next eternity. One day all our worms will join the Zephyrs in the fight against the Hurricane.
That means you, JayJay. You must find the Mountain within you.
“Within you, within you.” Jay swore the crickets in Faith’s cardboard-box were chirping like chimes in the wind as their wings rubbed together. “Within you, within you.”
“Faith?” Jay shook her shoulder. “Faith, did you write this?”
Faith released the couch-cushion and stared blankly at the pamphlet. “I told you, JayJay, I got it from monks.”
“But look here.” He pointed to the line in the pamphlet accosting him by her nickname. “Are you seriously telling me you didn’t write this?”
“Of course I didn’t.” Faith cuddled the cushion again and rolled into the couch’s corner. “I can’t even read Chinese.”
“Chinese? There’s no—” Jay tried rereading the offending statement. Symbols flickered between ten languages. “Oh my God. I’ve got to go to the Islands of Sheridan.”
“What?” Faith left the couch-cushion behind to pin Jay against the opposite armrest. She wrestled the pamphlet from him. “JayJay, you can’t!”
“Faith, even if you made up the islands, I’ve got to find them! Look, it says right here that there are no coincidences! If it’s commanding me to go to Sheridan, it’s commanding me to go to Sheridan! If it’s not commanding me to go to Sheridan, I misread it as commanding me to go to Sheridan! It can’t be a coincidence! It says so!”
Faith tried to unwrap his logic as she twisted to restrict Jay’s movement. “But JayJay, the islands are so far away!”
“I’ll take a boat, or a plane!”
“But you’ll be gone so long!”
“Come with me!”
“I can’t!” Faith released Jay from her grapple and leaned back against the couch-cushion. “BeatBax would never let me go to the Cricket-Centipede Islands! Just stay in LA and smoke with us!”
“No! I’ve got to find the Mountain within me!” Jay now struggled to find his name in any of the pamphlet’s ten languages. “Listen to your box of crickets, they’re singing it!”
Their conversation’s crescendo drew Dan from the bathroom. His gaunt stride silenced them at once. They made room on the couch for Dan to faint between them, red-faced and wet-cheeked. His mouth opened as if to speak, but he produced no words. Finally he shook his head and asked, “Can you read?”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Jay. “I’ve got to find the Islands of Sheridan.”
“Okay, you’re still bug-eyed,” said Dan. “Faith?”
“Gorgeous,” she cooed to the fledglings on the pamphlet’s front. “Just look at these beautiful birds!”
“Just about back to normal,” said Dan. “Both of you should eat. That’ll help you come down.” He slowly stood and carried Faith’s cupcake from the coffee-table to the kitchenette to cut. “Happy birthday, Jay.”
“Happy birthday, Dan.”
“Dainty! Cut it into fourths,” said Faith. “Then you and BeatBax can share with us, and we’ll all sing!”
“I… I’m so sorry.” Dan cut the cupcake into thirds and brought it back to the coffee-table. “Beatrice won’t be joining us.”
“Hm?” Faith finally realized the couch-cushion she’d hugged so closely wasn’t actually Beatrice. “Aww… That’s okay, Dainty!” Faith took her cupcake-third and ate it in one bite. “JayJay told you BeatBax might get called to the hospital, right?”
Dan nodded, both hands shaking, covering his mouth. He collapsed back on the couch. “Y-yeah, he did.”
Jay detected from Dan’s anxious mudra that he was upset by something beyond repulsing Beatrice. Dan had shut the kitchenette window-blinds, but red lights flashed through the gap between them. “Um. Did they… send an ambulance to pick her up?” he asked.
Dan couldn’t bring himself to answer. The nauseated eye-contact between him and Jay made Faith look from one to the other, smile fading, until she noticed the flashing red lights herself. She walked to the kitchenette window. “Don’t!” said Dan, but Faith opened the blinds. Outside the apartment, black-and-yellow caution-tape surrounded the bus-stop. Two police-cars and an ambulance blocked most of Beatrice’s blood from view, but Faith still quivered at the sight.
“I’m so sorry!” Dan said again. He bent his head between his knees and clasped his hands behind his neck. “It’s all my fault!”
“No—Dainty—It’s not! You didn’t!” Faith sat next to Dan and hugged him from behind. Jay hadn’t expected Faith to react to trauma by consoling Dan, but Jay considered he was traumatized, too, and he reacted to trauma by observing other people’s trauma-reactions. He pat Faith on the back, unsure of what else he could do. “Oh, JayJay!” She lifted herself off Dan and hugged Jay, her face against his chest. “Oh, Beatrice!”
Behind Faith’s back, Jay counted his fingers: ten. He couldn’t believe this was real. “I’m so sorry, Faith.”
“We were planning to—” Faith sniffled and wiped tears on Jay’s shirt. “We were planning to adopt!“
After his ordeal with centipede, Jay felt compelled to visit home. He sat at his parents’ dinner-table while his mother stirred two mugs of tea. “How is Faith feeling nowadays?”
“Remember when our cat Django died? Faith bawled like a baby,” said Jay. “She cried like that right after Beatrice died, but since then, she’s just been quiet. I don’t think she’s even left her house for days.”
“Oh, poor thing.” She pat Jay’s hand. “Is someone looking after her?”
“Dan brings her groceries. I’m glad they’re sticking together. Beatrice’s death hit them both pretty hard.” Jay had been affected too, of course, but his mother looked sad enough already. Jay just sipped his tea. “Have I told you I want to visit the Islands of Sheridan?”
“I’ve never heard of them.”
“I can’t blame you. They don’t even have a Wikipedia-article. I’ve heard they’re where crickets and centipedes come from.”
“Oh? Did I raise a smuggler?”
“Not quite,” said Jay. “My favorite anime seems like it pulled ideas from the local religion, so I want to take photos of monks. Do you think Dad’s ever been to Sheridan?”
“No clue, but not if he could help it,” said his mother. “Your father had a bad experience with centipede when he was about your age.”
“Really?” Jay pulled his notepad and pen from his pockets and flipped to the first fresh page. “Do you know what happened, exactly?”
“No, but maybe he’ll tell you when he calls tonight.”
Her cellphone rang. Jay laughed. “That sounds like him.”
“Gosh, he’s calling earlier than he said he would. I hope all’s well.” She flipped her phone open. “Dear, how’s New Delhi?” Jay heard his father’s boisterous voice. His mother smiled and coiled her hair around her fingers. “Your son is home, would you like to speak to him?” She passed her phone to Jay.
“Dad! Mom says you’re calling early. Did you forget India has half-hour time-zones?”
His father chuckled. “I guess I did. Jay, how are you?”
“I’m considering a trip to the Islands of Sheridan. Have you ever heard of them?”
The phone was silent for a moment. “I have been there, once. It was a refueling-stop on a discount flight from Chile to New Zealand. I didn’t get off the plane.”
“Could you help me find a flight like that? I want to photo-catalog Sheridanian religious-practices.”
“Oh.” His father licked his teeth. “You know, a flight-attendant told me those are the islands where crickets and centipedes come from.”
“I know, Dad.”
“I don’t mind that you smoke bug-sticks now and then. I got bug-eyed at your age, too. But don’t mess with centipedes, okay?”
Jay prepared his pen. “Mom said you’d had a bad experience with centipede. Could you tell me about it?”
“Hmmm.” His father moved the phone to his other ear. “Well, in my late twenties, I attended a conference in Thailand. At a night-market, some colleagues bought centipede-powder, which was even rarer then than it is now. I’d never heard of the stuff, but my colleagues said it was like cricket, so I tried it. It felt like… Well… It felt like searing knives slicing every inch of my skin, or crawling through hot barbed wire.”
“Wow.” Jay penned the quote as quickly as his father spoke.
“I felt buried alive, and I had to dig deeper to stop hurting all over,” he said. “The deeper I dug, the less I remembered. Just before I slipped away, I woke up alone in a Bangkok alleyway with no wallet, watch, or passport.”
Jay realized his centipede-trip had been a lucky one, even if the bird had spooked him. “Gotcha. I’ll stick to bug-sticks.”
Reviewing his plane-tickets, Jay knew he’d be sitting for most of the next two days. He’d fly in a classic jumbo-jet from LA to a layover in Chile, then disembark a smaller plane bound for New Zealand as it refueled on the Islands of Sheridan. He’d take a bird-watching tour of the islands, then catch a plane refueling in Sheridan for its return to Chile. After another layover, he’d fly back to LA.
Signing up for the bird-watching tour was surprisingly simple considering he doubted the islands’ existence until days ago. Sheridan’s official website was nothing but a link to a PDF-file which Jay printed, filled out, signed, scanned, and returned with credit-card payment of about two hundred American dollars, pretty cheap for a three-day tour with room and board provided. By signing the file, he agreed to the three requirements also listed in the red card-stock pamphlet: no pictures of birds, no centipedes, no climbing the main island above the clouds. Were signatures even enforceable in international waters?
The morning was so cold he blew fog to warm his hands. Then he counted his fingers: ten. He’d woken at 4 AM to wait by the curb for Dan. Dan’s sleep schedule had inverted since Beatrice’s death, and he seemed eager for excuses to leave his apartment, so Jay thought asking for a 4:30 ride to the airport was a kindness.
Jay mentally reviewed the contents of his backpack and pockets. Clothes, traveling toiletries, and medications. His passport, ID, and a book for the plane. Camera, notepad, and pens. Portable chargers, fully charged. A healthy supply of American currency, half in his wallet, half hidden in his shoes. He nodded and sighed fog.
His phone vibrated. Dan had texted him. ‘I’m not coming. Faith should be there soon.’
Jay typed with his thumb. ‘Everything alright?’
‘Faith wanted to say bye before you left,’ texted Dan. ‘I sent her in my car.’
Sure enough, Dan’s orange VW-bug rolled around the corner. Faith parked next to Jay and gave him a tired smile under dark eyes. Jay texted Dan ‘Thank you’ as he sat shotgun.
“JayJay! How’ve you been?”
“It’s always good to see you, Faith.” Jay buckled up and Faith pulled away from the curb. “The islands are apparently real, but I’m still not sure I believe you met those monks. I guess I’ll find out soon.”
“Are you excited for Sheridan?”
“Absolutely,” said Jay. “I’ll show you my photos. The islands looked beautiful in your pamphlet.”
“Gonna get more centipede?”
“Eeeugh. No thanks.” Jay laughed. “That whole experience was like watching an episode of LuLu’s with a fever of a hundred and ten. Zephyrs, Wheels, Chains, and a bird-monster with no sense of personal-space.”
“That’s just because you’re a dweeb, JayJay! If you’d watched Blue’s Clues, that bird-thing would’ve been a dog.” She ramped onto the highway. Come rush-hour, the traffic would weave into a thick jam, but for now, the streets were empty. “How long is the flight?”
“Forty hours both ways. A direct flight would barely be twelve.”
Jay opened his backpack to check if anything had escaped. “So… how’s Dan holding up, do you think?”
“He’s… Well, he’s inconsolable, but so was I, for a while.” Faith rubbed her eyes. “Let’s talk about something else.”
Jay appraised Faith’s expression with great concern. He’d never forget how she cried against his chest. If she couldn’t discuss it, he’d change the subject. “We’re making great time. Thanks for the ride.”
“No prob, JayJay.” Faith gently curved along the highway. “Hey, do you need… um… hygiene products? I’ve got extras in my purse.”
“Ha.” Jay smiled. “Not since I started taking testosterone.”
“Oh, okay.” She smiled with him. “Just trying to help.” The morning sun beamed through an airport parking-structure. Faith took the next exit. “You know, stuck inside all day, I’ve had lots of time to practice painting.”
“A company wants to print holiday-cards with my foxes on them.”
“Faith! That’s great!” Jay zipped up his backpack and unbuckled his seat-belt as she parked. “I’d better get one for Christmas.”
“Why wait?” Faith popped the glove-box and fished for a white envelope. “I sketched on the inside. Now you’ve got a Featherway original!”
“Thank you, Faith! This means a lot to me.” He put the envelope in his backpack. “I’ll open it on the plane, okay?”
Faith bit her lip. “Wait until after customs.”
Jay just sat. His mind was like the empty yellow sky. Then he stood and looked down either side of his rust-red dune. Clouds brushed the daunting slopes beneath him. He was miles high.
Rather than descend either side of his dune, Jay ran along its crest. Each step cracked a vertebrae in the dune’s back. Sand collapsed in hot, coarse rivers. His feet sank until the current swept him away and he fell through a cottony cloud. The sand sloped to roll him along the desert floor. He shot up an opposing dune and sailed like a skeeball.
While he spun, he counted his fingers. “One, two, three, four, five,” he counted on his left hand. “Six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen—” He was asleep. He was dreaming. He could fly like the Heart of the Mountain, that steam-powered bird.
The dunes grew into great sand-walls, but he blasted above them. Below, the yellow sky melted into golden honey and poured around the red mountain like heavenly syrup. Jay smeared the sunset thin like a masseuse oiling a back. Soon the dunes were dark with night.
Jay opened his eyes. His head rested on the window of a discount flight bound for New Zealand. Outside, the sky was black and starry; most of the passengers slept. Jay shook his limbs awake as best he could in his cramped seat. It would be mid-morning when he arrived in Sheridan.
“Couldn’t sleep, huh?” asked the man on Jay’s right. “Me neither.” Jay tried to smile at him, but something about the man made smiling quite difficult. He was about Jay’s age, bald, and heavy enough to be almost spherical, occupying two chairs and still leaking into Jay’s. He wore a loud red Hawaiian shirt frumpishly buttoned all the way to his neck, which was equally red. He wore dark sunglasses, even at night, on an airplane. “Yeah, it’s hard to sleep on a plane, am I right?” the man went on. “Obnoxious folks, no self-awareness, noisier than all the crying babies.”
“I was actually asleep for a while.” Jay counted his fingers: ten. “Now I’m awake.” He unzipped his backpack and opened a bag of chips from Chile.
The man grabbed a whole fistful and ate them all at once. “Going to New Zealand?”
Jay hadn’t meant to offer up his chips, but supposed the way he opened the bag might have looked like an invitation to share. “I’m hopping off when we refuel.” Jay ate the few remaining chips one at a time. “Sheridan.”
“Ah. Me too. The ol’ ball-and-chain Eva drags me and her kid back every few months to look at birds.” He jerked his thumb at his wife and her six-year-old daughter across the aisle. “Chicks, am I right?” He sighed. “How about you? What’re you here for?”
“I’m not a bird-watcher,” said Jay. “I’m a people-watcher. I want to photograph religious activities on the islands.”
“Religious, huh?” He pronounced the word with a smug smile. “I see how it is.”
“I’m not religious per se,” said Jay. “I’m mostly curious how Sheridanian religion interacts with psychoactive bugs.”
“Oh? Yeah?” The man leaned close. “Now you sound like my kinda guy.” Jay turned to the window and crossed his arms. “Hey, it’s okay! Don’t tell me anything I shouldn’t know!” The man laughed. “Guys like us gotta stick together, am I right?”
Jay cringed at the haunting image of ‘sticking together’ with the man, trapped with his orb-like belly inside his red Hawaiian shirt. He reminded Jay of an itty-bitty Hurricane Planet. “Do you like anime?”
Each seat’s headrest held a screen for canned TV. “I’m impressed. They’ve got LuLu’s Space-Time Acceleration.” Before Mr. Hurricane could interject, Jay donned headphones and hummed the opening theme.