Jay’s Interview with Dan

(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)


After the sermon, Jay and the monks ate a dinner of barley and beans in a meager dining-hall where cushions flanked squat tables. Then Virgil Jango Skyy let Jay take photos in the library, where the bookshelves reached the top of the bell-tower. Jay recognized the books shelved low enough for him to see—Plato, Lao Tzu, the Vedas and Avesta, each accounted for in a variety of languages—but Jango assured him that the books shelved out of sight, near the big brass bell, hadn’t actually been written yet, and wouldn’t be written for decades or centuries to come. Some were in languages which hadn’t yet been born. Only Virgils were allowed to climb the shelves all the way to those books, but Jay was allowed to climb high enough to see Daitatsu no Kagirinai Hogo. There were copies of the series in Japanese, English, Spanish, Russian, and Swahili. Virgil Blue had annotated them sparsely, allowing Virgil Skyy to finish the job.

Jay clung to the shelves and flipped through a few pages. He’d come to believe a lot of strange things in the last few days, but couldn’t accept that the Biggest Bird preemptively donated her favorite manga to the monks. The paper looked as ancient as the rest of the books, but that could be faked in any number of ways. Maybe Jango had supplied the volumes? He kept his doubt to himself. He shelved the manga and climbed down. “Virgil Skyy, you’re the only Sheridanian I’ve met who’s not a native—er, egg-born, so-to-speak. Have any other people come to live here from across the globe?”

“Once a generation or so. Virgil Blue collects non-Sheridanians destined to be Virgils for their help annotating books into which they’d have personal insight. No wonder Blue came to Kansas! There are no coincidences, after all.” Jango led Jay back across the courtyard to the monastery’s entryway. “Jay, we would love to let you spend the night.”

“I appreciate the offer, but my tour leaves in the morning.” Besides, thought Jay, if he stayed too long, he might be tempted to become a monk himself. He’d look good in a purple robe. Jay sloshed the oil in his lantern. “Could you help me light this?”

“Of course, of course.” Jango pulled brown thread from his cane. He lit the thread on a candle and dipped the flame in Jay’s lantern. “Would you open this door? It’s heavy for me.”

Jay opened the wooden door. He and Jango stepped onto flagstones flanked by fireflies. “I can’t thank you enough, Virgil Skyy. You have such a beautiful monastery. Everyone will love the photos you’ve let me take.”

“One more for the road.” Jango posed with his cane and smiled.

Jay crouched to capture the best view of him next to the open door. “I like the sand-dollar walls. The flickering candles make them look like eyes.”

“That’s intentional,” said Jango. “The Biggest Bird will collect the last worms in a house of eyes. Although, the white-walled monastery is ultimately supposed to look like an egg.”

Jay liked the idea. The monks were incubating their worms in there. “Does Virgil Blue need help? They haven’t moved from the courtyard.”

“Virgil Blue’s constitution isn’t what it used to be, but they’re okay.”

“They’ll retire to the cloudy peak someday.” Jay checked his photos. “Right?”

“After appointing another Virgil as their successor,” said Jango.

“How many other Virgils are there? I’ve only met you, Blue, and Green.” Jay regretted asking when Jango’s wrinkles mushed up in worry. Maybe the politics of the upper echelons weren’t proper for discussion. “Jun hit it big with publication, under the pen-name Tatsu. LuLu’s was first published online, then got popular enough to appear in a weekly anthology like Shonen Jump. It’s had almost thirty episodes of anime which I’ve personally enjoyed. I’m surprised such an anime found production: Japan has some of the strictest bug-laws on the planet.”

Now Jango’s wrinkles allowed a smile. “Oh? Is Jun’s work sharing the Biggest Bird with all the worms around the world?”

“Well, it’s a cult classic, at least. It’s been on hiatus for a while. Um. Years, actually.” Jay scrolled through his camera’s photos. “I hope he finishes it. I’m aching for closure. When I smoked centipede, I had hallucinations which could’ve been taken right outta that anime.”

“Hallucinations come from the same place as everything else: the Biggest Bird and her holy Mountain. Anime or no anime, you’ve seen her influence before.”

“I see. I guess it only makes sense I’d hallucinate some parallels. Like…” Jay pointed to Jango’s cane. “I swear I’ve seen that in a dream. Virgil Blue’s mask, too. Can you tell me what they mean?”

“Only Virgil Blue can tell you the meaning of the mask. As for the cane!” Jango rapped the cane three times against the grass. “If you like the design, you can buy one yourself in a gift-shop by the runway!” He giggled until he saw the honest disappointment on Jay’s face. “It’s really just a cane. It’s for my bad hip. Ask another question. Make it a good one.”

Jay scratched his head in thought. “There’s a Wheel of life and death. Do Sheridanians believe in… reincarnation?”

“Hm… When we die, our worms drop into the next eternity, the desert on the original sun. If a worm makes it to the Mountain, it joins the Zephyrs. If it misses the Mountain, the sand eats it—so it cycles back to try again, mixed-and-matched with a new group of fellow worms.”

Worms were starting to sound like spiritual DNA. “I don’t quite understand,” said Jay. “Worms are reborn when the sand eats them?”

“Of course,” said Jango. “Otherwise we’d remember the past lives contributing to us.”

“I guess that makes sense.” Jay quoted Jango in his notepad. “Could worms be reborn, um… alongside their previous life?”

Jango shrugged. “From the Mountain’s point-of-view, the beginning and the end are the same. So, maybe. It’s not for me to know.”

“I see. Thank you, Virgil Skyy.” They both bowed. “Um. Maybe I should’ve mentioned this earlier, but someone on my tour wanted to collect centipedes.”

Jango laughed. “Jay, between airport-security and the cloudy peak, smugglers tend to sort themselves out.”

“Really? You don’t toss them in the river?” He’d half-expected these monks to be secret martial-arts masters. “Well, if you say so.” Jay helped Jango close the wooden door behind him.

Before he left, Jay used the empty pastry-box to collect the shattered glass of Lio’s firefly-jar. Then he walked behind the monastery to show Lio his lantern’s light and photograph the nearby centipede-bushes. The bushes had more thorns than leaves, protecting their centipedes from harvest. Jay satisfied himself with just photos. When he’d taken all he wanted, Jay sighed and scanned the dark summit. He didn’t see Hurricane Lio’s red Hawaiian shirt. Maybe Lio nabbed his centipedes and returned to the inn alone. Jay walked back the way he came, hoping he had enough oil.


Overnight at the inn, Jay had a rejuvenating dream. He was still on the Islands of Sheridan, but the main island’s spiral-trail was packed with giant birds waddling in a single-file line from coast to peak. He counted his fingers and stopped when he got to twelve. Then he had the power to fly over the islands to see them from above. He’d thought the main island was a perfect cone, but in his dream it was longer along one axis, like an egg. That’s when he woke up.

For breakfast he ate coconut-meat and legumes in the common-room while waiting for the rest of his tour-group. He thanked the innkeepers for loaning him the lantern and showed them photos of the monastery. Eva sat beside him. “Jadie, did you see my husband last night? Henry didn’t come back to our room.”

“Uh. Yeah. He followed me to the monastery.” He wondered how much he should tell her. Eva’s thin pink lips were pursed in concern, but it seemed to be concern for Jay rather than Lio. “He said he wanted my help harvesting centipedes. When I wouldn’t do it, he whipped out a knife and cracked open his own hand punching a monastery wall.” Jay shook his own wrist limply, imitating Lio’s broken bones. “I told him I’d lead him back to the inn, but that wasn’t the help he wanted from me.”

“That certainly sounds like Henry,” said Eva. Lilly ate an enormous scrambled egg without comment. “I’m sorry he caused you so much trouble.”

“Michael told me anyone who walks above the clouds never comes back.” Jay looked out a window to the shrouded peak. “Should we try stopping him before he goes full-Icarus?”

“We should be so lucky.” Eva leaned in to whisper by Jay’s ear. “I married him for citizenship to escape an Eastern European backwater which recently collapsed. Now I don’t like the way he touches my daughter. Let Icarus fly!”

Jay resisted the urge to reach for his notepad and write any of that down. “Michael told me if someone walks above the clouds, everything valuable to them is mysteriously destroyed. Their spouses die and their houses collapse on their children.”

“I was never his. Lilly even less so.”

Relieved by Eva’s confidence, Jay turned to Lilly. “I broke your jar of fireflies. Sorry about that.”

“It’s okay.” Lilly licked yolk off her plate. “Daddy promised he’d let them go anyway.”

After breakfast, Michael led the tour to the river. He’d inflated inner-tubes and tied them to the bridge so they bobbed in the water. “The stream will carry us to shore. Kids ride with a parent. Then we ferry to the airport. Hey, hey—we have an extra inner-tube!” Michael counted heads. “Where’s Henry?”

“I think he’s visiting the monastery,” said Eva. “He’s not answering his cellphone.”

Michael shook his head and climbed into an inner-tube. His fed-up expression told Jay he didn’t mind if Lio never happened to return. “When he decides to come back to the inn, he can join whichever tour-group gets there next.”

“Will your brothers be okay with that?” Eva and Lilly shared an inner-tube. “Henry’s sort of a burden to offload onto someone.”

“Sheridanians are always eager to help,” said Michael, “especially when the person in need is as kind and understanding as your husband.”

Jay chose an inner-tube beside Craig and Suzy. “[Zhang, Li Ying,]” he said in Mandarin, “[I’m glad to have shared this journey with you.]”

“[We appreciated your company,]” said Craig.

Oran dora,” said Suzy. “[We’re off to Easter Island next!]”

“Whee!” Lilly laughed and kicked when Michael cut her inner-tube’s cord. Eva and Lilly floated down the river together. Then Michael cut Craig’s cord, and Suzy’s, and Jay’s, and his own, leaving Lio’s inner-tube tied to the bridge. Jay’s tube spun clockwise until it brushed the left bank and spun counterclockwise.

“Your husband shouldn’t touch you like that,” Suzy said to Eva. She spoke like she’d practiced her English for this all night. “How long have you been married?”

Eva held her daughter’s hand. “Since I was pregnant with Lilly.”

“You should try vacationing without him,” said Craig. “My name is Zhang.”

“I’m Li Ying,” said Suzy. “Name any place you’re interested in. We’d love to give you a tour.”

The river bumped Jay’s inner-tube against Michael’s. Michael grabbed Jay’s tube to keep them together. “Oran dora, Jadie.”

Oran dora, Michael. Thanks for the tour.”

“Did you deliver my letter?”

“I gave it to Virgil Jango Skyy,” said Jay, “but I wanted to ask about the bird-statue. Jango said it’s not a shrine at all, it’s the monastery’s donation-box slash mailbox, and that’s not a bird saving a child, it’s the Biggest Bird, the Heart of the Mountain, with the first man, Nemo. Did you know?”

Michael laughed. “Of course I did! But my brothers and I find the bird-saving-a-child shrine sells more tours. We’ve told the story so many times, even Sheridanians think it’s a shrine and started burning incense and lighting candles inside. So the mailbox is always full, and contacting the monastery takes a trek. Thank you for delivering my letter!”

“Huh. No problem.” Michael released Jay’s tube and the river carried them apart. How disappointing, thought Jay. The Islands of Sheridan went to so much trouble isolating and compartmentalizing their traditions, admitting tourists only step-by-step, but that didn’t protect its culture against native Sheridanians themselves. Was LuLu’s the best way to preserve and present this religion for newer generations? Or was it just another artifact repackaged for foreigners? 

Jay felt the water, clean and cool on a hot day. Fish swam under him as he floated beneath bridges. Eventually the river became a timeless one, emptying into the infinite ocean.


Dan bit his nails pacing in the empty airport lobby. Each time he turned about-face, he checked the chart of arrivals and departures on the opposite wall. Jay’s flight filtered to the top as his plane approached. “How much longer, Dainty?” Faith stretched across four seats, threading herself under three armrests. She wore a heavy white sweater, since the clouds looked like rain. “Why’d we come so early?”

“He’ll be here soon.” Through a window over the runways, Dan scanned the misty morning sky for the shape of an airplane. The landing-strips were frosted and dewy.  “I wanted to beat traffic.”

“It’ll be rush-hour on the way back,” said Faith. “Maybe I should drive us home so you don’t have to worry?”

“I can drive us home.”

“Are you sure?” Faith now crawled over the armrests. “You bite your fingertips when you’re anxious, Dainty. If you have to drive in traffic, you’ll bleed all over the steering-wheel!”

Hearing her say that made Dan anxious, but he resisted biting his fingertips and proving her right. “I’m not anxious about traffic.”

“Oh.” Faith collected herself in one seat. She crossed her ankles and clasped her hands in her sweater’s pocket. “I miss Beatrice too, Dan. She was my girlfriend. You know BeatBax’d tell us it’s all gonna be okay.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Before he could stop himself, Dan found his index-finger between his lips.

“Well, can I get you something for breakfast?”

Dan checked restaurants up and down the airport corridor. “Nothing here appeals to me.”

“Chips? Gum?”

“No, no.” Dan sighed and looked out a window over the streets of Burbank. “A cinnamon-bun sounds good.”

“Oh? Where are they? I’ll buy three, so you, JayJay, and I can share!”

Dan pointed out the window. Across the street, a diner advertised bronze cinnamon-buns dripping with silvery icing. “Let me give you some cash.”

“Don’t worry, they’re on me!” Faith pranced to the escalators. “If JayJay gets back before I do, tell him I missed him, okay?”

As soon as she left, Dan bit a fingernail. He tore more than the white crescent, revealing magenta underneath. Dan rubbed it to salt the wound. If Faith saw the nail, she’d throw a fit. Well, no, but she’d coo sympathetically, and wasn’t that far worse? Dan jogged to an airport convenience-store and bought himself black gloves. He didn’t wear them right away—he sat near Jay’s terminal and ate all the skin around his nails. When Jay’s plane broke through the clouds, Dan donned the gloves to hide his hands. Jay was among the first to disembark. Dan waved. “Jay! Jay!”

“Dan! Oran dora!

“How was the flight?”

“I survived.” The two hugged. “Is Faith here? Virgil Jango Skyy shared a story I’ve got to tell her about.”

“She’s buying breakfast. She told me to say she missed you.”

“If I had a cellphone signal, I would’ve called you every hour, Dan. You’re always telling me how pop-culture appropriates religions, right? For LuLu’s, Tatsu picked Sheridan clean!” Jay showed Dan his camera’s screen. “Look, three islands: a small sandy one, a middling piney one, and a big mountainous one where centipedes come from! On the second island, these masked dancers lead to this circle of monks. They walk, they chant—it’s like the Kaaba, but there’s a bird in the middle! That’s why my framing is wonky: there are giant birds everywhere, and Sheridanians are super emphatic about not photographing them. Here, this statue is actual-size, maybe even a little small.”

“Whoa.” Dan compared the bird-statue to pines in the background. “They must be eight feet tall.”

“Yep. The statue represents the Biggest Bird, a local folk hero even taller than that. It’s not coddling a toddler, that’s supposed to be a grown man! It’s just not-to-scale. Doesn’t it look like Professor Akayama after Uzumaki made her a bird-thing?” Jay skipped to a photo of Virgil Jango Skyy with Virgil Blue in the background. “I’ve never seen anywhere like Sheridan, Dan. You’ve got to go. You know more about religion than I do.”

Dan tried to press camera-buttons, but his black gloves were too bulky. “Maybe I can write my thesis on Sheridan. I’ll run it by my advisers.”

“Here, I got you a souvenir.” Jay gave him the orange plush fledgling. “I got one for Faith, too, and I bought some nice seashells, but they’re being shipped. Where’s she buying breakfast?”

“She’s bringing buns from across the street.” Dan led Jay to the window overlooking the diner. “There she is.”

“She looks happy as she’s ever been,” said Jay. Faith bounced on her toes waiting at the crosswalk with a bag of buns. “How about you, Dan? Are you feeling okay?”

“Oh, you know.” Dan sucked a gloved finger. “Not great.”

Jay nodded in sympathy. “Well, then I’m glad you’ve both got each other to help keep yourselves together.”

As Faith crossed the street, she saw Dan and Jay at the window and waved at them. “Hey! JayJay!” A speeding bus ran the red light and almost hit her head-on. Faith leapt to safety with a yelp. When her adrenaline wore off, she laughed and finished crossing the street. Then she was struck by a lone lightning-bolt, as if it was aimed at her specifically. She left only a scorch on the sidewalk.

Jay found himself instantly and totally disengaged from reality, incapable of anything other than self-analysis and attempts to describe and understand his own mental state at that moment. He felt like he was watching his life from thousands and thousands of miles away. Dan ran crying to airport-security, as if the NSA could undo the last few moments, but Jay just raised his trembling hands to count his fingers: ten.


Because Beatrice died so recently, and the lightning cremated Faith so thoroughly, their wakes were held together on the same day. Their urns were arranged on a lawn by a lazy river: Beatrice’s urn was creamy and marbled, while Faith’s urn was matte-white. Jay left the white plush fledgling before Faith’s urn, then did his best consoling friends and family, but he didn’t recognize half the mourners. He knew Faith’s uncle by the tinfoil under his fedora, and he heard Dan’s persistent sobbing, but Faith had made lots of friends in art-classes, and Beatrice had tons of connections from nursing-school. “I’m sorry for your loss,” Jay said to Uncle Featherway.

“You’re Faith’s friend, right?” He adjusted his tinfoil fedora to protect himself from whatever Jay was thinking. “Do you know what happens when you die?”

“Um.” Jay looked at the urns. “What do you think?”

Uncle Featherway vigorously pointed skyward like he was always waiting for someone to ask him that. “Aliens made humans to mine gold. When we die, we’re reincarnated to keep mining. At the end of time, the aliens will collect our gold, and everyone loyal to them will board their spaceship.”

“Wow. Does the tinfoil keep aliens from reincarnating you?”

“The tinfoil is for different aliens. The mind-readers have battled the gold-miners for eons.”

“I see.” Even out of consolation, Jay could only indulge tinfoil-hat theories for so long. Still, he wondered if Uncle Featherway could corroborate his first ever interview. “Faith once told me you attended a lecture by monks at Sheridan Cliff-Side College. Before you leave for Wyoming, could I ask you about Virgil Blue?”

“Sure! Best lecture of my life,” said Uncle Featherway. “Virgil Blue didn’t say anything, though.”

“I want to hear your impression anyway. When are you free?”

“After the wake I’ll be waiting for my train in the sports-bar across the street. Hey, is that your friend over there? He’s pretty beat-up.”

“Oh. Excuse me.” Jay walked to Dan and pat his shoulder. While Jay wore a dark purple suit and tie, fitting for a funeral, Dan hadn’t found the strength to change out of his favorite old orange T-shirt. “Dan, have you eaten today?”

Dan absorbed his tears with his black gloves. “I haven’t eaten since Faith died.”

“Let’s try eating, then. I’ll pay.”

Dan turned to the urns. They were framed by the river, which Jay thought was a fitting metaphor for impermanence. Dan concentrated on the scene like he wanted to freeze it forever in his memory. Finally they left the wake. “Where should we go?”

“There’s a sports-bar across the street,” said Jay. “It’ll have the essentials.”

There was a college football-game on, so the pub was crowded and loud. Dan and Jay could talk near the end of the bar and no one would hear or listen in. Dan declined to order anything, so Jay flagged the bartender’s attention to order a tuna-sandwich for him and water for himself. Dan picked crumbs from the bread until he built enough momentum to take a bite. Soon he discovered he was ravenous and finished the sandwich, so Jay bought him another. “Thanks,” said Dan. “Jay, you’ve put up with me for years now. Just… thanks.”

“Knowing you has been a pleasure,” said Jay. “I know Beatrice and Faith would say the same. Faith always giggled when you tried impressing Beatrice with Bible quotes.”

“I killed them.” Dan chewed his second sandwich. Jay didn’t know what to say. “Both of them are dead because of me.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know, I’m just so…” Dan put down the sandwich. “Can I order a drink?”

“Did you drive here?”

“I walked.” Jay ordered Dan a pint of stout. Maybe it would help him vent. “When you smoked centipede in my apartment, Beatrice left because of me.” Dan drank half the pint the moment it was put before him. The stout was thick brown mud, but its head was foamy white cream. “I made her shake my hand and she couldn’t stand me anymore. She pretended she was called by the hospital, and she left in such a hurry she didn’t see the bus.”

“Dan, even if that were true, it wouldn’t be your fault.”

“And that’s assuming she didn’t throw herself under the bus to get away from me for good.”

“I can’t imagine she did.”

“And Faith—oh, poor Faith—“

“Faith was struck by lightning, Dan. That’s no one’s fault.”

“I looked so pitiful she offered to get breakfast. I basically stabbed her in the back.”

“You can’t blame yourself for acts of God.”

“That’s where we disagree.” Dan finished his stout and ordered another pint. He finished his second sandwich while he waited for the drink. “I killed my dad, too.”

“I’m sure you didn’t, but I’m listening.” The wakes left Jay in a listening mood, and Dan’s tongue loosened with his second stout.

“I don’t talk a lot about my parents, do I?” Jay shook his head. “They divorced when I was ten. My mom always told me she left my dad because of his unhealthy obsession with his job as a professor of Religious-Studies. She was a psychiatrist, so I guess she knew what she was talking about.” Dan had started talking continuously like Virgil Jango Skyy, as if this was a lecture he’d brewed internally for a long, long time. “Every year, for visitation, Mom would drop me off at his university for just a few hours. I’d climb all the way up to his office and he’d give me a book. The last time I saw him alive, he asked how I enjoyed Dante’s Inferno, and I said it was the best book he ever gave me, so he gave me the Purgatorio and the Paradiso. I was taken aback; he’d never given me two books at once. Seeing my expression, he asked if I had any questions. I asked, ‘what happens to Dante’s guide, Virgil? I hope he was only put in Hell to lead Dante to God, and he’ll be admitted into Heaven at the end.’

“But he said, ‘I’m afraid the Virtuous Pagans are in Hell forever. They’ll never join the saints in passing through that final wall of fire into Heaven. But, on Hell’s outer rim, their only punishment is distance from God’s light, which they never even knew in life. So they’re free! Wouldn’t you rather spend eternity with those rejected scholars than the stuck-up prudes in Heaven? Remember, Dante’s Hell is self-inflicted: the condemned condemn themselves.’ “

“Hmm.” Jay leaned back on his bar-stool. “Being on Hell’s outer rim doesn’t sound so bad, but I like your way better, where scholars go to Hell to bust people out.”

“Me too. So I—” Dan interrupted himself by ordering a third stout. The bartender topped off Jay’s water. “I asked him for more book-recommendations. Suddenly his face went pale and his hands shook. ‘I’m sorry, son. I’ve really robbed you,’ he said. ‘I hardly interact with you at all except through academic literary discussions.’ I said that was okay, because it got me great grades in English, and I wanted to study religion in college anyway, like him. ‘But there’s so much more to life than reading books professors give you.’ So I asked him to… to give me books as a dad instead. ‘That’s difficult,’ he said, ‘because to me, every book is about religion.’ He gave me almost half the books on his shelves, one by one, outlining his whole worldview every step of the way. When he was done, he thoroughly traumatized every word into me by jumping out the window. I watched him die.”

“Oh. Holy shit.” Jay ordered Dan a third tuna-sandwich. “I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”

Dan downed his third pint all at once. “It’s okay,” he lied.

But Jay wanted details, and it sounded like Dan cut off his lecture prematurely. He pulled out his notepad and pen. “Which books? What worldview? I mean, if you don’t mind discussing it.”

“Um.” Dan bit his third sandwich, but suddenly lost his appetite. “I’m hesitant to tell you. If you die because of it, that’d be on me.”

“Take your best shot, Dan.” Jay dated a fresh page.

“Well, his worldview could be called ‘Pitying Fig-Makers,’ I guess.” Jay wrote that with a question-mark next to it. “First he handed me some sci-fi based on Dante’s Inferno. ‘Dante called out corrupt politicians and religious leaders with the language of his day,’ he said, ‘confronting them with the doctrine they claimed to represent. This sci-fi book modernized that concept so today’s readers can understand and appreciate it, and it almost won a Hugo and a Nebula, so it obviously succeeded in reaching people. All literature is written by people,’ he said, ‘and anyone can write anything about anything, and then anyone can interpret it in any way. No one needs permission. No one has authority. Fundamentally there’s no difference in legitimacy between this sci-fi novel based on Dante’s Inferno, the real Inferno, the Bible, or the Koran.’ “

Jay documented the sci-fi in his notepad. “So your father was an atheist?”

“Not quite. He didn’t think atheists went nearly far enough, because deep in the abyss you loop back around to seeing the true face of God inside you. I asked him, if there was no legitimate authoritative text, then how could anyone know what to believe? ‘There’s no such thing as believing,’ he said. ‘Consciousness is neurological background radiation from which reality bubbles like particles and antiparticles—and even that’s giving us too much credit!’ He passed me two biology textbooks—Lamarck and Darwin—and two physics textbooks—Newton and Einstein. ‘Hundreds of years ago, science didn’t look like it does now, and hundreds of years hence, science will advance beyond our recognition—in fact, the purpose of science is its own replacement. Even the formal logic of mathematics has been reinterpreted again and again.’ He gave me a textbook about non-Euclidean geometry. ‘All truth,’ he said, ‘will eventually be considered naive and flawed in the face of another, better truth, which will itself be replaced. Clinging to any truth is being trapped in a religion, perhaps without even noticing. Alternatively, accepting the impermanence of all truths reveals religion to be a great and complicated tool, a tool with many names: gods, governments, sciences, philosophies, histories, ancestries, morals, economies, laws, and so on. They intersect and they overlap, many limbs of one constantly shape-shifting Swiss army-knife.’ “

Jay tapped his pen on the bar. “So governments, sciences, and so on, your father describes them the same way an atheist describes God? Not actually real, but impacting the world through shared delusion?”

“Deeper, Jay. It’s only a delusion if you haven’t caught on to what’s really happening. You and I are religions for our cells. Cells are religions for their subatomic particles. Every God is as real as you and me—that’s just not saying very much! I asked my dad, what’s the tool for? He gave me a pile of history books and a pile of anthropology books, and told me ‘cultures are enclosed by semipermeable membranes, just like our cells. Within a culture there are simple rules, like, wear this funny hat, or, don’t eat these foods.’ “

“Or, don’t take pictures of birds?” asked Jay. “Or, use these preferred pronouns? Easy asshole-detectors?”

“Exactly. ‘Someone who can’t even follow the simple rules can’t be expected to follow more important rules, like, don’t murder or rape anyone,’ he said. ‘The wise know all these rules are artificially constructed, but follow the simple ones anyway for the sake of the important ones. But different cultures have different rules, so life is terrible! War! Slavery! Torture! Genocide! The important rules are broken by the fig-makers, those who mistake the window-dressing of simple rules for more than it is—or, worse, those who pretend to make that mistake for personal benefit, reinterpreting rules or even inventing new rules just to claim they’ve been wronged. Religions are written to create and protect cultures, then stolen and perverted to loot cultures, even the culture of origin. Fig-makers assign themselves and everyone around them to suffer everlastingly just to justify their own actions. This is ongoing, never-ending, and nightmarish.’ “

Jay puzzled with his pen on his lip. “Fig-makers? Making figs?”

“An ancient Italian way to flip the bird.” Dan made fists with the tips of his thumbs stuck between his index and middle fingers. When his thumbs wiggled, they looked like worms poking out of the dirt. Jay wondered if the figs were meant to be diminutively phallic. “Dante said the damned made figs at God for the torment they ultimately chose for themselves with the free will God gave them. My dad said these fig-makers walked among the living, perpetually surrendering control to blame anything available for their own decisions and the resulting consequences. They probably won’t say they’re making figs at God—they might even say God’s on their side, or there is no God—but when they condemn themselves, they give God-like status to whatever they claim condemned them.”

“Hmm. Like…” Jay bobbed his head left and right as he wrangled ideas together. “Plenty of religions have important God-given rules about not setting people on fire. But if a preacher declares their neighbor a witch working for Satan, then the preacher could justify doing anything to that neighbor, even if they secretly knew they made it all up.”

“Yeah, and in doing so, the preacher surrenders their God’s power to the idea of Satan and the witch, so when they burn them at the stake, that’s making figs. It won’t solve the preacher’s problems—it might make them worse!—so they’ll keep finding more witches to blame.”

” ‘Those witches made me do it!’ ” said Jay. He thought he sounded a little like Lio. “Just give someone the demonic ability to shrink your wiener with black magic and you’re free to make all the figs you want. Lots of folks have been lynched like that.”

“Um. Sure,” said Dan. “Anyway, I asked my dad, if life is this never-ending nightmare, what do we do about it? ‘Wake up and play the game!’ he said. ‘Steal Gods back from fig-makers by making a new God which wears their Gods like hand-puppets, and use it for the benefit of all because that’s what Gods are for. This God will be stolen, too, for fig-makers to use in malice, but that’s okay, because you can always make another, even reusing old names. If there’s a real God, it’s the loving emptiness behind the window-dressing, to whom all human conventions appear futile and transient. We can put God in any costume, because the real God wears us as costumes.’ “

Jay scribbled notes, trying to understand. “Trying to convince the preacher they’re wrong about witches is a waste of time, because they might not actually believe their own excuse for burning their neighbor at the stake. Your father says we can protect that neighbor by introducing new belief-systems, like telling the preacher ‘witches would be a lot nicer if they weren’t being set on fire all the time,’ or ‘maybe you’re a witch, too, and if you’re not, well, maybe you should be.’ “

“Or, if need be, by taking direct action ourselves,” said Dan. “He gave me a copy of the Bhagavad Gita to show how the wise might even appear to break their own important rules, like by fighting in a truly righteous war. I told you about the Bhagavad Gita once, right? When you went to Nepal?” Jay nodded. “Arjuna couldn’t engage in combat until he saw Krishna’s true shape for himself. He needed deep understanding of the ultimate reality before he could resort to violence. That just didn’t make sense to me. Could a loving God really be used to justify any war as righteous? Wasn’t that twisting morality like the fig-makers? My dad said I was right to be concerned: anyone opposing fig-makers had to avoid becoming a fig-maker themselves. But then he flipped through a picture-book of deities with bulging eyes, shaking fists, and gaping maws of pointed teeth. ‘All these are Gods of compassion, protection, and pure love,’ he said. ‘Do they look that way to you?’

” ‘No,’ I said! ‘They look angry as all Hell.’ ” Dan quivered a little just thinking about them. 

” ‘Precisely!’ said my dad. ‘When a mother sees her toddler sticking a fork in an electrical socket, she might look angry! Wrathful! Hateful! That look comes from love’s desire to protect the ignorant from themselves. A fig-maker feigning ignorance to take advantage of God’s love will watch it morph to protect them in these furious manners, because feigned ignorance is ignorance. Satan is just another great and complicated tool to show such love in so many ways.’ “

“In movies, you might smack someone to wake them up or calm them down.” Jay slapped the air. “It’s for the best even if it looks pretty bad.”

Dan nodded. “Next he handed me a copy of the Lotus Sutra. Have you ever heard of it?” Jay shook his head. “I hadn’t either. ‘The Buddha says most people won’t accept his ultimate teachings of emptiness and compassion, preferring teachings which promise an easy reward,’ he said, ‘so Bodhisattvas use skillful means, presenting inferior lessons within a contemporary cultural context, eventually leading to the real lessons which are beyond context. Avalokiteshvara can take any shape to share their lesson that form is emptiness and emptiness is form.’ “

Avalokiteshvara?” Jay remembered such a name from the art-museum. “Is that Shiva on one side and Parvati on the other?”

“You’re thinking of Ardhanarishvara. Avalokiteshvara tried and failed to save all sentient beings, so they grew eleven heads and a thousand arms with eyes on their palms to perceive and end all suffering.”

Now that’s a giant anime space-robot, thought Jay. “So your father was a Buddhist?”

“No, no. He was explaining the potential of all belief-structures. ‘Fig-makers put themselves in a made-up Hell so they can demand a made-up Heaven, possibly without even realizing how they’ve created an actual Hell for themselves and everyone around them. The wise make up Heavens and Hells to help people who need them, manifesting an actual Heaven by cultivating a proper understanding of nihilism which leads to universal benevolence. That means anything can be a lesson from God’s emptiness, even our very thoughts, daily interactions, and ordinary pop-culture.’ “

“Any pop-culture in particular?” asked Jay.

“Yeah! When he said that, he gave me the last books he ever gave me, a pile of manga—LuLu’s Space-Time Acceleration. It was the first time I’d ever seen it.”

“No way,” said Jay. “Your father introduced you to LuLu’s?” He shouldn’t have been so surprised. Jay’s own father introduced him to LuLu’s when he brought the DVD-set as a souvenir from Japan. “What was his impression of it?”

“My dad said it demonstrated his perspective. ‘In LuLu’s, Earth’s most powerful fig-makers are so egocentric they’re insulted by the existence of anything else, a self-imposed torment they use to justify taking the form of a cosmic horror called the Hurricane. The Hurricane eats everything and everyone it considers unworthy, becoming Hell itself. The survivors fight the Hurricane in the Galaxy Zephyr for the sake of the natural cycle of life and death, Heaven-on-Earth in comparison. The Galaxy Zephyr rips parts off the Hurricane and eats them, recycling the universe. This is wisdom versus ignorance, radical acceptance versus vanity, proper nihilism versus an imposter.’ “

“It sounds like your father detected Tatsu took LuLu’s straight from a Sheridanian monastery,” said Jay.

“He kept going on and on about it. ‘The mortals in the Galaxy Zephyr’s holy weapon, a discus called the Wheel, must have no clue about their role in what amounts to hand-to-hand combat between Heaven and Hell,’ he said. ‘If it were explained to them, I suspect they’d reject the concept outright. If they knew their purpose, they couldn’t serve it! But, because the Galaxy Zephyr wisely fights for all aspects of reality, including the grotesque portions which created the Hurricane to begin with, those mortals in the Wheel must be reenacting the giant space-robot combat in miniature. As above, so below! The manga demands readers join the fight against the Hurricane in their everyday lives by making them reconsider the relationship between the cosmic and the mundane.’ “

“Maybe you can explain this to me better than Virgil Jango Skyy,” said Jay. “Why does the Galaxy Zephyr need to save the Hurricane’s pilots? They’re not just fig-makers, they ate the universe!”

“My dad compared it to metta-meditation,” said Dan. ” ‘First the Galaxy Zephyr’s crew-members feel compassion for themselves and each other,’ he said. ‘Then Akayama collected the golden-winged Zephyr because it easily inspires and accepts compassion. But to achieve inner peace and defeat the Hurricane once and for all, the Galaxy Zephyr must eventually account for fig-makers who are difficult to feel compassion for, and who rebuke compassion when they get it. And, saving the pilots of the Hurricane will give the Zephyrs moral license to defeat the Hurricane itself by proving its fig-making was unwarranted. The world we live in is a terrifying place, and to redeem it, we must allow ourselves to be terrifying, too. We defeat the Hurricane using the Hurricane within us, a Jungian brand of enlightenment. We are multilayered sieves, stealing bad Gods, processing them, elevating them into good Gods.’ “

Jay wrote all that down. “That’s one heck of a worldview.”

“Yeah, I couldn’t fit all his books in my backpack. I had to carry half of them in my arms. ‘Wow, Dad, thanks for all of these!’

“He just looked out over the campus courtyard. ‘Dan, before you read the Purgatorio, you should know Dante’s Virgil has another layer of frustration. His Aeneid saved a soul from Hell, but he’s still barred from Heaven. In justifying Alighieri’s Almighty, I can only suggest transporting souls to salvation would be more important to Virgil than Heaven. To grease divine mechanisms would be his utilitarian delight. Every aspect of Hell is necessary to maintain Dante’s scheme, even the woods of suicides. So thank you for visiting me, because teaching you is the only resolution I could hope for in this life. I know I’ve given you the tools to recover from what I’m about to do.’ Then he jumped out the window. His body broke branches and he splattered across the quad. He died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.”

Jay capped his pen. “Dan, thank you for telling me all this. I knew your father died just before we met, but I never knew he committed suicide like that.” He bought Dan a fourth pint, and one for himself. They both needed it. “You didn’t kill him, though.”

“Recommending books was the only thing keeping him alive.” Dan drank his fourth stout quickly as the rest. “I sucked that from him like a vampire.”

Jay thought a Sheridanian might see it differently. Dan’s father offloaded his worms onto his kid. “When I went to Wales, you told me about the sin-eaters. You’re a sin-eater, Dan, and apparently a good one.” He wondered if Dan’s father had ever smoked centipede, or if his mental-health issues were home-grown. He sipped his stout’s white cream. “You were the best aspect of life for someone obviously struggling.”

Dan started eating his third sandwich again. “He was showing me how to die.” Jay shook his head in remorse. “How not to die, I mean.” Jay sighed with relief. “Christ knew he’d be crucified, and went to Jerusalem anyway. In a previous life, the Buddha threw himself away to feed hungry tigers. Christ and the Buddha would tell you not to kill yourself, but they get away with it, because of the depth of their understanding of non-duality. They proudly used their deaths to relieve others of their suffering. My dad vainly jumped to escape his own. Those are the only two ways to off yourself.” Dan had eaten most of his third sandwich like a hungry tiger, but now lost his appetite. “Anyway, you can see why high-school was difficult that year. This one time…” Dan put the sandwich down. “You remember you and me used to eat lunch with Faith and Beatrice?”

“Yeah. Lots of fun.” Jay could listen for as long as Dan could talk.

“A lot of guys wanted to date Beatrice, but she always turned them down. She never told them she was already dating Faith. I guess the two of them were hiding it.”

“I didn’t know until the end of the school-year,” said Jay. “There’re reasons to be protective of that sort of information.”

“I know! That’s why I felt blessed around Beatrice.” Dan smiled into his empty pint. “Being her friend felt like approval from a secret sacred source. She even told me once, no matter how annoyed she was when I glorified her, she liked having me around, because guys didn’t hit on her as much when I was there.”

“It’s true,” said Jay. “We’d get more catcalls in the cafeteria when you ate lunch alone in the library.”

The bottom of his empty pint wasn’t making Dan smile anymore. “This one time, eating lunch alone in the library, someone slapped me on the back. You know the guy in our homeroom who always wore sunglasses?”

“Nope.”

“His name was Lio.”

Jay put two and two together. “Oh. He’s bald, right? Actually, yeah, I do know him. He was on my bird-watching tour in Sheridan.  I didn’t see him much in high-school; I guess he was as repelled by me as he was by you.” He finished his stout and uncapped his pen. “What did he want?”

“I told him not to hit me like that, and he said it was okay, because it didn’t hurt. ‘I’m just trying to be your buddy, Danny-boy!’ I gave him the benefit of the doubt, assuming, like my dad taught me, he just had different simple rules, and our important rules were probably the same. But the more we talked there in the library, the more I realized he was seriously fucked in the head. I don’t think you’d believe me if I told you what came out of his mouth.”

“Try me, Dan.” Jay started writing on a fresh page.

“Well, he asked if I was an ‘alpha male,’ keeping Beatrice for myself, or just a ‘beta’ trying to get into her pants. I told him we were just friends, and he scoffed and said, ‘beta, then.’ “

“Yeesh.”

“He asked me for her phone-number, and when I wouldn’t give it to him, he said he was disappointed in me. He thought we were friends, he said, and if I wanted to stay friends, I should leave Beatrice alone and get out of his way, because I was ‘cucking’ him. Am—am I right that ‘cuck’ has sort of a racial connotation?”

Jay frowned and underlined the word in his notepad. “It can.” He decided Lio wasn’t worth the benefit of the doubt. “A cuck is a guy whose wife cheats on them with a black man.”

“That’s what I thought, so I asked him what it meant, and he couldn’t bring himself to say it aloud. He just croaked the word like a toad a couple more times. When I kept playing dumb, he said cucking was when someone keeps you from getting what you deserve. I was like, ‘really? Is that what it means?’ ” Jay considered reminding Dan he’d said feigned ignorance was still ignorance. Was Dan reinterpreting rules just to be offended? Or trying to wisely slap a fig-maker awake with the realization of embarrassment? “He told me to stop messing around. He knew I knew what it meant because of the book I was reading.”

 “What book were you reading?”

“I had lots of books! It was a library, Jay! But I knew which one he meant. It had a temple from Thailand on the cover with swastikas on both sides of the door, one clockwise, one counterclockwise. He must’ve thought the swastikas meant I was on his fucked-up wavelength, so I told him swastikas mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. He was like, ‘Yes! Exactly!’ and he unbuttoned his shirt. This asshole had tattooed a swastika on his own chest. It was the size of his palm, but the lines were thinner than pencil-lead, just a fragile little snowflake. He must’ve had a hard time inking himself in the mirror, because he fucked up two of the spokes, so it ended up looking like a crude firearm with a hair-trigger. I remembered what my dad taught me: following simple rules, like not tattooing a fucking swastika on yourself, are indicators of following important rules, like being a decent human being. And then my dad taught me to confront terribleness by being terrifying.”

Jay soured, remembering how Lio tried sharing his tattoo on the ferry. “So what did you do?”

“My dad had just committed suicide, okay? I felt like I was exactly the person to tell Lio, ‘anyone who looks up to Hitler should bite a bullet in a bunker.’ But that just seemed to build him up! He said he tattooed himself to detect small-minded people, and he was glad to see that it worked. Disapproving of his swastika-tattoo meant I was the real Nazi. He’d invented a simple rule just to watch people break it: apparently I had to respect him no matter what awful decisions he made. He said I was oppressing him, proving that he was right all along.”

“Right about what?”

“He said society limited his true power for the sake of political correctness. The world would be better off if he, and other alphas like his rich dad, were really unchained. I—I don’t know why he brought up his dad, he just did. I certainly didn’t ask.”

“He mentioned his dad in Sheridan, too,” said Jay. “I hadn’t asked, either.” Was Lio telling the truth, or just a lie he liked enough to repeat? “Unchained to do what, exactly?”

“He said ‘sweatshops sound bad, but—‘ “

Jay chuckled. “Not a great way to start, huh?”

” ‘Sweatshops sound bad, but there are so many useless people out there! Think of how much money we’re wasting teaching garbage-kids to read and write instead of putting them to work.’ Work under what conditions? Are there safety-regulations involved? ‘Safety-regulations? You’re spitting on my rights!‘ I asked about the ethics of dangerous child-labor, but he told me ethics were made up by religious people—he pronounced the word with this shit-eating grin—to make alphas like him a slave to the weak. That made real slavery okay, he said! ‘Some races wouldn’t survive on their own. If we take them from their huts and teach them to be useful, they should thank us! If they refuse to take responsibility for themselves even after we beat some sense into them, then at least they’ve got some organs to sell!’ That was war, slavery, torture, and genocide all justified at once, and he said ‘we’ and ‘us’ as if I’d be on his side for any of it. So I asked where he drew the line. Was child sex-trafficking okay? I was trying to plumb the bottom of this well, here, with some low-hanging fruit.”

“And?”

“And he thinks for a second and says, ‘Okay, you convinced me, child sex-trafficking is okay too, and preventing it should be against the law, because it’s a violation of our freedom.’ I was fucking floored. Not only was he going this low, but he was acting like it was my idea! I asked him what possible excuse he could have for justifying child sex-trafficking, and he said—oh, boy—he said the existence of gay people was an ongoing genocide against ‘proper straights,’ and to make up for it, he deserved the right to buy someone underage and impregnate them. Besides, this stuff was gonna happen somewhere no matter what, so we shouldn’t be allowed to oppose it anywhere. In fact, being against child sex-trafficking meant that I was at fault for all the starving kids around the world, and he was the only one with their best interests in mind.”

“Lordy.” Lilly dodged a bullet, thought Jay.

“I was seriously shaking.” Dan was shaking now just thinking about it. His hands were making panicked little mudra. “Here was a guy who made government, sexuality, law, religion, the economy, and morality into a personal religion with a cruel God to make atrocious little figs at. I’d never expected to see someone like my dad had described, deliberately misinterpreting reality’s emptiness to construct a personal hellscape justifying terrible impulses. My dad had told me, ‘steal their God! Make it your own!’ I’d let him bury himself in victim-hood until he realized he was responsible for his own decisions no matter who he blamed. I asked him if taxation was theft. He said yes, eager to be wronged in every way possible.”

“Hm. Okay,” said Jay, “but an authoritarian state could levy oppressive taxes.”

“Of course—a natural consequence of electing such fig-makers!—so first I pressed a little harder to make sure I knew what I was dealing with. Did he think quadriplegics in state-provided wheelchairs were stealing from his daddy? ‘Obviously! If having no arms or legs means they can’t work hard enough to earn a wheelchair, they should just rot in a cave where we don’t have to see them.’ Even if funds for such wheelchairs were allotted through due democratic process? ‘Yes! Voting is gang-rape! Those quadriplegics are gang-raping us!’ Now I felt justified in tripping him up by agreeing with him.”

“The Bugs Bunny approach,” said Jay. He wondered if Lio’s rich dad actually did commit tax-evasion, just in ways which Lio couldn’t proudly boast about.

” ‘How come your daddy doesn’t take responsibility for protecting his property from theft?’ I asked Lio. ‘My dad’s not taxed at all.’

” ‘Your dad’s probably chump-change,’ he said. ‘If a real alpha protects their property from Uncle Sam, he’ll get the whole army thrown at him!’

” ‘What’d be so bad about dying on your feet a free man?’ I asked. ‘Don’t trade your freedom for safety. Shit or get off the pot. Better to light a single candle than curse the darkness. Besides, a penny saved is a penny earned. If you don’t protect your property from theft, you’re renting it at the mercy of thieves, and your thieves are the government, so you rent at the mercy of the state. A coward’s a communist no matter what they’re allowed or required to pretend to be instead.’

” ‘You’re the communist,’ he said, ‘because you think society should control me!’

” ‘Projection!’ ” Dan grew louder and louder as he recited the conversation, standing and pointing at the ceiling. The rest of the bar-patrons were too invested in the football-game to notice; some of them were standing and shouting just like him. ” ‘I choose how much I’m taxed because I take responsibility for my financial decisions instead of perpetually surrendering my freedom for pity-points!

” ‘Bullshit! What would you do if I stole from you right now?‘ He curled up his arms as if he had intimidating biceps.”

” ‘The same thing I do in every situation: make my own decisions because I’m a free man! Any zoo is a petting zoo unless you’re a coward. A free man can be free anywhere. A coward like you is a communist everywhere. Man’s free the instant he chooses to be, and I hope someday you’ve got the guts, Comrade, but I’m not gonna hold my breath waiting for a pinko in denial to grow a spine!‘ “

” ‘What, you want me to go full Waco?’ he asked.

” ‘I want you to escape the mental gulag you’ve cucked yourself into, for your own sake and for the sake of anyone who ever has the misfortune of meeting you, but if you mean kill your family in a fire, yes, please, do the world a favor!’ So he socked me in the jaw. My head hit two bookshelves when I fell.”

“Ouch.”

“It’s okay.” Dan sat back on his bar-stool. “I… I deserved it.”

“Did you?”

“Yeah. The difference between him and me is that I accept the consequences of my actions. I threw my dad out a window, I hit Beatrice with a bus, I zapped Faith with a lightning-bolt, and I socked myself with Lio’s fist. I’m not gonna make figs at a fig-maker.” Jay wrote this down, unsure. By taking the blame for acts of God and Lio’s shittiness, wasn’t Dan just making figs at himself? “But while I was on the library floor, he shouted something at me I don’t think I’ll ever forget.”

“What did he shout?”

” ‘Stop looking at me like that!’ I wish I knew my own expression, because it must’ve been a powerful one.” Jay could guess the look: like a mother watching her kid stick a fork in an electrical socket. “So I gave him a twenty dollar bill and told him to get another swastika-tattoo on his forehead. Then everyone would know to look at him the same way I did.”

“Did he take it?”

“Of course. And when he did, he said he was gonna beat the smug out of me that summer.” Dan sipped the last dregs from his empty pint-glass. He’d started slurring, so Jay elected not to buy him a fifth.

Did he beat the smug out of you that summer?”

“Hold on.” Dan stumbled off his stool and waddled like a Sheridanian big-bird. “I’ve been pouring my heart out for like an hour. Now I gotta pour out my bladder. I’ll be back.”


When Dan staggered back to the bar, he buried his face in his gloved hands. “Lio never got to beat the smug out of me, but he came pretty close. I attended college where my dad killed himself, since the University was financially supportive and let me live in his old apartment. I didn’t see you or Beatrice or Lio for years, but Faith took art-classes on campus, and we always ate lunch together. One day she invited me to a party.”

“Aw, that’s nice.” Jay was glad to hear new stories about their late friends. “Where did they live? After high-school I was always abroad, so I only talked to you guys on the phone.”

“Faith and Beatrice lived on the top floor of an apartment by the beach. The first floor belonged to a frat-house, and apparently they were all invited to the party, too, because they were streaming up the exterior steps in a vertical zigzag of bed-sheet togas. I kinda wish I’d gotten the memo. I would’ve joined the dress-code.”

“Haha.”

“At the top steps, Faith leapt onto me and hung around my neck. She kissed me, and I could taste that she’d been drinking. She offered me a beer, but after my dad died, I was afraid to touch alcohol.” He looked for extra drops in his empty pint. Jay shook his head at the bartender before they asked if he wanted another. “So we just looked over the balcony together. The ocean was close enough for a drunken toga-brother to puke into it over the railing. ‘Isn’t it beautiful, Dainty? I wish I could fly over the waves like a bird!’ “

“I figured she’d wanna be a fox.”

“That’s what I said. ‘I’ll be a flying fox!’ Then she kissed me some more. It was like she wanted to lick all my teeth, but she was almost two feet shorter than me, so she had to really reach for my molars. ‘Are you into this, Dainty? Am I bothering you?’ I guess I’m not a very active kisser. I liked Faith, I enjoyed her affection, but—“

“But you were thinking of Beatrice,” said Jay.

Dan whimpered. “She detected it easily as you did. Ever since meeting Lio in the library, I felt like I had to protect Beatrice from people like that, and I hadn’t seen her since high-school graduation! ‘Oh, Dainty,’ Faith said. ‘You could have everything anyone ever wanted right in front of you, and you’d still chase BeatBax to Hell and back just to make awkward small-talk.’ I was like, well, you’re her girlfriend, and you’re kissing me. ‘Ah, but BeatBax and I have an understanding.’ She smiled sorta mischievously, like she might kiss me again, but instead, she pulled a bug-stick from her pocket. ‘But if I’ve kissed you, it’s only fair you kiss her, too, right? She’s had enough of the party already, so she’s in our bed-room right now. You two could spend some time alone together.’ She kissed the bug-stick’s stem and told me to share it with her, because ‘it’d be just like smooching.’ “

“Had you ever smoked one before?”

“No, and honestly, the idea of tricking Beatrice into kissing like that made me feel sick. I told Faith, but she insisted it was okay, because we were only smooching symbolically. She pushed me into the apartment, where the frat-bros in bed-sheets were flirting with a bunch of girls from Beatrice’s nursing-school in scrubs. The hallway was clogged with drunks waiting for the bathroom, but I squeezed past them to Beatrice’s door. As soon as I knocked, she said ‘come in!’ I’d never heard her sound so inviting, so I held myself back. She was probably expecting Faith, right? Wouldn’t she be disappointed to see it was just me? But when I opened the door, I saw why she greeted me so eagerly.”

“Why?”

“There she was, in bed, tucked under warm blankets, reading her Bible, and right there, sitting on her bedside, was Lio.” Dan shuddered. Jay grimaced; with the timeline as he knew it, Lio had been married to Eva for about five years at this point. “He was fatter than he was in high-school, but he was still bald and had the same dark sunglasses. He was wearing a red bed-sheet like a toga, but he’d drawn it up his chest higher than any of the frat-brothers. And he had a glass water-pipe, all crusted-up with bug-gunk. Beatrice wasn’t even looking in his direction. She just smiled at me, like, see what I have to put up with? ‘Hey, Dan, have you met this guy, Henry? He came in here, like, forever ago, looking for the bathroom, supposedly. Maybe you can help him find it?’

“I walked up to Lio and played along with his little game. ‘Hi, Henry,‘ I said, ‘My name’s Lio. The bathroom’s in the hallway. You must be pretty bug-eyed to have missed it.’ “

“He put a hand out to shake, and when I shook it, he yanked me. ‘I’m teaching B here how to smoke powdered bug-sticks from one of these bad boys.’ He offered her the bong, but she buried herself in the Bible. ‘Go enjoy the party, bro.’ He finished his stupid machismo handshake, but I didn’t let go. I braced my foot on the wall and yanked him off Beatrice’s bed. ‘Whoa! Hey!’ He was too bug-eyed to keep me from pulling him to the door, or maybe he was playing limp to pretend my aggression was undue. ‘Why are you being so violent?’

“I shut Beatrice’s door behind us. Lio raised his fists like he’d plug me, but I just talked to him. He couldn’t throw the first punch in front of everyone in the hallway; he wouldn’t look like enough of a victim. ‘Look, Henry, when you do this shit, you look like a psycho, and you’ll be treated like one. I’m not gonna enable you by pretending we can be friends.’ Obviously he was like, what’re you talking about, I didn’t do anything wrong! And I said, ‘Henry, I don’t care if you’re a nimrod manipulated by scumbags or just scum playing dumb very convincingly. No one will waste their time humoring you to figure that out. You’re talking to a rare person who pities you enough to tell you making figs like this means you’re on a dark path. You call yourself an alpha, but it’s only a matter of time before you meet someone who knocks off your fucking Alpha-unit.’

“He finally cut the act a little, trying to make me drink his figgy kool-aid. ‘We could share her, Danny-boy.’ I told him Beatrice would never be interested in him or me, in part because she was a lesbian already in a relationship. ‘Isn’t it disgusting for her to lie to us like that? The real reason is because our skulls are shaped wrong—just a few millimeters more bone here or there and we’d be irresistible to chicks like her. That’s why she needs a guy like me, man enough to straighten her out. Then you could have what’s left of her. No need to thank me.’ What a pathetic attempt to virtue-signal with a fabricated victim-card. I just shook my head, stepped back into Beatrice’s room, and locked the door behind me.”

Jay wasn’t sure why he was taking notes on Lio, but he couldn’t stop himself. “Faith told me you tried starting a fight at a party. Was that it?”

“No, no. I’m getting to that. When I walked back in, Beatrice was appreciative. ‘That guy was trying to force-feed me his bong for, like, five minutes. Kept saying he used to be a cop, like I’d be impressed. If you hadn’t knocked when you did, I would’ve screamed.’ ” Jay wondered if Lio had actually been a police-officer, or if it was just a lie he liked to tell. He could imagine Lio as a mall-cop inflating himself. “I told her Faith wanted us to share a cricket. ‘Oh yeah? Is that her lipstick on your chin?’ I wiped it off and apologized. ‘It’s alright. Faith and I have an understanding.’ She came out from under the covers. I worried she was nude, or under-dressed, but she was wearing brown footie-pajamas with little yellow cartoon bunnies. She pat the bed and I sat next to her. She lit the cricket and puffed it. Apparently, she and Faith had smoked since after high-school.”

“Yeah, I knew that, actually.”

“She showed me how to smoke the bug-stick, and after one puff, I was astounded. It was like…” Dan revolved his left hand in a circle, searching for words. Jay flipped to another fresh page of his notepad. He’d struggled to describe the sensation himself and hoped Dan would have the vocabulary for it. “Nothing had changed, but I was suddenly aware of my own thoughts. I mean, we’re all aware of our thoughts, but I suddenly realized my thoughts were the only thing I was aware of, or possibly could be aware of. You know?”

“That’s just it,” said Jay. “You realize you’re a vessel, and the worms in your vessel can only interact with other worms using stories.

“The brain is a fiction-machine,” said Dan. “We bounce fictions off each other because fiction is all there is.”

“A great and complicated tool,” said Jay. “What happened next with Beatrice?”

“I had to ask, where could I get these? She told me…” Dan swallowed. “She told me ‘Faith buys them from Lio, but she’ll have to find a new supplier, because I don’t feel safe with him anywhere around anymore.’ I told her, yeah, that guy once told me the existence of gays was genocide, and therefore he should be allowed to buy and impregnate children. He barely acts decent sometimes because Faith buys his bugs and he wants to prove he’s a man by getting in your pants. ‘Sorta like you, huh?’ she said. ‘You’re always staring at me a little gormlessly.’ I was petrified.”

“Petrified, uh, staring at her gormlessly?” asked Jay.

“Well, yeah. ‘You don’t know anything about me,’ she said. I told her I knew she was in nursing-school, and I knew she liked birds—and bunnies, too, apparently, given her PJs. ‘But why are you so obsessed with being on my good side? I’d probably like you more if you were just yourself around me.’ So I said being her friend made me feel special. That made her smile! But next I told her I admired how she knew a scumbag when she saw one, and she didn’t take their shit. Her approval meant I was… Well, I wasn’t bad as Lio. ‘Ugh. Thanks, I hate it,’ she said. ‘You’re not trying to get into my pants, but you’re still using me as a source of self-worth.’ “

“Hmm.” Jay wasn’t taking notes of this, but he sketched a fox, a bird, and a bunny in his notepad to keep his hands busy. “She has a point. You shouldn’t need Beatrice to verify you’re not like Lio.”

“Well, I wasn’t quite convinced of that, yet,” said Dan. “I told her, ‘Faith joked sharing a cricket would be like kissing you. I should’ve told you that before we started smoking. Now I feel like him, sneaking in to score—but even worse, because I’m scoring secretly, symbolically, without you even knowing. That’s why I need your approval, because deep down, I know I’m a bad person, and you’re the only way I can be better.’

“She just wordlessly passed me the bug-stick. I wondered, was she showing her approval by symbolic smooch? But after I inhaled from it, she grabbed my shoulders, kissed me, and sucked the smoke straight from my lungs. She blew it out her open window, toward the moon. ‘There. Now you’ve got no excuses! Get over yourself.’ “

“Did it work?” asked Jay. “Did you feel any better?”

“Kinda?” Dan waved a hand. “Beatrice showed me that as long as I thought I needed her approval, her approval would never be enough. If I wanted to prove I wasn’t like Lio, I couldn’t do it through her. I had to do it myself.”

Jay bit his pen. “Kissing Beatrice just brought you right back to Lio, huh?”

“Ish. I wanted to show Lio that the victim-hood he invented to demand more from life was actually a trap he should dismantle, because making figs was condemning himself to a personal Hell. And I knew just how to do it.”

“Skillful means?”

“My best attempt, at least. I’d use the power he loved to surrender to reveal his true color to the party. Beatrice passed me the bug-stick, but I told her to save it. I ran out of her room and back down the hallway. Faith waved me to a ring of couches, where a crowd was watching Lio show off his bong and a bag of bug-sticks. On my way, I got myself a cup of beer and put some liquor in it.”

“You said you didn’t drink.”

“I hadn’t before then. Now I needed some confidence.” Once again, Dan checked for more drops in his empty pint. “Lio didn’t notice me sit next to Faith. He was distracted showing off a jar of centipedes to the frat-brothers in togas. It was the first time I saw centipedes outside of LuLu’s; I didn’t even know they were real. He unscrewed the top and made some nursing-school girls smell them, saying he confiscated them from a smuggler. ‘I sampled some before I came over,’ he said. ‘Wanna buy one? Primo stuff! You know, the secret to driving bug-eyed is to go faster than you think is safe.’ The crowd’s uneasiness made me sure that if I got Lio to show his heart on his sleeve, the party would be on my side. I finished my beer and asked Faith to get me another. I wasn’t planning to drink it—I just didn’t want her to see what I did next. I was drunk enough already.”

“Yeah, bug-sticks and alcohol work together like that.”

“As Faith left, I said to Lio, ‘It looks like the smuggler got the best of you. You’re selling centipedes with no antennae. Everyone knows the pollen is the best part.’ I’d heard that’s the case with crickets: the antennae and the eyes. ‘It’s basic biology!’

“He finally noticed me. ‘You again? You wanna take this outside?’

” ‘Why bother?’ I whipped off my shirt. ‘Fight me right here!’ The whole party was immediately against me. Everyone gave me this awful look. Lio laughed. He boasted I was half his weight and scrawny like a monk, and he’d beat the smug out of me. ‘All I’m worried about is cutting my knuckles on your stupid sunglasses. Take ’em off.’ The frat was ready to tackle me to the floor, but since he was enjoying the spotlight, Lio took off his sunglasses. His eyes were bloodshot. ‘Your toga, too. I don’t want you blaming your bed-sheets for tripping you up.’ “

Oh.

“I’d pinned him. He had to take off his bed-sheets, because he was riding a fig-maker victim-complex power-high. I’d given him the chance to be a macho-man, defending himself by beating some sense into a cruel yet puny God—but to make the most of it, didn’t he have to be a shirtless action-hero?”

“And then?”

“It was perfect. He saw the other guys were on his side, so he took the bet and lost big. He shrugged off that toga, in his boxers underneath, and every eye in the room was on his swastika-tattoo. He must’ve spent my twenty bucks doubling down, because it was bigger, bolder, and the spokes were correct, so he’d hired someone with one or two more brain-cells to rub together. The toga-brothers cringed in shame. ‘He is not with us!’ God, I could feel their indignity. Imagine explaining to cute nurses you’d been flirting with all night that your frat didn’t bring the skinhead. ‘I’ve never seen him in my life!’ I put my shirt back on. My work was done. The frat picked up Lio and—well, I didn’t plan this part—they chucked him off the balcony into the ocean.”

“And he washed up in Sheridan,” Jay whispered.

“I was drunk and bug-eyed, so I collapsed on the couch. Faith walked up to me with her arms crossed. ‘I saw that, Dainty.’ She knew I’d started the fight. ‘We don’t appreciate that sort of atmosphere in our apartment.’ I asked if she’d noticed the swastika-tattoo. ‘Yeah, I saw it. Now I don’t want him around, either.’ I told her how Lio had barged into Beatrice’s room. ‘Dainty, I’m gonna tell ya one time: I think that guy’s a colossal douche, and I think you responded poorly.’ I guess my means weren’t as skillful as I thought they were. I’m no Avalokiteshvara.

Jay sighed and capped his pen. He suspected Faith’s reaction wasn’t just about Dan: having allowed Lio into her circle to buy his bugs, she probably blamed herself for his move on Beatrice, but without the chance to retaliate against Lio, Dan bore the brunt of Faith’s scorn. “In Sheridan, I wanted to chuck Lio in the river. I can’t blame you for feeling the same way. I’m frankly impressed you can express that sentiment with at least the intention of teaching him a lesson. I just wanted him gone.”

“I guess Faith expected better from me than you do,” said Dan. “She let me pass out on the couch, but in the morning, she shook me awake to leave when Beatrice wanted to come out for breakfast. ‘Maybe we’ll talk again when we’ve decided you’ve cooled off.’ I was gutted. I wanted to finish smoking the cricket with Beatrice. ‘You want cricket?’ She shoved Lio’s water-pipe into my hands. ‘Scram!’ “

“Ah.” Jay found reason to pop open his pen again and continue writing. “I wondered where you got that bong. You named it after him?”

“A source of painful lessons,” said Dan.

“A great and complicated tool?”

“A tool? Definitely. Complicated? I guess. Great? I could take it or leave it. At the time, I took it.” Dan wiped his eyes. “As I brought the bong back to my apartment, I debated whether or not I actually wanted to smoke from it. What I really wanted was to undo chasing Lio and finish my bug-stick with Beatrice… but wasn’t I supposed to be learning to live without her approval? I had to try smoking on my own.”

“Did you really have to, though?”

“Well, maybe I felt a little Lio in me. But Lio’s bong was disgusting. You remember what it looked like, right?”

“Yeah.” Jay sketched a glass cylinder a foot tall with an erect stem poking from its bottom chamber to hold a bowl of powdered bug-bits. The top chamber had a percolator like a tiny tree with five hanging branches. “Like that?”

“Exactly, but…” Dan took the pen and scribbled all over the sketch. “It was opaque with crust. Cleaning it meant cleaning inside the five little fingers of that tiny glass tree. No wonder Lio never bothered—it was Sisyphean. A punishment!”

“And feeling responsible for correcting Lio’s behavior, you cleaned it for him.” 

“Of course. Wearing rubber gloves and a surgical-mask. I didn’t want to touch or smell anything in there.”

“How do you clean a water-pipe like that?”

“I had to look it up: rock-salt and isopropyl alcohol. You pour ’em both in and shake. The salt spins like flakes in a snow-globe and scrapes the gunk off.” Dan mimicked shaking the bong up and down. The action looked a bit masturbatory to Jay. “I did that for twenty minutes, and when I emptied the bong, most of the crust sloughed out. I refilled it again, shook it again, and emptied it again, and again, and again, until the glass was clear as a window. Then I filled the bong with water so smoke would have to bubble through the tree’s five fingers from the bottom chamber to the top chamber.”

“Like a multilayered sieve?”

“Sure. Then I smoked the bug-bits Lio had left in the bowl.”

“Did it as good as smoking with Beatrice?”

“It wasn’t cricket in that bowl, Jay. I had a nightmare of an experience.” Dan wiped tears from his cheeks. “Lio had been trying to make Beatrice smoke centipede. What would he do to her if she’d been so incapacitated?”

Jay wrote some final notes about Lio and flipped to another fresh page. “Can you tell me about that nightmare-experience?”

“Oh, it was just awful. I was… some kind of… orange… amoeba? The size of a man? All I could do was blorp and wriggle, wishing I didn’t exist. My fear turned into little white flecks floating in my translucent body. The flecks combined into teeth which ripped my insides apart.”

Jay supposed a Sheridanian might say Dan’s worms were stuck together, but not getting along. His father’s worms didn’t mesh with the worms he got from Lio. “Did you have eyes? How’d you know you were orange?”

“I felt orange. And, I felt a shadow pass overhead. A giant bird landed next to me like thunder. It was blue, like sapphire or lapis lazuli.”

“How’d you know it was blue?”

“I was hallucinating, Jay. I just don’t know. The bird had eyes like emeralds, too, and aquamarine robes. ‘You’ve dropped upon the Mountain,’ it said—I was an amoeba on a mountain, apparently?—‘but I can’t take you in filled with screeching teeth. My assistant will bring you to…’ ” Dan shuddered. ” ‘Anihilato, the largest worm, the King of Dust.’ “

“Anihilato.” Jay’s eyes widened and he took more notes. He swore he’d heard that name once, in a dream. “Doesn’t sound like a nice guy.”

“I was fucking horrified,” said Dan. “I didn’t know what Anihilato was all about, and I didn’t want to know. The bird sort of oozed into the red mountain, leaving me behind, and I freaked the hell out wondering what would happen next. The more I panicked, the more teeth spawned inside me. The teeth ripped me open and cracked each other with this awful screechy sparkly noise, like TV-snow. For a while I was a cramping gonad the size of a beach-ball, completely covered in canines sadistically crunching sensitive gums suffering silently inside. Then a spinning narwhal tusk drilled out of me, twenty screeching feet.”

“Goddamn.”

“The tusk helped, actually. It let some air reach my gums, so I was almost able to breath again. When I was a kid, my mom always told me to focus on my breathing when I panicked.”

Thank goodness, thought Jay. “Did you panic a lot as a kid?”

“I’m constantly panicking, Jay. I never stop. My mom blamed my dad for telling me all about different Hells. But anyway, when I focused on my breath, I sort of inhaled the teeth back inside me, leaving pores which gasped for air. Each wheeze pulled the tusk back in until I was just a ball of gums. My gums relaxed, and I dissolved into a puddle of mud.”

“You fixed your own teeth. Maybe the bird wouldn’t take you to Anihilato?”

“No, no—I still felt the teeth inside me, struggling to manifest. The teeth danced out of my mud as worms, like goop on a subwoofer. Each time a worm left the mud, the mud became a little clearer, and when it was just a puddle of water, thousands of worms were tangled in pandemonium like one worm the size of a small dog.”

“Were you the water, or were you the worms? Or… both?”

“The water, I think. The worms didn’t seem to enjoy being on the red mountain, because they kept squirming on the hot, dry dust. They crawled to the mountain’s edge and jumped off—but suddenly this white fox dropped out of the sky and grabbed the worms like a snake, by the neck.”

“Huh,” said Jay. “When I smoked centipede, Faith was a fox made of snow. We were on a red mountain, with a bird, and I puked teeth. We’ve got lots of overlaps in our trips.”

Dan rolled his eyes. “You mean people smoking the same entheogenic bug might have similar hallucinations? Color me surprised. Foxes are dirt-common iconography—Inari Ookami‘s got white foxes—but in hallucinations? Impossible.”

“Point taken. Go on.”

“The fox beat the worms senseless against the mountainside by whipping its neck back and forth. Worms tried escaping individually, but they’d tangled too thoroughly to separate. When the worms went limp, the fox let them go and breathed on them to freeze them whitish-blue. Then the fox turned into a cloud, picked up the worms like a tornado, and lifted them away!”

“Where?”

“I dunno. Just… away.”

“Was your red mountain in a desert, Dan? Were there sandy dunes?”

“I was a puddle of water, Jay. I had no clue about anything. But I wasn’t water for too long: the fox’s icy breath left a fern of frost across me, and each time a frost-leaf melted, it left a little bubble. The bubbles drifted into my human shape, then soaked the water up. I was me again.”

“Wicked.”

“It wasn’t perfect. I had to spin my head 180 degrees and swap my legs. Somehow it didn’t seem weird to do. At this point, I didn’t even remember why I was here. I just sat on the mountainside. And now I had eyes, so, yes, Jay, I was in a desert of sandy dunes.”

“Oh ho. Did you see worms raining from the mustard-yellow sky?”

“Yeah, a few. I watched them for a while, sitting on the red mountain, waiting to bake to death, but then that white cloud reappeared on the horizon, and I thought the fox might be coming back to pick me up, too. I ran and hid behind some rocks. The fox clawed at the mountain and a cave opened, and the big blue bird climbed out. The fox and the bird had a conversation, but I couldn’t hear it. The fox tried diving into the cave, but the bird made it wait. The bird reached into the cave with ten blue human arms, endlessly long, and pulled out a golden wing. The wing lined the cave like a thick rug and heavy curtains, so the fox and the bird could climb into the cave without touching the rocky walls. The cave stayed open, so I crept up to it to peek inside. It breathed like a beast, and the golden wing adjusted itself like an uncomfortable tongue. When the cave started closing, I realized that if I didn’t jump in now, I might be trapped on the red mountain forever. At least if I was inside, I’d have a bird to talk to! I threw myself onto the golden wing and the red mountain swallowed me like a pill.”

“Then what?” asked Jay. “What was inside the red mountain?”

“It buzzed like hornets and locusts. Everything was green haze.” The drinks were really kicking in. Dan struggled to hold his head off the bar. “The golden wing became a path to the green distance. I tried to walk that golden path, but the green sky flickered and nauseated me. The buzzing was so loud I covered my ears—my elbows felt wind, pushing back on my left and forward on my right. The wind was spinning me. I walked against the wind and the the green sky separated into yellow and blue, like videotape of a propeller syncing with the frame-rate. The desert’s yellow sky was above me and Earth’s blue sky was below.”

Jay sketched the scenario in consideration. “So maybe the golden wing was spinning, and you counteracted the spin by walking at an angle?”

“Or maybe the skies were spinning. I don’t want to think about it,” Dan murmured. “On the green horizon between yellow and blue, I saw a white light like the sun. As I approached it, the buzzing died down, but the path veered away! I left the sun behind and the buzzing came back. Luckily I came across another golden path, stuck out of mine like this.” Dan shook a hand diagonally. “Next thing I knew, I was walking up that new path directly toward the light. The buzzing died down again.

“When I got close enough, I saw objects orbiting the sun. Their periodic shadows made it look like the light had a heartbeat. I couldn’t tell how big the objects were, or how far away, so I was surprised when one smashed on my forehead. It was an egg. There was a blue fledgling inside, with a beady eye on one side of its head and a hundred human teeth on the other. I couldn’t bring myself to look away from its gaze, or even wipe yolk from my face, but then the yolk slid off on its own. The white shell, scattered in three dimensions, scattered back around the bird. The egg kept orbiting like nothing happened.

“I kept walking to the sun. The golden path went so close to it I could’ve reached out and touched the fire, and I really, really wanted to, for some reason. Just before I jumped in, the big blue bird swooped behind me and restrained me in its wings. The bird told me that inside the red mountain you see all of reality at once. The sun in the center is the origin of all sentient beings—the ‘indefatigable meristem,’ they called it—and if I’d touched it, my worms would’ve scattered across the cosmos.”

“The indefatigable what?

“A meristem. It’s the part of a plant where all the new cells come from. The bird also explained that our reality’s shape is an infinite-dimensional torus, circles swept in circles swept in circles and so on. Then the bird said it was going to put me in a box and bury me in the desert. When I turned to beg the bird for forgiveness, I woke drooling on my couch. My throat felt painful and raw, so I drank six glasses of orange-juice and puked. I cleaned the bong for an hour. It wasn’t dirty. I just felt dirty inside.” Dan slumped over the bar, conclusively and concussively.

Jay capped his pen and closed his notepad. “This is fascinating. In Sheridan, Virgil Jango Skyy told me the afterlife was a desert where our worms had to find a mountain, just like Uzumaki’s mountain in LuLu’s. And the bird’s description of reality as a torus is just like how Akayama describes the Wheel.”

“Duh. You told me yourself, Tatsu ripped LuLu’s from Sheridan. Centipedes probably make everyone see about the same stuff, because the mechanics of cognition are basically indistinguishable from person to person.” The sentence was almost incomprehensible through Dan’s drunken slur. “We have different personalities based on our different backgrounds, but underneath, everyone is alone in a desert. Maybe Tatsu got bug-eyed themselves. I don’t care. I haven’t smoked centipede since, and I never will again.”

Jay pat him on the back. “You don’t have to. I won’t even ask you to visit Sheridan if you don’t want to.”

“Take me to Sheridan, Jay. Please. I have to do something with my life.”

“Okay.”

“But… tell me… honestly… When you and Faith came to my apartment to smoke centipede, was Beatrice actually on-call at the hospital? Or did you three conspire to give her that excuse in case I made her uncomfortable?” Jay didn’t answer. “That’s what I thought.” Dan clenched his eyes shut. “I’m hopeless. Hopeless!”

“You’re not hopeless, Dan.”

“I keep wondering if Lio’s better off than me, making figs, purposefully ignorant, busting into women’s bedrooms trying to score.” Dan turned his head to face the other way. “Did you know I’m a virgin?”

“I wouldn’t wish Lio’s state-of-being on anybody,” said Jay, “and I’m a virgin, too, but I don’t mind.”

“That’s different,” said Dan. “You’re trans.” Jay pursed his lips. He’d respond, but Dan was now snoring. Uncle Featherway entered from the wake. Jay waved him to a bar-stool.

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