(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)
Uncle Featherway sat on the stool left of Dan’s unconscious body slumped across the bar. “Is your friend okay?”
“He could use some sleep.” Jay pat Dan’s right shoulder. “Mister Featherway, are you ready for our interview?”
“Sure, sure. I’ve got time ’til my train comes in.” Uncle Featherway flagged the bartender for a beer and straightened his tinfoil fedora. “You wanted to hear about Virgil Blue?”
“Yes, please. I recently met the Virgils on the Islands of Sheridan, but Virgil Blue never spoke to me.” Jay prepared his pen and notepad. “I wondered if you could add anything to the stoic silence.”
“Only more silence,” said Uncle Featherway. “The monks came to Wyoming the same weekend Faith and I visited Sheridan Cliff-Side College. The monks carried Virgil Blue onto a lectern where they sat for half an hour.”
“Were all the monks silent?”
“Well, one in sky-blue said a few words.” Uncle Featherway sipped his beer. “But Virgil Blue’s inflection made their silence sound important.”
“Important? Like how?”
“Like…” Uncle Featherway put down his glass to wave a hand. “Like their silence was revealing secrets of the universe.”
“Nothing I didn’t already know.” Uncle Featherway puffed out his chest and sipped more beer. “Hearing it from Virgil Blue just confirmed it.”
Jay spun his pen. He didn’t want this conversation to drift into tinfoil-hat theories. “Hearing nothing from Virgil Blue confirmed… what, exactly?”
“You know cargo-cults?”
“I’ve heard of them, yes.”
“After we dropped aid on island-tribes in World War Two, those island-tribes built fake airplanes out of scraps. They hoped statues would bring us back, like shrines for sky-gods. So if aliens exist (and they do), and if they’re been to Earth (and they have), then that’s proof that all religions are cargo-cults. When aliens created us, we didn’t understand what we were seeing. Over generations, our explanations became religions.”
Jay tried sticking to the facts. “What was Virgil Blue wearing?”
“A hooded navy robe and a silver face-mask which looked like an alien.”
“An alien? Could you draw the mask you saw?” Jay passed his notepad and pen over Dan’s back.
Uncle Featherway put the notepad on Dan’s back so Jay could watch him draw. “See, it had big criss-cross bug-eyes. It had a bulbous snout with a wide, straight mouth. And it had two long antennae to receive cosmic waves.”
“Huh.” Jay took the pen and drew his own rendition of the silver mask. “I saw the same mask, but I thought it was a bird. What you called antennae, I saw as long feathers.”
“Could be. Feathers are sensitive to cosmic waves, too.”
“And I thought the bulbous snout was a round beak.”
“Aliens can have beaks. Like an octopus, or a squid.” Uncle Featherway finished his beer. “What about the criss-cross bug-eyes?”
“I dunno,” said Jay. “I saw a bird-statue with the same eyes. I figured it was a stylistic choice.”
“Well, sometimes we see what we wanna see.” Uncle Featherway returned the notepad to Jay. “Anyway, the Sheridanians seemed closer to the original aliens than any other religion.”
Jay resigned himself to tinfoil-hat theories. “At the wake, you said there are different kinds of aliens. What kinds are there?”
“Oh, all kinds. You’ve got your gold-miners, your mind-readers, your machine-elves…” Uncle Featherway ate complementary mixed nuts. “But they’re all aliens. They all come from the same place.” He pointed up.
“They made humans using DNA from outer space,” he said, “so we’re all aliens, in the end.”
“Yeah, it’s too bad Faith didn’t enjoy the lecture.” Uncle Featherway almost removed his fedora out of respect for the dead, but only tipped it to keep the protective tinfoil on his head. “She left halfway through.”
“How many people were watching with you?”
“The lecture-hall was almost empty. The audience was mostly monks.”
“Did you know anyone there? Any friends I could talk to?”
Jay rest his head on one hand and spun his pen with the other. “Someone at the college arranged the monks’ lecture. Maybe I could contact them.”
“Sorry I wasn’t more helpful.”
“You were very helpful. Thanks for taking the time to talk.” Jay pocketed his notepad and pen and pulled out his phone. He looked up Sheridan Cliff-Side College’s contact-page. “I’ll call their event-coordinator.”
“Why not come to Wyoming? You could interview them in person and check out the lecture-hall yourself.”
“Not a bad idea, but I’ll still call ahead.”
“Wanna come with me? You can sleep on my couch.”
Jay bit his lip. “Would I be a bother?”
“Any friend of Faith’s is a friend of mine!” He shook Jay’s hand. “Call me Bob. Bob Featherway!”
“Jay Diaz-Jackson. When does your train leave?”
“Four hours from now.”
Jay bought himself a ticket on his phone. “Four hours is short notice to travel cross-country, but my life fits in a suitcase. Hey, Bob, does your couch have room for two?”
“Oh, sure. It’s a fold-out.” Bob looked from Jay to Dan. “What, you mean him? Shouldn’t you wake him up and ask if he wants to come?”
“He told me to take him to Sheridan just before you walked in. The mountain air will do him good.”
Dan stirred from his drunken slumber only after the train crossed into Wyoming. He blinked in sunlight doubled by mountains of white snow. The sky was wide and cloudless blue. “Jay?”
Jay gave him a bottle of water. “We’re almost in Sheridan, Dan. Just like you wanted.”
Dan drank the water and pulled up his orange shirt to cover his face. “We’re on a train.”
“You can’t get to islands on a train.”
“Nope.” Jay made room for Bob as he returned from the cabin’s restroom. “Before we visit the Islands of Sheridan, we’re taking preliminary notes in Sheridan, Wyoming. Bob Featherway says we can sleep on his couch.”
“It’s a fold-out,” added Bob.
Dan let his shirt fall and show his face again. He covered his face with his black gloves instead. “I was staggering drunk when I agreed to go.”
“Too drunk even to stagger,” agreed Jay. “I couldn’t just leave you in the bar, could I?”
Dan sighed and tried to sleep. “Wake me when we get there.”
Dan next woke sitting across the back seats of Bob’s truck. Jay sat shotgun while Bob drove. The tinfoil under Bob’s fedora reflected the orange sunset, and the stars were out when they arrived at his house near the edge of the forest. “My place is a little small,” said Bob, “but the view from the back-porch is phenomenal. You can see trees creeping right up the mountains to the college.” Dan and Jay followed Bob over the snow and through his front door. Bob pointed at the couch. “There’s the couch,” said Bob. “It’s a fold-out.”
“Thank you for your hospitality.” Jay hung up his dark jacket and loosened his purple tie. “Can I buy you dinner? What’s your favorite restaurant around here?”
“We’re pretty far from town,” said Bob. “I don’t wanna drive those icy roads now that it’s so dark. But there’s a burger-place near the gas-station around the corner, past the chicken-farm.”
Dan sat on the couch and stared through Bob’s television. “I could eat some fries.”
“Lemme write down my order for you, Jay. It’ll be too long to remember.”
“I’ll visit the gas-station, too,” said Jay. “I left my toothbrush in California. I bet I can buy one there.”
“If you’re going to the gas-station, buy me a frozen-slush-drink-thingie.” Bob wrote it below his burger order.
“What flavor frozen-slush-drink-thingie?”
“Blue if they’ve got it. Orange if they’re out.”
Jay was so famished after the train-ride he ate his hamburger on the walk back. It reminded him of the crab-meat pastry he ate on the Islands of Sheridan. Every place has its meat-pie.
A chicken crossed the road. Thinking of Sheridanian big-birds, Jay bowed his head in respect, then realized how ridiculous he looked. Thankfully only the chicken had seen him bow. At any rate, the chicken bobbed its head back, so the respect was mutual. Jay wondered how just one solitary chicken had managed to escape the local poultry-farm. Surely if one of them could do it, more of them would follow suit. The farm had a billboard advertising fertilized eggs, so intrepid individuals could hatch their own chicks. Jay wondered if that was bad for business in the long run.
When Jay returned to Bob’s, Dan was wrapping a cricket in its wings for smoking while Bob explained cargo-cults. Jay gave Bob two cheeseburgers with everything, a chili-dog topped with fries, a box of chicken-nuggets, an apple-pie, and a blue-flavored frozen-slush-drink-thingie. “Where’d you get the bug-stick?” Jay asked Dan.
“Faith taught me to grow them.” Dan had trouble braiding the wings with his black gloves on. Jay set a box of fries on the coffee-table for him with some packets of ketchup. Dan nodded without looking from the cricket.
Jay sat left of Bob on the couch. “Have you smoked a bug-stick before, Mr. Featherway?”
“Yeah, when I was younger,” said Bob. “Sometimes kids smoke in the woods nearby. Their bug-sticks aren’t wrapped half as well as Dan’s, there.”
Jay opened a pack of cheese-puffs from the gas-station. “Good thing I brought extra munchies.”
“Nice.” Bob started on his cheeseburgers. Dan produced a white lighter from his pocket and offered the lighter and bug-stick to Bob, who declined the first puffs. “You two wanna watch TV while we get bug-eyed?”
“Sure,” said Dan.
“What’s on?” asked Jay.
Bob shrugged. “Service comes and goes because I cover my satellite-dish in tinfoil. It’s worth it to filter out subliminal messages.” Neither Dan nor Jay recognized the channels Bob flipped through. Most were in a foreign language, or English so distorted it sounded like a foreign language. Dan lit the cricket’s eyes and puffed. He passed the bug-stick to Bob, who puffed, coughed, and passed the cricket to Jay.
“Hey, Jay,” warned Dan, “have you had a bug-stick since you smoked centipede-powder?”
“Nope. I didn’t actually smoke at all on the islands.”
“If you’ve ever smoked centipede, crickets can give you flashbacks.”
“You might see patterns or hear whispers,” said Dan. “It freaked me out the first time. It’s harmless, but I wanted to make sure you knew.”
Bob grinned like he was meeting celebrities. “Wow. You’ve both smoked centipede? What’s it like?”
Jay distracted Bob by blowing smoke-rings. He passed him back the bug-stick. “Look, Dan, they’re playing LuLu’s.” On the TV, multicolored robots bounded through space.
Bob puffed again and coughed again and passed the bug-stick to Dan. “What’s this show? I like the spaceships.”
“LuLu’s Space-Time Acceleration,” said Dan before he puffed. “It’s an anime about giant robots.” The show began with a recap of prior episodes. “I think this is the last episode they ever animated, because the manga went on hiatus.”
“It’s in Japanese,” said Bob. Without puffing, he passed the bug-stick from Dan to Jay.
“Probably for the best.” Jay finished off the cricket. “The dubs were awful.”