(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)
After his ordeal with centipede, Jay felt compelled to visit home. He sat at his parents’ dinner-table while his mother stirred two mugs of tea. “How is Faith feeling nowadays?”
“Remember when our cat Django died? Faith bawled like a baby,” said Jay. “She cried like that when Beatrice died, but since then, she’s just been quiet. I don’t think she’s even left her house for days.”
“Oh, poor thing.” She pat Jay’s hand. “Is someone looking after her?”
“Dan brings her groceries. I’m glad they’re sticking together. Beatrice’s death hit them both pretty hard.” Jay had been affected too, of course, but his mother looked sad enough already. Jay just sipped his tea. “Have I told you I want to visit the Islands of Sheridan?”
“I’ve never heard of them.”
“I can’t blame you. They don’t even have a Wikipedia-article. Apparently they’re where crickets and centipedes come from.”
“Oh? Did I raise a smuggler?”
“Not quite,” said Jay. “My favorite anime might be referencing the local religion, so I want to take photos of monks. Do you think Dad’s ever been to Sheridan?”
“No clue, but not if he could help it,” said his mother. “Your father had a bad experience with centipede when he was about your age.”
“Really?” Jay pulled his notepad and pen from his pockets and flipped to the first fresh page. “Do you know what happened, exactly?”
“No, but maybe he’ll tell you when he calls tonight.”
Her cellphone rang. Jay laughed. “That sounds like him.”
“Gosh, he’s calling earlier than he said he would. I hope all’s well.” She flipped her phone open. “Dear, how’s New Delhi?” Jay heard his father’s boisterous voice. His mother smiled and coiled her hair around her fingers. “Your son is home, would you like to speak to him?” She passed her phone to Jay.
“Dad! Mom says you’re calling early. Did you forget India has half-hour time-zones?”
His father chuckled. “I guess I did. Jay, how are you?”
“I’m considering a trip to the Islands of Sheridan. Have you ever heard of them?”
The phone was silent for a moment. “I have been there, once. It was a refueling-stop on a discount flight from Chile to New Zealand. I didn’t get off the plane.”
“Could you help me find a flight like that? I want to photo-catalog Sheridanian religious-practices.”
“Oh.” His father licked his teeth. “You know, a flight-attendant told me those are the islands where crickets and centipedes come from.”
“I know, Dad.”
“I don’t mind that you smoke bug-sticks now and then. I got bug-eyed at your age, too. But don’t mess with centipedes, okay?”
Jay prepared his pen. “Mom said you’d had a bad experience with centipede. Could you tell me about it?”
“Hmmm.” His father moved the phone to his other ear. “Well, in my late twenties I attended a conference in Thailand. At a night-market some colleagues bought centipede-powder, which was even rarer then than it is now. I’d never heard of the stuff, but my colleagues said it was like cricket, so I tried it. It felt like… Well…” His father moved the phone back to his first ear. Jay took note of this anxiety. “I wasn’t myself. I felt like I was in hundreds of pieces. All my pieces were falling, falling, falling, and it was yellow everywhere. Then my pieces landed on something red. It felt like searing knives slicing every inch of my skin, or crawling through hot barbed wire.”
“Wow.” Jay penned the quote as quickly as his father spoke. This sounded like worms dropping from the mustard sky onto rusty sand.
“All my pieces had to bury themselves deeper and deeper to stop hurting all over,” he said. “The deeper I dug, the less I remembered. Just before I slipped away, I woke up alone in a Bangkok alleyway with no wallet, watch, or passport.”
Jay realized his centipede-trip had been a lucky one, even if the bird had spooked him. “Gotcha. I’ll stick to bug-sticks.”
Reviewing his plane-tickets, Jay knew he’d be sitting for most of the next two days. He’d fly in a classic jumbo-jet from LA to a layover in Chile, then disembark a smaller plane bound for New Zealand as it refueled on the Islands of Sheridan. He’d take a bird-watching tour of the islands then catch a plane refueling in Sheridan for its return to Chile. After another layover, he’d fly back to LA.
Signing up for the bird-watching tour was surprisingly simple considering he doubted the islands’ existence until days ago. Sheridan’s official website was nothing but a link to a PDF-file which Jay printed, filled out, signed, scanned, and returned with credit-card payment of about two hundred American dollars, pretty cheap for a three-day tour with room and board provided. By signing the file, he agreed to the three requirements also listed in the red card-stock pamphlet: no pictures of birds, no centipedes, no climbing the main island above the clouds. Were signatures even enforceable in international waters?
The morning was so cold he blew fog to warm his hands. Then he counted his fingers: ten. He’d woken at 4 AM to wait by the curb for Dan. Dan’s sleep schedule had inverted since Beatrice’s death, and he seemed eager for excuses to leave his apartment, so Jay thought asking for a 4:30 ride to the airport was a kindness.
Jay mentally reviewed the contents of his backpack and pockets. Clothes, traveling toiletries, and medications. His passport, ID, and a book for the plane. Camera, notepad, and pens. Portable chargers, fully charged. A healthy supply of American currency, half in his wallet, half hidden in his shoes. He nodded and sighed fog.
His phone vibrated. Dan had texted him. ‘I’m not coming. Faith should be there soon.’
Jay typed with his thumb. ‘Everything alright?’
‘Faith wanted to say bye before you left,’ texted Dan. ‘I sent her in my car.’
Sure enough, Dan’s orange VW-bug rolled around the corner. Faith parked next to Jay and gave him a tired smile under dark eyes. Jay texted Dan ‘Thank you’ as he sat shotgun.
“JayJay! How’ve you been?”
“It’s always good to see you, Faith.” Jay buckled up and Faith pulled away from the curb. “The islands are apparently real, but I’m still not sure I believe you met those monks. I guess I’ll find out soon.”
“Are you excited for Sheridan?”
“Absolutely,” said Jay. “I’ll show you my photos when I’m back. The islands were drawn beautifully in that pamphlet of yours.”
“Gonna get more centipede?”
“Eeeugh. No thanks.” Jay laughed. “Zephyrs, Wheels, Chains, and a bird-monster with no sense of personal-space. That whole experience was like watching an episode of LuLu’s with a fever of a hundred and ten.”
“That’s just because you’re a dweeb, JayJay! If you’d watched more Blue’s Clues growing up, that bird-thing might’ve been a dog.” She ramped onto the highway. Come rush-hour, the traffic would weave into a thick jam, but for now, the streets were empty. “How long is the flight?”
“Forty hours both ways. A direct flight would barely be twelve.”
Jay opened his backpack to check if anything had escaped. “So… how’s Dan holding up, do you think?”
“He’s… Well, he’s inconsolable, but so was I, for a while.” Faith rubbed her eyes. “Let’s talk about something else.”
Jay appraised Faith’s expression with great concern. He would never forget how she cried against his chest. If she couldn’t discuss it, he’d change the subject. “We’re making great time. Thanks for the ride.”
“No prob, JayJay.” Faith gently curved along the highway. “Hey, do you need… um… hygiene products? I’ve got extras in my purse.”
“Ha.” Jay smiled. “Not after a year of testosterone.”
“Oh, okay.” She smiled with him. “Just trying to help.” The morning sun beamed through an airport parking-structure. Faith took the next exit. “You know, stuck inside all day, I’ve had lots of time to practice painting.”
“A company wants to print holiday-cards with my foxes on them.”
“Faith! That’s great!” Jay zipped up his backpack and unbuckled his seat-belt as she parked. “I’d better get one for Christmas.”
“Why wait?” Faith popped the glove-box and fished for a white envelope. “I sketched on the inside. Now you’ve got a Featherway original!”
“Thank you, Faith! This means a lot to me.” He put the envelope in his backpack. “I’ll open it on the plane, okay?”
Faith bit her lip. “Wait until after customs.”
Jay just sat. His mind was like the empty yellow sky. Then he stood and looked down either side of his rust-red dune. Clouds brushed the daunting slopes beneath him. He was miles high.
Rather than descend either side of his dune, Jay ran along its crest. Each step cracked a vertebrae in the dune’s back. Sand collapsed in hot, coarse rivers. His feet sank until the current swept him away and he fell through a cottony cloud. The sand sloped to roll him along the desert floor. He shot up an opposing dune and sailed like a skeeball.
While he spun, he counted his fingers. “One, two, three, four, five,” he counted on his left hand. “Six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen—” He was asleep. He was dreaming. He could fly like the Heart of the Mountain, that steam-powered bird.
The dunes grew into great sand-walls, but he blasted above them. Below, the yellow sky melted into golden honey and poured around the red mountain like heavenly syrup. Jay smeared the sunset thin like a masseuse oiling a back. Soon the dunes were dark with night.
Jay opened his eyes. His head rested on the window of a discount flight bound for New Zealand. Outside, the sky was black and starry; most of the passengers slept. Jay shook his limbs awake as best he could in his cramped seat. It would be mid-morning when he arrived in Sheridan.
“Couldn’t sleep, huh?” asked the man on Jay’s right. “Me neither.” Jay tried to smile at him, but something about the man made smiling quite difficult. He was about Jay’s age, bald, and heavy enough to be almost spherical, occupying two chairs and still leaking into Jay’s. He wore a loud red Hawaiian shirt frumpishly buttoned all the way to his neck, which was equally red. He wore dark sunglasses, even at night, on an airplane. “Yeah, it’s hard to sleep on a plane, am I right?” the man went on. “Obnoxious folks, no self-awareness, noisier than all the crying babies.”
Jay had no clue if the man said that ironically or not. “I was actually asleep for a while.” Jay counted his fingers: ten. “Now I’m awake.” He unzipped his backpack and opened a bag of chips from Chile.
The man grabbed a whole fistful and ate them all at once. “Going to New Zealand?”
Jay hadn’t meant to offer him chips, but supposed the way he opened the bag might have looked like an invitation to share. “I’m hopping off when we refuel.” Jay ate the few remaining chips one at a time. “Sheridan.”
“Ah. Me too. The ol’ ball-and-chain Eva drags me and her kid back every few months to look at birds.” He jerked his thumb at his wife and her six-year-old daughter across the aisle. “Chicks, am I right?” He sighed. “How about you? What’re you here for?”
“I’m not a bird-watcher,” said Jay. “I’m a people-watcher. I want to photograph religious activities on the islands.”
“Religious, huh?” He pronounced the word with a smug smile. “I see how it is.”
“I’m not religious per se,” said Jay. “I’m mostly curious how Sheridanian religion interacts with psychoactive bugs.”
“Oh? Yeah?” The man leaned close. “Now you sound like my kinda guy.” Jay turned to the window and crossed his arms. “Hey, it’s okay! Don’t tell me anything I shouldn’t know!” The man laughed. “Guys like us gotta stick together, am I right?”
Jay cringed at the haunting image of ‘sticking together’ with the man, trapped with his orb-like belly inside his red Hawaiian shirt. He reminded Jay of an itty-bitty Hurricane Planet. “Do you like anime, Mr. Hurricane?”
Each seat’s headrest held a screen for canned TV. “I’m impressed. They’ve got LuLu’s Space-Time Acceleration.” Before Mr. Hurricane could interject, Jay donned headphones and hummed the opening theme.