(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)
The year is 2019.
Jay disembarked a plane in Australia. Compared to the winter he’d left in Los Angeles, the walk across the runway into Sydney Airport was sweltering. That season-swap across the equator always made him count his fingers: he had ten, so he was certainly awake. He turned off his smartphone’s airplane-mode and called his father. His father had worked in every country on Earth, and generously financed Jay’s expeditions, so he always deserved the first call, but they also both just liked to talk. “Hey, it’s your son. Just wanted to let you know I’ve landed safely in Sydney.”
“Oh, Jay!” He heard his father pull himself out of bed. “Have you taken any good photos yet?”
Jay uncapped the digital camera hanging from his neck. He took a picture of the Sydney skyline through an airport window. “Now I have, but I’m getting right back on another plane to the outback. I’m visiting some ancient aboriginal art discovered near Uluru, because I think Dan will like reading an article about it.”
“A giant sandstone formation, a few hundred miles from Alice Springs.” Jay’s whole life fit in his suitcase, so he left behind fellow passengers stuck getting their luggage off conveyor-belts.
“Ah. Last time I visited, that was mostly called Ayer’s Rock.”
“I thought you’d done business in Australia.” A bar looked like an appropriate place to rest for a minute. “Anything I should know?”
“That Simpsons episode where they visit down-under is surprisingly popular there. If people around the airport can tell you’re American, they might make a reference just to catch you off-guard. Please, send me a link to the article once it’s published!”
“I will.” Jay sat on a bar-stool and set down his suitcase, wondering if he could pass for Australian. “Just soda, mate,” he told the bartender. He felt he’d flubbed it. “You sound pretty tired, Dad. It’s about noon, here. Isn’t it late-afternoon in LA?”
“I’m not in LA. I’m on business in Egypt. It’s almost four AM.”
“Oh! Sorry about that. I’d ask you to pass the phone to Mom, but you can’t do that across the globe, can you?”
“It’s alright! Hold on, let me get her on this call, she’d love to hear you’ve landed.”
Jay and his father listened to the phone ring. The bartender gave Jay his soda. His mother answered. “Hello?”
“It’s Jay and me,” said his father. “He just called to tell us he’d landed in Sydney.”
“Oh, Jay! Thanks for calling me.”
“No problem. “
“I always worry if you’re safe when you’re traveling, you know?”
“Because—” Jay checked over both shoulders. No one in the bar seemed interested in his phone-call, but he spoke quieter anyway. “Because I’m black? Or because I’m trans?”
“Because traveling is dangerous, Sweetie! But neither of those really help in some areas, do they?”
“Really, son, keep your eyes open,” said his father. “I’ve met some pretty unsavory characters out in the world.”
Jay wanted to tell them he often felt safer traveling now that he presented as male—he actually looked like a less-nervous Dan nowadays—but he decided not to complicate the conversation. Besides, as he took photos and conducted interviews and wrote articles, all he ever did was keep his eyes open. “Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Dad. I’m gonna let you get back to sleep and call Dan, too. Maybe you should give him a call, Dad. He could tell you all about the pyramids, or whatever Egyptology catches your interest.”
“Bye, Jay,” said his father.
“Bye! Good luck!” said his mom.
“Buh-bye.” Jay hung up. He sipped soda and dialed Dan’s number. “Hey, Dan!”
“Jay? You must’ve landed somewhere new.”
“I’m in Australia, headed for Uluru, Ayer’s Rock. What can you tell me about aboriginal culture?”
“Oh, wow. Jealous, jealous, jealous. The aboriginal dreamtime is one of the oldest religions on the planet. It’s hard to say anything concretely, though, since there’s a whole lot of variety, and modern pop-culture has recontextualized it beyond recognition.” Jay heard Dan pull books from a shelf and flip through the pages. Jay reached into his pockets for his notepad and pen. “As I understand it, the basic idea is that the creation of today’s world was carried out by cultural icons and folk-heroes. For instance, some say wars between serpents gave Uluru its modern shape. A person’s ancestry links them all the way back to that ancient era, so there’s this notion of accruing worldly knowledge from then to now, before our birth and after our death.”
Jay wrote that in his notepad. “Pft. Haha.”
“The name ‘Uluru’ makes me think of LuLu’s Space-Time Acceleration. Professor Akayama is simulating Earth’s life to gather data in a bunch of worms, so maybe Tatsu is riffing on the dreamtime.”
“Like I said, pop-culture borrows from religions all the time—even unintentionally. Lots of belief-structures involve creation-myths and connection to ancestors. Uluru probably inspired Uzumaki’s red mountain, too, so those wars between serpents are still ongoing.” Dan sighed and shut his books. “I lent my LuLu’s DVDs to Faith and Beatrice.”
“Great! Faith liked that show, especially Akayama’s little white fox at the end. I’m sure Beatrice will, too.”
“I hope so. I…” Dan was silent for so long, Jay wondered if his phone had dropped the call. “I’m trying to get back on their good side after I made a scene at a party last year.”
“Yeah? What happened?”
“I’d rather not talk about it. Maybe you could call them for me?”
“Well, alright. Maybe some other time? I like hearing stories from every side.” Jay capped his pen. “Thanks as always for the theology, Dan.”
“Buh-bye.” Jay hung up.
The bartender saw Jay finish his soda. “That’ll be nine hundred dollary-doos.” Jay pretended he was caught off-guard. The bartender guffawed. “I’m joshin’ ya, mate! Four bucks fifty.”
He left a fiver and left the bar. As he walked to his next terminal, he dialed Faith’s number. He felt a little like Zephyr-Purple, connecting disparate groups together. “Hey, Faith?”
“JayJay! You’re on speakerphone.” He heard the LuLu’s theme playing in the background.
“Hi, Jay,” said Beatrice. “We’re just watching TV before dinner.”
“Dan told me he lent you LuLu’s.” Jay showed his tickets to an airport-agent at the gate. “Are you enjoying it?”
“Yep! BeatBax and I just finished the first episode.”
“I like the biblical scale,” said Beatrice. “First episode, boom, the observable universe is Hell. Now fix it.“
“Dan, um.” Jay boarded his next plane. “Dan told me he made a scene at a party, and he was trying to apologize.”
“Um. Yeah.” Faith paused the DVD as the theme-song finished. “Dainty tried to start a fight. Don’t get me wrong, the other guy was being a total shithead—remember the bald kid in homeroom, always wearing sunglasses?—but I didn’t think Dainty handled the situation well.”
Beatrice huffed. “Dan and I had talked about this guy creeping on me, so Dan got all worked up over him. He always tries too hard to relate to me.”
“Dan’s still learning to be himself.” Jay found himself a window-seat. “I think it’d be nice if we swung by for his birthday.”
“When’s Dainty’s birthday?”
“Same day as mine,” said Jay. The plane rolled onto the runway. “Sunday two weeks from today.”
“What do you say, BeatBax?”
“If I decide Dan’s putting me on some stupid pedestal, I’m leaving.”
Jay chuckled to himself. He was never sure where Beatrice’s dark humor ended and actual derision began. “We’ll give you some nice excuse to leave early if you need to,” he said.
“I’ll bring some religious-lit to distract him, too,” said Faith. “I’ve still got that red card-stock pamphlet from the Islands of Sheridan!”
Jay laughed and chewed some gum, preparing for take-off. “The pamphlet you got from those monks you didn’t make up?”
“That’s the one! The monks gave me powdered centipede with the pamphlet, too. Maybe Dainty can help me smoke it. I know he’s got a cool bong.”
Jay was more incredulous than ever. “Beatrice, she’s joking, right? Did Faith actually meet these monks, or is it just an excuse for having illegal bugs? I thought Tatsu made up centipedes for LuLu’s until a street-merchant tried selling me one in Ukraine.” That guy had never heard of anime; Jay had asked.
“If it’s just an excuse, she’s really going the extra mile,” said Beatrice. “She actually has that pamphlet, so either she got it from monks or she made it herself.”
When Jay reached Uluru, he took plenty of pictures. The massive rock formation touched something primal in him, especially when the sunset painted it bright red. Still he couldn’t shake a disappointment which made him ashamed of himself. Here he was, observing a world-famous natural landmark, legendary object of myth and folklore, immeasurable in size and importance, but he’d expected it to be bigger, like a mountain he’d seen once in a dream. Dan was right: LuLu’s had spoiled him.