Jay stared at the cupcake while the world fell away. He did not know why Dan paced and wrung his hands. He did not recognize Faith barely breathing beside him. Finally the coffee-table, floor, and walls all spun into void. Only the birthday cupcake remained, with cinnamon candies writing the number twenty-eight.
When he blinked he sat naked on a dune. Heat from the mustard sky baked the sand rust-red. “Oh no.”
He tried to stand but his legs buckled under him. He rolled down the dune’s hot sand. Deeper sand was cooler and damper until he tumbled into a moist, shadowy gorge. He pressed his limbs against the narrow walls but found little purchase with the sand. Falling sand revealed tiny tunnels left by worms.
At the bottom of the gorge Jay panted and desperately felt his body. Two arms, two legs. He counted his fingers. “One, two, three, four, five,” he counted on his left hand. “Six, seven, eight, nine, ten,” he counted on his right. “I’m not dreaming. I’m awake right now.”
This only worried him. In dreams he could count beyond ten on his fingers to assure himself he was safe. But if he had ten fingers, he really was lost in a desert where the sky wasn’t even the right color.
No bones broken. He pulled himself to his feet using the East and West gorge walls for leverage and looked North and South. To the North the gorge steepened into an overhanging sand cliff. To the South the gorge expanded into a wide valley. He limped South.
As his hands traced the walls Jay noticed some holes were larger than others. Were the larger holes left by worms thicker than wrists? Could this gorge be the collapsed tunnel from something four feet thick? The ground seemed to undulate beneath him.
He sprinted out of the gorge. Safe from danger, he surmised, he sat on the warm sand. The dunes still trapped him, but the dune to his South was barely half a mile high with a shallow slope.
A mountain’s rounded summit peeked over the dune. To be visible from Jay’s deep vantage point and from many miles away, it must have been Titanic. Olympian.
As he rest he noticed he was nude. This wouldn’t be a problem in a dream, but in the desert he would shrivel like a raisin. He also noticed he had no genitals: his crotch was round like the summit of the mountain over the dune. He didn’t even have a belly-button.
The idea made him anxious and he decided to move. He stood and jogged up the shallow dune. He had to scramble on all fours as it steepened. Halfway up, the dune eclipsed a forty degree angle and his climbing caused loose sand to flow beneath him like a waterfall. He knew he had to crawl like a caterpillar, slowly and meticulously.
When he finally crested the dune he surveyed the desert. He could now see most of the mountain: it sat on a mesa like it ruled the rippling sand. The sky was cloudless but the sun seemed small. It led two tumbling moons like misshapen potatoes.
Jay noticed a rounded blue triangle on the mountainside. He only saw it because of its contrast with the ruddy landscape. He squinted, deciding if its rounded curves were those an animal or if its sharp angles were man-made. It was mostly sky-blue but its top was sapphire.
The triangle widened. Sapphire wings unfolded. The shape rocketed skyward on a burst of steam.
“What the hell?” Jay put his hands on his hips and watched the shape surpass the mountain’s peak in seconds on a trail of vapor. When the sound of liftoff reached him it was a cannon shot. He puzzled over the shape until he realized it was coming right for him. “Oh, shit!”
Jay jumped down the way he’d climbed. He slid on his back and steered with his hands to avoid the sharpest rocks. At the bottom of the valley he turned to see if the shape had followed him.
A sapphire bird joined the mountain in peeking at Jay over the dune. The bird had great green bug eyes. It stepped into full view: twenty feet tall in billowing sky-blue robes, it glided down the dune with an eighty-foot wingspan.
Jay backed into the gorge; he’d rather deal with worms. He was deep in the gorge before he heard the thunder of wing-beats. The bird landed without visible legs or claws, just robes to sand. It withdrew its wings into sleeves and inserted its head into the gorge, but was too wide to follow Jay. It opened its squat yellow beak. “The chain is pulled and the wheel spins,” it said. “You have arrived.”
“I am the Heart of the Mountain. Come.”
Jay did not. He backed away until he bumped against the steep North wall of the gorge.
The bird’s body morphed under its robes. From its right sleeve a deep-blue tentacle puckered slimy suckers. “Your fate is with the Zephyrs in the Mountain.” The tentacle snaked through the gorge and wrapped Jay’s waist. Jay clawed at the sand walls, kicking and shouting as the tentacle dragged him away. “Speed is of the essence.”
That said, it flung Jay over the dunes.