Jay stared at the cupcake until the world fell away. He did not know why Dan paced and wrung his hands. He did not recognise Faith barely breathing beside him, equally vacant. Finally the coffee-table, floor, and walls all spun into void. Only the birthday cupcake remained, with cinnamon candies writing the number twenty-eight.
To share the cupcake it would be cut in half. One half-cupcake would read 2 and the other would read 8. Eight divided by two equaled four. If Jay ate half the cupcake he would only be four years old—not twenty-eight.
He hoped he’d remember this when he could speak. He retained only this memory as his others dribbled away: he must warn Dan not to cut the cupcake. He didn’t want to be four years old again. When Jay was four he’d had a nightmare about being lost under a desert with a forty-limbed worm.
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 and his legs buckled under him. He slid down the mile-high dune and rolled over hot sand. Deeper sand was cooler and damper until he tumbled into a moist, shadowy crevasse. He pressed his limbs against the narrow walls of the crevasse to slow his descent but found no purchase with the sand. Falling sand revealed tiny holes in the walls, tunnels left by worms.
At the bottom of the gorge Jay panted ragged breaths and desperately felt his body. Two arms, two legs, the standard assortment of hands and feet. 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.”
The idea only worried him. In dreams or nightmares he could count beyond ten on his fingers to assure himself he must be unconscious, and safe. But if he had ten fingers then he really was lost in a crevasse 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-bottom grew impossibly steep until it became an overhanging sand cliff. To the South the gorge expanded into a wide valley. He clambered South.
As his hands traced the walls Jay noticed some holes were larger than others. Earthworms occasionally poked their ends from their tunnels. Were the larger holes left by worms thicker than wrists? Jay tried to put the idea out of his mind, but the ground seemed to undulate beneath him now. Could this crevasse be a collapsed tunnel left by something four feet thick?
He sprinted the last ten feet of the crevasse. Safe from danger, he surmised, he lay on the warm sand. He was still trapped by dunes but the dune to his South was a shallower kind, barely half a mile high.
A mountain’s rounded summit peeked over the dune. To be visible above the sand, from Jay’s deep vantage point and from miles away, it must have been Titanic. Olympian.
As he rest he noticed he was nude. This wouldn’t be a problem if he were dreaming, but without cover in the desert he would shrivel like a raisin. He also noticed he had no genitals: his crotch was a smooth, flat, rounded area 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 briefly eclipsed an angle of forty degrees and his movement caused loose, dry sand to flow beneath him like a waterfall. He knew his only option was crawling like a caterpillar, slowly and meticulously.
When he finally crested the dune he surveyed the desert. The taller dunes blocked his view but he could now see most of the mountain. It sat on a mesa like a king ruling the rippling sand. The sky was absolutely cloudless but the sun was smaller than usual. Two moons like misshapen potatoes awkwardly tumbled through the air.
Jay noticed a blue triangle on the mountainside. It would have been too far to spot if not for its contrast with the ruddy landscape. He squinted, trying to decide if it had the rounded curves of an animal or the sharp angles of a man-made object. Most of it was sky-blue but its top was sapphire.
The triangle widened. Sapphire wings unfolded from either side. 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 the liftoff finally reached him it was a distant cannon shot. He puzzled over it until he realized the shape was coming right for him. Its aqua-sky color grew larger and larger against the yellow atmosphere. “Oh, shit!”
Jay jumped back down the dune he’d climbed. He slid on his back and steered with his hands to avoid the steepest falls and sharpest rocks. When he hit 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 over the sand into full view: twenty feet tall in billowing sky-blue robes, it glided down the dune on an eighty-foot wingspan.
Jay backed into the crevasse; he’d rather deal with worms. He was deep in the gorge before he heard the thunder of wingbeats. It touched down without visible legs or feet, just robes-to-sand. It withdrew its wings into its sleeves and inserted its head into the crevasse, 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.”
Jay backed away.
“I am the Heart of the Mountain. Come to me.”
Jay did not. He backed away until he bumped into the steep North end of the gorge.
The bird’s body shifted and morphed under its robes. From its right sleeve a deep-blue tentacle puckered its slimy suckers. “You must join me in the Mountain. It is your destiny.” The tentacle snaked through the gorge and wrapped around 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 towards the Mountain.