Faith’s steam flew faster than Jay could climb after her. She easily zipped up cliffs while he searched for shallower paths. Soon Jay lost sight of her, but he continued to trudge up the slopes.
The last digestive rumbles from the Mountain’s depths forced Jay to drop flat and cling to the ground. He wondered if these quakes were the winged arch-Zephyr adjusting to its subterranean tomb.
Why did he fear falling? When his knees cracked, they righted themselves. But the sound of tendons snapping and the sight of inverted kneecaps had rattled his core. Even the mere thought of his great height made him feel teeth take root in his throat.
Then the Mountain was immobile. The stillness allowed Jay to appreciate the sky. Its mustard tone had melted to honey-gold as he climbed. The sun bore a blue halo which burned orange and red as it set, escorting twin moons below the horizon. Purple night blanketed the desert and the sky’s honeyed zenith turned mud-colored. The muddy sky sprouted stars. Jay thanked those lucky stars as the air cooled and he knew he would not bake to death.
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.”
He stood and resolved to follow Faith. Already he’d surpassed the steepest slopes. Now each footstep rose easier than the last. His foot cracked thin frost on the Mountain’s summit. Previously veiled by sky, the Mountain now wore only this snow-cap.
He jogged effortlessly now; his leaps threatened to throw him into orbit. Since he wasn’t dreaming he knew he’d climbed high enough to escape the planet’s gravity. He relaxed on the mountainside. He was high enough.
Above him the muddy sky burned royal indigo. Stars drifted so quickly Jay saw the ebb and flow of galactic clouds. These cosmic eddies outlined a figure against the black background of space. This grand human shape crossed muscular arms over its chest.
Jay looked up from the robot his T-shirt. He hadn’t moved an inch since smoking centipede.
Dan had left his apartment. Faith slumped into Beatrice’s vacant space on the couch.
Jay stared at the cupcake until he was able to speak. “Faith. Hey, Faith.”
Faith wriggled against the left armrest. “Beatrice.”
“No, it’s me. Jay.” He massaged his stiff neck. “Are you awake? Can you see me?”
She buried her face in the couch corner. “I’m flying through time and space.”
“I think I got more space than time in my centipede,” said Jay. “But I’m back, here and now. Did Dan and Beatrice leave somewhere?”
“BeatBax?” Faith snuggled a cushion. “Beatrice…”
Jay gave up. His throat was too raw to carry a one-sided conversation. He reached—with considerable effort—for the glasses of orange-juice and he drank their last drops. The citrus only tickled his esophagus.
The apartment door opened. Dan entered pale, shaking, and teary-eyed. He supported himself on the kitchenette counter and yelped when he saw Jay was cognizant. “You’re awake!”
“I think?” Jay counted his fingers. “Yes.”
Dan closed the kitchenette window blinds. He doubled over the sink like he would vomit.
“Do you have more orange-juice?” asked Jay. “My throat itches.”
Dan brought the gallon of orange-juice from the refrigerator. He unscrewed the cap and spilled juice on the coffee table. Jay took the gallon and drank directly from its mouth. Dan squeamishly wiped the spill with paper towels.
“Aaah!” Jay finished chugging. “I left some for Faith. Did Beatrice take off early?”
“Um.” Dan covered his face. “Yes.”
“Faith misses her already,” said Jay. She hugged the cushion to her chest. Dan sobbed. When he wiped his tears, Jay swore his nose wiped away. “Dan, you’re melting.”
“You’re still hallucinating.”
Jay counted his fingers. He had ten, but they lengthened and shortened with sickening sensation. “No… My hands are changing.”
“You’re hallucinating. I promise.” Dan sat on the couch’s right armrest and collected his breath. “Jay, I think I need to be alone.”
“Take your nose.” Jay passed him the orange-juice-gallon cap.
Dan humored him and traded the cap for Faith’s red card-stock pamphlet. “When you can read, you’re done hallucinating. Have Faith try, too.” With that, Dan limped to the bathroom as if internally wounded.
Jay tried to read the pamphlet’s cover but the dark squiggles refused to cooperate. He squinted until he understood the cover depicted a bird sheltering fledglings with its wings. The only writing was a word in cursive, and honestly, Jay could hardly be expected to read cursive in his current state. He opened the pamphlet hoping for more legible typography.