Faith’s cloud rode the wind faster than Jay could clamber after her. She zipped up cliffs and over divots. He had to search for shallower paths and leap over trenches in the steepening terrain. Soon Jay lost sight of her, but he continued to trudge up the slopes. Occasionally he glimpsed a pinprick of white against the mountainside, but always lost it when the wind whipped it left and right.
The last digestive rumbles from the depths of the Mountain forced Jay to freeze. He couldn’t risk tumbling down the slopes. He dropped flat and clung to the ground, wondering if these rumbles were the winged Zephyr adjusting to its subterranean tomb. Each restless turn would shake the Mountain top to bottom.
What would happen if he fell? When his knees snapped backward, they righted themselves. But the sound of tendons snapping and the sight of inverted kneecaps had shocked him to his core. His heart gripped by panic, his throat filled with teeth. Even the mere thought of his great height (and the bodily harm he would suffer if he slipped) made him feel teeth take root in his throat.
Then the Mountain ceased to shake. 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 turned orange and then 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 sky-loam 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.”
Doubts rekindled but cooled by night, he stood and resolved to follow Faith. In the preceding hours he’d surpassed the steepest slopes. Now each footstep rose easier than the last. He could not see Faith, but he now saw thin frost on the Mountain’s summit. Previously veiled by sky, the Mountain wore only this bare snowcap.
He jogged effortlessly, now, finding each stride a bounding leap. Since he knew he wasn’t dreaming he understood he must be leaving the planet’s gravity, so far had he climbed. He wondered how high the bird had hurled him.
When his leaps threatened to throw him into orbit, he relaxed against the mountainside. He was high enough.
Above him the mud-sky burned royal indigo. Stars lounged in inconceivable constellations. They drifted so quickly Jay saw the ebb and flow of galactic clouds. These cosmic eddies suggested a figure in the black background of space. Some grand human shape crossed its muscular arms across its chest.
Jay looked up from the robot his T-shirt. Dan had left his apartment after cleaning orange juice from the carpet and coffee table. Faith slumped into Beatrice’s vacant space on the couch.
Jay spent an indeterminate amount of time staring 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 neck. He’d spilled most of his orange-juice, so his throat felt scorched by the centipede smoke. He hoped Faith had been able to drink most of her glass. “Are you awake, Faith? What do you see right now? Can you see me?”
She blinked in the light. She buried her face in the couch corner. “I’m flying through time and space.”
“I think my centipede dust had more space than time,” said Jay. “But I’m back, here and now. Did Dan and Beatrice say they were going somewhere?”
“BeatBax?” Faith snuggled a couch cushion. “Beatrice…”
Jay gave up. His throat was too ragged to carry a one-sided conversation. He reached—with considerable effort—for the almost-empty glasses of orange-juice and thirstily drank their last drops. By now the juice had warmed and no longer quenched the fire in his throat. The citric acid only tickled his raw esophagus.
The apartment door opened. Dan entered pale, shaking, and teary-eyed. He supported himself on the kitchenette counter and yelped when he noticed 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 wanted to vomit.
“Do you have more cold orange-juice?” asked Jay. “My throat itches.”
Dan brought the gallon of orange-juice from the refrigerator. He unscrewed the cap and spilled juice all over the coffee table. Jay took the gallon from him and drank directly from its mouth. Dan squeamishly wiped up the spill with paper towels.
“Aaah!” Jay finished chugging. “I left a little for Faith. Did Beatrice take off early?”
“Um.” Dan covered his face. “Yes.”
“Faith misses her already,” said Jay. She hugged a couch cushion to her chest. Dan sobbed. When he wiped away a tear, Jay swore his nose wiped away with it. “Dan, you’re melting.”
“You’re still hallucinating.”
Jay counted his fingers. He had ten, but they lengthened and shortened with sickening sensation. “No I’m not. My hands—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 leave for a minute. 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. “If you can read correctly, you’re done hallucinating. Have Faith try, too.” With that, Dan limped to the bathroom as if internally wounded.
Jay tried to read the red card-stock pamphlet’s cover. The dark squiggles refused to resolve into words in his mind. He squinted until he understood the front 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.