Ms. Lyn directed Jay across a grassy quad to the campus cafe, where Virgil Jango Skyy sat with Dan and Bob at a booth. Dan helped Jango cut a plain bagel in half for them to share. Jay shook Ms. Lyn’s hand. “Thank you again, Ms. Lyn. This experience was more than I could have hoped for. Can I buy you coffee?”
“Thanks, but I’ve got appointments to plan.” Ms. Lyn left the cafe. Jay passed tables of chatting college students on his way to the booth.
“Jay!” Jango raised his cane in greeting. “Is it time for me to collect my master, Blue?”
“They’re all yours.”
“I’ll let them sit for a while. I’m sure no one would disturb their eternal meditation.” Jango bit his bagel half. Dan sipped plain white milk and swiped through photos on his cell-phone. “Come, Jay, sit. Dan is teaching us about the Zephyrs.”
“I’m gonna get a cup of water,” said Jay. “Bob, can I buy you something to eat?”
“I can’t eat at altitude. I just don’t have the appetite,” said Bob, empty-handed. “See if you can buy me a beer.”
Jay found a free cup for water and brought Bob his beer. “I’ll drive us home.” He sat across from Jango.
Dan showed Jango his phone, and the old man took the phone and scrolled on his own. “Okay, you’re scrolling through the covers of each collection,” said Dan. “That’s Princess Lucia, the daughter of the ruler of Earth. Her family keeps her landlocked to protect her from the cosmic horror which ate the sky, the Hurricane, but she dreams of joining a group of robot-pilots on the moon. One day she escapes to the moon and learns to pilot this robot, the heart of the Zephyr.”
“Hm.” Jango scrolled through more comic covers. He closed his eye blocked by moon-like cataract and spread wrinkles from his good eye with his hand, so he could see properly. “What’s the author’s name? How old is this?”
“The author is one of those reclusive internet-types,” said Dan. “I think he goes by a pseudonym. Anyway, these comics came out twenty years ago, but the final issues were never published because the animated version was in production. But the third season of the animated version never came out, either, so it just kind of ends. LuLu’s was a cult classic while it lasted.”
“So, these robots.” Jango circled a comic cover on the phone with his finger. “They’re all Zephyrs?”
Dan nodded and took his phone back from the old monk. He removed his black gloves so he could use the touch-screen. “The robots and their pilots are both called Zephyrs. Sometimes it gets confusing.”
“Where are you staying?” Bob asked Virgil Skyy. “Maybe you can bring Virgil Blue to my house. Dan, Jay, you mind if the Virgils take the fold-out and I’ll pump up the air-mattress for you two?”
Jango waved a hand dismissively. “I appreciate the offer, but that won’t be necessary. Virgil Blue and I have booked a motel-room for the night.”
“A motel?” Jay sipped his cup of water. “How long were you planning to stay? Motels can get pretty expensive.”
Jango nibbled his bagel and stowed his hands in his sleeves. “Only for a day. Just long enough to extend an invitation to Faith.”
“An invitation?” Bob sipped his beer. “To where?”
“Why, Sheridan, of course.” The old monk loosed a long sigh with a protracted shrug. “No person has ever visited me three times in such an interesting fashion as Faith. I thought she was destined to study the Mountain on the Islands of Sheridan. Virgil Blue and I had prepared an initiation ceremony for her to perform immediately, if only she was alive to accept our offer.”
Dan bit at his index finger. Jay nodded solemnly and swallowed. “Is the initiation ceremony still, uh, ready to go?” he asked.
“If Faith is dead, then for whom?” asked Jango. Then his eyes opened so widely Jay could see the whole white and black circles of his irises. “Are you suggesting—”
“No, no,” denied Jay, “I wouldn’t invite myself into your congregation. But Dan studies religions. We hoped to gather information for his thesis. Could you show him the materials and procedures used in a Sheridanian religious-initiation ceremony?”
Dan looked up from his phone when he heard his name. Jango appraised his expression. “I suppose that wouldn’t be a problem,” said Jango, “but before I invite you to our motel, I should warn you. The materials involved in the Sheridanian initiation ceremony are… controversial. ”
“What is it?” asked Dan.
“Centipede-powder?” asked Jay.
Jango shook his head. “In a proper ceremony, the centipedes must be… whole.”
Dan and Jay sat silently, understanding the implication. When Bob caught on, he jumped upright and held his fedora to his head. “You mean you smuggled whole centipedes through customs?” Jango put a stern finger over his lips. Bob grinned giddily at Dan and Jay. “You guys have cool friends.”
“Please understand,” said Jango, “centipede-hallucinations are integral to the initiation experience. In fact, if you are planning to write about the religion from the Islands of Sheridan, I insist you consume a whole centipede tonight in a mock initiation ceremony. Under Virgil Blue’s supervision, of course.”
“Really?” asked Jay.
“We had the materials already prepared for Faith,” said Jango. “I won’t demand you join my congregation after the ceremony, of course. Unless you’d really like to.”
Dan covered his face. “Jay, I don’t know about this.”
“Is something wrong?”
Dan rest his fists on the table. His face was pale. “I can’t take centipede again.”
“You don’t have to. I could take it and describe my experience to you.”
“I couldn’t even be in the same room as a centipede,” said Dan. “Not since Beatrice. I can’t to go to the Islands of Sheridan. Coming here was a mistake.”
Bob took air through his teeth. “You know, I’m in the same boat as Dan. I don’t wanna overdo anything.”
“Okay.” Jay extended a hand for Jango to shake. “Then I’ll take you up on your offer alone.”
Jango shook. “Have you eaten anything in the last day?”
“I had a big dinner, but a light breakfast.”
“Good. Don’t eat or drink anything until we meet tonight. You will likely vomit.”
That evening Jay stepped out again onto Bob’s back porch. Dark clouds drifted across the sky. None of them looked like foxes.
He pulled out his cell-phone and dialed his parents’ phone number.
The phone rang too many times. Jay knew he would speak with an answering machine.
“You’ve called the residence of Camilla Diaz and Ethan Jackson,” said his mother. “We can’t come to the phone right now because we’re on our second honeymoon! We’ll respond to your message when we’re back from the Caribbean. Click!”
Jay drew breath, but could not speak. His jaw trembled. “Hi, mom. Hi, dad. It’s me.” He almost hung up; he could still change his mind and turn back. “I have to do something risky. So… this might be the last anyone ever hears of me. I love you.”
He ended the call. He blew fog in the cold air. He rubbed his hands together.
He entered Bob’s house. Dan was trying to untie his shoes before he slept on the fold-out couch. “I’m walking to Jango Skyy’s motel,” said Jay. “I’m going to perform the initiation ceremony.”
“Really?” Dan struggled with his laces. He didn’t want to touch them. “You haven’t changed your mind?”
Jay shook his head. “Do you need help?”
“Please. We walked through the grass on the way to the cafe. Now my shoes are dirty and I’ll have to wash them. But I forgot my gloves at the cafe, and I don’t want to touch grass-stains with my bare hands.” Dainty Dan let Jay untie his shoes. They were hardly dirty, just a little damp. Jay pulled the shoes off Dan’s feet. “Jay, on the Islands of Sheridan, did you see too many centipedes?”
“Not very many at all,” said Jay. “Only near the peak of the main island, even above Virgil Blue’s monastery.”
“Then I’ve changed my mind,” Dan said. “I said I couldn’t go to the Islands, but I was wrong. I need to go to Sheridan to prove I’ve moved on. Thank you for bringing me here, so I could realize that.”
“I know you’ll enjoy Sheridan, Dan.” Jay turned his head so Dan could not see his tears. “Maybe I’ll meet you there, huh? If I decide to become a monk?”
Then he left and walked to the nearest motel.