I managed to stay awake before the flat uniformity of the land overwhelmed me. I had developed a real dependency on these naps. It didn’t occur to me until much later that Wrench may have slipped some of the Arapahoe canoe bark into my coffee. Gas station coffee always tasted like ass so I wouldn’t really have known unless he told me. When I came to the van was not moving. We just sat there idling. I noticed Wrench had also dozed off. It was rare to find another person with such an affinity for napping. I could have awoken him but, for the nappers of the world, sleep is a sacred thing that should never be interrupted except in cases of life and death.
I looked around, not knowing if we were still in Indiana or not. In front of us was something that looked like a giant toll booth. A river ran behind it. It was a fairly wide river although I didn’t think it could be the Ohio and I knew we hadn’t gone far enough for this to be the Mississippi. Behind the river, from what I could see, stretched an expansive sea of nearly unreal-looking green grass.
The flame continued to burn safely in its urn between my bare feet.
How would this all end? I wondered. Everything seemed to be going too fast. In the span of three days I had lost my dream, my mother, my father (kind of), my childhood home, and I had found out my sister was adopted. Many secrets had come out and not one of them was good. How likely was it that we would actually find my real father? I didn’t think it was very likely at all. Usually, when a person is missing for twenty-odd years, the chances of finding them are relatively slim. And even if we did locate him it was almost a sure bet my grandfather would be dead by now. I knew something very dire must have happened to my father. He wouldn’t have just left his wife and two kids to go live another life on some nonexistent island, no matter how grand it promised to be. And if Grandpa was now dead or should be dead, given his capacity for drugs and adventure (a dangerous combination), there shouldn’t be anything keeping my father away.
After a few minutes Wrench woke up with a start. He slapped at the steering wheel. The van shuddered and then backfired.
“Whoa!” he said. “I must have dozed off there. Jesus, I think I went out while I was still driving.”
“I don’t know. I’ve been out for a pretty long time. Do you know where we are?”
“Not exactly. It looks like a toll booth of some form or another. Of course, I don’t see a bridge going across the river. I picked us up a map when I was at the gas station. I tried to look at it a while back but it seems like it’s gone all wonky.”
He flapped open the map and showed it to me. The map almost moved before my eyes. It showed Ohio. And Indiana was on there but it was maybe twice as thin as it usually is. To the west of that was some place labeled, “The State of Jerry.” The map had a sketchy quality to it. Like the hard lines and borders that were supposed to be there had been erased and drawn over by a child. The land to the west of The State of Jerry was shrouded in some kind of fog. I tried to wipe it away but it just curled around my fingertips and stayed there.
“See what I mean?” Wrench said.
“I don’t understand it.”
“Neither do I. Unless we’re entering that sublevel we need to be in.”
“It’s possible. Didn’t think it would happen this quickly though.”
“Oh, I almost forgot!” Quickly, he dug into his pockets and pulled out a folded piece of paper. “Based on everything your mother told me about the Nefarions, which is based on everything your father told her and everything his father told him, I made a sketch of what I think they might look like. We should keep an eye out for them. I noticed a fellow back in town brandishing his fist at you. Do you know him?”
“It’s my imposter.”
“I thought I was the only imposter in town.” I didn’t know if he was joking or not. He shrugged off my nonresponse and said, “Anyway, we need to be on the lookout for him. I think he might be one of them. There were three recurring ones I heard her mention.”
He unfolded the piece of lined notebook paper. The drawings were done in what looked like a dull pencil and displayed an artistic ability of a blind mental patient. They made me think of something a serial killer might draw and hang on his prison wall. Nevertheless, I think I got the ideas he was trying to convey. Or, maybe it was easier since I had already seen the actual people the drawing was supposed to represent.
On the left was the eagle-headed creature. In the middle was the bus driver, represented in this drawing as having an onion for a head and, when I thought back to my trippy bus ride, I couldn’t picture her any other way. And on the right was the imposter.
“I’ve seen them all,” I said.
“You have.” He sounded very surprised. I told him about my brief stay in New York and my bus ride home. “So,” he said. “I guess some of them have the ability to travel in between worlds. Another theory I had been working on was that Action was sort of a ferryman for these people. Picking them up at a bus station only he seems to know about and bringing them out into our world after initiating them in ways probably too horrible to imagine. I think now that he has our land to use as a bus station he might move with even more rapidity.”
“This all sounds very fantastical. I mean, is it something we even want to stop? Their world could be a lot better than ours. It probably is. I don’t think it can be much worse.”
“We’re not trying to stop anything. The only thing we are trying to do is locate your father and grandfather, if he’s still alive, and bring them back.”
“What about if we see another one of these Nefarions? Couldn’t we just give him the flame? That’s what they want, isn’t it?”
“You wouldn’t give them the flame without first making sure your dad’s safe and sound, would you?”
“No, I guess not. I guess that would be a bad idea.”
“We have to protect that flame at all costs. That’s our bartering tool. The only thing that will get us across the Malefic Ocean and onto the Nefarions’ island.”
A man emerged from the other side of the river. He began working a giant winch-like crank. Somehow, this crank unwound the bridge. Within a few seconds it reached our bank. A voice came from a bullhorn.
“Pay the toll! Pay the toll! Pay the toll!”
“What’s the toll?” Wrench asked me. I had no idea so he shouted across the river. “WHAT’S THE TOLL!?”
No response came back to us so he took our empty coffee cups and threw them into the unmanned toll booth, already filled with a lot of trash and an unhealthy amount of pornographic magazines. Then we started across the bridge. It was shaky and terrifying. And much longer than I thought it would be. It was nearly dusk by the time we reached the other side. When we got there a man in a straw cowboy hat and flannel shirt sat astride a giant red lawnmower.
He tipped his hat at us.
“Do you know where we are?” Wrench asked him.
“This is The State of Jerry,” he said. “I’m Jerry.” He reached out his hand and Wrench shook it.
Looking out beyond the van, I was amazed. Grass, green and perfectly manicured, stretched for as far as the eye could see. I didn’t see anything else. No roads. No walks. No power lines. No weeds. Nothing but grass.
“You all’s welcome to stay the night but I gotta be goin. I gotta lotta grass to mow.”
“Uh, thanks,” Wrench said.
“You’ll have to leave the van though. Can’t have you drivin on the grass. And, if you’re wearin shoes, I’d really appreciate you pullin em off. We have a welcome station just over the hill there. I’m afraid we don’t have much else.”
“That sounds great,” Wrench said. “I think we’re both about ready for a little rest. Don’t you?”
“Sure,” I said, instinctively knowing the ‘welcome station’ would probably be very far away.
“’Kay then,” Jerry said. “You folks enjoy your stay.”
Wrench pulled off his shoes and tossed them in the van. We began walking toward the setting sun, up the gentle slope of the hill. Once we got a good distance away, Jerry stepped off his lawnmower and rolled our van into the river. Wrench and I both thought about stopping him but agreed it was too far to run and, knowing we wouldn’t be able to get the van out of the river again, it just seemed a waste of energy. Then Jerry got back on his lawnmower and began mowing, the sound reaching us as we neared the top of the hill.