When I finally came to, my head still felt heavy. My lungs and stomach felt heavy. I tried to stand but couldn’t. I rolled over and vomited out rancid seawater. I managed to pull myself to my knees. A very dense fog surrounded me. I looked out at the ocean. I saw Big Karl out there flopping around. He crested the surface before plummeting back under, leaving me with the searing image of his giant human buttocks. I would have laughed if I didn’t feel like I was dying. I checked my pants for the flame. It was gone. Of course. That was just my luck. To come all this way and then lose what we had come all this way for. Dad was collapsed on the sand a few feet from me. He was probably dead. I crawled over to him, shaking him. His skin was cold.
“Dad?” I shook him harder.
“Dad?” I rolled him over onto his side and pounded on his back. I placed my hand on his back to see if I could feel him breathing at all.
He coughed and spewed up some seawater and a crab that quickly burrowed into the grayish sand. I slumped down beside him. He opened his eyes and sat up, vomiting once again between his legs.
“Shit,” he said.
“What the fuck happened?”
“Big Karl happened.”
I motioned out toward the sea. Big Karl continued to frolic, unabashedly smiling and revealing everything.
“That’s an ugly motherfucker,” Dad said.
“Damn right,” I said.
“Still have the flame?”
“Is that it out there?” He pointed into the water.
It could have been the flame. Could we be that lucky? Probably not. Bad luck seemed to run in our family. The luck was so bad that even when we performed an act to try and reverse the luck or at least balance it out the bad luck would make it impossible. I stood up, still dizzy and woozy, and entered the cold ocean. As I got closer to the object I realized it definitely was the flame.
The imposter sprang up from the water on the other side of it, rushing for it as fast as I was. It was like a race in slow motion, each of us trying to trudge through the water to reach the flame. At the last second, I made a tremendous leap for it and clasped it in my hands. The imposter then leapt on top of me and tried to hold me under like we were children at a public pool. He was even weaker than I was, however, and I was able to resurface and push him away from me.
“Leave us the fuck alone,” I said. “You guys got what you want, okay? You’re here now. Go off and find your long lost relatives or something. And take off that stupid beard. You can never be me.”
Again, the hurt look I was becoming familiar with flooded into the imposter’s eyes. He took off his soaked false beard and slung it into the water, trudging off to my right, further down the shore. I could see two figures waiting for him—Onionface and Eaglehead. Part of me was glad they had also survived Big Karl, even though Eaglehead had tried to swindle us in our final moments of extremis.
I soggily wandered back up to the sandy shore. This was not at all what I expected from the island. It was gray with fog and dismal and kind of chilly. Visibility was down to about fifteen feet. Wherever we decided to set off to would be a mystery. Something like a channel was cut into the beach, arching off as far as I could see. It made me think of a very narrow moat, about two feet wide and dry.
I held Brilliance up in front of me. The flame burned very low. It looked in danger of going out.
“We’d better return this quick,” I said.
“We have to figure out where we’re returning it too. We’re on the island. They should be able to find us now. They know what we want.”
“So what now?”
“What now? I guess we walk.”
“You’ve never been here, huh?”
“No. I didn’t make it anywhere near this far last time. I almost thought the place didn’t exist at all.”
“Is this how you thought it would be?”
“No. I thought it would be... sunnier. Dad always described it as being sunny and tropical. This is downright Gothic.”
“That’s an apt description.”
“Maybe we should try and cut around the perimeter at first. Maybe it’s not so foggy on
the other side.”
“Do you know how big the island is?”
“No. Not really. I don’t think it’s extremely large. It has to move itself through time and space periodically. It can’t be that big, can it?”
“I dunno.” Physics wasn’t one of my strong points.
We took off walking in the opposite direction of the Nefarions.
“I should warn you,” Dad said. “If we see any other Nefarions, even if it’s the normal-looking ones, we should probably proceed with caution. This flame is the only thing they’re going to care about. We’re just intruders. Remember that. There’s a reason no one comes here.”
Both of us were too exhausted to say anything. We just continued to walk mechanically. I tried my best not to look at the flame. The last thing I wanted to see, after coming all this way, was the damn thing guttering out. If it went out completely, I knew, it would mean our death. Because it wasn’t just us who had come all this way. Too many things had happened for me to think we had done this by ourselves. From first spotting Eaglehead in New York to the hallucinogenic sandwich, to the busride, to the shifting and shortened landscape, all the way to the ship that brought us here, it was clear we had had some outside help. And if it seemed as far from the divine as help could possibly get, I was okay with that. If it meant we hadn’t done it all on our own, I was okay with that too. It gave me a sense of security—so long as the flame burned. If the flame went out we would have not only failed ourselves but the Nefarions as well. The flame was of vital importance to each of us. For me and Dad, it meant getting Mom and possibly Grandpa back. For the Nefarions, it meant maintaining their life force, their tradition, going back to their old ways—whatever those ways may have been. Maybe it would even mean the end to all this gloom.
Eventually we saw a figure cutting its way through the fog. Dad pressed his plank to my chest and we walked back into some shrubbery just beyond the sand. As the figure drew closer, we were able to get a better look at him. He was very thin. He had hair and a beard down to his waist. He walked in the moat-like thing cutting its way into the sand. He was in it nearly up to his knees.
“Dad?” Dad said. The old man either didn’t hear him or he couldn’t see where the sound was coming from. It would have been difficult for anyone with even slightly impaired vision.
Dad grabbed my arm and we approached the wandering old man.
Dad now stood in front of him. “Dad?”
The old man stopped.
“Dan?” he said. Then, “Dan! You found us. Amazing!”
“It wasn’t easy.”
“David! I haven’t seen you since you were...”
“Seven,” I said. “When the elephants came and took you away.”
“Ah,” he said. “And you didn’t believe me.”
“I believed you. You were the one that didn’t believe.”
His eyes went to the flame in my right hand.
“You didn’t bring that here to return it, did you?” Grandpa said.
“We have to, Dad. It’s time. We’ve had it long enough.”
“Fuck! But that’s what I worked my whole life for.”
I knew what Dad wanted to say. He wanted to tell him that was all well and good but his life was almost over now and it was time to give the Nefarions their lives back.
“What good’s it doing in the attic if you’re here?” Dad said.
“That’s so... practical,” Grandpa said, shriveling up his face. “You always were the practical one. Not a dream in that bulbous head of yours.”
“Did we come all this way so you could insult me?”
“I guess you came just so you could return that, huh?”
“Something like that. We came back for you. And Barbara. Have you seen Barbara?”
“They took her away.”
“Took her away?”
“Come on, let’s walk. Notice this path. Want to know what I’ve been doing for the last twenty years?”
He didn’t give either of us time to answer.
“Walking this same path,” Grandpa said. “They knew I took the flame. They kidnapped me and brought me here and told me I could walk around the island, searching for the flame. It was, I knew, to be my death sentence. I wasn’t allowed in the middle of the island. It takes me exactly one day to walk around the entire island. They leave a meal for me at the half-way point and the end of the first day and the beginning of the next day.”
“Jesus,” Dad said. “Do you ever get to sleep?”
“On the seventh day,” he said.
“How very Godlike,” Dad said.
“Hardly. I’m like a slave who’s given a fool’s errand. But now I can show them. I finally spotted the flame. I can stop walking in circles although, at this point, it’s the only thing I know how to do.”
“We need to get this flame back and find Barbara, Dad. Do you know who we need to give it to?”
“You’d probably want to give it to King Chin but I haven’t seen him since the day I arrived here. I haven’t seen any of them since they brought me here.”
“Then how do you know they took Barbara away? How do you know they got her at all?”
“Because I hear things. Sometimes the fog muffles sounds but sometimes it’s like the voices travel on all the little droplets and settle in my ears. I guess it all amounts to being in the right place at the right time.”
“Well, I don’t think the flame is going to last that much longer,” Dad said. “And if it goes out...”
“There’ll be some pretty pissed off Nefarions.”
“If it goes out...”
“There’s no starting it back up. What you hold there, Davey boy, is more key to our world than you will ever know. Let’s go this way.”
We veered to the right. I followed behind Dad and Grandpa.
“So,” I said, as we headed into the bush. “What do these people do?”
“What do they do?” Grandpa said.
“Yeah, well, everybody has to do something, don’t they?”
“Well, they used to. Now they sleep, for the most part.”
“Because they don’t have the flame?”
“I guess so. Even the wild elephants have gotten lazy.”
“What did they do before?”
“Before I borrowed the flame?”
“Well, mostly you had your three classes of people. It wasn’t like a caste system or anything. They were all treated as equals. One group was the worker group. These were the people who rebuilt the huts after the storms, kept up after the elephants, retrieved and grew food. Another group was the dreamers. There is a special building they go to for the largest part of the day. In a way, they are like the workers in that they are building things but what they build are dreams. Not just for themselves but for everyone...”
“Even us. Well, they make the good dreams, anyway. Not the nightmares. No one knows where they come from. So they go to their special building and they make dreams. Another group is your shiftless layabout group. They don’t do anything. Actually, they’re kind of a middle group. Sometimes they will help make the dreams. Sometimes they’ll help retrieve food or rebuild a hut or something like that. But mostly they just eat and nap. They’re accepted just as the other groups are accepted. They see it all as something you’re born to do. If you’re a lazy person, they assume the work you do will be bad and passionless and they don’t want any part in that.”
“If they build our dreams, built our dreams, but they haven’t done anything except lie around for the past twenty years or so, why do we still dream?”
“Everything resonates. Everything that has a powerful origin leaves ripples and waves for years. If you think about it, the whole human race might just be a resonance caused from the big bang. A huge creation. Many little creations. Just look how long ideas last... Even bad ones.”
“Someone told us the flame was here to restrain their dreams.”
“No. It doesn’t really restrain their dreams. It... edits their dreams. See, they’re completely subservient to the flame. The flame, they believe, is the height of perfection. It lives on eternally, unless we kill it. It burns with passion day and night. It absorbs everything bad in their world. Think of it as the perfect mood drug. It eats depression and hatred, things like that, and makes them a stronger society for it. Or, at least, it used to anyway.”
We were now on a narrow trail, ascending the side of a mountain. I couldn’t see the top of it. To look up was to see huge broad leaf palm trees rising and disappearing into the fog.
“If you knew all this,” I asked. “Why did you take it?”
Grandpa breathed a very heavy sigh. “I wish people would stop making me out to be the bad guy. It used to be, in anthropology, we took things from tribes and societies all the time. Hell, if we decided we liked where they were living, we’d report back to the king or whoever and, before long, set up some colonies there.”
“Colonialism’s a little outdated though, isn’t it?”
“Not at all. We just don’t call them colonies anymore. Now we do it with corporations. Who needs to grow food when you can grow coffee for the rest of the world?
“I can only explain it like this... Keep in mind, I’m pretty much of an atheist. I don’t think I have much of a need for a higher power. So, I assumed their belief in the flame was all a bunch of mumbo jumbo just like every other religion I’ve found. And, I figured, if it wasn’t, if it really could take away things like depression, madness, hatred, I would have liked to see what it could do to our world.”
“I don’t think it helped much.”
“No. You’re right. It didn’t help at all. So I hung onto it. I figured they’d get by. Religion is basically mass imagination. I just assumed they would find something else to worship and go about their business. And then they hijacked me from our world and I came back here and I saw how things had changed. But I told them about the flame. I told them how it didn’t do anything in our world and it was all in their heads. I wanted them to become self-sufficient, without the flame.”
“You wanted them to be just like you.”
“I don’t remember you being like this when you were seven. You have a way of making everything seem so... bad.”
“You were imposing your will on a whole group of other people. That’s bad. That’s like Hitler or something.”
Grandpa threw his hands up in the air. “Great. So now you’re comparing me to Hitler.”
“I’m sorry if it sounds harsh.”
“But I notice you’re not retracting it?”
“No. I’m not.”
“I’m too old and tired to argue. I’ve been walking for twenty years. My legs are like two pieces of beef jerky. I just want a bed and some sunlight.”
Dad was wheezing. After all we’d been through, I didn’t really blame him.
“So, where’s Barbara?” he asked.
“If I heard things right, then she’s at the top of the mountain. Remember when I told you the Nefarions slept most of the time? Well, they put her up there to stand watch, although I don’t really know how anyone could stand watch in this much fog. She has a really big horn she’s supposed to blow if they need to wake up for any reason. Although, these days there isn’t much to wake up for.”
“And where does the flame need to go?”
“Oh, even further up the mountain.”
We continued to trudge up the side of the mountain. The fog became even thicker. It was actually now more like a mist than a fog. The flame continued to sputter. At one point, it guttered out completely. My heart practically stopped but then it flickered back to life. But only barely. I had an acute feeling of dislocation. Here I was in some dimension not entirely my own, on an island more make believe than anything, situated in an ocean not found on any map, climbing up the side of a mountain shrouded in fog. And now I didn’t even know if we would make it to where we needed to go. I trusted Grandpa to an extent. He was so old. He had been here so long. Just walking around in day long circles, thinking his thoughts to himself. We were probably the first people he had spoken to since coming here. It wasn’t very hard to imagine him completely insane. In fact, I was beginning to wonder if there was anyone on the island at all. It seemed like at least one person had to be awake. Of course, fog has a way of dampening sound as much as it does of dampening sight so it’s entirely possible, if someone was awake and wandering around on the island, that they still had no idea we were here.
“By the way,” Grandpa said. “When did you get that plank for an arm?”
“I’ve had it for a couple days. I’m hoping it’ll go back to normal when we right everything.”
“I hope it’s as easy as you think it is.”
“Why shouldn’t it be? There isn’t anyone on this island who doesn’t want this flame to be back in its rightful spot.”
“You may be right about that. There are no bad guys here. Except for the mutants.”
“We already met them.”
“You should have killed them. They were banned from the island for a reason.”
“They want to destroy the flame.”
“We sailed here with them. I think they tried to kill us.”
“That wouldn’t surprise me.”
Just then, we were ambushed by the three mutants. Onionface had peeled layers of itself away and was spraying something that was very much like tear gas out. Eaglehead tackled Dad and the imposter came at me. I thought about staying to help Dad and Grandpa but, if I did, and the flame went out, then nothing would be right anyway. All hope would be lost and we would probably be killed by not only the mutants but by the Nefarions as well.
The imposter pulled out the leftover burrito he had made from my brain on the bus and took a bite of it. Immediately, I felt consciousness shift somewhat. But I clutched the flame and tried running up the side of the mountain, finally deciding to leave Dad and Grandpa behind me. Occasionally, I looked back over my shoulder to see the imposter taking bites of the burrito. Each time he took a bite, it was like time jumped forward or sideways or something and he was closer behind me than he was before. My muscles felt swollen and rubber, leaden. I could hardly move my legs. The imposter tackled me, wrestling me to the ground. He smashed the rest of the burrito into my face.
“Give me the flame!” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Give it to me!” he shouted, closing his hands around my throat.
“What can you possibly gain from killing the flame?”
“Then I can extinguish the society that cast me out.”
I hit him in the head with the urn and the flame went out. The imposter rolled off me. He was still conscious. Getting to his knees, he looked at me and the flame and smirked.
The earth moved. A slight tremble. A look of surprise crossed his eyes. He lunged at me and I stepped out of the way.
The flame sparked a little bit. I didn’t know what I could do to keep it going.
“You’ll lose,” the imposter said. “You’ll always lose. The fake you is better than the real you. That’s something to remember. I’m surprised you don’t know that yet.”
No. I thought. He wasn’t right. It wasn’t even worth arguing with him. I was me. He was him but he didn’t know who he was.
And I didn’t know who I was either.
First a writer. Then a napper. Then a beard grower. Then an unemployed philosopher. Then an adventurer.
“Fine,” I said. “You want the flame...”
He held out his hand to me. “You know I do.”
I held the urn up to my beard, the flame licking the hair and setting it on fire. It was like a cool wind. I reached back with the urn in my hand and threw it as hard as I could at the imposter’s face. It clanked against the bridge of his nose and his face shattered into hundreds of pieces, revealing a different person beneath it. I didn’t get a chance to really look at who the imposter was beneath the me exterior before he ran away down the mountain.
The earth shifted again.
I heard the far off call of a horn. I heard the trumpeting and braying of elephants. And suddenly the fog was alive. The mountainside was alive. The island was alive with the stampede of elephants and, before I knew it, I was lifted up by their trunks, held aloft with my flaming beard as they charged up the mountain. The Nefarions were waking up now, coming to the balconies of their treehouses and crawling out of their huts to see what all the commotion was as the elephant wind carried me up the side of the mountain. I passed Mom and her giant horn she blew with great fury and passion. I tried to wave but she wasn’t paying any attention, focused as she was on her horn blowing. Hopefully, I thought, my beard is just long enough. Hopefully, the flame will burn until we get wherever it is we need to go.
The elephants traveled at a lightning pace, racing for the top of the mountain, the terrain growing even steeper and more rugged.
Eventually, we reached something like a crater at the very top of the mountain and I thought it was a volcano. The elephants raised their trunks and threw me into the crater. I felt myself falling down and down, into blackness, accompanied only by my blazing beard. I looked up and saw hundreds of faces: Mom, Dad, Grandpa, the Nefarions, all looking down at me as I raced to the bottom of this strange mountain.
I did not feel an impact. It was like falling into a springy net. When I reached the theoretical bottom, I heard a whoosh as my beard caught other things on fire. This was strange kindling indeed—ectoplasmic blue and green, floating like a vapor at the bottom of this cavelike dwelling. The power from the ignition shot me back up to the opening, to the top of the mountain, on a column of flame.
I landed on an elephant and watched the flame crawl into the sky, shooting up from the center of the mountain.
It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. The flame burnt away all the fog and the island was exposed to the sun, immediately alive and thriving.
I sprawled backward on the immense hide of the elephant and shut my eyes against the sun, falling asleep for the next thousand years.