It seemed to be just after dawn. The air was still damp and there was a chill to it. The hill was filled with tall green grass and I could see, in the distance, where the hill dropped away to the ocean. The sun rose behind us. We were heading west. Did that mean we were in California, Oregon, Washington? I doubted it. At this point, it would have seemed almost too mundane.
I held the flame tucked securely under my arm. The dew-slicked grass dampened the bottom of my pants, cold on my bare feet. Part of me wanted this to be over. Part of me wanted to be back in the home that didn’t exist anymore. But another part of me wished it could continue forever. It seemed so odd to go from months of lying around, napping and brooding, to spending days filled with travel and adventure... the unknown. Nearly every second had become filled with the unknown. And while much of it proved to be dangerous, treacherous, it was a danger I welcomed. I didn’t know if I wanted a sedate normal life anymore. Maybe I was cut out for some sort of adventure after all. Maybe I could go into anthropology or something when I got back home. No. I knew I wouldn’t do that. That would mean years of sitting around in a classroom, listening to some professor whose best years of his life were well behind him. I had already tried that and it didn’t work. The military definitely wasn’t for me. I would have to think about it. If there was one thing I was always sure to have plenty of, it was time. My previous, adventureless life had prepared me for that.
As we drew closer to the water, I saw the giant ship waiting for us. I hadn’t really known what to expect. Maybe something like a luxury cruise liner or a small yacht-type thing. This was like an old-style pirate ship. Huge masts adorned its mostly wooden structure. I had never been on a boat like this before. Actually, I had never been on anything other than a cabin cruiser, puttering along the Ohio River, and the only time I’d ever seen a ship like this was in the movies. This could be exciting. Exciting and terrifying. We were going to board this wooden structure and it was going to drag us out into the ocean. I didn’t even know if the ocean in front was the Pacific or the fabled Malefic Ocean. Perhaps I would be able to ask someone.
At the edge of the cliff was a wooden staircase that would take us down to sea level. From our distance, I expected to see the ship swarming with crew members. It must take a lot of manpower to operate a vessel of that size.
“Are you ready?” Dad asked.
“As I’ll ever be,” I said.
“Once we get on that ship, there’s no turning back. You understand that?”
“I just want you to know that I feel bad involving you in this and... letting it drag on so long. If you want to turn back now, I’ll understand.”
I thought about it for a minute. I don’t think I completely understood the gravity of what he was saying. If we boarded that ship, we might die. Or worse. We might be sucked into some space time vortex that lead us to the island of the Nefarions. There we may be tortured heinously for the rest of our lives. That was pretty serious. Definitely not something to be taken lightly. I contemplated turning around. If I turned around, maybe I could find my way back home, or at least to Grainville, and get on with things. But I didn’t want to do that. Maybe I just wanted to be close to my dad, after feeling so separated from him for so long. I know I wanted to find my mom. And maybe even my grandpa. If they were still alive, I thought it was our duty to bring them back.
“I wanna go,” I said, sounding very much like a child.
“Okay,” Dad returned. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you. It could be bad.”
“All right. Let’s go down and get on the ship.”
“Lead the way.”
“Hang on to the flame. We don’t want to carry it all this way and drop it into the ocean.”
“The Pacific or the Malefic?” I asked.
“I don’t really have any idea.”
And I followed him down the long and steep set of steps until we got to the ship. A hemp ladder descended down the side of the ship. Father began climbing it, handicapped by his plank arm.
I let him get a good head start and climbed up after him. We reached the top of the ship, filled with equipment we had no idea how to use. It was completely empty of people.
“Where’s the crew?” I asked.
“Yeah. Shouldn’t there be a crew to get us where we need to go?”
“Son, no one in their right mind would make this voyage with us. Absolutely no one goes to the island of the Nefarions and those who have never make it back. I told you this was serious. That’s why it cost so much to ‘book passage.’ What we basically did, or somebody did, anyway, was buy this hulk of wood. There’s still time to turn back if you want to.”
And then I really did want to turn back. If no one had ever made it back, well, those just weren’t very good odds at all. What kept me on the boat was the thought of Dad trying to make it by himself. I loved him. He wasn’t completely incompetent but neither was he an exceptionally intelligent person. And he had the plank arm. That was a serious handicap.
“No,” I said. “I’ll go.”
“Okay,” he said. He found a large machete stuck into the wood of a rail, pulled it out, and chopped away at the ropes anchoring the ship to the shore. And, like that, the wind captured the ship and began dragging us out to sea.
I immediately became sick. It was like the ship, piloted by no captain at all, was piloted by a drunken captain hellbent on making the rest of the passengers feel as sick as he was. The water was choppy and the ship slapped over the waves, coming down with a crash, throwing us violently around the deck. I trudged to a railing, leaned over, and heaved out everything I had not eaten over the past several days. Nevertheless, it was amazing the objects that spewed forth. Small animals. Numerous fish. A few indescribable creatures and, finally, the hallucinogenic sandwich. It came out perfectly intact, as though it had never been chewed. It flew from my mouth and splashed into the ocean below. Maybe, I thought, that was why everything had been so strange—the hallucinogenic sandwich. Before, things had been moderately strange. Like my stay in Dayton and my trip to New York. But they had been, let’s see, a worldly kind of strange was the best I could think of to describe it. It was after the sandwich that things began to shift and rearrange, to become otherworldly. It was after the sandwich that, not only was the reality around me subverted, but the reality I had come from, my entire past—everything—had been subverted. In short, it was after the sandwich that things became really fucked up.
I almost expected to find myself back in my bedroom or my apartment in Dayton after throwing up the sandwich. Mom would still be there. Dad would still be the plump, factory working father I had grown up with. Not this thin, mustachioed imposter of an imposter with a plank for an arm. But no. We were still on the ship and Dad was still skinny and his arm was still a piece of wood and the ocean had grown choppier than ever.
The effect was that of a storm even though, if I looked up, I could see the blue sky. The waves had become so large and the ship splashed down in the water so hard there was a constant spume covering the deck of the ship. Dad held onto a piece of rope to keep him straight. I continued to clutch the railing, thinking I might have to spew again any minute.
“Maybe we should go below deck!” Dad shouted.
I thought that sounded like a terrible idea. That would be like submerging ourselves in this vicious water so when the ship split apart, as it inevitably would, we would already be beneath the surface, without a fighting chance. But, perhaps just because Dad said it, I convinced myself it was a good idea.
On shaky legs, he wandered out to the middle of the deck and headed for the cabin door. Just as he got close to it, the door swung open and the three Nefarions casually filed out. I remembered tucking the flame away in some cushions and I quickly scampered to it and snatched it up, clutching it to my chest and watching the Nefarions. The imposter with his ridiculously fake beard. The onion-headed bus driver. Because the head was now just an onion and the body was of a thick, nearly nonsexual stature, I couldn’t remember the bus driver being a man or a woman. And, of course, the eagle-headed creature, wearing some kind of thick, white bath robe.
“What do you want?” Dad said.
“You know what we want,” the eagle-headed creature said.
“And do you know what we want?”
“Oh, I think I do and I can assure you they are both safe and sound. We will be happy to return them once we have the flame.”
“I’m sorry,” Dad said. “But we have to see them, just to make sure everything is okay, before we can give you back the flame.”
The eagle-headed creature threw his arms up in disgust.
“Come on,” he said. “How much longer do we have to wait?”
“I thought you would know these parts around here better than us.”
“We’ve waited so many years. I’m tired of waiting.”
“If you knew where it was all along, then why didn’t you just come and take it?”
“We didn’t know anything,” the eagle-headed creature said.
“Sure you did.”
“No we didn’t.”
“Bet you did.”
Once again disgusted, the eagle-headed creature threw his arms up in the air, this time turning toward his fellow Nefarions and giving them a look that said he wanted them to sympathize with him in arguing against this retarded, plank-armed old man.
“Okay,” Eaglehead said. “Why do you say we knew about this all along?”
“Because you sent that elephant herd after my dad.”
“Did you see an elephant herd?”
“Well, no... But David was there.”
“Did you see an elephant herd?” he asked me.
“You don’t think it could haven been the product of an overactive imagination?”
“No. I heard them. I saw them. I smelled them. I watched Grandpa disappear right in front of me. Can you imagine how traumatic that would be for a seven-year-old?”
“Fuck trauma,” Eaglehead said. “All you petty humans are so hung up on your traumas and injustices it’s amazing you ever get anything done except for moping around and feeling sorry for yourself. Oh wait, I forgot, that’s why you do things. Because you feel so sorry for yourself you have to build things, rape people and whatever just to feel better about yourself.”
“And what do you do?” I asked.
Dad shot me a look as if to say arguing with these guys would be futile, even after I had just watched him engage in it.
“Well, we haven’t done much the last several years except look for a certain flame. Our little society has kind of been paying for it. Luckily we’ve had your grandpa there for amusement. It really boosts morale. And your mom, well, she’s a real spitfire too.”
Dad approached the eagle-headed creature, more rapidly than I had ever seen him move, and cracked him across the head with his plank.
“Ow!” Eaglehead said, reaching out an arm significantly longer than Dad’s and pushing him away by his face. Dad raised his arm to come after him again but Eaglehead said, “It won’t do any good. Besides, we haven’t done anything to hurt them. When I say they’ve livened the place up it’s because they’re both insane and there’s nothing we find more entertaining than mental instability.”
“I still say you knew where it was all along.”
“Well, we knew where your father was all along. We have a sort of... kinship for people who have been exposed to Brilliance over a period of time. But, Brilliance itself, it’s not like a beacon or anything. We can’t feel its burning from a world away. We can feel those it has touched. So, yeah, we sent the elephant wind just to fuck with everybody. We were pretty sure, dragged away from his family and his secure life of normalcy, old Grady would blab away about where Brilliance was. But he didn’t. He wouldn’t tell us a thing. It was like Brilliance was the greatest thing he had ever acquired and he meant to hang onto it. If we had known he was stupid enough to keep it right there above his head, believe me, we would have gone back for it. But we figured it was held securely in some remote location. It wasn’t until I saw your son there in Central Park I realized I was looking at someone else who had seen the flame. So I had his imposter follow him around. On the bus ride back to Ohio, the imposter ate a little of David’s brain, and that told us everything we needed to know. But, of course, by the time we could all rally together and act on it, you’d figured things out.”
The Nefarions, tired and slump-shouldered, retreated back into the cabin. The eagle-headed creature motioned for us to follow him and said, “You’d better come in before it starts getting really bad.”
It was already pretty bad. I was amazed the ship was still whole. Now, aside from plummeting from wave to wave, it also jerked side to side. I was the last one in the cabin, pulling the door shut behind me.
The three Nefarions were already seated. Dad sat next to the eagle-headed creature and the only seat left was next to the imposter. I hated the imposter and did not want to sit next to him but I was so tired from walking and puking and the ship was rocking so hard I had to sit down somewhere or I was afraid I was going to collapse. The imposter stared at me. I assumed this was normal for an imposter to stare at the person they were posing as, studying them, learning how to do it better although, as far as imposters went, mine was pretty bad. I sat down next to him and crossed my legs.
The eagle-headed creature stroked Dad’s wooden arm and said, “That’s a lovely arm. Mind if I ask how you got that?”
Dad blew up. His face reddened and both arms shot up into the air. “You and your damn goons tried to shoot me! More than try! You succeeded! I’m lucky all I got was this board for an arm! I could have bled to death!”
“Calm down,” Eaglehead said. “If you don’t like it we can always change it when we get back to the island. We have a shop there. We can change just about anything although, I think you’d find it could be a tremendous asset if you just hang onto it.”
“A board for an arm! An asset! I’m dying to get rid of it but I don’t know that I want to go into any shop you guys are running!”
The imposter then turned, smacked me in the face, and halfheartedly attempted to wrestle the flame from my hands.
“Get the hell off!” I said, whacking him in the shoulder with the urn.
He rubbed his shoulder, a look of hurt entering his otherwise vacant eyes.
“You guys aren’t very good hosts,” Dad said.
“I’m sorry,” Eaglehead said. “Would you like some coffee?”
“I’d love some. David?”
“Sure,” I said but, my beard being full of vomit residue, I was pretty sure anything I put in my mouth was going to taste like vomit.
The eagle-headed creature stood up and walked toward the front of the cabin. He went about brewing some coffee. I could smell it through my puke beard. It smelled wonderful.
“So,” Dad said. “Are you the only one of these jokers who can talk?”
“For the most part,” Eaglehead said.
Dad grabbed his head, tugging at what little gray hair he had left in frustration. “Jesus!” he said. “Are you people fucking... incapable of giving a straight answer?”
Eaglehead came back and sat down, crossing his skinny legs. “The coffee will be ready in a few minutes,” he said. Then he leaned his giant eagle head back against the wall of the cabin and said, “A straight answer. Well, to provide a straight and narrow answer requires a straight and narrow mind. I like to think of myself as a very broadminded person. When I say ‘for the most part,’ I mean for the most part. I can talk all the time. The imposter can really only talk when he’s inside David’s head. Unfortunately, he has been an imposter for so long he’s forgotten who he really is. His voice sounds nothing like David’s, despite intensive training. So, if he gets inside David’s head and talks then David knows he sounds nothing like him but that doesn’t matter because, in a way, it is only an imposter’s job to fool everyone else. He really doesn’t have to worry about the person he’s posing as since, obviously, that is the one person, without a shadow of a doubt, who knows he is an imposter. The other one, well, he’s got a fucking onion for a head and when was the last time you heard an onion talk? She used to be able to but… it’s gotten worse.”
“I’ve never heard an eagle talk.”
“I assure you, if you’ve ever been in the vicinity of an eagle, or a group of eagles, you’ve heard them talk. You just haven’t been able to understand them. Besides, I only have an eagle head. My vocal chords and everything are still human.”
“Well,” Dad said. “This has been the dumbest conversation I’ve ever engaged in.”
“Philistine,” Eaglehead whispered under his breath. “I’ll go get that coffee now. Everyone take theirs black? Good.”
“Black’s fine,” Dad and I said in unison.
The eagle-headed creature managed to carry all five mugs back, through the wild bucking of the ship, without spilling a single drop.
“Thanks,” I said. I took a sip of the coffee. It was nice and strong. Then, curious, I asked, “Is everyone on the island like you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, from what Grandpa always said, I always thought you were more... human.”
“Ah, yes, well you’re mostly right. What you have here in the cabin with you are the mutants of the island. Not all the mutants of the island but definitely the first ones. The one thing the Nefarions pride themselves on is imagination. Brilliance was their way of... reining in their imaginations.”
“More lunacy!” Dad gasped.
“Hardly,” Eaglehead said. “Unchecked imagination is lunacy. Take someone with an imagination and they can think of almost anything. But do we really want our world polluted with everything? Think about it. Someone imagined the gun and then they coughed it into existence. If you guys had something like Brilliance, it would have taken that idea, absorbed it, and glowed brighter. Desire, that’s what Brilliance represents. The desire to do better. The desire to dream bigger. Nuclear weapons. There was another real winner you guys thought up.”
“So,” I said. “If Brilliance has been missing all these years, does that mean you have things like guns and nuclear weapons and that kind of thing, too?”
“No. Once Brilliance was, I’m just going to come right out and say it, stolen from us, we all made a pact to restrain our imaginations. So, what we have experienced since your grandfather stole Brilliance has been something like a great soul death. Of course, there were still little coughs and shudders, not everyone can restrain their imaginations—those kinds of things happened with Brilliance too, that’s how we ended up with an island overrun by wild elephants—but those... errors in judgment were cast out from the island and sent to your world. If you think about it, it explains a lot of things. It certainly explains me...” he motioned to the other Nefarions who, grown bored with his story, had dozed off. “And them.”
“So you’ve never even been to the island?” I asked.
“Nope,” he said. “This will be my first time. I’m pretty excited.”
Dad rolled his eyes. He obviously had no patience for these people.
“Anyway,” Eaglehead said. “I think you should brace yourselves about...” he held a finger up in the air and counted off three seconds under his breath. “Now.”
And the ship dipped under a wave and kept going deeper under the surface. I’d never heard of a wooden submarine before and felt death was almost certain.