I’m holding the small box up for her to see. It fits in the palm of my hand, although it’s surprisingly heavy, which makes it feel expensive. I explain to her that if I push the button, a car will arrive and drive us to the nearest airport where a private jet will be waiting to fly us anywhere in the world. She doesn’t believe me, so I tell her to go ahead and try.

She’s quite impressed when the shiny Mercedes-Benz rolls up a few minutes later and the driver greets me by name. She’s hesitant, we’ve just met after all, but there is a look in her eye, a thirst for adventure, something exciting, maybe she thinks I’m cute. She’s supposed to be serving drinks in the bar, but she gets in anyway, we drive off. There is a mini-bar in the car, I take out a small bottle of champagne, pop the cork and fill two glasses. We toast, and she smiles broadly. I crack open some peanuts.

She’s still not taking this seriously, she thinks it’s an elaborate ploy. As we roll through airport security and across the apron her disbelief starts to dissolve. A hostess opens the door, there is a red carpet leading up the steps. I ask her if she is ready, she just nods dumbly.

We climb the steps and enter the plane, greet the pilots, they ask me where we’ll be going today. I look at her, she just shrugs, lost in amazement. I tell them to head for Las Vegas, what the hell, I feel like a party. They tell me we’ll arrive in 3 hours, there’ll be no delay in take-off. The seats are white leather, eminently comfortable, I invite her to sit down first and then sit opposite. She’s staring out the window, looking around the interior, everything gleams. The hostess asks us if we’d like any refreshments and I order champagne and caviar. Before long we’re airborne, sipping champagne, she doesn’t like the caviar, so I order pretzels instead. It’s important she eats something, I don’t want her to get too drunk just yet. It’s time to dispel her confusion.

The little box isn’t mine, it belongs to my father. He’s wealthy, banking and finance and all that, honestly I don’t really know the details, right now he’s in Thailand in some Buddhist monastery, he’s been there for months, ever since the last heart attack. I guess he’s looking for ways to live healthy, live longer, find inner peace, connect with his inner self, positive shit like that that people worry about when they start getting old. I think I’d rather die young.

I’m his illegitimate son, one of several no doubt, my mum worked as a maid in one of his suites, he thought she looked sexy in her uniform and fucked her. She said she was on the pill, but that was a lie, truth was she was fishing for child support, which she got, settled out of court, a fixed monthly sum until my 21st birthday, I’ve got a year to go still. It’ll be a bummer when the money runs out, but who knows, maybe my father will die and I’ll inherit? My father doesn’t really like me, and who could blame him, he didn’t ask for a son did he? But it’s alright because I don’t really like him either.

He used to own his own private jet to go to business meetings, New York, London, Zurich, places bankers go I suppose. But then this new service arrived on the market, they call it fractional ownership. A fleet of jets, perpetually circling the globe, ready to pick you up at a moment’s notice. The logistics are transparent, just push a button and the rest happens as if by magic. It’s the closest thing I’ve ever seen to teleportation. My father just said it was a time-saver, hassle-free.

Now I didn’t steal the box, it’s just that he wasn’t using it. He’s got other things on his mind, what with all the meditation and yoga and carrot smoothies. I sort-of asked, and he sort-of said yes, and until I hear anything to the contrary, I am going to abuse the shit out of this toy. Since the heart attack the hours have just been accumulating, last I checked there were over 5000, that’s a lot of flight time.

She wants to know if we really can just go anywhere. I tell her we can go anywhere she wants; I just picked Vegas at random. Normally I’d sleep in the plane, arrive somewhere, get in to as much trouble as I could, then when I was tired I’d press the button and head somewhere else. We could chase the sun around the Earth, watch the sunset twice in one evening. I told her that back at the bar she’d said the magic words, the secret password, that phrase which electrified me, that she wanted to travel and never stop travelling, see the world, go everywhere, do everything, get on every ride, treat the world like one big crazy themepark.

What pure serendipity, that our paths should cross, that our lights might burn brighter together. For the adventure is always far more exciting when shared. Especially when shared with a hot punky-looking girl with dreads and a nose ring and tattoos up her arms. This girl looked bad, and I like them that way, I guess I’m pretty bad myself.

I’d stolen my father’s American Express card. There was always the risk his retreat wouldn’t make the slightest difference to his health, that his heart would give up the game, and he’d die without writing me in to his will. I’d rather spend his money now, and damned the consequences. What would he do anyway, sue me?

We have wings and we have money, and now we have each other. Who knew how long it would last? Best live it to the full. I’ve got that tingling feeling, like this is going to be special. I look at her, she looks at me, I take her hand and smile. Her eyes are wide with excitement. We hit the tarmac in Vegas. This is going to be awesome.

Most people never really go anywhere. They grow up somewhere, they leave home, get a job, buy a house, raise a family, the usual. Maybe they change cities, maybe they go on the occasional holiday, take selfies in front of the monuments, visit the museums, lie on the beach, read a lousy novel. They live their lives and they only see a small fraction of the world.

There exists a small minority of people who hit the road when they’re young and never look back. Mara is like that. She left Germany when she finished high school, backpacked around Thailand and Vietnam, dropped into Bali, cruised around Australia, volunteered in Kenya, lived in an intentional community in Brazil, lived in an art commune in New York, hitch-hiked across the States to Burning Man, then hooked up with some dude who took her to San Francisco. That’s where I met her. She is doubly courageous, because not only does she travel, but she’s an artist as well. She’s a singer-songwriter, she dances, she paints, the list goes on.

The world wouldn’t function if everyone were flittering around the globe, painting paintings and prancing on their toes and singing their hearts out. I mean someone has to harvest the crops and tend the animals and string the power-lines and lay the pipes and put out fires and all that. We are the selfish few who live the dream, who go where we want and do what we want. I am acutely aware of my privilege.

Her art doesn’t pay all that well, so to make ends meet she tends bar. She has a fake ID and always gets paid in cash. She’d been crashing around San Francisco, sleeping on couches of people she met randomly, using up goodwill until it was time to move on. She has the charisma to carry it, I guess it helps that she’s young and pretty with stars in her eyes. Considering her limited means it is outstanding how far she has come.

I feel a bit lame opposite her, I’m no artist, at best I can write moderately well, that’s about it. I wouldn’t be travelling at all if I didn’t have the magic box in one pocket and the AMEX in the other. And to be honest, I doubt she’d be interested in me otherwise. I’d like to get in her pants, but I’m probably not the first guy to try, and I don’t think she’ll give in that easily. It would be positively perverse to try and barter endless travel in exchange for endless sex.

After landing in Las Vegas, we cruise the strip in a limo. Neon fakery panders our base instincts. We wander into a casino and play roulette. I loose $500 in 5 minutes. She thinks it’s boring, I suppose that to get the thrill you have to gamble money you earned. I thought casinos were supposed to be classy, but this lot are poorly dressed, shorts and t-shirts people, really?

She suggests we go looking for something more authentic, so we drive around downtown in search of street art. We’re pleasantly surprised to discover a series of murals, enormous, edgy, clearly the work of professionals with ladders and excessive amounts of free time. She tells me that she always feels good in a city embellished with colour, a telling reflection of the cultural vibrancy, hence her love for San Francisco.

As a globetrotting painter, she can’t very well carry a stack of canvases around in her backpack, so instead she paints on walls. It has become a matter of personal pride to leave her mark wherever she goes. All of a sudden, as if her very life depends upon it, she has an overwhelming urge to paint. Next thing I know we’re driving around in search of a store to buy supplies.

She picks up as many cans as she can carry, rollers, brushes, overalls, goggles, I’m starting to wonder how out of hand this is going to get. At the cash register she flutters those starry eyes of hers and I pull out the credit card. We’re back on the road, looking for a suitable spot. There’s a derelict lot, with street lamps glowing dimly, a few parked cars, a rusting chain-link fence and a crumbling brick wall. Perfect.

Her eyes are closed, she’s breathing deeply, summoning her creative energies. She dons her overalls and goggles and starts opening cans. I stand and watch as she starts laying strokes upon the wall. She works with a deliberate calm, evidently she has done this many times before. She walks the line between figurative and abstract. What emerges is a confusing tangle of shapes, a riot of colour, a joyful mess, somehow primitive, ethnic, tribal. Clearly, she is quite insane.

She steps back for a contemplative pause, and suggests that I join in. I haven’t painted since grade school. It’s a trick, she explains, to let yourself go, open a connection to your hidden mind, return to the origin of consiousness. After moderate persuasion, I abandon my better judgement and put on my overalls and goggles. I open a random tin and hurl the contents upon the wall. I open another and do the same. She laughs with glee. I grab a brush and start tracing triangles, squares, circles. We’re both going at it, lost in the moment.

I’m just starting to enjoy myself when a police cruiser rolls into the lot, a defeaning burst of sirens accompanies their flashing lights. We’ve been caught red-handed, in flagrant disregard for the law, hemmed in with nowhere to run. The cops get out slowly, all swagger and arrogance, they survey the scene. I’m feeling pretty embarressed, but Mara looks casual. They check our IDs, mine real, hers fake. There is talk of defacement of public property, large fines, a world of problems. These fascists, I wonder what it’s like to born without a soul? Eventually we agree to efface our creation by painting the wall white. We break out the rollers and get to work while the cops watch. How humiliating.

A squawk on the radio, all units, it sounds serious, the officers respond. A flare of annoyance, time to leave, but first a stern warning, the wall had better be clean when they return in half an hour or there’ll be repercussions. It’s a bluff, of course, they blaze off sirens wailing, churning up a cloud of dust.

Mara and I stand side by side in the dim glow of the street lamps, staring at the wall. What was I doing here with this girl in this abandoned lot in Las Vegas? We had shared a splendid moment, until those damned cops had stomped upon our fun, but it was over now. She tells me that somehow she likes it better this way, the white roller strokes adding an extra touch of absurdity. I notice that the moon is out, close to full, promise to come. We ditch the supplies in a dumpster, and head off in search of a hotel.

We check in at the Pink Flamingo, she just liked the sign. They have a pool on the roof so we buy swimsuits and get wet. As we sip cocktails with little umbrellas she slips a little further into the water. She tells me that she could get used to this life.

We talk about bands. I haven’t heard of any of the acts she listens to. She’s very passionate and insistent, like it’s the only thing that matters in all the world. I wish I could feel that way about something. I’ve been sleepwalking through life until now. She promises to let me listen to some of her favourite groups when we get back to the room. But the evening is nice and the water is warm and we get drunk slowly under a canopy of stars.

Her father is a sky-diving instructor and her mother is a yoga teacher. I couldn’t think of two professions further apart. Drug dealer and a DEA agent? Christian minister and a Satantic cult leader? Professional hunter and a vegan telechef? She giggles and spills her drink into the pool which oozes out over the surface like an oil slick. Turns out her dad hunts and her mom’s a vegan. They got divorced pretty soon after she was born. Hard to believe they got married at all. At least she was conceived in love, which is more than I can say.

I ask if she’ll take me sky-diving, but she’s jumped out of a plane once too many times. She’d rather teach me yoga. I’d like to see her downward-facing dog. I let my eyes wander across the seams of her lycra and the lines of her freakish tattoos. I gently move in a little closer, but she maintains the distance in her eyes. How I wish she’d give me an invitation, allow me into her intimacy, let me kiss those full lips, twirl my tongue around her piercing. Man, I like this girl.

She finds travelling tough, perpetually looking for a place to stay, always struggling for cash. She tries not to use people too much. She wants to make it as an artist, to be able to earn a living from her art. Thing is, it’s not enough just to have passion, drive, motivation, you need originality, inspiration. That’s what she’s searching for, her global quest, to find her style. Of course you also need a stroke of luck to get noticed. Sure, she’d like to see her art in galleries, to headline at festivals and jump into the air and bodysurf upon a crowd of fans. Sometimes she misses home, but the thought of going back to that little town in Bavaria, where everyone is square and serious, no, no, no, it’s simply out of the question. Her parents don’t really get the art thing anyway. I’m struck by how well she speaks English, with only the slightest accent, it’s quite beguiling.

She asks me what I believe in, and she’s dismayed when I reply that I don’t believe in anything at all. It would be nice to believe in an afterlife, or reincarnation, or nirvana, or UFOs and little grey men, or a universal energy that connects us all, but I’m just too rational for all that. It’s just a chain reaction, going right back to the very beginning, the big bang, spinning electrons and galaxies and stars and planets and moons.

She tells me that I’m missing something essential. She has this idea to go check out an art commune in New Mexico. She knows a guy there who cultivates peyote, a psychoactive cactus. I’ve never tried psychedelics before, I’m a bit afraid of the demons lurking in the dark recesses of my mind. She says it’s a ride worth taking, maybe it’ll open me up to new possibilities.

It’s been a long day, it’s getting late, and she’s feeling tired, so we go back to the room. She doesn’t even bother getting into the bed, she just flops down on top of the covers still wearing her swimsuit and falls asleep. I stare at her body for a while, feeling a welling desire to do unspeakable things. After all, no one knows we’re here.

I heed my better judgement, and instead take a shower and jerk off. Afterwards, as I lie down on the bed next to her I wonder if I’ll ever get with her at all. Perhaps our flames aren’t burning quite so brightly together. Sleep comes swiftly.

I wake up, feeling momentarily disoriented, trying to remember where am I. Morning light is streaming through a gap in the curtains. I’m not on the jet. A hotel room, somewhere, in Vegas, that’s right, the Pink Flamingo. There’s a girl asleep in the bed next to me, her name is Mara, she’s under the covers, her swimsuit is lying on the floor, I suppose she must have taken it off during the night. I wonder if she’s wearing anything now, I think about sliding my hand over to check, but decide not to.

I get out of bed, put on a bathrobe and step out onto the balcony. Oh my, far too bright, I step back inside to slip on my shades. It’s already getting hot outside. It would be impossible to survive in a place like this without air conditioning. I stand at the edge looking out over the sprawl of hotels and casinos. Who would think to build a temple complex to the gods of greed and excess in the middle of the desert?

Fake pyramids, fake Eiffel towers. If the world is a themepark, then this place must be the epicentre. Here the rich come to play, to gamble away their fortunes, meanwhile, on the other side of the fence, the downtrodden poor scratch out a living in the dirt. And were I to try to tear down that fence my fellow kinsman would just as surely shoot me in the back for my efforts. I spare a thought for the ugly, the fat, the deformed, the scarred, the amputated. Should I feel guilty for being born healthy and good looking, on the right side of the fence, white and male in a world dominated by white males?

Here we are, seven billion and counting, on a rock floating through space. Did I ask to be born into this world? Did anyone? But in the end I’m going to die anyway, just like everyone else. Who else should I look after if not number one? Sure, I’m taking advantage of my father, but is it so bad to take advantage of a man who spent his life amassing wealth and never sharing any of it? I suppose the best I can do is to sprinkle a little bit of it as I go.

I’d read in a magazine article that at any moment in time there are a million people in the sky. All those carbon emissions, the resultant global warming, melting of the glaciers, rising sea levels, flooding a hundred million Bengalis. Me, I’m just one more in the sky, and do you think they’ll all stop flying if I do? Hell no.

The world is changing so fast. People used to look to the future fifty years ahead, but now? The future is arriving every day. Cars are driving themselves. Some private businessman is sending rockets into space. The sum of the world’s knowledge is in my pocket a few screen taps away. Undoubtedly, the robot army will soon take over. The time to live is right now. Before the forests are all gone. Before the last panda takes his last shit.

Hangovers make me pessimistic. I go inside and order coffee and pastries from room service. The arrival of the bellhop with his cart rouses Mara. As he departs she arises from bed, stark naked as I’d deemed likely, quite oblivious to my regard. She dons a robe and we sit down to breakfast. She stifles a wide yawn as I serve coffee, scratches her sleepy eyes, her dreads are all tangled, I find the vision rather adorable. She picks the smallest pastry, places it between her lips and takes the tiniest bite. Her eyes close in ecstasy. A far cry indeed from dumpster diving.

In short order the pastries disappear and she’s licking the tip of her finger to gather up every last flake. She tells me that I’m cruel to introduce her to such opulence, she’ll not be able to live this way when I leave. I reply that I have no intention of leaving her. She just gazes as me steadily.

She asks me if I still want to go to New Mexico. Why ever not? I grab the remote control, press the button, we dress and descend to reception to pay the bill. By the time we walk outside a car is already waiting at the curb. The airport, the jet, Santa Fe if you please. We take off and I look out the window as the vision of Las Vegas slips away.

During the flight Mara tells me about her experiences at Burning Man, how she met this radically artistic guy who totally blew her away. Almost intimidating in his intensity. She’d wanted to go with him and spend some time in his artistic community, but instead she’d been carried off by a bunch of people from San Francisco, one thing led to another, she’d been busy, mixing drinks and painting walls and singing open mics, then I’d arrived on the scene. Am I her free ride to hook up with this dude?

We land an hour and a half later, Mara directs the driver to a village out in the sticks. The rolling landscape is vast, utterly desolate, strangely beautiful. After a long winding drive across plains, through canyons, and down the side of a cliff, we finally arrive in the middle of nowhere. What we see before us is not so much a village, as a single rambling house, growing out in random directions, new floors built atop old, seemingly without any master plan. The walls are straight, of reddish-brown adobe, the corners rounded, wooden posts sticking out at regular intervals, the windows small and deeply recessed. A world away from Vegas, to be sure.

We saunter in, unannounced and uninvited. The interior walls are covered in images wilder than I could imagine, colours unfolding and splaying out in twisted bursts, bending and looping, mixing and weaving, is this what a trip feels like? Here I was thinking Mara was insane, this lot must be completely nuts.

Obviously, she is delighted, wide-eyed, feasting upon the scene, we move to the next room. I see a woman weaving baskets, she doesn’t reply when I greet her, perhaps she is deaf. Through a doorway I see a person asleep in a bed. A pair of children skip pass, holding hands, the peals of their shrill voices reverberating down the corridor. We climb a flight of stairs, and there encounter a woman standing in a pool of light from the window, her nude slender body covered in paint, and a man, crouching, at present decorating her leg. The woman glances at us and then looks away. The man is wrapped in a long blue robe, white dancing dragons contrasting with his flowing red hair. His skin is pale and a goatee sprouts from his chin. Mara interrupts the painting, introduces herself, ah yes the young German painter musician backpacker, a kiss on the cheek followed by a long tight embrace. What a pleasant surprise, catching up, stories from the playa, they speak for ages, evidently I am invisible. I look at the model, she’s still standing in the same position, staring into the middle distance. At one point he notices me, and inquires if I too am an artist. When I reply that I am not, he shrugs, looks me up and down, and turns back to his conversation with Mara. His name is Wind, which if you ask me is a rather silly name.

I’m feeling a bit left out, so I decide to keep exploring. In an adjoining room there is a seated man playing an elongated stringed instrument, striking a melody of resounding reverence. His closed eyes are surrounded by thick creases, his skin is dark, his ancestry may be aboriginal Australian, but I’m not sure. What path has led him here to this place? I sit down on a cushion to listen to the music. At length he ceases playing, opens his eyes and looks at me for a while. In a creaking voice he tells me that I am searching for something, and though I may climb to the tops of the mountains, though I may crawl to the heart of the forest, though I may walk upon the dunes of the desert, though I may plunge to the depths of the ocean, I will not find it. For what I am searching for may not be found on the outside. I need to look inward, inside myself, and therein I will find the answers. With that he closes his eyes and resumes his melody.

I raise an eyebrow. Well ain’t that some mystical shit right there? Who is this old man spouting wise to random kids who wander in unannounced and uninvited? I’d like to ask, but he’s lost in the music, and then I see Mara gesturing me to come hither. She tells me that Wind has agreed to perform a special peyote ceremony for us at sundown.

What am I getting myself into? As mental preparation, we go outside and get lost in the cactus labyrinth. It is hotter than the surface of the sun, the long curving lines of giant cacti, I’m obediently following Mara, my eyes fixed on her cut-off shorts, one foot in front of the other, turn left, walk, turn right, walk, I’m losing track of time, how much further? There may be magical energy hidden in here somewhere, but I’d much rather a cool drink in the shade. Finally we arrive at the centre and sit for a while upon a bench.

There is a sign post marked “Way out” pointing downwards. I scrape the dirt away with my feet, revealing a trap door. With a firm grasp and a hard yank I manage to open it. Steps lead downward into the darkness. I look at Mara. We don’t have torches. I don’t fancy the idea of walking an hour back through the labyrinth in the baking heat. The stairwell is alluring. Obviously, this has been set up intentionally. It feels right that we head downwards, pulling the trap door closed behind us. I can’t see a thing, I place my hands on the opposing stone walls and gingerly step forwards. This time I am leading. She is afraid, please don’t leave me in here. I’m quite surprised, didn’t think this girl was afraid of anything. It’s cold down here, one foot in front of the other, she has her hands on my waist, her touch is electrifying, how long before we reach the exit? I’m starting to have second thoughts about those magical energies. A light, at the end of the tunnel, sweet daylight, we’ve made it. Mara hugs me tightly with relief.

We find Wind and he takes us to meet the peyote. Now, peyote grow wild in the desert, but around these parts it gets a bit too chilly in winter, so they cultivate them in a greenhouse, small green buttons in neat little rows. Wind explains that it takes years from them to reach maturity. He invites me to stroke one with my hand. It is soft to the touch, not at all prickly. These cacti are technically illegal, although they’ve been used by local peoples for millennia. The community skirt the law through religious tolerance, for the cacti are never sold and only used as part of a ceremony. I’m beginning to realize the significance of what I am being offered and I’m starting to wonder if I am worthy of such a gift.

We climb a ridge to meditate as the afternoon sun sinks towards the horizon. Mara and Wind are sitting with their legs crossed, their backs straight, their eyes closed, breathing deeply. That position looks pretty uncomfortable to me, so I just lean back and appreciate the scenery. Looking inward, what does that even mean? Could you imagine living out here, in total isolation, far from the city lights, disconnected from time? Three days and I’d be ready to claw my eyes out from boredom. I’m getting bored right now actually.

I think Wind senses my impatience, he arises and bades me to walk with him, leaving Mara in her meditation. He explains that once I take the peyote I will go on an expedition into the wild to uncover my spirit animal and become one with the sacred ground beneath us. Peyote is a teacher, of love, holiness and a respect for nature. Frankly, I find everything about him annoying, his mystical way of talking, his ridiculous clothes, his silly name and that damned goatee, my fingers are just itching for the clippers. He decides to reframe the words in terms that I might understand. If I were to go back to the past, through my parents and their parents, and so on and so forth, back centuries and millennia, back to the early humans who boldly walked forth from Africa, and back further, to a time when we still lived in trees, to the great apes, to our ancient ancestors. And then go back even further, to the first mammals, to the life that crawled out of the sea, to the very first living organisms. And so you see that every living thing around us, every bush, every tree, every scrub of grass, every tiny ant, all are related to us, all are distant cousins, we are but one giant family on this planet. Sometimes we forget this. Peyote opens our eyes. But it goes back further, for every speck of dust, every drop of water, every breath of air, all of it, comes from the very beginning, from the formation of our planet and our sun, which was all once forged in the hearts are many ancient stars now long spent. And the ground upon which we walk is but a thin crust resting upon explosive forces, which we can bear witness to when a volcano erupts, forming new islands, and there are currents and energies beneath our feet of incredible power. Their community was founded on a spot where the lines of energies converge, there is no scientific explanation for this, but one does not need a scientific explanation to take advantage of a phenomenon. Why, scientists have no explanation for gravity, but if you jump into the air do you not know that you will surely fall back down? A compass needle points north, aiding sailors for generations to sail across the high seas, but what is magnetism anyway? Peyote will show the interconnection of all things. It will show you the truth which you have always known but have since forgotten.

I take a deep breath. All right, but why me? He asks me if I think it is merely an accident that I came here today, that it was simply a matter of chance? I do. He tells me that I am searching for a guide, that I found Mara and that I latched on to her because I knew she would bring me to this place. Not true, I just thought she had a sexy ass. He carries on, saying that many people go their entire lives without ever opening their eyes, but I have chosen to travel, to see the world, to follow my curiosity, to open my mind, and it has brought me here.

He stares as the dim arc of the setting sun. He places a hand on my shoulder and tells me that though I may not love others, though I may not love myself, I should know that here I am loved, that I am in company of good people, and as I go on my journey into the wild their love will be with me. However, I alone can make the choice.

I feel afraid. There are dark places in my mind, bad memories, doors best left locked and chained. I have anger inside me. Thoughts of my father. A misspent youth. Things I’m not proud of. Do I hate myself? Will the peyote show me reality in a different light?

I follow Wind back up the path, his blue robes and white dragons and red hair flowing in the breeze. Mara is looking peaceful, she smiles at us. It is time. We head down the ridge as I see the first stars appearing in the sky. We enter a domed tent and sit down. Wind kindles a fire and then begins to brew tea. He pours a cup and hands it to Mara. She brings it to her chest, then to her forehead, then drinks deeply. He pours a second cup and hands it to me. I stare into the depths of the receptacle. The moment of truth. I bring it to my lips and drink. The taste is awful, terribly bitter. I drink to the last drop, and with a grimace hand the cup back. I look at Mara, she’s just staring at the flames. I too watch the fire for a while.

Very slowly I begin to feel warmth flow through my body. I’m irritable, uncomfortable, my ears are buzzing. I go outside and vomit, spewing out everything I have ever eaten, until I’m just retching air. I feel horrible. I enter the tent again. Wind tells me that my body is purifying itself. He hands me some more tea. I drink deeply, without hesitation. Now go, he says, find your spirit animal. I realize that Mara has already left. I begin to walk the path up toward the ridge. The night sky is quite beautiful, so far from any light pollution, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many stars before. I stare up at the Milky Way, the universe, all those stars, dancing before my eyes. My jaw is slack, my throat is parched, I’m completely mesmerized by the vision. I guess the drug is taking hold of me.

I am floating through a dream, drifting through delirium, a most pleasant sensation. As I look around me, I am struck by the life, it is everywhere, the colours are radiant. I hadn’t given much attention to how alive the desert really is. I’m staring at a bush, the way it glows. Before, I’d have just walked past without a second glance, but now, I am enraptured. Even the rocks themselves are exploding in golden light. I can see how clearly I am in symbiosis with the plants, we breathe the same air, my body comes from the Earth, I am one with all, and all is One. I am struck by the most profound euphoria. I laugh, and I laugh, and I laugh, and I cry, giddy tears of childish joy. Oh how beautiful it all is!

I make it up to the ridge and sit down. The infinity of it, time is irrelevant, I would like to stay here for eternity. Ah yes, I do understand. It all makes perfect sense. From the moment I was born, people have been putting words into my head. See, tea, pea, free, lap, nap, sap, nut, rut… the signifier, the abstract concept, the map overlaid on reality, all these terms, far from what really is. I was sinking down beneath all that, reverting to a purer mindset.

Suddenly I rushed to that dark door, the one I keep bolted shut and battened down, I wanted to rip it open and throw myself down to the very depths. Oh the horror, all the things I had taken for granted. People I have hurt. My poor mother, I have made her suffer. The guilt, the guilt. My father is reprimanding me. I’m so sorry father. Forgive me. I am imperfect. Acceptation. Yes, I am imperfect. But I can do better. I will do better. I will make amends. There is so much beauty around me. So much goodness, and I am part of that goodness.

I lean back and gaze at the dancing stars for minutes, hours, days, years, centuries. They are smiling at me, protecting me. I want to hold onto this feeling. Ah, but I can not. I must return to the mortal plane. What utter lunacy indeed that this drug should be illegal. Perhaps fear might hold a man back, but to throw another in a cage for partaking? Alcohol, carnivals, the church service, these pale in comparison to the altered consciousness peyote provides.

Breathe in, breathe out. The images are fading, the stars have stopped dancing. I feel quite normal, back in my mind. The journey is over. Did I find my spirit animal? I’m not sure. The first light of dawn is creeping across the sky. I pick my way back down the ridge.

I’m wandering the corridors of the complex, when I come upon a doorway, the door is standing ajar. Inside I see Mara and Wind sharing an intimate embrace. They’re holding hands, staring into each others eyes, then they kiss, as they’ve likely been doing for a good while now. She reaches up and pulls his robes off his shoulders, revealing a sleek but muscular chest. She begins to kiss his neck, his shoulders, his chest, moving lower. I don’t need to see what comes next. I’m invading their privacy. Quietly, I turn and walk away.

As I trod glumly down the dim corridor, I feel a welling frustration. I wanted to be with her, I wanted to hold her and kiss her and sleep with her. But she doesn’t want me. I feel that I should leave this place. I leave a note with my number on the cushion I had sat upon earlier. I add a “PS: Thanks to Wind for a beautiful experience”. I find the remote control, hit the button, and walk outside to wait for my ride.

I feel a little bad just abandoning Mara, as if somehow I am responsible for her. But I guess she’s where she wants to be. After all, she brought me here. I let out a sigh. Perhaps this is what I’ll be doing henceforth, picking up random people and taking them where they want to go.

I arrive at the airport, the jet is waiting. The pilot looks at me and asks me where to. I lean back, close my eyes for a second. Where to? I haven’t thought that far ahead. I imagine Mara, watching her paint, watching her laugh, watching her smile, and I feel a pang of regret. I think about the stories she told me, and suddenly it comes to me. I tell the pilot to head for Bali. I recline the seat, pull a blanket over myself and drift off as we get airborne.