Robert Masterson propped his elbows on the sun-warmed table, squinting at the hotel's tiny outdoor stage. An actor in a feathered headdress posed in front of a garish flowered curtain. Bob shook his head. Against the living backdrop of real palm trees and serrated volcanic cliffs that surrounded the hotel, the whole setup looked as fake as the cardboard-box theater that Aunt Tillie had made for Bob and his sisters, long ago.
The actor struck a gong. All around the vine-draped courtyard, diners turned to face the show. Waiters began circulating among the tables, trading empty glasses for deceptively sweet concoctions in bright primary colors.
"In the First Days, the gods created this island," the actor intoned. "A paradise on earth. But the Eldest god decreed that for such beauty, there must be a sacrifice. He touched the mountain with his burning finger, claiming it for his own. And where the Eldest god touches, there can never be Paradise."
Bob groaned and leaned back in his tiny chair. This was the tropical wonderland that Aunt Tillie always talked about? Some flyspeck island, off the main tourist trail... He felt like he was back in kindergarten, hunched behind a miniscule desk, watching some puppet show. And the place had more flowers than a funeral. The scent of plumeria, so thick he could taste it, was giving him a headache.
Aunt Tillie would have scolded him for sulking, he knew. She would've loved this place. If Aunt Tillie had been there, he might've liked it too . . .
The couple at the next table giggled, oblivious to anything but each other.
"Humma-himma-nutta." babbled the woman.
"No, Sugarlips, it's hoomi-himmu-nupu." her mate corrected.
"It's humuhumunukunukuapua'a," muttered Bob's waiter, setting another drink in front of him. "Idiots."
"Um, do you know what they're talking about?"
"Trying to pronounce the State Fish of Hawaii." He snorted. "Island-hopping honeymooners. Will there be anything else, Mr. Masterson?"
"A refill sounds good...er..."
"Rex? Like a dog?" Bob struggled to focus on the waiter. All that registered was an impression of very black eyes and very white teeth. He'd had too many of those green drinks with the pineapple wedges on them. Or maybe it was the red ones, with the little umbrellas. "Fetch me another drink, then."
"No, like Oedipus. Sir." The last word sounded like an afterthought. "And no drink I can bring you will solve your problem."
Bob sighed. "And you know what's causing all my problems, Fido?"
"Rex. Sir. Yes, I do. It's because you're mortal. And so was your Aunt Matilda."
That focused Bob's blurred mind. "What do you know about Aunt Tillie?"
"I know that she wanted to bring you here. Thought you were getting jaded, needed cheering up." He shook his head. "Such a pity about the stroke. Nice that she left you enough to come here on your own, though. Next best thing, I suppose." He took a swig from Bob's untouched drink, paused, as though searching for the flavor, and set down the glass with a look of disappointment.
Bob ground his teeth. "If this is a joke, it isn't funny."
"I would never joke about your aunt, Mr. Masterson. I know you'd have done anything for her."
"Play dead, Rex."
"Can't bring her back, though. Pity. Too bad you're only human."
Bob choked on a laugh. "I suppose you're not?"
"Of course not!" Rex looked affronted. "I am THE god of this island."
Definitely too many drinks. "What, like Maui and Pele and all those guys? And you're waiting tables?"
"Upstarts." The waiter snorted. "No, this island was here long before Hawaii, or any of Polynesia. And so was I."
Rex set down his tray, leaned back in a chair, and waved a hand at the billing, cooing honeymooners. "Tell me those two aren't getting on your nerves."
"Well, yeah, but . . ."
Rex snapped his fingers, and the couple was gone. Bob stared.
"What did you do to them?"
"You . . . you're . . ."
"A god. I told you. Now, if you were a god, your aunt would still be."
"Shut up!" Bob thundered. The other diners-and the waiters, and the actors-turned to stare at him. He buried his head in his hands. Rex chuckled.
"You're attracting attention, my boy. Meet me at the top of the hill if you want to talk."
After a moment, Bob lifted his head. Rex was gone. The diners avoided Bob's questioning looks. He shoved back the table and sprinted toward the hill.
The hill was steeper than Bob expected. The climb sweated some of the fogginess out of his head. Rex lounged against a palm tree, watching him gasp his way up. Even in the coat and long trousers of his waiter's uniform, he looked enviably cool.
"Hill? This is a volcano!" Bob wheezed. "What's so darned important up here?"
"One of my old altars." Rex sprang lightly over a rotting stump. "It used to be quite magnificent - all obsidian and bloodstains. Now - well, see for yourself." He shrugged. "Times change."
Bob looked. Stared. At an ebony block, draped with a clean white cloth and set with dishes of fruit and lavender taro cakes.
"Nice. No ambrosia?"
"Hmph. Cigar?" Rex produced a case from his jacket pocket. "I got them from a friend in Haiti." He held out the case, and Bob saw that his fingernails were long and sharp.
Bob's skin crawled. "No, thanks."
"Suit yourself." Rex sprawled in the crotch of a tree. "Let's get straight to business, then. You want to be a god? We'll swap."
"Bodies. Well, your body. My avatar. Nice-looking, isn't it?"
"Oh, no. No, no, no. I know this game. You heard the play, down there. The Eldest god always gets his sacrifice. Even if you are some kind of 'god', or genie, or demon, you'll have some way of tricking me out of ever getting my body back."
Rex smiled, showing all his very white teeth.
"Mr. Masterson, think about it! Once the trade is made, YOU'LL be the god. How could I possibly stop you from doing whatever you wanted?"
Bob tried to think about it. He really did. But all that came to mind was Aunt Tillie's face, alight with childlike wonder, admiring every flower and bird and tree. She'd think the tourist shows were magical. If, by some miracle, he could bring her here.
"You're certain, Mr. Masterson? I can't stop the change once it's begun."
If he were a god - Gods didn't have regrets, or guilt, or hangovers - did they?
"As you wish."
Bob closed his eyes, and felt...nothing. He opened them again. The slender shape of Rex had vanished. A hungry-eyed doppelganger of himself crouched where the god had been.
Bob staggered, dizzy. His new body adjusted its balance with perfect, mechanical grace. A tropical breeze caressed Bob's cheek. Instantly he knew: Wind, 5 mph, 77 degrees Fahrenheit, carrying pollen from 5 species of nearby plant - but it didn't feel warm, or gentle, or fragrant. The world was growing. He could see more of it every second: the hillside, the hotel courtyard, with the actors taking bows, the tourists applauding. Thirty seven people, twenty nine speaking English, two French, the rest dialects of...
"Stop it! Stop it!" cried Bob.
"Why, whatever is the matter, Mr. Masterson?" asked the thing with his face.
"Everything's out there...but nothing's real!" Even as he spoke, the relentless tally in his mind recorded the pitch and decibel level of his new voice. Bob grabbed half a pineapple off the table and buried his face in it, trying to suck out any trace of sweetness. His mind droned on: Contents: fructose, citric acid. Bob looked up, sticky juice dribbling down his chin.
"But it has no taste!" Bob wailed. "I don't understand. Help me!"
Ever so gently, Rex took the fruit from the new god's shaking hands. Then, he tore off a sweet mouthful and chewed, closing his eyes in ecstasy. Bob Masterson groaned, shuddered - and tore into smoky fragments.
Rex opened his eyes and watched impassively as the shredded avatar thinned and dissipated. He strolled to the table, picked up the smoldering cigar, and pressed it to the soft underside of what had been Bob Masterson's wrist. Pain shivered along every nerve.
The Eldest god smelled the burning, and smiled. "Ah!" he breathed. Such intense sensations! He considered. The human's ravaged spirit wouldn't be able to form even the beginnings of an avatar for at least a century. It would be far longer before he could hope to ask for his body back.
In the meantime, there was so much to try. Drinks with umbrellas in them. Motorcycles. Fire walking. Cliff diving.
He wondered how long this body would last.