by L.A. Hawbaker
An alien thought slips in like the armored, thousand-legged Scolopendra who curl beneath coconuts. The centipedes are eight inches long and have pointed red limbs like teeth and bite and can only be killed with a kitchen knife. The thought is like that. Unwanted. Invasive.
Something horrible will happen here.
It is a stranger’s thought, belonging to me because I’m not from the island. I’m not kanaka. I’m malihini. I left my home because the buildings there were stern and straight and gray, the winter long, the sirens loud, the people dull. When an island boarding school posted an open position at one of their dormitories, Dole House, I interviewed, accepted, and maxed out my credit card on the plane ticket.
A dorm parent—not a well-suited job for me. I’m an irresponsible person and don’t care for kids. But I was bored with home, and the island rent would be free and the land beautiful. I wanted beauty in my life. I wanted the loveliness of soft beaches like skin, fallen ripe mangos, pink cochinas, and the glisten of pearly sea turtle shells beneath translucent waves.
I boarded the plane with a patched backpack slung across my shoulder and two pairs of sneakers.
It’s been eight months since my feet first touched down on the oxidized red aa expanse outside the airport. That part of the island is dry land, chunky land, people’d by angry mountain goats and free-foraging pigs. Ashy volcanic fumes smog the air outside the airport. Not the palm tree’d paradise I’d imagined, a place that’s supposed to smell of hibiscus and the pulpy milk beneath hairy, husked coconuts.
Even so, my friends back home envy that I live here. They coo about the hot surfers I’m surely dating, the mai tais and sunsets and dolphins. They say I don’t appreciate this place. They say living here is wasted on me. They don’t understand. Out here in the middle of the Pacific there are no people. The islands are skipped stones encircled by a universe of sea. This opaque solitude is more ominous than the city I left and the postcards I had imagined. A faint penumbra against the sky barely conceals the expansive rolls of hill and lava, of distant volcanoes and the giant hunch of sempiternal mountains. You can feel the land’s presence at night, the watchful and judging eyes of Mauna Kea. The sea beyond is an omniscient titan. Even with the waning moon, night here blinds me.
Something horrible will happen here. The thought implanted itself at the airport. It hasn’t left. It curls near the base of my skull and waits.
Who knows what’s out there, lurking, silent?
"What happened to the ti?" my boss, Kumu—Faculty, Hawi—huffs. We stand together in the dorm garden. She shakes the dead fronds, withered in soil still wet from a warm afternoon rain. The ti leaves are supposed to be as thick and rubbery as elephant ears. These have shriveled, desiccated, their skin hanging from the bones of their stems like strips of linen.
She tsks at me the way older women are wont to toward younger women. “You should’ve taken care of them,” she adds, meaning the ti plants, as if I don’t know.
"Sorry.” I bristle at the look on her face and dig my crossed arms into my chest. “Didn't notice." This is a lie. Over the last several months, I had noticed the ti shrubs browning, drying, dying. I just knew Kumu cared—so I didn’t. After 30 years at Dole, last summer Kumu relocated to Cooper Hall, the glassy new dorm on campus. She had no say in the hiring of me—which rose her gorge, I think—so she still treks up the hill to check on the ten girls she left behind. Dole House is scheduled for demolition at semester's end anyway. The gardens and ti plants around the dorm’s perimeter will be buried in rubble come June. Why bother?
Over Kumu’s shoulder, the Kohala Hills peel out in rolls of green. The air is heady with pollen, with floral. Dole House nestles into a nook between the hummocks. Kohala arches upward like whales’ backs, hugged by forests of wind-bent koa trees that whisper and shush. Wet, dark eyes watch from the canopies.
Kumu is one of only two kanaka who teach at the school. Sarah Ann—Faculty, Waimea—is the other. Sarah Ann has a hot cocoa machine in her office and brings fresh-fished tuna to the break room and married a Frenchmen and doesn’t insist on everyone calling her by the title’d Kumu, even though she’s a teacher, too. In the midst of my battle of wills with Kumu, I asked for advice from Sarah Ann. I asked why, when it comes to the Dole House ti shrubs, Kumu is such a bitch—though I didn’t say bitch, of course. Just thought it. The word perched on my chin and pushing to scream out. But I didn’t say it. I didn’t. I don’t think I did.
Sarah Ann explained, because it is the unfortunate duty of kanaka to explain things to malihini, “Leis, medicine, sports. Ti is everywhere.” She meant ti is woven into leis, mushed into herbal decongestants, a good luck charm to be waved at sports games. “Kumu takes traditional things seriously.”
I wish Sarah Ann or any other faculty member could be the dorm administrator instead. Even the school’s council of nameless, interchangeable old white men, who club and grill on the Chancellor’s balcony, who have never spoken to nor looked at me, who wear aloha shirts instead of ties but would still be more at home in a board room. Even they would surely be better dorm bosses than Kumu.
I kick out my slipper at one of the dead shrubs. I disturb an orange-winged butterfly that roosts there. It flitters, fearful of me, and settles into an undulating calm on Kumu’s bright red shoulder. Her midi dress would've looked garish on the mainland, but here she is but another hibiscus in a garden of brilliant island flowers.
I flick away the pollen that dusts my black jeans, my gray tank advertising a local brewery from back home.
“This would never have happened last year,” Kumu sighs. Last year, when I wasn’t here. "It's these cane.” Kumu tugs at a weed that towers over the ti shrubs. She should’ve been a botanist, the way she gifts cuttings and seedlings to the rest of the campus like the airport gives away kukui nuts and leis to tourists. Kumu rolls the leaf hair into a ball, assessing the verdure, then chucks it at a trash bin on the lanai. “It’s choking the real ti.”
I kick the shrub again. It crumbles underfoot. "It won't matter in a couple months,” I tell Kumu. “They're bulldozing everything."
“Yes.” Her nostrils flare in a way that reminds me of the horses at the paniolo ranch across town. “There will be many changes next year.”
She’ll fire me. I’ve known it for months, but this is the closest she’s ever come to saying it aloud.
After Kumu leaves, the sun cuts in a warm spear across the horizon and flashes green. With it, the evening study hours breathe their last breath and die.
My television is on, tuned to the news. The governor releases a statement amidst the conflict on Mauna Kea, the newscaster reports. She wears a red dress and has a monochromatic news voice. She pronounces “Mauna Kea” in the island way. The vowels stick out, clamshells amongst black pebbles. The T.V. screen shows video clips: canvassed trucks climb a dusty road and bust through tents and crowds. Protesters bear signs too small to read.
I try to watch the newscast, but my thoughts churn with Kumu’s threat, my impending firing. Also, Sora Nakamora—Senior, Tokyo—is here, a student invading my space and distracting my thoughts. She showed up while I was eating dinner and hasn’t left. Like most of the girls, Sora skips meals. She’s small and her malnourishment shows, blood vessels through translucent skin. She’s porcelain, prone to crack and shard at the slightest mishandling. More than any of Dole’s dormers, Sora uses my apartment as an extension of her own room.
Sora flops backward onto my couch. "It isn't fair! I hate Yua! She's so selfish!" She picks at a dried gum blob that’s fused with the cloth, then guffaws at my apartment’s crackled, popcorn ceiling.
“Yua’s the worst,” she says.
"I don't understand what she did." I’m mentally combing job boards. Maybe I should just move back to the mainland…
My phone pings, letting me know it’s only twenty minutes until lights out, when Mrs. Higgins—Faculty, Portland, and the only other dorm parent at Dole—will go on duty. I’ll be done for the night.
The news segment switches to an interview, a university professor. Mauna Kea is much more than a mountain. It’s a revered and sacred sanctuary—
I stare out my window, which frames the distant shoulder of Mauna Kea, a hazy purple giant. Inexplicable snow like milk spills across her pinnacle. Protests ring down the mountainside. Another observatory is about to burrow into her. Scientists from Keck and Gemini and Subaru and JCMT and NASA have carved out their parcel of land, planted their research facilities and telescopes deep into the summit’s crown. Bulldozers scrape tracks and pile rocks in dusty clouds. The protesters’ rage simmers, a caustic energy ready to explode like the magma chamber of Mauna Kea’s belly.
The red-dressed newscaster comes back to finish off the segment. The number of observatory opponents grows, as does anxiety. Later tonight, how the state is trying to squash—
“There are twelve Japanese girls at this school,” Sora interrupts. “And only two boys. Haruki and Kosho…”
I strain to hear the newscast over Sora and give up. I click off the T.V. It’s pointless. I still don’t understand what Sora is upset about.
“…Yua was already dating Haruki. She had a perfectly good boyfriend. Now she’s ruined it for the rest of us."
"I’m sorry. That isn’t fair,” I say, though I’m not sorry and don’t know why it’s not fair. I just know that’s what Sora wants to hear and if I placate her, maybe she’ll leave.
The new dorm, Cooper Hall, houses the school’s international population, down the hill with Kumu. Sora is the only one finishing up her senior year at Dole. She’s our lone Japanese speaker and alienated. I pity her. I empathize with her. But it’s hard to feign interest in teenage entanglements. They’re petty, especially this close to getting off the clock.
Her nose leaks a little. The philtrum above her upper lip glistens. She drives eyes at me like a shelter puppy behind a chain link cage. "Haruki and Kosho are best friends. She breaks up with Haruki to date Kosho. Now there are no boys left. Kosho isn't single anymore, and Haruki won't date anyone because he is broken-hearted!" She smacks her fists on the couch. The fracture between her thumb and curled pointer finger looks like closed lids. Her hands have become eyes. Her knuckles are a line of hardened chalazions.
This is my apartment, I fume, though it isn’t really. It’s Kumu’s, and next year I’ll be tossed from it anyway. My heart tightens in the cavity of my chest, the pressure spitting little crackles of anger and frustration through my blood. I want Sora to leave, this crackly fragile girl… I want her to blow off down the hall and wither with her teenage crushes in her own dorm room on her own bed like a fallen autumn leaf.
Darkness presses against the window. The moon hangs in a sliver on a precipice, ready to drop into the humpbacked hills. The last phase before black. Mauna Kea’s astronomers put an island-wide moratorium on streetlamps, protecting their astronomical views of the Milky Way from light pollution, darkening island nights.
They call the wind ka makani here. It silences the cicadas, replacing them with a grave agony of branches and leaves. The twisty koa trees bend forever leeward. I imagine their gnarled hardwood morphing into the hunch of a fisherman, his arthritic fingers cradling a conch as he blows.
Upstairs, a soft thud sounds from a girl’s room. At least one is still awake. It’s after lights out, and I’m off duty. It’s Higgins’ problem.
If lucky, I’ll scrape together five hours of sleep before the girls’ blow dryers wake me in the morning. My insomnia curls alongside that arthropodous thought—something horrible will happen here. The thought makes sleep impossible. It feels demonic, sometimes, a black smudge behind my eyes that expands and contracts as the hours tick.
I have a Gabapentin prescription and keep liquid Nyquil on hand. It tastes like cleaner dumped with sugar, but I choke the swill down because it’s a weapon against insomnia. After months of overuse, I worry about liver and kidney damage and wonder if I should wean myself off it.
I return to the kitchen and reach behind my pots and pans, where I hide a bottle of Jack Daniels. The amber liquor sloshes against the sides. I dollop a few shots into a ceramic coffee mug shaped like a pineapple, even though the islands’ industrial pineapple fields have died, replaced by macadamia nuts and coffee and hotels.
Upstairs, the floorboards squeal. My ears pinch. Why are the girls awake this late? I grab my phone and shoot Higgins a text.
Girls up and loud.
I sleep on the floor sometimes, preferring a hard surface. Kumu’s saggy, decades-old mattress feels like sinking into a layer of marshmallows. The iron bar down the center of the bed cuts through my spine.
I plug my laptop into an outlet with a hot aperture burnt to copper. It sparks. Too many volts. An electrical fire hazard. But it’s the only unused outlet in the apartment and everything at Dole House is a little bit broken. I open my browser and cue up the “Islands” episode of Planet Earth II. A nature documentary to soothe sleep.
I arrange my blankets and a pouf pillow next to the space heater. We’re over 2,000 feet above sea level. It may be 70 degrees down at the beach for the tourists, but up here in the cheap zones, we locals must contend with nighttime temperature drops of 45 or 50 in buildings with no insulation or heating. I miss my city apartment’s old steam radiators, the metallic ping like a music box crank sounding the emittance of heat.
Dole House is so exposed to the elements, the floorboards have warped and trails of rainwater trickle down the slanty halls when it storms.
You’ll be rubble come June, I think. Before Kumu fires me, I should save a piece of the building, a splintered fracture of wood, a chunk of cement… something to keep as a sweetly vengeful memento.
My window heaves, a whistle in its cracks. Air bellows around the building’s cavities. It sounds like the thready base of a conch howl. Whisky in hand, I inspect the pane seams. Do I have duct tape? Maybe I can seal the wind out.
I stare out the window at the emptiness and see … something. There, distant and yellow. A blinking Cheshire eye. It hovers over a sickly blanket of thorny gorse, then disappears. The land is infested with gorse, another of Kumu’s abominated invasive species. Girls track the thorns into our halls, where they pierce the rubber soles of my slippers. Outside, the gorse looks like a cancerous lesion against the land.
I squint. There! The pinprick reappears. It floats behind the trees farther up the hillcrest. A pale gold light followed by another. They remind me of fireflies, flickering in and out behind the silhouette of trees. But they can’t be fireflies, because the cockroaches and centipedes, the carnivorous caterpillars, huntsman spiders, and dobsonflies—all blew across the Pacific and colonized these black lava lands. Not fireflies. Those aren’t fireflies. I press my nose to the glass and try to see through my own reflection.
Upstairs, a door slams. A blip of a voice. Gulped air like a floundered fish. I imagine girls gathered around a laptop, an illegally downloaded movie lighting their faces blue. Hopscotching from room to room like pre-pubescents at a first sleepover.
I punch another text to Higgins. You hearing this? Remind them lights out means SLEEP.
This time I wait for Higgins’ response. I stare at the ceiling. Where are her footsteps? How could she sleep through this clamor?
I scoop two loose keys from my counter—one for the mini van, the other the dorm’s master key—and slam into the hall.
Mine is the only apartment on the first floor. The laundry room and a student lounge take up the rest of the ground level. Fifty kids used to bustle through Dole’s corridors. Now most of the building is empty. Shapeless pockets of abandonment beyond every door. Rooms bare as prison cells. I storm past old couches not yet trashed, some draped in white sheets or defaced in permanent marker. REMOVE, the marker commands, yet no one has. The railings along the pine slatted stairs wobble.
I fume upward, slap around the upstairs corner, ready to raise hell and bark the girls into bed.
“It is one-o-clock in the morning—!”
I’m met by a cleft of silence. The fluorescent lights buzz at their lowest setting. One flickers. The quiet feels like a white breath, a pause between things, as though I just missed seeing someone pass through a door. A presence rings the air at the end of the hall like the condensation left behind from a cold glass of water.
The girls must’ve heard me coming and fled to their rooms.
A clipboard and pencil hang at the top of the stairs. Though it would make nightly dorm checks much easier, Kumu forbids apps. Checks are done on carbon copy paper instead. I scan the dates and times. Tonight, no boxes have been ticked. No checks done.
Higgins, I fume. No wonder the girls are let loose. Higgins isn’t supervising. She’s a part-timer and often distracted by her other job, a side hustle with her husband in Hilo. They buy cheap properties in the high-risk lava zones and sell to mainland and off-site landlords, who in turn pay her to serve as a "local hostess" on AirBnB.
I pound her apartment door.
No answer. Probably asleep.
I pound louder.
Again, nothing. I shove the master key into Higgins’ door and twist. Inside, I recoil from a pungent funk, musky with a bitter underscent. It smells insidious and bestial. Higgins is a notorious slob. Her stove light casts a murky pall over the bric-a-brac and untidy shapes in her living room.
“Higgins?” The pills and whiskey and Nyquil blot my vision in a ripple like a mirage. To the left, the bedroom door is wide, the bed empty and lamp left on. Twisted sheets spill to a floor caked in clothes.
Her window curtain catches the extended branch of a potted tree cutting. The plant is bulbous, thick with muscle. Perhaps an overgrown red alder? It stands nearly five or six feet high. The moon catches the greasy sheen of a leaf pressed to the pane. The sided curtain forms a triangle of black sky behind it.
Nobody’s here, I seethe. Higgins forgot about duty tonight. She’s probably in Hilo. That means I’ll have to do the checks.
I half-hear the minivan key drop just inside Higgins’ threshold as I position the pencil over the clipboard. I scribble out the box next to Sora’s name, insert the master key and inch the door to 2B open. The light that spills through the door crack gives the barest illumination, catching a few highlights: the wrinkles of Sora’s duvet where one hand rests, fingers curled upward. Her black hair falls lank across her face and pools like a lake in the crater of her white pillow.
“Checks.” I squint at her. Sora is stock-still, inanimate as a crumpled marionette. The room silent.
Something gives me pause. Unglimmering light reflects against her eyes . Very faint, but the fluorescence catches a hint of undisturbed moisture, the pale crest of her cornea. Her eyes are open. She lies motionless, playing asleep the way an opposum tricks death.
I sigh. “Sora. It’s late.”
She says nothing. The ka makani heaves her walls in and out like something sentient. The mustiness, the same as Higgins’ apartment, is stronger in Sora’s room. More pungent. A draped odor like rain rot.
I strain for sounds. Human sounds. Girls’ whispering or giggling in the bathroom. Footsteps creaking sneakily between rooms. There’s nothing. Just that conch whistle, closer now. Outside, tree branches crack like bones on rock.
Sora’s eyes are definitely open.
My arms shudder with horripilation. A bolt of fear—something primordial, a siren that splits through me—warns of danger near and a need to run. The centipede walks up and down my spine, freed at last. Something horrible… Dry breath jitters and thoughts trip in circles around my head.
Probably the insomnia. Probably the sleep aides. I read somewhere they cause hallucinations. I’m an idiot, mixing meds with alcohol.
Nerves aprickle, I step backward.
Sora’s door clicks shut, and it feels very final.
I face the nine more doors with nine more girls, a trance of repetition. It’s so quiet, and yet … that presence hangs in the air. Something about to curl into view. A distant white wake that foreshadows the enormity of the wave as it rushes closer to shore. Just outside the muddy fluorescence at the hall’s farthest corner, the green light gives way to a circle of dull gold. It brightens. Larger. Closer. Approaching. Drumbeat decibels thump like the deep shift of tectonic plates.
Strangers are here. In the building. Around the corner.
I bolt in a blind panic.
Down the stairs, I have seconds to consider the front door, the lanai outside, the expansive rolls of empty hills and koa woods.
I’m alone up here. The campus too far. I won’t make it.
I drop the clipboard at the stair’s foot. It clatters, sounding my location. I rush back to the sanctuary of my apartment. Slam the door shut. Lock it. Flip my lights to dark. Fling the master key at the counter. It skitters across the formica.
Maybe the intruders won’t find me.
Maybe they’ll leave.
I dive to my makeshift bed and dig into the blankets, my head buried. Against the wall, my laptop still plays. I forgot to pause Planet Earth. On screen, a gray iguana surveys a desert of pebbled beach sand. Snake tangles lurk beneath the rocks nearby. They slither in sly S’s, closer and closer. The beach looks like pahoehoe, the hard black lava desert outside Kona. There, white rock graffiti and goats line in a color guard along the Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway.
A hollow unearthly bellow fills my room, blows at and through the door. The hairy endings of auditory nerves shudder. I dig white earbud nodules deep in and heap another blanket over my head. I stare at the screen against the wall.
—A snake’s eyes aren’t very good. David Attenborough voice fills my brain. But they can detect movement. So, if the hatchling keeps its nerves, it may just avoid detection—
A spicy, ancient smell of growth and decay, of fathomless time, descends. The room temperature interlaces back and forth between fire-warmth and a deathly chasm of cold. A tsunami of sepulchral bodies. Feet hover in a nebulous haze inches above the floor. They drift. Drums beat. Their bare toes scratch a path against my rough spun carpet.
My exposed crown hair goes static, as if fingertips brush the follicles as they pass. Please, I think. Please just let me sleep. I lay prostrate, my head turned toward the wall. Accidental deference.
The iguana sprints across my screen and Attenborough’s voice is unintelligible, like whale calls in water. The screen and smidge of cheap drywall just behind it are all I can see through the window of blankets that frame my face.
If I refocus … dare to stare not at the screen, but through it … not the film itself, but the reflection … torchlight.
I shut my eyes. It is the act that saves me.
Attenborough’s voice blocks the whirlpool of ghostly sounds. The torches retreat like the shushing white wake of a wave pulled back to sea. Antihistamines rush through my blood. It feels at odds with the tactile sense of somethings moving past close by, my eyes close and my arms go to lead and sleep begins to take me.
My phone pings.
Outside, myna birds chitter. A chalky sun wafer slices through the window onto my face. Dust particles glint overhead. Blankets tangle my arms and legs. I sweat beneath them, skin slick from too many layers baked beneath sunlight.
What time is it? I grab my phone. 8:30! It screams back, alongside two unread texts from Kumu.
Where are you? Sent at 7:45.
It’s first period. Van trouble? Girls tardy! Sent just a minute ago.
Why didn’t the girls wake me up? My usual alarm, the choir of upstairs hairdryers, is silent. Why hasn’t Sora pounded my door? You gotta drive us!… I need to ask Ms. Whoever about my grade… We’re late…
Keys? Where are they? Thoughts skitter around my brain. Last night is knife edged, cut in quick bursts of hallucinogenic nightmare and—now in the lucid light of morning—Nyquil-infused oneiros. I remember, vaguely, dropping the minivan key in Higgins’ apartment.
A shimmery haze stills the upstairs hall, chapel-like. The doors are closed and quiet, the same as last night. Morning scrubs the air, keen and clear and ominous with inactivity. It’s impossible for all ten girls to have overslept. A macabre quiver ripples across my shoulders. With the master key, I open Higgins’ door. My sneaker nudges the minivan key, wedged between the doorstop and the curled edge of her foot-trodden carpet. I look up and into the room.
Higgins is home.
She leans against the window. All her weight collapses, pushes into it. She’s lopsided and loose. Wrong. Her forehead presses the glass, smudging it oily in the dawn light. Her skin distorts, puffy and lax. Muscles hang from her bones, greased as a pig carcass.
Her shape. I’d mistook it for a red alder plant last night. Branches akimbo. A pushed aside curtain. But it was a pareidolia. The branches are her hand. Her fingers the stems. Her eyes bug out, an expression frozen forever in some last look out the window that took Higgins with it. The moisture is dried up from hours unblinked, leaving a milky film.
Sora’s eyes were open, too.
I pivot to the hall. Ten silent doors stare back. A blackened buzz clouds my periphery. A fishing hook pulls me up and out of my skull, and I hover there like a spirit.
I’m outside on the lanai, phone in hand. The numbers nine and one dialed, and a finger hovers over the last digit to press. I don’t remember walking downstairs. Or outside. Or taking my phone. The air is dewy warm, but I shiver. Shock, I think. There’s a gulfy hole in my brain, like someone scooped me out of my head. It’s a dark void filled with an existential emptiness that maws, beast-ish. This is shock. But even that thought feels like it belongs to someone else.
Kohala peels out before me, an oasis of green at a windy precipice. The view here is truly beautiful, I realize for the first time. The desolate land of lava beyond. Finches and cicadas twitter, choral morning sounds. An open blue eye of sky.
A dry ti leaf crackles against my sneaker. In the garden, the shrubs curl beneath the shadow of invasive weeds. They remind me of my neophytic ignorance, of Kumu’s warning, of the rules I couldn’t abide by because they belonged to a culture that I did not.
Mauna Kea blocks the horizon, a prostrate giant endowed with an infinite stock of time. The observatories at her summit wink, mocking and metallic silver. If Mauna Kea wished to shrug those observatories off her shoulders, she would. She’s a volcano, bellied by a tumultuous fire. She is peopled by billions of years of history. She is a sentient god with torch-baring sentinels who look down upon the infestation that swarm her foot and claim her as their own.
I feel her judging eye, her rejection of my presence here. With one breath, she’d bid we trespassers gone from her shores.
Nightmarchers are a line of torch-bearing warrior ghosts who patrol and safeguard Hawaii’s sacred places during crescent moons. They announce their presence with drums and the bellow of a conch shell. This forewarns the living in their path: show humility and deference by lying in a prostrate position. Avoid eye contact until the marchers have passed. If the living do not abide by these rules, the warriors will take them, leaving the body a husk while the soul joins them in the eternal march.
The march is a line that cannot be broken. It circumnavigates a home only if there are protective ti shrubs planted at the four corners.