The islands were fished from the bottom of the ocean by a god, and now, a million years later, they bobbed tiny and green and jewel-like on the foamy surface of an endless bright sea. It should have been beautiful.
“Home,” said the soldier who’d been sitting next to him since LA, looking over Ori’s shoulder and out the window. The banking plane angled them at a perfect view, and after hours of featureless blue ocean, the chain of islands seemed almost like a mirage, like Ori could blink or rub his eyes and they’d be gone again. Disappearing things, transient things, undependable things--Ori was used to all that.
Ori didn’t say anything, even though the soldier had been earnestly trying to start a conversation for the last half hour. He knew Ori was another islander, and it hadn’t taken him long to peg him as a fellow soldier too. The inevitable question--where were you stationed?
--was something Ori wanted to avoid at all costs. Leavenworth. The Midwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility. Before that, two tours in Iraq, but nobody cared about that, not when it ended in dishonorable discharge.
“I got a girlfriend in Honolulu,” the soldier said, and Ori almost felt bad. He was so damn nice
, the kind of guy who’d be lucky enough to get photographed petting a kitten or playing jump rope with a couple of Iraqi kids and wind up universally loved. He probably had a golden retriever waiting at home for him too. “Where you from?”
The soldier finally gave up after Ori’s curt nod and mutter of “Nanakuli.”
They landed in silence, and then the captain said, “Mahalo for flying with us,” and wished them aloha in his aggressively cheerful New Jersey accent as he turned off the FASTEN SEAT BELT sign for the last time.
The small crowd of people waiting in arrivals greeted the tourists with leis and the soldier with applause. A honey-colored girl with a hummingbird tattoo across her breasts fell into his arms and showered his face with squealing kisses, like some tropical version of V-J Day in Times Square
Ori swept his gaze aside, visualized his route to the baggage carousel, and drifted smoothly through the jubilation.
The moist island air curling into his lungs felt sweet and medicinal after the dryness of desert and mainland, not to mention the recycled pressurized air of his hours spent sitting in coach. He had the sudden desire to check how pale he’d gotten, buried like a grub in prison. A quick assessment of his forearms confirmed he was still darker than the tourists, at least. And he’d kept in shape. One of the only things that kept him sane, in fact: that he could rely on his body, on the ache of his straining muscles, even when his mind played tricks on him.
Like right now.
He bent to snatch his suitcase off the conveyor belt, and when he straightened again, Kalani stood on the other side of the carousel, wearing that worn ringer T-shirt that Ori had given him as a hand-me-down nearly five years ago, now--still so tight on his big body--and his dark hair shaved close to his scalp just like Ori remembered him. Haloed by light from the huge glass doors to the terrace garden. So bright, Ori had to shut his eyes.
You wanted him to welcome you home, and here he is.
Kalani, as strong and shining with life as ever. He’d reach out to Ori with a confident grin and fold him in his arms, one of those hugs that Ori wanted to believe were too long to be just between friends or even brothers. And then he’d headbutt him and clap him hard on the back and--
Ori opened his eyes to the same door, the same garden, the same warm, sparkling light...and a pair of overweight mainlanders taking a photo of their equally overweight kid.Because he’s not here.
Kalani would be shrunken after more than a year in a hospital bed, body eating its own muscle mass, and there’d be an ashy pallor lightening his dark brown skin. He wouldn’t be smiling, not as anything other than a reflex or a fluke, and maybe not even that. Kalani’s Aunt Anela hadn’t exactly been clear on his condition, except for one thing.
The doctors said he wasn’t coming back.
* * * *
Ori had a few relatives he could have stayed with in Honolulu, but he wasn’t feeling fit for human company these days. So he took the bus to a cheap motel in Kalihi where the tourists were scarce and the streetwalkers were just beginning to make their rounds.
The room was small, blank, sparsely furnished, but relatively clean, at least. The bed was a bare frame with a visible box spring and thin mattress, jammed halfway into some kind of alcove created by the unfortunate geometry of the tiny triangular bathroom. The window looked out onto a Dumpster in the parking lot, so he kept the blinds closed. It was a sad room, but enough like his cell in Leavenworth that it seemed...comfortable.
That realization, that connection, was sadder than the room itself.
He cleared enough space on the floor for a circuit of sit-ups, push-ups, jump squats, and lunges, enough to get himself panting and shiny with sweat; then he took a shower.
Still in his towel, he ate the take-out rice bowl he’d brought from the airport food court.
He sat blankly for a while, staring at the blank walls, tapping the disposable chopsticks against his knee, lacking any other physical purpose to fill up the hungry, empty blank seconds until the appointment at the hospital tomorrow.
He should have watched a TV show or some local news to find out what was happening on the island so he could have a hope of making small talk tomorrow. Instead, he brought out the pictures Anela had mailed him and leafed through them. Him and Kalani. Him and Kalani. Him and Kalani. Teenagers. Kids. Graduating high school. Kalani smiling in every single picture, even the one of them in his hospital room, Kalani’s arm in a cast. Him and Kalani. Him and Kalani.
It was like they didn’t even exist, if they weren’t together.
Ori never smiled as wide as Kalani, but he looked happy enough in the photos. He even looked more handsome standing next to Kalani--the sharper lines of his face softened, the stiff set of his shoulders relaxed. Just a little.
Kalani, pushing six feet, was a few inches taller than Ori and broader at the shoulders, that surfer’s body that came naturally to Hawaiian men. But Ori’s family was all Filipino and built lean. He’d been a skinny beanpole of a little boy until he filled out as a teenager and started getting serious about mixed martial arts. And there was one of Ori in a gi
holding up a trophy, Kalani pointing to the trophy with his left hand and making the shaka
sign with the other. And grinning like crazy, of course.
Ori covered Kalani’s smiling face with the pad of his thumb and held it there, trying to imagine the photo without him. Even after all these years--three months in training, give or take, two years in Iraq, one in therapy, and one in jail--Ori still
couldn’t wrap his head around it, but it was about time he learned. A few wet drops hit the stack of photos and rolled off their glossy curved surface. He tapped the stack on the top of his thigh to straighten them, order them
Then he threw them to the floor.
They spread out into some indiscernible pattern across the carpet. Birthday parties. Football practices. Showing off their surfboards. At prom, with two of Kalani’s cousins in their homemade dresses, Kalani with his bowtie undone. Kalani and him. Kalani and him. Kalani and him. Kalani and him.
He clapped his hand over his mouth, hard enough that his lips stung. Lowered himself to his knees, tenderly gathering the photos back into their neat little pile. He took three deep breaths, put the photos back in their battered envelope, and put the envelope in the bedside table drawer, tucking it safely under the Bible. Then he stripped to his boxers, climbed into the creaky little bed with its ill-fitting sheets, and turned off the light.
* * * *
A police siren wailed down the block.
Harsh light strobed through the cracks in the blinds.
“Shoot him in the leg, Sergeant, should I shoot him in the leg?”
The graceful parabolas of tracer rounds lighting up the Iraqi night, like school trips spent staring upward in wonder at the dome of the Bishop Museum Planetarium.
He had no idea where he was anymore.
Ori groaned and threw a forearm over his eyes. At least he hadn’t hurled himself off the bed and fumbled for his nonexistent M16. That
had been one hell of an ending for a one-night stand.
The siren faded. The slivers of light thinned. He blinked, but the silhouette by his shoulder remained. He rolled onto his side to face it.
“No,” he said.
He willed the phantom image of Kalani to break apart and melt back into the dream-fog, but the harder he tried, the more real Kalani got. The outline of his features channeled the last sliver of light and the planes of his cheekbones gleamed faint like a mica-paneled lantern. Oh Jesus, Ori could almost see his eyes.
“Wake up, Ori, you have to wake up.”
A soft moth-wing touch against the side of his head, just next to his eyebrow. Yes, he had to wake up. This dream was heaven and hell all at the same time, and he couldn’t stand it a second longer.
“No!” The sound filled every corner of the cell-like room, bouncing off the walls and knocking him back into reality. He surged for the light switch.
The bare bulb cast out an ear-drilling fluorescent buzz as it flickered reluctantly toward full strength. It strobed light and dark and light again, and for a fraction of a harsh-lit second he thought he saw Kalani clear as day, hand stretched out toward him, a pleading look in his widened eyes, mouth half opened, every faintly shining inch of his body asking a question.
Dark again. The lightbulb stayed steady, and Ori was alone.
His shrink had said...had said... Flashbacks. Yeah, flashbacks. Said it could be just like he was there again, all the same sounds and smells and everything, and sometimes he wouldn’t even know the difference between reality and memory, or even what triggered it. It had to be that.
But why Kalani? He should have seen dead bodies, felt imaginary aftermaths of explosions rumbling through his bones, flinched from the endless crack of machine gun fire. Maybe it didn’t make sense because nothing really made sense, not anymore--but at least it fit
He must not be fully awake yet. He’d gone to bed with Kalani’s face fresh in his mind from the photos, and his unconscious mind was just recycling the images. That was all.
He turned off the light and eased back under the sheet.
So why could he smell
him? That clean bright smell, like new leaves in a light rain, mixed with salt, of course, because Kalani surfed so much it was like he was permanently crusted with a thin sheen of evaporated saltwater.
It was so easy to pick up the dream--fantasy, flashback, whatever the hell it was--where he’d left off. He breathed deep. Imagined Kalani there with him, spooned behind him, Kalani’s broad, soft chest pressing against his back. The smell of new leaves and salt and coconut oil and a young man. Kalani would breathe into his ear, and they would wordlessly melt together, their lips touching with such easy sureness, as easily as they used to come together wrestling or helping each other through steep climbs. He ran his hand under the waistband of his boxers and wasn’t surprised that he was hard as iron and almost as hot, like he could burn a hole through the fucking sheets with his cock. He should have been ashamed to do this, knowing where Kalani really
was, but he told himself to save the shame for the morning as he worked himself with short, angry jerks.
He just wanted to get this over
with. This horrible fucking night.
His strokes seemed to slow without his permission; he couldn’t bring himself to wish away the sensation of a hand cupped around his own, guiding him, setting a gentle but insistent pace. Kalani’s mouth and nose tucked against his neck, and oh God he never wanted this to end, hanging here on the verge of the best dream in the world with the man he’d loved all his life, but then his release exploded low in his spine and sent his cum spilling onto the rumpled sheet.
When he stopped shivering from pleasure and self-loathing, he got up, felt his way to the towel rack, threw a towel over the wet spot, and did his best to go back to sleep.
When that didn’t work, he turned on the television and switched between an incomprehensible Korean costume drama and a cooking gadget infomercial until his vision blurred and he fell into a mercifully dreamless stupor.
Heidi Belleau & Violetta Vane