C H A P T E R 1
SUNDAY, APRIL 26
They’ve been getting bigger all evening. This one might be too big, but I can’t be choosy. Dad’s waiting on the bluff, arms crossed. I lie down on my board and drive my arms through the water.
No sweat. Just relax.
“Geev’um, Lei!” shouts Tami.
The wave is coming like a train. I paddle fiercely, though the life vest rubs my upper arms raw.
The wave pulls on me, hungry. For once my timing is perfect.
The wave surges under me; I catch the break and spring up on the board.
Two seniors on their boards shoot me the stink-eye as I wobble past. One snickers. The life jacket feels like a straitjacket. I nearly tumble backward off the board but catch my balance.
I kick my back leg to the left and angle the board to the right, feeling a rush of speed. I dart between a keiki bodyboarder and a lazy green sea turtle, finally sinking back into the water as the wave dies. I turn to salute Tami, who’s bobbing out past the first breaks. Her honey- blond corkscrews bounce even when wet.
“Next week!” I shout.
“Nice one, girl!” she yells back. “Aloha! Enjoy the north shore!”
All next week I’ll be in Honolulu, on the island of O`ahu, with Dad, and he’s promised me some time at Banzai Pipeline on the north shore. Just to watch. Only the pros tackle those waves.
I sweep my long, soaked hair out of my face as I clamber over the rocks tumbling in the breaking surf. O`ahu. Anxiety flutters through me. I’m surfing to forget the EKGs and MRIs and OMGs that I’ll be facing.
You just nailed one of your biggest waves ever. Focus on that.
I trudge up the steep stairs to the road, using both arms to carry my longboard. Dad takes it from me as I reach the car, offers me a high five. “Way to end the day.”
I smile and clap his waiting hand. “Thanks.”
He leans against our purple car, a MAY THE FOREST BE WITH YOU bumper sticker broadcasting his dorkiness. We have the only hybrid vehicle in a long row of big trucks at the end of the cliff. Come to think of it, I can’t remember the last hybrid car I saw in Hilo— or on the entire Big Island of Hawai`i.
“That was totally gnarly, but I’m still annoyed you made me wait so long.” He passes me a towel after he places the board on the car’s rack.
“Dad,” I groan. A couple of Hawaiian girls from school walk past us on the steep road, giving me a hard look. I turn away as I slip out of my vest. “No one asked you to babysit me. And ‘gnarly’? Wrong century.”
Dad runs a hand through his Malibu-certified sandy hair. His grin widens. “Whoa. Sorry, dudette.” He intentionally raised his voice so those girls would hear, didn’t he? Drives me nuts.
“You more relaxed?” He ties the board down for me.
No. But I nod. A light drizzle begins to fall. Rain on the Hilo side of the Big Island is as abundant as sun in a desert. It’s like background noise. I keep drying off as I sit in the car. I eye the steering wheel. I’m sixteen, finally old enough to drive. The doctor hasn’t signed off on me getting my license yet, but I manage to get behind the wheel now and then.
“Can I drive?”
“Haven’t you done enough damage to Grandpa’s clutch?”
I toss my towel in the back and look in the mirror. Long black hair. Oval face with high cheeks. My eyes are hazel, my complexion is . . . too light. I’m almost as white as Dad. Pretty, I guess, if you listen to my parents. If I ever get a boyfriend, maybe I’ll believe it.
Dad performs one of his infamous fifty- point turns to get us facing the right direction on the narrow road. I glance down from the cliff at the strip of rocky beach. The waves are getting big. Tami better wrap it up. We pull away and the hard-eyed local girls study our car as we roll past. I know one of them—Aleka. She’s always staring me down. I sink into my seat.
“You were good out there,” Dad says. “It’s coming to you pretty naturally now.”
“Dad, being a haole around here pretty much sucks—especially a haole with head issues—”
“You’re hapa,” he corrects me, feigning shock. “You’re only half white, hon. I’m the only haole here. Your mother and grandparents count for something, don’t they?”
Mom and her parents are pure Hawaiian. That’s beside the point. I was born and raised in the Bay Area of California. Mom always wanted to return to her home. Three years ago she and Dad became professors of ecology at the University of Hawai`i at Hilo, and here we are.
“But . . . I can’t go in the water without you spying . . . or without a vest. Goofing off around me in front of this crowd only makes it worse.”
“Sorry, hon. I’ll stop doing that— on purpose. Howzit, anyway? Looks like you fit in just fine.”
I force a smile. “Things are okay.”
“Hey, wanna hit Wilson’s for some ice shave?” We’re at the stop sign leading onto the highway. Our house is to the right, a few miles north of Hilo.
We turn left, toward Hilo.
“Don’t let this ruin your appetite for dinner,” Dad warns as he turns onto the bay front. The clouds and rain have retreated, the sun is getting ready to set over Mauna Kea, and the sky is full of colors that can only be . . . Hawaiian. The “gorgeous colors,” Mom calls them.
“No problem. I’m starving.”
Wilson’s-by-the-Bay is like most Hilo joints—a rundown hole- in- the- wall. We get in line and wait. I’m reminded of a bumper sticker that I’ve seen a lot since moving here: RELAX, THIS AIN’T THE MAINLAND. Life moves at its own pace in Hilo. I can’t even see an epilepsy specialist without taking a weeklong trip to another island.
I fiddle absently with the medical bracelet shackled to my wrist.
“Wanna talk about it?” Dad asks.
Not really. Or maybe I do. I shrug. “Just nervous.”
Wilson’s is famous for snow cones—called ice shaves in Hilo. Three bucks gets me one the size of a football, with a vanilla-ice-cream core, drowned in as much flavored syrup as I want, covered in condensed cream, and capped with li hing mui powder. Dad gets cherry, piña colada, liliko`i, and bubble gum.
“Bubble gum?” I ask.
Like some sort of corn- syrup vampire, Dad’s too busy sucking the life force out of his prey to answer.
As we walk back to the car, a siren pierces the calm. Dad and I share a look of confusion. He says, “Tsunami warning?”
I raise my eyebrows. A gigantic wave on the way? I’ve done plenty of drills at school, but this would be my first town-wide alert. The ballooning swells at Honoli`i suddenly make sense. “Maybe we’re finally in for some real excitement.”
“Careful what you wish for,” Dad says.
I smile guiltily. Small tsunamis damage the coast every few years. Big ones are rare, but they pack a wallop. An entire class of schoolchildren was once swept out to sea, up near the town of Laupahoehoe, by a wave reported to be fifty feet high.
And Hilo’s shoreline is full of big parks and grassy fields instead of restaurants and shops and hotels because of a thirtyfooter that pulverized the coast in the 1960s.
“Let’s go,” says Dad. “Don’t want to get stuck in town if this is more than a drill.”
We zip out of the lot. The coastal belt road is jammed. As we creep along, I finish my ice shave and surf the Web on my phone. “I don’t think it’s a drill.”
“There was a meteor strike in the northern Pacific.”
“A couple of hours ago. Not very big. It says they usually burn up in the atmosphere before making impact.”
“I should warn Tami. Can we stop back at Honoli`i?”
“No,” Dad says. “They can hear the sirens from the beach. She’ll be fine. Where was the meteor?”
“About eight hundred miles south of Alaska.”
“Oh.” Dad furrows his brow, booting the calculator in his brain. “That’s far. Should take a couple hours to ripple out to us. Hopefully nothing more than a good surge by then.”
The car horns are louder than the distant sirens. Traffic lets up once the northbound highway broadens into two lanes. I text Tami:
Big one on the way. Get outta the water.
She hits me back:
Thanks for warning. Plenny good if I surfed with my phone. Wanna hit the swell?
My thumbs fire back:
I wish. Ur nuts.
The sun has set behind Mauna Kea. The purple silhouettes of the volcano’s distant observatories jut above the sacred mountain like a crown. Clouds paint the bruised sky with broad strokes of orange.
We pull up to the house in the shadowy dark of thick rain forest and falling night. Mom and Kai are just getting out of their car.
Dad and I get out and Mom says, “What happened? You were supposed to be home an hour ago. We’re starving.”
Dad grins. “Yes, we’re safe. Thanks for asking. The tsunami—”
“Don’t even try that.” She plucks a plumeria flower off the tree branch near the lanai steps and guides its stem into her long, velvety black hair, just above the ear. She does this every night. I’m not sure she’s aware that she does it. “You were supposed to be back long before the sirens even started.”
Dad unties my board from the top of the car. “Uh, Leilani wouldn’t get out of the water.”
I shoot him a glare.
“You went to Wilson’s, didn’t you?” Mom sees the crumpled paper cones in the car. Her voice is stern, but when she turns toward me she’s holding another plumeria blossom, and she gently tucks it into my hair with a smile. She has beautiful dark eyes and Polynesian features. I wish I looked like her.
“Leilani,” she whispers. She always says my name when she puts flowers in my hair. My name means “Flower of Heaven.”
“That too.” Dad is sheepish. “I bought you one, but it melted.”
“My dad’s coming tonight,” Mom says.
“Grandpa’s spending the night?”
“He’s going to help me get Kai to school and the gym while you’re gone. And he wants to see you off. So, let’s eat. Airport at six a.m. tomorrow. And guess what: your son landed his first back handspring tonight, no spot.”
“Yeah, Dad.” My little brother, Kai, jumps up the steps. “Nice,” I say. “You’ll be taking home trophies a solid year before I did.” Kai’s seven, but he’s pretty advanced at everything he tries.
“Yeah, all- around trophies, not just for the girlie uneven bars.”
I poke his side; such a tease.
“Keep practicing.” Dad runs his fingers through Kai’s hair. “And don’t make fun— the bars are difficult to nail, and Lei was the best.”
Before I was dropped from the gymnastics team for being an epileptic—the chance of my having a stress-related fit during a competition was too great, the insurance company said. Still, I’m happy for Kai.
He gives me a big grin. “I rode my biggest wave yet,” I tell him. “And—did you hear about the meteor?”
He nods. “Food!”
“Who are you? King Kamehameha?” Mom unlocks the front door and swings it open. “Lei—are your bags packed?
You ready to go?”
“Check,” I say.
Dad starts to sing “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” He has a pretty good voice. Maybe if he chose to sing somebody other than John Denver, I’d meet him halfway with a compliment.
Kai chimes in, belting the lyrics to compete with the coqui frogs chirping in the darkness. “Don’t know when I’ll be back again.”
“Didn’t John Denver die in an airplane crash?” I ask as I climb the stairs.
“Leilani!” my parents gasp.
“I’m just sayin’, maybe it’s not the best song for before a flight.”
“Inside,” Mom says. “Come on. Mosquitoes.”
The living- room walls are draped with volleyball pennants from both UH Hilo and UH Manoa. Posters of Merrie Monarch Festival hula dancers in every pose surround the room. My dusty gymnastics trophies crowd a bookshelf around a photo of a twelve- year- old me twisting on the bars at a Bay Area meet, my black hair in a tight bun and my turquoise leotard shrink- wrapped to my tall, wiry frame.
Now I lean back on the couch, stretching my legs. My Hawaiiana book and a pile of homework lie on the coffee table. It’s the last month of my junior year—time to start thinking about finals.
Dad heats up the frozen pizzas in the oven while Mom is on the computer in the corner.
“Good,” Mom says. “They’re already downgrading the tsunami threat for Hawai`i. The meteorite wasn’t very big. No need to worry about them closing the airport.”
“How do they even know that?” Kai asks.
“Someone’s always looking,” Dad says. “Good eyes are all you need. That, and a little bit of math.”
“Please, no math,” Kai mutters.
“Isn’t a small meteorite still pretty powerful?” I ask.
“On land, maybe,” Dad says. “The ocean does a better job of absorbing the energy.”
“Well, yeah,” Mom adds. “Except the energy turns into waves.”
I absently hear a gecko call out with its strange kiss kiss kiss sound; it’s walking up the living- room window. I’m texting Tami:
Threat downgraded. No epic wave for you.
Mom stares at the computer. “The president just bailed on the Carbon Credit Conference.”
“What?” Dad says.
“He ditched a fund- raiser in Miami, too.”
My phone chimes. Tami:
Already out. Chowing down a double teri @ Blanes. You?
I smile. I can just see her freckly face buried in that messy burger. She’s a toothpick, but legendary in my family for her ability to eat. Mom says she’s like the amakihi, the smallest of the Hawaiian birds: always in motion and always foraging.
“What is he thinking?” Dad asks.
I tap back:
Frozen pizza. Ono. You suck.
Mom keeps reading. “I don’t get it.”
I can see the headline on her laptop:
PREZ SNUBS HIGHLY CHARGED
CARBON TRADING SUMMIT—
Regional Events Scrapped
“It’s two in the morning back east,” Mom says. “We’ll get the full scoop come morning.”
My phone chimes again:
Totally ONO! Yummy. Ha ha! Have a fun week.
Lots of pics from the north shore yeah?
Pics of PROS. Not you. LMAO.
“Pizza’s ready,” Dad calls.
Kai cartwheels into the dining room and lands squarely on his chair. “Great. But what are you all going to eat?”
Mom comes to the table and glances over at our luggage in the corner. “What’s in those bags, you guys? Are you going to O`ahu or running off to the Peace Corps?”
Two big backpacks and a couple of carry-ons lean against each other near the front door, stuffed to the gills with gear.
Dad wants to camp at least one night and then climb O`ahu’s Stairway to Heaven in the Koolau Range. I saw a stretch of the Stairway once from the highway. It looks like Frodo’s climb into Mordor.
My parents have mellowed a little since I was forced to quit gymnastics. They want me to have a normal life—as long as I wear a vest, and Dad is watching, they allow me to surf, even though the doctor doesn’t approve. Climbing the Stairway to Heaven is another example of how lax they can be.
We’ll have gear, of course. Ropes and harnesses.
Now if I can just get the doctor to finally let me drive . . .
“There’re duffel bags stuffed in, too,” Dad says. “We hardly ever get over there. Might as well do some shopping.”
“Kai.” Mom is setting the table. “Go into the garden, dear, and pick us a salad?”
The ubiquitous sound of the coqui frogs grows louder when he opens the door. Ubiquitous is one of Dad’s words. It means “everywhere.” Dad actually studies coquis. They’re not supposed to be on the Hawaiian Islands at all. They’re an invasive species. A few years back, the Hawaiian night sounded completely different. Then a Hilo big-box store garden center accidentally brought them to the island. Because they have no natural predators, you can now find three frogs for every square meter of rain forest. They drown out all other critters. “Coqui? Coqui?” Everyone’s waiting for the tipping point, wondering when the ecosystem will crash. Well, not everyone, I guess. Maybe just my parents and their geekiest friends.
Kai returns with a bowl of greens. “Kau kau time!” We sit at the table and my parents pour themselves wine. We divide up the pizza and practice our traditional moment of silence.
Grandpa knocks on the door just as we dig in.
“Tūtū!” Kai shouts, running to the door. He pulls Grandpa to the table.
“Hi, Dad,” Mom says. “Trip wen good?”
Mom’s pidgin, the local Hawaiian slang, bubbles up whenever Grandpa’s around. I understand pidgin pretty well, but I hardly use it. Speak it wrong around a local and you’ll get laughed out of town.
Grandpa shrugs. “All good. Construction delays.”
“Pizza?” Dad asks.
Grandpa shakes his head. “House calls on the way. Everyone offered food.”
“Tending to the flock,” Dad says.
Grandpa’s become our kahuna, or spiritual counselor. He’s big on keeping old ways alive in the new world. Even keeps a blog about it. He’s tall and thin with gray hair, and is strong, calm, and thoughtful. He served in the navy, and he remains a great swimmer and paddler. After the navy he was a cop on Maui.
He turns to me. “Evening, Mo`opuna. You set?”
“Ho! Nervous, ah?”
Grandpa sees everything. There’s no point in trying to hide it. “Yeah.”
“Well, no worries. You been doing great, yeah?”
“Been doing.” I had my first big seizure—a grand mal—when I was twelve. We were at a baseball game in San Francisco; I fell out of my seat and my whole body shook for three minutes. I don’t remember any of it. We learned that I had also been having little episodes— petits mals— for years. I would often just blank out and stare off into space. My parents wrote it off as “intense daydreaming.” The seizures became frequent when I was thirteen. Then, just before we moved, I started taking a new medicine, which cut both kinds of seizure to only a couple a year.
Mom gives me a comforting squeeze. “I know the tests won’t be fun, but keep your eye on the prize: one pill a day instead of two, and—maybe—your driver’s license.”
The clinical trial will go like this: When we get to O`ahu, I’ll stop my meds. The next day my trial dosage starts, a stronger medication that’s not on the market yet. I won’t know if it’s the real deal or a placebo. But if I have a grand mal, the trial will stop and I’ll resume my current meds. I’m super nervous about the potential of ending up on a placebo—I’d effectively be off meds altogether!—but I’m trying to ignore it and focus on the fact that Dad and I are staying in a nice Waikīkī hotel for free the whole week.
“I know.” I try to look excited.
“Well, there’s no shame if the new meds aren’t for you,” Grandpa says. “Pele’s your guardian spirit, yeah? Goddess of lightning.”
I smile. The goddess of lightning and lava and volcanoes.
“Yeah. Goddess of the lightning in my head.”
The food disappears. Kai cartwheels away to his room to play video games.
Dad clears the table and settles in at his computer. I help Mom and Grandpa with the dishes, but Mom says, “Lei, you should call it a night. You’ll need plenny energy for the week ahead.”
“You sure?” I glance from Mom to Grandpa.
Grandpa nods. “It’s past my bedtime. I’m going right to sleep.”
“Thanks for coming.” I give him a little hug and lean against him.
“I had to see you off.” He strokes my hair. “I’m very proud of you, Mo`opuna.”
I hug Mom, kiss Dad, and head upstairs. I like to read my Hawaiiana book before bed. But my eyelids grow heavy and I drift off.
The Islands at the End of the World
Random House | Wendy Lamb Books; Order online thru your favorite retailer
A Best Teen Books of 2014 by Kirkus; A 2014 Junior Library Guild Selection YALSA 2015 Best Fiction YA nominee; 3 starred reviews: Kirkus | SLJ | PW
“Gripping! Well imagined, well written, and frighteningly plausible. Read it if you dare!” -Graham Salisbury, author of Under the Blood-red Sun
The Girl at the Center of the World
Wendy Lamb Books | Random House
A 2015 Junior Library Guild Selection
“Exciting and fast-paced entertainment with a thoughtful subtext asking readers to ponder the interconnectedness of life on a fragile planet.” -Kirkus Reviews