Spencer Kealamakia

They’re kneeling in the living room, he and his mother, in front of the sliding screen door that opens to the patio and backyard, and beyond that the tall grass and trees are shaking when the wind comes through, making a sound like the ocean against the land. Arms folded over his chest, the boy opens his eyes and cranes his neck to get a look at the tall grass and trees. But he scares easily and focuses on his mother’s face instead, how her eyes are clamped shut, the tiny motions of her lips when she talks in the funny language, her breathy voice. She says, “We ask thee that no harm or accident may fall upon us,” then some other things and then, “Amen.”

They do this every night, he and his mother, and they do it every morning too.

She tells him that she’s going to bed now and don’t stay up too late cause you have school in the morning, but she says it as she goes around the corner so she doesn’t hear him say that school is for stupid heads.

Alone now. The tall grass and trees just over there. The boy, whose name is Kawika to everyone but his mother–who calls him by the English translation, David–springs to the screen door, slides the glass door shut, locks it and draws the curtain. He talks into a green, plastic phone, which used to hold colored gumballs that were eaten up the very first day. “Please make it so that the Night Marchers can’t get me.”

He turns on the TV and lifts the volume till the tinny speakers buzz. But sometimes he looks toward the drawn curtain, even though he doesn’t want to, like when the wind blows harder and the ocean sound covers the sound of the real ocean.

White shirts and ties make the boy feel like he’s being choked and his neck gets itchy. He tugs on his collar and scratches his neck. The other boys in his Sunday school class don’t seem to be having the same problem. They’re all staring attentively, hands folded in their laps, at Sister Wallace, who’s just scrawled three giant letters across the chalk board: CTR. She says she hopes they’re all remembering to CTR, then dusts her hands and makes a pensive face. “I’m wondering if any of you is willing to share an experience you’ve had this week where you’ve had to Choose The Right?”

The first hand up, of course, belongs to Laine Leong. “My friend Robert, him and his family don’t know that R-rated movies are bad, and they wanted me to come with them to see one, and I really wanted to go, but I said that I don’t watch R-rated movies.”

Sister Wallace congratulates Laine on his spiritual willpower. “Anyone else want to share?”

The class, Sister Wallace especially, is surprised to see the Kawika’s hand raised.

“My Dad moved back with us from Uncle Chico’s house in Oahu cause his heart feels better. He didn’t live with us for over a year already. Cause he almost died, before.” Kawika looks up at Sister Wallace but quickly returns his gaze to the hangnail on his thumb. “And when he got home he was watching TV and he was swearing a lot at the TV. He was angry because the government doesn’t like poor people and Hawaiians. So I asked him to please stop swearing, even though I was scared to ask. And he stopped, too, but then I heard him swearing later on, when I was in my room.”

“I bet that took a lot of courage, Kawika.” Sister Wallace speaks slowly, exaggerating her vowels and facial gestures. “The Lord is proud of you.”

“But he doesn’t know how to CTR because he doesn’t go to church, so I understand. I think he’ll learn one day, but my mom says he’s an old dog that can’t learn new stuff.” Kawika looks around the room, at the faces of the other boys, then down at the hangnail. He scratches at it until it bleeds.

“OK, Kawika. Well, thank you for sharing.” Sister Wallace smiles a big, open-mouthed smile that makes Kawika nervous. She claps her hands and rubs them together. “Who’s ready for a song?”

The coloring books are spread out on the carpet and Kawika works on them all at once, according to color. Right now he’s working with yellow. Batman’s cape is just about done and it makes him look super strong, the way it’s fluttering in the wind over a waxy, red Gotham skyline. When he’s finished here he will move on to color the tusks of the walruses in Zany Zoo, and after that, he’ll yellow the hearts in My Wonderful Body. He presses down hard, hoping to get the yellow to gold but it only makes dark yellow.

Batman speaks. “It’s really high up here on this building but I’m not afraid to fall cause I can’t die.” The boy feels his skin grow bumpy as he imagines how cold it must be way up on a skyscraper. He says, “Chicken skin,” as he shivers the cold away. Now one of the walruses pipes up. Let’s go dancing! Kawika says, you don’t have any legs. You don’t need legs to dance! But Kawika says, yes you do. No, you don’t, says the walrus and the boy says, yes you do, and they go back and forth like this until Kawika laughs and moves the tip of his crayon to the heart, that strong and veiny thing that doesn’t remind him of Valentines Day one bit. It’s been cut down the side to reveal the pockets and pipes that keep and move the blood along. The boy pauses, trying to imagine his own heart inside his chest, working so hard without him ever noticing it. I’m the heart. I make you alive and happy and sad and scared. I’m very busy.

Kawika is on the sofa, watching TV with the volume just barely audible. It’s early in the morning, before the sun comes up. He woke and, fearful in the stillness of his bedroom, felt his way to the living room, where he’d be in the company of whoever was on TV. But the voice of the man who wants to sell kitchen knives that can cut through stone brings no comfort. Even the pretty lady, with the scratchy voice who wants someone to call her, can’t keep his attention from the pulsing and pulling of the curtain over the sliding door.

He changes the channel and the room goes black, causing his lungs to quit, then start up when the blue-gray glow returns. Kawika unclips the green, plastic phone from around his neck and puts it to his ear. “Hey, can you hear me?” he whispers. “Are you there?” He waits. “Hello?” He listens. “There you are. I need your help right now. Help me to go back to sleep and please protect me so that the Night Marchers can’t take me away.”

Kawika curls up, pushing himself far into the corner of the sofa, between the cushions and into the crook of the armrest. He watches as a skier on TV goes end over end down the side of a mountain. He doesn’t even look real, his arms and legs like rubber, as he cartwheels to a stop at the bottom of the slope.

How would it be to play in the snow, to jump around in it and throw snowballs and eat it off the ground? Kawika can see how the snow would drift to his face, gigantic flakes cut with beautiful geometry, like the ones he made from construction paper, hanging in his class when it was December. The flakes fall more and more, burying him inch by inch until he is miles below and there is only white, dissolving to gray, to black, and then he hears the birds in the hibiscus bush just outside the sliding door, the man in 6B’s lawnmower gargling stones, and when he opens his eyes he sees the curtains glowing with the sun, and the blank TV, and now he can hear his mother, in her room, screaming on the phone.

Kawika’s father is out on the patio, looking off into the dark at the tall grass and trees. He’s sitting in the rusty beach chair, smoking and listening to a man on the radio give advice to people who call in. Kawika watches his father from behind the couch and tries to think of what he will say to him because it’s been a week since he saw him and maybe he’s different now. He counts, “One, two, three,” then hops off the couch and ambles to the screen door. “Are you looking for Night Marchers?” he says, with his face mashed against the dusty screen. His father jerks and wrenches his head around to face Kawika.

“Don’t freak me out like that, Wiks!” he says, slapping his son’s face through the screen. “Look what you made me do!” He rubs the red mark on his chest, then picks up his cigarette from the ground and dusts the ash from his shorts.

“You’re not scared about the Night Marchers out here?” Kawika says, looking at the burn mark on his father’s chest and counting the number of chest bones he can see pushing out from under the skin. Seven. His father bobs his head with bird rhythm as he lights another cigarette. Suddenly, he lifts his posture and scans the tall grass and trees, then looks at Kawika with big eyes, before slouching in the chair once more, letting out a high-pitched cackle that becomes coughing and hacking, and when the fit slows down, he spits into the yard.

“No be stupid, Wiks,” his father says, turning around and making a face, hissing a cloud of smoke that burns the inside of Kawika’s nose. “I told you they only go places had mean battles. They wouldn’t come here. Cannot be one pussy, ah Wiks. You know what for do if you see um, anyway.”

Kawika nods and slowly lays face down on the carpet.

“You get um. No look, ah, Kawika. You look, you die.” His father coughs again, then cocks his body and spits. He stares at the cherry of his cigarette, then ashes it. “Fuckin Roger, hurry up, I getting itchy already.”

Kawika is not brave this time and says nothing about the swearing. He turns and starts toward the couch, where his toys are, but his father calls him back.

“Try come, try come,” he says, rising on a pair of plover’s legs and then crouching so that he is eye level with Kawika. “Come, come,” he says, urging the boy closer, “I like tell you something important.”

Kawika presses his face against the screen, reluctantly. His father slaps his face again and then hops back and lifts and points his arms out to the right.

Eia no Kawika ei hei

His father sways to the right, chanting, moving as if being carried over the face of a wave and sliding down its back. His arms move left, now, and his swaying body and steps follow after them, still riding the crest of that imaginary wave.

Ka heke a’o na pua ei hei

His father’s hula becomes a parody as he changes the steps and movements. He slaps his chest bones and makes a scary face. He lifts his hands into the air and brings them down, everything rigid and tight, no longer fluid. He smiles a rotted smile and laughs, hooting, still dancing, even after Kawika calls him stupid and has turned down the hall toward his room, smiling so hard that it makes him feel like he is going to cry, though there’s no reason to.

In is room, Kawika talks into the green phone.

“Please watch my dad and make it so that the Night Marchers don’t take him away into the next world. Make it so that Uncle Roger comes soon so that my dad doesn’t have to wait out there a long time. Please help me. Thanks.”

In the chapel, Brother Ka’ili is stumbling through the benediction in Hawaiian and he’s taking forever to finish. He pauses, then starts over, stuttering and repeating phrases until they come out as smooth and natural-sounding as he can make them. He’s praying so hard that the lines of his face all seem to converge between his eyes, on the bridge of his nose. Kawika thinks he has the stuck doo-doo face and he covers his mouth to keep from laughing.

Finally, Brother Ka’ili pauses, holding his breath, waiting for the right moment, then lets go a breathy “Amen.”

Kawika turns to his mother and lays his hand on her back. The past three hours have been long and hard and he’s ready to go now. But she’s still hunched over, with her head bowed and her arms folded across her chest. Kawika rubs her back in a slow circular motion and still she makes no movement. He wants her to get up before people think she’s a weirdo and start giving her strange looks. The congregation is standing and shuffling from the pews into the aisle when she finally sits up, squinting.

“Ok, David, let’s go.”

Aunty Jamie is visiting from Kona this weekend. She’s not Kawika’s real aunty, just used to be their neighbor when they were in the Lagoon View Apartments. She usually only comes to Hilo for Christmas and Kawika is annoyed because he will spend the weekend guarding his butt from her pinching and will have to deal with her name-calling.

The women talk at the dining room table while Kawika plays with his action figures in the living room. He pauses to imagine the next scene. In a throaty voice, through gritted teeth, Wolverine says, “You killed my best friend. But he was weak. I am strong. I cannot die. Prepare to suffer.” The battle begins, with flips and strikes, spit spraying from Kawika’s mouth with each fricative clash of swords. Finally, it’s a crushing blow to the head, followed by a fall from the couch armrest that ends the battle with Wolverine victorious.

What will Wolverine do now that he has finished his mission? Kawika is trying to think, but his mother and Aunty Jamie are talking too loudly and he can’t concentrate.

He can hear that his mother is doing most of the talking. She says, “I feel stupid every time. And I want to do something, I want to fix him, but I don’t know what to do,” and blah, blah, blah. Aunty Jamie says, “I know, I know, it’s not easy.”

Kawika throws Wolverine to the carpet and storms through the dining room on his way to get a soda from the fridge.

“David, where are you going?” his mother says. “Go play with your toys, we’re talking in here.”

Kawika snaps back, “I stay thirsty!” bracing for the sting of his mother’s palm across his cheek. She just stares at him.

“If you’re going to speak, speak intelligently,” she says.

“Come on, Termite, it’s lady time now,” Aunty Jamie says, pinching at the air with her thumb and index finger.

Kawika leaves the women. He goes through the living room and out onto the patio, where he sits down in the rusty beach chair. He slouches and spreads his legs wide, imagining that his can of soda is a beer. He tries to spit into yard but he doesn’t put enough power into it and the spit lands on the patio, just a few feet from him.

It’s a violet night except for where the moon has turned the clouds lavender. Kawika listens to the coqui frogs calling to each other, large hallow sounds that remind him of the leaky faucet dripping to the tub when he bathes.

Kawika puts the soda down and walks the length of the patio, till his toes curl over the edge of the concrete. There, he makes fists and the meanest face he can, until his cheeks begin to shudder. He puffs out his chest and widens his stance and, through gritted teeth, speaks to the tall grass and trees. “I am not weak. I am strong.” He extends his arm and points a taut finger. “I cannot die. Prepare to suffer.” And though Kawika was half expecting a response for his disrespect toward things much greater and mysterious than him, nothing comes back but a soft breeze that shivers the trees, and then the voices of the coqui frogs calling.

He returns to the beach chair and takes long, exaggerated slurps from the soda can, and hears his mother moaning to Aunty Jamie. She says that she’s going to take Kawika to California to live with her brother but he doesn’t want to go to California, even if Disneyland is there.

Kawika is in his room coloring. His father and mother are arguing in the kitchen. He hums the sunbeam song he learned in church and colors with a heavy hand, but once in a while he catches what they are saying. Mostly he hears bad words and it makes him feel scared. He hears his father say, “Ha’ole bitch,” and “Dumb bitch,” and “Fuckin bitch,” and he hears his father say, “Go back to the mainland, then, you fuckin bitch.” He hears his mother crying now and something metal and heavy hitting the floor. His mother says, “You’re sick!” and “Don’t touch me!” She says, “That stuff’s fucked your head up!”

Kawika is coloring harder and harder so that the tip of the yellow crayon is flattened out, now. He peels the paper away and begins to color again.

His mother shrieks, suddenly, then shrieks again before resting herself in a steady whimper, and now dogs are barking all over the housing lot, and the lady in 5b is yelling, “You better shut the fuck up or I going call the cops!”

Kawika talks into his phone. “Please help us,” he says, “Please help us.”

But things keep breaking. Things bump and crash and topple and his mother goes on crying.

Kawika talks into the phone again. “Please,” he says.

And when the commotion shows no signs of slowing, he chucks the green phone at the wall, throws open the bedroom door and sprints down the hall using his hand as a visor, because he doesn’t want to see anything. Through the living room, he turns away from the violence, toward the screen door, knocks it off its track as he opens it, dashes over the patio concrete, across the yard and into the tall grass and trees.

He pushes through the tangles of stems and branches, until the noise from the house is lost somewhere inside the sound of his own breathing, and the coqui frogs.

He sits down and leans against the trunk of a monkey pod, whose crown is like a ghost floating above him, its outlines and definition blending and changing shape when it bends with the wind. He brings his knees to his chest and bows his head and tries to talk the way his mother does.

“Dear kind and great Lord. I am here in front of thee to ask thou for help. Make it so that everything is OK. That my mom is OK and that my dad is OK and won’t be mad anymore. And bless me so that I will be OK out here and that I won’t get bitten by centipedes. I say this in the name of thou son....”

Kawika opens his eyes and looks around. As his eyes adjust, he begins to see things–trees and ferns and rocks, can see outlines and shadows–which scares him more than when he couldn’t see. He closes his eyes once more.

“Dear kind and great Lord. I forgot to ask thou to bless me so that the Night Marchers can’t get me. Dad said they don’t come here but just in case they do, make them not be able to take me away.”

Spencer Kealamakia grew up in Hilo, Hawaii and graduated from the University of Hawaii Manoa in 2008. He may or may not have been published before (Hawaii Review, you said you’d send me a copy of that issue—it’s been two years), making this story either his first or second publication. Either way, he’s super stoked. He currently lives in Seoul, South Korea, where he’s getting good at winter. This story is a top-ten finalist for the storySouth Million Writers Award.

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