It was a summer of new beginnings, and of bitter ends.
My high school years were behind me. I had closed the chapter and burned the book. There were no post-graduation parties to attend, no classmates to hug or to pacify with false promises of keeping in touch. It was as if I had never existed at that school, or even at all. I was a drifter, an unclaimed soul waiting to be born.
My life finally began at the age of seventeen on the twentieth day of May.
I was sitting in an airplane. Palm trees swayed in the breeze on the other side of the tiny window. In the distance, pale-beige sand blanketed the earth, stretching out to meet the ocean. My mother sat in the seat next to mine, punching digits into her phone.
“Texting?” I asked her.
“Just one.” She suppressed a guilty grin and tucked the phone into her purse. “I promised to call Tim when we landed. I sent a text instead.” As if that made it okay.
“I thought you were on a break,” I grumbled.
“We are. I won’t call him for the rest of the summer, I promise.” Actually, I hoped she did call him one last time, to tell him she was leaving his ass for good.
I unwrapped a stick of gum and folded it into my sour mouth. The day hadn’t been easy. I woke that morning, convinced I was going to die. Two months’ worth of plane crash nightmares had taken a toll. I had suffered a panic attack and a full-out vomit session in the morning Iowa grass. Still, I got on that plane. That’s how desperate I was to crawl out of the hell hole I’d called home for the past ten years.
Mom patted my knee. “Cheer up, hon. It’s almost time to meet Maya.” She spoke her name with a gleeful reverence, they type of respect usually reserved for A-list celebrities or a mythical deity.
“Can’t wait,” I said, far too dryly to sound sincere. After all, it wasn’t as if this Maya person was some sort of goddess.
“Neither can I. Please be nice, Em. It’s been years since I’ve seen her, and she’s been waiting a lifetime to meet you.” She collected her bag from the overhead compartment and ducked into the crowded aisle.
Travelers engulfed the sunlit airport like an army of ants staking out a picnic. A delirious Elvis tune cranked from overhead speakers. Not Blue Hawaii, but Viva Las Vegas. The irony made me laugh. I scrutinized the faces of the Hawaiian women in the crowd, unsure of whom I was looking for. I’d seen only a few photos of Maya, and all were from years long past. Mom’s eyes were much more discriminating. They widened, and a light of recognition burned. She raced forward, thrusting herself into the arms of her childhood friend.
“Jen,” Maya said, wiping streams of tears from her cheeks. “I can’t believe you’re finally here.” They lingered in a homesick embrace, then Maya’s nostalgic gaze turned to me. “This must be Emma.” Her hands cradled my face. “You’re beautiful.”
“Thanks,” I grumbled, pulling away from her overzealous grasp.
Her hands fell to her side as if she had sensed my discomfort. She smiled, then backed away to look me over. Like me, she was small in stature - short, yet not freakishly so as I was. Her hair hung in a flat, black bob. It brushed the sides of her chin and fell over her exotic copper eyes. She was a native beauty, the sort that might be featured in a travel brochure or a Hawaiian edition of National Geographic. She took two more steps backward, blotted a tear from her cheek, and said, “I never dreamed you would actually come.”
But, I had. For all of my life I’d dreamed of Hawaii. Many snowy Iowa nights I’d lain, nestled in bed, waves of green oceans washing over me as I slept. In vivid color, I had walked on white sand beaches and lounged beneath the leaves of palm trees swaying in the sultry breeze. Growing up, dreams were all that I had. And I’d had plenty.
Yet, through the years, something had gone missing - the one dream that lived within the heart of every young girl. In my dreams, I’d never met the perfect guy. Don’t get me wrong, I had fantasized about him plenty. He was engrained into my very being, sketched out in meticulous detail in my head. He was tall, of course. And blond, if my imagination drew in colored pencils. He saw past my social ineptitude and embraced me for the quirky free-spirit that I was. In my fantasies, after all, anything was possible. Those fantasies had sustained me through countless history classes and endless study halls. But, I had never met this Adonis, not even in my dreams. I guess sometimes you just have to wake up.
Suddenly, there I stood - completely lucid, weary yet awake, in the middle of a crowded airport in Hawaii. And there he was. He looked at me, a jetlagged mess of a girl wearing clothes deeply wrinkled from eight hours on an airplane and a pair of white flip flops speckled with dried vomit.
He was nearly six feet tall with a swimmer’s physique - toned but not too muscular. His disheveled blond hair was just long enough to graze the arch of his eyebrows and brush over the tops of his ears. And his face was exquisite. Lips like pink satin, plumped by the slightest pout. His thin nose was perfectly angular to complement the blue topaz eyes that froze me to the ground. I could only stare. He noticed, and his devastating smile shattered the granite fortress that stood, unbreakable around my heart.
He moved toward me in fluid strides. His right hand was stuffed into the pocket of his long red swim trunks, his left hand tucked away behind his back. Maya grabbed his hidden arm and presented him in a way one would unveil a work of art.
“Girls,” she said, beaming, “this is Landon. He’ll be taking us to Molokai in the morning.”
My mother drew an exaggerated breath. “It’s nice to meet you, Landon.”
“Nice to meet you, too,” he replied.
Mom threw me a curious glance, then turned away.
His eyes met mine. My heart nearly dropped dead out of me as the tips of his fingers brushed my hand.
“Aloha, gorgeous.” His voice was smooth and sensual. His concealed hand came forward, revealing the lei of pink flowers he’d kept tucked away. He draped it around my shoulders, those relentless crystal eyes holding me prisoner. “Your first lei,” he said, grinning.
“Promise?” It came out louder than I had planned. Shocked by my audacity, I wilted like a daisy in the sweltering August sun. He laughed as if I’d rattled off the punch line to a joke. A hot blush covered my cheeks, and I quickly moved on. “I’m Emma, by the way.”
“I know.” He pulled the strap of my carry-on bag from my fingers and threw it over his shoulder.
Behind us, Mom and Maya linked arms like little girls in the grasp of their first same-sex crush.
“Well, that’s not weird,” I muttered.
A melodic laugh spilled out of him. “Aw, they’re just happy to see each other.” His smile morphed into a smirk as he stepped aside and gestured toward the door. “Ladies first.”
I turned away. A wintery chill swept through me as I thought I felt his eyes scanning me from behind. My first lei. I laughed silently, but only partly in jest.
I pushed open the airport door. The revered demigod, Maui, sat in the courtyard, forever holding the sun in his bronze immortalized hands. A sea of pink cottage roses crouched beneath the statue like awestruck worshippers, blessing him and all who passed by with their sweet floral scent. I inhaled the essence until it had absorbed fully into my memory. Lining the sidewalk, meticulously spaced palm trees towered. Their weepy fronds swayed in the breeze, casting dancing shadows on the sprinkles of white and yellow flowers scattered beneath them. The air was perfectly warmed. A cloudless baby blue sky held up the sun. A moment of deja vu washed over me as my thousands of Hawaiian dreams were suddenly realized.
Landon adjusted my bag on his shoulder and flashed a sideways glance in my direction. I couldn’t stifle the giddy grin of an awestruck Iowa girl in Paradise. He threw his head back and mustered a heart-stopping smile. “Welcome to Maui, ladies!”
He led us down the sidewalk to a sleek black BMW parked alongside a curb painted yellow. Maya claimed Shotgun, and my mom and I slid into the back. I watched as Landon filled the trunk with our bags and made his way around the side of the car. His movements were fluid, poetic almost. He opened his door, and his crystal eyes swept across me. Then, he slid into the driver’s seat. The engine roared to life. We pulled away, our overnight destination - his father’s house. It was as if I had been granted one wish, and that wish was actually coming true.
I lounged in the car watching palm trees pass as Maya explained her connection to Landon. Her house in Molokai was owned by his father, who was her landlord as well as her friend. With her husband off serving a year-long tour of duty in Afghanistan, he and Landon had stepped in to help. Landon visited Molokai often and did her small favors, such as mowing her lawn, trimming the hedges, and taking her to the Maui airport to meet long-lost friends. This was how, suddenly and beautifully, he was thrust into my life.
Mom waited for Maya to finish speaking, as if the universe had depended on her every word. “Where’s baby Nikolas?” she asked her.
“My neighbor girl, Aleia, is taking care of him for the night.” Maya glanced over her shoulder, scrutinizing my face as if she was searching for something. “Emma, I think you’ll like her. She’s the same age as you.”
I smiled, unable to think of a reply. To say I lacked conversational skills would have been an understatement. Socially inept and terminally tongue tied, that was me, and I hated myself for it.
Landon pulled into the driveway of a sprawling two-story home. A conglomeration of square and rectangular glass sections formed the front of the house, bordered in a deep mahogany wood. It could have only been the creation of a master architect, the sort of artisan that spared no expense. A lawn of white sand led up to the house. As we made our way through it, I gazed out at their endless back yard – the Mighty Pacific Ocean.
A dusty-blond man opened the front door as we climbed the three steps to the porch. He reached for my mother’s hand in business-like fashion and introduced himself as Tony Matthews. A faint blush covered mom’s cheeks. It was no wonder; he was gorgeous. When it came to the gene pool lottery, these Matthews men had definitely hit the jackpot.
Mom and Maya ventured into the house, and Landon turned back to the car to unload our bags. Tony greeted me with a megawatt smile.
“It’s nice to meet you, Emma,” he said. “Come in. I’ll show you to your room.”
I replied with only a grin, then followed him up a golden oak staircase and into a spacious hall.
“Here we are,” he said, holding his hand out in front of an open door. “Make yourself at home. I’ll see you in a bit.”
“See in a bit,” I mumbled in incoherent idiot speak. Another thing about these Matthews men - they transformed me into an instant imbecile.
I turned away to hide my humiliation and stumbled into the room. It was immaculate and minimally furnished with a king-sized bed and an oak dresser. Beige and light brown bedcovers complemented the mocha curtains hanging around a glass door. The breeze ruffled my hair when I stepped out onto the balcony to admire the view.
Beneath me, the ocean murmured and hissed. White sand stretched out, finally swallowed up by the pristine water that seemed to reach into eternity. I inhaled the salt-soaked air. “This isn’t a dream, not this time,” I reminded myself. “I’m really here.” Still, it seemed surreal. After memorizing the scenery, I turned back toward the bedroom. A brown curtain blew across an open door on the other end of the balcony.
Tony took us to his favorite local restaurant for dinner. It was cozy and quaint, drenched in candlelight and soft Hawaiian music. The menu offered a tantalizing variety of fresh seafood and traditional Polynesian fare. The bounty he ordered could’ve easily fed ten people.
He and Landon sat across from Maya, Mom, and me in a spacious burgundy leather booth. Even in the dim restaurant lighting, their faces stood out from everyone else’s. They had the same blue eyes, though Tony’s were less vivid, perhaps dulled by the passage of time. His features were perfectly proportioned, but different than Landon’s somehow. Their smiles, however, were identical. It was the sort of smile that froze one in place, rendered you helpless to the power of it. Though Tony was old enough to be my father, I might’ve developed an instant crush, had it not been for his far more stunning son, sitting on his left, mesmerizing me with eager eyes.
“So, Tony, what brought you to Hawaii?” my mother asked, tossing her long brown hair over her shoulder.
His devastating smile made an appearance as he leaned against the back of his seat and began his story. “Landon and I moved here from California three years ago. Prior to that, I owned a small contracting business in Sacramento. In the beginning, it wasn’t much, but it paid the bills.” Fluttering candlelight shadows danced over his face. “After the first year, I’d built somewhat of a name for myself. Soon, I was buried in work.”
Landon shifted ever-so-slightly in his seat. Beneath the table, a foot brushed mine. I was sure it had been unintentional. I glanced at him for confirmation. His pale blue eyes moved over my chest and across my face in a slow and deliberate act. It was all the confirmation I needed. My pulse skyrocketed, and I looked back to Tony as he continued to talk.
“The success of my little business was more than I ever dreamed. I was able to hire people to do the work for me, and still I was making a killing.” It didn’t come across as boasting, but a mere telling of the facts. It was impressive nonetheless.
A trail of chills passed through my shin, tracing softly down the side of it, stopping at my ankle. My eyes moved from Tony’s face back to Landon. He flashed a wink and a seductive smile that would’ve leveled the strongest of women. How I resisted the urge to throw myself across the table and into his lap, I’ll never know.
“It had been my lifelong dream to live in Hawaii,” Tony continued, pulling me from my fantasy. “So, Landon managed to graduate high school at the age of sixteen, and we sold the company and moved.”
Mom’s eyes were fixated on him, curious and admiring. “You own properties in Hawaii?” she asked. I couldn’t blame her for her interest. She must’ve been in awe of him. After all, compared to her husband, he was practically a god.
“I own several properties in Maui and Molokai. This guy,” Tony continued, nodding at Landon, “is my business partner. He takes care of the properties, and I oversee the financial matters. It’s a great partnership.” He and Landon shared an intimate smile.
After the moment had faded, Tony’s attention refocused on my mother. “Jen, Maya tells me you’re a school teacher. What subject do you teach?”
Her reply registered in my ears like the garble of Charlie Brown’s teacher. I heard everything and comprehended nothing. Silverware clinked against stone dishes, occasional laughter livened our table. It was all distant background noise to me. I could focus on nothing other than the weight of Landon’s foot resting on top of mine. The remainder of the evening was one shimmering, beautiful blur.
My stomach ached, bloated and miserable, as dinner came to a close. Our group had eaten its way to a near-comatose state of oblivion. We sat in blissful misery as Tony tucked a wad of bills into the waiter’s hand. Mom and Maya pried themselves from their seats. Landon’s foot slid off the top of mine, then we made our way out into the balmy night and left the sleepy Hawaiian restaurant behind.
It was nearly dark when we returned to the house. Mom’s eyes glazed over, zombielike from the excitement of the long day. She, Maya, and Tony lounged in the family room, looking as if they were about to turn in for the evening.
I wasn’t so willing to allow the day to end. I left the fading adults in the living room and ventured into the kitchen. Landon was pacing the floor from one end of the room to the other and back again like a beautiful white tiger longing to break free. He stopped in mid-stride when he noticed me standing there.
“Hey, Emma.” He smiled. “Do you want to go down to the beach for a while?”
“Um, sure.” The blasé response was a natural defense mechanism. Internally, I was reeling like a game show contestant who had just won a shiny new car.
He pulled a few bottles from the refrigerator and slid them covertly into his shorts pockets, then gestured to the hall. Three sets of curious eyes met us as we made our way through the family room.
“We’re going to the beach,” Landon explained.
Tony threw a sideways smirk in his direction. “You kids have a good time.”
“Okay. Be back in a while,” Landon replied, mirroring his father’s expression.
We walked down the unlit foyer. “Don’t stay up too late, Emma,” Mom called from her perch in the living room. Behind us, she and Maya giggled like gossipy schoolgirls. I quickly shut the front door and made my retreat.
I stepped out onto the unlit porch. Landon waited there, his body just inches from mine, his eyes eager and inviting. He took my hand without speaking and pulled me into the darkness. We walked in silence down the shoreline, swallowed up by the peaceful Hawaiian night.
We made our way to a make-shift fire pit a short distance down the beach. Landon sat in the sand and patted the ground beside him. “Have a seat, gorgeous. I won’t bite.”
I slid next to him and gazed out at the ocean. Traces of red-orange colored the water as daylight made its final display in the night sky. The murmur of waves lapping up the shoreline echoed around us. Entranced by the soft melody, I sat in silence and in awe of the glory of nature.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Landon’s silk voice pulled me back to reality. “I’ve lived here for three years, and I’m still not used to it.”
A second passed before my breath came to me. “It’s amazing. Especially for an Iowa girl.”
In the distance a pair of gulls warbled in obscure conversation. Landon searched the sky with his eyes then shifted his weight onto his outstretched hands. “How’s that? Living in Iowa, I mean?”
“Totally boring and dull. There’s nothing to do there and definitely nothing to look at, unless you like cornfields.”
He pulled a lighter from his shorts pocket and lit the half-burned logs in the fire pit. After studying the growing flame, he reached back to the same pocket for a brown bottle.
“Beer?” He offered it with a casual hand.
I wasn’t much of a drinker, and I knew my mother wouldn’t approve, but I accepted it anyway. I had reason to celebrate. He twisted open a bottle of his own, and we watched the flames dance in the night.
After moments of quiet, he peeked over at me with a curious smile. “How old are you, Emma?”
“Seventeen. I’ll turn eighteen in a couple months.”
“Nice. I’ll only be a year older than you.” He stretched his legs in the sand, appearing to think this over. “You’ll be spending your eighteenth birthday on the islands, then?”
“Wow, I guess I will.” I hadn’t thought about it until he mentioned it.
In a move almost too subtle to notice, his hand brushed across mine. “You should let me take you out to celebrate. Keep that date open, okay?”
I stifled a smile, attempting to hide my excitement, as the scenario of spending my birthday with him played out in my head.
Another minute of silence passed, and his grin faded. “You know, you don’t look much like an Iowa girl. As a matter of fact, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you were from here.” He was right. I did blend in with the locals.
“My father was Hawaiian,” I explained. “My grandparents lived here during my mom’s high school years. Mom met him then.”
“Where’s your dad now, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“He was killed before I was born. Mom moved back to California with my grandparents after his death.” How tragic that she hadn’t stayed there. I’d always been bitter that we’d moved to Iowa with her new husband when I was seven years old, forcing me into a life of cornfields and snowy winters.
He kicked at a smoldering ember, a look of regret brewing in his eyes. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”
“It’s okay.” A nervous giggle fell from my lips as I agonized over what I would say next. “What about you? Where’s your mom?” I finally said.
His gaze strayed to the ground, fixing on a stick that lay next to the fire. He picked it up and traced zig-zag patterns in the sand. “She left us when I was five. Couldn’t handle the responsibility, I guess. It’s always been just me and my dad.” And there it was, a glaring example of why I preferred not to talk much.
“Now I’m sorry,” I replied.
Miraculously, he didn’t seem to mind. He grinned and stroked the palm of my hand with his finger tip. “It’s fine.”
He brushed a strand of hair away from my face. Our eyes locked. In that moment we were connected - two people who’d endured life with only one loving parent. I felt the pain his eyes held, and his stoic gaze hinted that he knew of my pain, as well. Maybe meeting him was fate.
The night passed quickly, with moments of comfortable silence broken up by casual conversation. The firelight set his eyes ablaze whenever he spoke. I caught myself staring at him more than once. If he noticed, he never let on. I could’ve lived within that night for all of eternity and been sustained. Unfortunately, time marches on. In what seemed like mere minutes since we’d arrived on the beach, the magical night came to an end.
Landon turned to me with soft eyes, clouded with a hint of disappointment. “We’d better get you home. You must be tired,” he said.
I probably was. The rush of being with him had kept me from noticing.
He took my hand as he stood and led me away from the midnight-dark, deserted beach. Hand in hand, we walked back to the house and made our way upstairs. He paused at my bedroom door just long enough to say, “See you in the morning.” His blue topaz eyes glimmered as he treated me to a crooked smile. And with that, I was alone in the hall.
Exhaustion flooded in, consuming me, as I stumbled into my room. I wearily brushed my teeth and changed my clothes, all the while reliving the day in my mind. I committed each moment to memory so I could replay them in my head whenever I wished.
As I folded back the covers of the king-size bed, a knocking rattled the glass of the balcony door. I stumbled across the room then pulled back the long drapes, my heart sprinting in anticipation. Landon stood stone-faced, statue-still in the doorway. He stepped halfway into the room and reached for my hand.
“I forgot to tell you goodnight,” he whispered. He kissed the tips of my fingers, then turned and disappeared into the night. I stood in frozen disbelief, wishing he would return, but my doorway remained empty.
That night, a pair of faceless eyes haunted my dreams. A cloak of ebony hair fell around them, the silken strands twisting to and fro in a breeze that hinted at a shifting of tides. The coal-black eyes never blinked or tired or strayed. They fixed on me like steadfast guardians on their watch. I couldn’t escape their unrelenting gaze. And, oddly, I didn’t want to.