HAWAII IN A BOX
by Beth Nixon Weaver
JACKIE YANKED OPEN THE PERKY PINK BEACH CHAIR and plopped down. It popped open several notches, pitching her backwards. Her head hit the metal bar and she found herself staring through a fan of palmetto leaves into the scorching blue haze.
“You okay?” Sam’s eyes grew round with concern. He was standing on a low, twisting branch of a live oak overlooking the river. His baggy swim trunks slung under his lump of belly were the odd color of Bayer aspirin for children, and his brand-new Sketchers were splattered with muck. Not that he minded. In fact, the tiny island in the midst of the sprawling wetlands excited his child-like curiosity.
She untangled herself from the ridiculous chair and jerked it into the sitting position. Then, lowering herself back into it, she sprayed herself with suntan lotion. Lifted her face toward the sun. She tried to block Cindy’s face from her mind—that look of betrayal in that split second their eyes met before Dev had slipped the boat into reverse while Jackie and Sam stood knee-deep in tea-colored water, holding picnic supplies. They’d left their cellphones on the boat. Not realizing.
The tropical island—the little bit of paradise Dev had boasted about—was a bump of brittle grass crowned with the old oak. And populated with cows.
At least three had materialized from the grass and gawked at them. The clank of their bells was drowned out by gusts of wind.
Jackie had been looking forward to getting to know Dave, her lab partner, whom she thought would be her date. The turn of events was a cruel reminder of how everyone was letting her down. She brushed away tears before Sam—whom Dev had grabbed when Dave turned down Cindy’s offer—saw how upset she was. If he were any more polite, she would drown him.
Sam picked a buttercup and shyly offered it to a spotted cow. “Hey, girl,” he said nervously as she sniffed his hand.
“Look Jackie! She likes it! She tickles! —her tongue! —so rough! Come see! It might cheer you up.” His eyes—as slate blue as a newborn’s—sparkled.
Jackie glanced at the host of black flies hovering at the underside of the cow’s tail. “Look at all the flies!”
“She doesn’t mind.”
“What are cows doing here?”
“This isn’t a real island. It’s a knoll.”
“A little hill rising above pastureland.”
“The river overflowed because of the rain. That’s why it’s so wide. The cows are probably stranded here since this knoll’s the highest point.”
“Great. Same as us. There’s nothing here. Not even a toilet.” She wished Dave would materialize out of thin air like the cows did.
“Sure there is.” Sam shyly nodded at the river.
“And I suppose if we get hungry, you’ll remind me about the cows—milk, cheese, plenty of meat.”
He smiled. “I did bring my scout knife. It has sixteen functions.”
“I might even be able to build us a house with this tree—it’s sturdy wood. You don’t find many oaks in a cow field.”
“I’m glad you think this is a game.” She slapped at a mosquito. Watched the blood well up. Oh hell! Had she left the Off! on the boat? She ransacked the supplies, cursing.He stared into the vast sweep of sky and water. “I like being away from everything.”
“Even your phone? So we can’t even get help?” She gave a nervous glance at the water—not a soul in sight.
“Yeah, actually.” He began to climb the sprawling branches.
Jackie winced at his body—pudgy as a manatee’s. Sweat glued his T-shirt to his skin, with little moles showing through like chocolate chips.
“You can see the way the river meanders from up here,” he called down.
“Can you see any boats? Houses? People?”
“It’s beautiful out here. And I’m sure they’ll be back before long.”
He saw the trail of exhaust left by a plane, a line of chalk drawn on the sky’s giant drawing board. “Did you know there’s no place in the entire continental U.S. where you can go for more than a minute without seeing a sign of civilization? Not even Death Valley? That you’re never completely disconnected from the rest of the world?”
“This is Death Valley as far as I’m concerned. They pulled a fast one.” She slapped at another mosquito. “Where the hell is the Off!?”
She dumped the contents of the bag on her towel—soggy from the marshy grass—and was relieved.to find it among the bags of chips, candy, paper plates and plastic forks—the random, but comforting signs of civilization.
“Yeah, Dev’s a sly one. But I suspected it when they watched us trudge ashore and didn’t get out, didn’t you?”
“No!”—spraying herself—”Cindy tells me stuff. Or, used to.” She waved away the cloud of bug spray that closed in on her like fog.
“Dev . . . umm . . . told me you knew.”
“That they were going to dump us here?”
“Not necessarily here”—giving her a sheepish grin— “but somewhere.”
“Are you serious?”
“You knew? And you didn’t tell me? Or bother to keep your phone??”
The sharp staccato of her voice sent a flock of white ibis roosting in a soapberry bush to rise—squawking—into the sky.
“He pulled me aside and said he wanted to be alone with Cindy for a while and that you were cool about it.”
“Are you kidding? Cindy’s parents don’t want her alone with him. Especially in the middle of nowhere. That’s why this was supposed to be a group outing.”
“Sorry.” The tips of his ears flamed. “I wasn’t going to bother you, anyway.” “Bother me?”
“He said you were going to be my . . . umm . . . date.”
“You?” She cringed at the baby fat swaddling his chin, at the wisps of copper hair struggling to grow on his sideburns. She’d always resented him for being a Mama’s boy, especially lately as she watched him dutifully walk a brood of yapping poodles with his mother every evening like clockwork.
Jackie wasn’t sure who was more ridiculous—the mother who got tangled in the leashes of the neurotic dogs, or Sam, who dutifully picked up the droppings like Hershey’s kisses. They looked comically alike in their bouncy Sketchers, with wiry hair sprouting from their heads like coils of copper wire.
“That’s not why I came.”
She stretched her thin cotton shirt—that suddenly seemed impossibly small—over her bikini bottoms. “No?”
“I wanted to . . . get away.”
“From what? Your damn poodles?”
“All the leashes holding me down.”
“How many do you all have now?”
“Only fourteen?” “One’s expecting. Mom’s knitting a puppy sweater.”
“Oh. How. Cute!” “She thinks so.” He swatted a mosquito. “Why so damn many?”
He shrugged. “Mom got a pair after Dad died. She missed him. But the odd thing is that she didn’t have them, you know, fixed.” His whole face flamed.
Jackie blinked. Was he really reacting to the word, fixed? What a lamb! “You’ll end up with thirty more before you know it.”
“And she won’t be one bit happier.” Jackie thought of her own mother. How many times had she told them she’d wished they’d never been born?
“I wouldn’t be too sure about that.”
“Do you know how weird it is to have so many?” Do you know how weird you and your mother are?
Jackie cursed her bad luck. She couldn’t believe Dev had pulled Sam—literally off the street—when Dave had declined.
Why had Dave declined?
It made no sense after he’d switched seats to be her lab partner, then latched on to her every word. “Yes! Exactly! I like how you word that . . .”
Had he found out about the party?
Her mind raced back to the day they’d dissected the frog. The uproar when they’d slit open its belly and discovered the bright yellow flowerlike petals inside.
“This one was pregnant,” their teacher had announced. “These petals are embryos.”
Dave’s hand had shook as he’d cut away the petals as everybody crowded around, whispering. Afterwards, he transferred out of the class. He’d told her there’d been a conflict, but was the real conflict her? She wondered if someone had hinted that she was just like the pregnant frog.
She’d gotten so stoned at that party she hadn’t remember anything afterwards, except for the surprising soreness and the ooze of wetness that had soaked her panties when she’d woken up the next morning. Had someone told Dave she’d gotten pregnant?
She hadn’t told anyone. And nothing had shown up on social media.
What then, did he—or anyone else—know?
She’d chalked up that night to a single indiscretion and promised herself not to smoke so much dope the next time. She also thanked God she took the pill—to clear her skin! But after a prolonged stomach virus had sent her scrambling to the toilet day after day and two scanty periods, it began to dawn on her that her surprising weight gain and the tenderness in her breasts had something to do with her puking up all those pills. When she drew up the nerve to take the pregnancy test, she stared for the longest time at the two little lines on the tiny strip.
Two little lines that began to waver as tears of shock streamed down her face.
She took another test and Viola! Two little lines!
As it dawned on her that it was too late to take the morning after pill and that she had no clue who the father was, she decided to erase the entire episode from her life.
She found a willing doctor and knew exactly where her mother hid cash so there wouldn’t be a trace—in the pocket of her father’s funereal suit he’d left behind to let her mother know the many ways she’d killed him, and where her mother now hid her booze money, to symbolically let him know he’d killed her, too.
The whole ordeal had been five hours long—four hours and fifty-eight minutes padding the two minutes of the snaky tube. The hissing sound was so faint it was as if someone were eating orange slices next to her, tearing the flesh from the rind with their teeth. It was hard to imagine a sound so soft, so sibilant, meant the difference between life and death.
She’d gone on a crisp school day and dragged herself home just after school let out, smoked two joints under the bathroom vent to ease her cramps, and crawled into bed, feigning sickness.
That had been two months ago, long enough for Time to Turn its Wheels. Still, she couldn’t shake the look Dave had given her after he’d cut away those gaudy petals, as if he were cutting her poisonous presence out of his life.
Sam loomed over her.
She bolted up. Did he see a pubic hair peeking from her bikini bottoms?
“Mind if I borrow the Off!”
She blinked at his swollen skin. Tossed it to him. “Don’t use it up.”
A feeble squirt came out. “It’s empty.”
“I’ll get some ice.” He opened the cooler.
She watched the ice thaw as it touched the angry bites, sending trickles of pink-stained water down his legs. “You really got chewed up.”
He nodded. “Do you want something in here while I’ve got it open? There’s fried chicken, potato salad, hummus, a whole six-pack of Hawaii in a Box, which I brought—”
“Hawaii in a what?”
“Box. Pineapple Jell-O.”
“Why do you call it Hawaii in a Box?”
“My mom calls it that, from her favorite commercial when she was a kid. The announcer said the mere taste of it would transport you to Hawaii. She’d never traveled anywhere and it made her imagine being in Hawaii.”
“Well, she loves it. Has been putting it in my lunch forever. I used to throw it away, along with the bologna sandwiches that stuck to the roof of my mouth. Until I found Sheila, who trades me her Italian subs—”
Jackie burst into laughter.
“Pack your lunch. You’re fucking how old?”
His eyes narrowed.
Jackie’s mother had never packed her lunch. There was rarely even enough food in the fridge these days—mostly Styrofoam containers with weird leftovers. And when her mother forgot to order online, she’d send Jackie’s brother to 7-11 to lug stuff back on his bike. Cartons of milk didn’t always make it home, landing instead like water bombs on the side of the road.
“Sheila’s parents own a restaurant and give her leftover subs which makes her fat—or so she says. So, while she’s transporting herself to Hawaii with pineapple Jell-O, I’m wandering Italian villages with goat cheese-tomatoes-onions-aceto balsamico-olives-and-peppers. Anyway, it’s still cold, if you want some.”
“No amount of sugar or happy colors you dump on boiled bones will ever fool me into thinking this shithole we’re stranded on is Hawaii!”
“Don’t you know what gelatin is made out of? Hawaii in a Box, my ass!”
Sam sucked in his breath. “You didn’t used to act like this.”
“Like you know me?”
“It’s not like I don’t notice things.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“That you used to be a nice girl.”
He saw the drop of her jaw. “Hey, I didn’t mean it like that. But . . . well . . . there’s that, too.”
Jackie’s head swam. How fucking dare he!
“You could talk to me, you know.” His voice softened. “I know you’ve been through a lot. Your dad’s car is never there. Your Mom seems a bit . . . off. And there’s the pot seeping through—
“You mean the incense?”
“No. I mean the pot.”
“Who are you, the police now? And you want to talk to me? Well, guess what? Everyone smokes it. Except you. Damn! I could really use some now to make you disappear. You have no right to insult me or my parents!”
“They’re not insults, because it’s not your fault who your parents are. They’re observations.”
“Well, keep your fucking observations to yourself! And your fucking hands!” she added when he took a step toward her. “Oh, My God! Dev didn’t set this up by himself. You were in on it, too. Why else would he have included you?
“That’s why you’re here without your phone—to have your way with me! To get some experience, because who would want to touch you? No-fucking-body!”
She stormed away, running over the brittle grass to the other side of the knoll and secluding herself in the cavernous space under an uprooted tree—as far away from the entire world as she could get. She was pounding the ground in a rage when something sharp stung her ankle. She saw a stir in the tangle of plants, but the light was too dim to tell what it was.
At first, she disregarded the sting as yet another insect bite. But the pain soon came in sharp, undulating waves, and when she examined her ankle she saw twin puncture marks. A water moccasin? Her face turned pale. Water moccasins weren’t like the harmless racers that whipped underfoot. Water moccasins were poisonous. Water moccasins could kill you.
She snatched a potato vine and tied it tightly around her ankle. But her ankle began to swell and turn the color of eggplant. Oh God! She needed to get the poison out—before it spread. She instinctively reached for her phone.
As she began to panic, she thought of Sam’s scout knife.
“Sam!” She struggled to her feet and began hopping across the sharp blades of grass as the pain radiated through her body. She needed to sit down, to stay absolutely still. Otherwise—
“SAMMMMMM!” She sat down on the brittle grass. “I’VE BEEN BITTEN! B Y A SNAKE—A MOCASSIN!”
When the cows mooed in response, she sobbed:“I’M SORRY! PLEASE HELP ME!”
“Cindy!” she screamed at the sky. “Why did you do this to me—leave me here to die?” I thought you were my best friend!
The poison stole like ice water through her veins. Objects came in and out of focus.
Sounds grew distorted. And then—as if through a fog—there he was.
“Please help me. I’m . . . sorry . . . really sorry . . .”
“If you hold still you’ll hardly feel it.”
She nodded like a bobble-head doll—faint with relief.
Yet, all of a sudden, he was holding her down with steely hands. When had he gotten so strong? A flash of metal leapt toward her—a serpent’s fangs.
Pain shot through her. “You said it wouldn’t hurt!”
“Shh!” His eyes bored into hers like whirling metallic blades. “Please don’t hurt me!”
As the serpent’s fangs tore into her, she tried to free herself, but the steely hands held her fast. And then it came to her: she was still at the party—she’d never left it! She’d been pulled into a pit of vipers—writhing bodies, rapier fangs, and cold reptilian eyes, shrouded in smoke.
She’d instinctively reached for her phone, then realized she was naked.
“There now, it’s not so bad, now is it?” a disembodied voice asked, his breath a blizzard of ice. He stabbed her again.
And again. And again.
A maniacal laugh rang out, triggering an avalanche of ice to roll upon her, pummeling her with its cold weight.
When Jackie opened her eyes, slate blue eyes slowly came into focus. They were no longer whirling blades, but clear and placid. And the voice that spoke was warm against her cheek. She realized Sam was bending over her, his right cheek bruised, and his T-shirt smeared with blood.
“Well, hello. Lost you for a while. But I think I got it out—most of it, anyway.”
She realized he was talking about the poison. “You sucked it out?”
She stared at him—dazed, grateful, scared—and then turned and vomited on the grass.
“Have some water.” She felt something cold and tried to wrap her lips around the smooth mouth of the bottle. Liquid dribbled out.
“Here.” He cupped his hand under her chin.
“I can do it.”
“No”—laughing gently— “you can’t.”
He guided the bottle to her mouth until she was able to grasp it and take a long sip. The water steadied her and she realized she was back under the live oak, with the cows quietly chomping on grass.
“How’d you find me?”
“On this island? Took me about ten seconds. It was a moccasin, all right. But the swelling’s gone down. A bit.”
She stared at her ankle—swollen to the size of a small balloon. “Oh God!”
“Nothing like it was a few hours ago.”
“A few hours ago? I’ve been out that long?”
“Yeah. You should be fine, but you have to keep still. Just in case.”
“I didn’t get every drop.”
His words unsettled her. She wasn’t out of the woods yet.
He dipped the end of a towel in the ice water at the bottom of the cooler, wrung it out, and handed it to her. “This might help.”
The coolness soothed her hot skin. “Thanks for helping me. Especially after . . . well, after the way I acted.”
“No big deal.”
“I hate who I am.” She blinked back tears as she stared into the horizon, at the oak leaves turning to dark lace against the feeble rays of the sinking sun. “It’ll be dark soon. And still no sign of them?”
“Nope. They could be stranded, too. Or waiting out the storms. Lots of bolts while you were out.”
“But they have phones!”
“Then, don’t worry. I’m sure help is on the way.”
A whooping crane swooped past, its wings cutting through the still, dark air. “Maybe nobody can find us. There are hundreds of knolls like ours. But surely your mother will be persistent—knowing her.”
“She’s out of town, with her sister. Ever since my uncle died she hasn’t been the same. She let me stay home to look after the dogs, Maybe she hasn’t checked in. Or she thinks I’m avoiding her texts.”
“Well, your dogs must be starving by now and yapping their heads off.”
“True. Maybe that’ll get someone’s attention.”
“Not my mother’s. She has no idea I’m here, either. But, unlike yours, she doesn’t give a damn.”
“I’m sure she does.”
“Says the guy who said she was a little off.”
“She really doesn’t.” She realized it was easier to talk as the sun’s watchful eye melted into the water. “You’d never know she was the same mom from when I was small. A brand-new party dress. Smiling, laughing . . . cuddling us.”
She bit down hard on her lip, imprinting her lower lip with her uneven, unbraced teeth. She’d only gone to the dentist once when she’d bitten too hard on a jawbreaker. He hadn’t been able to save her tooth and there was a gap in her lower left jaw, a place where she often placed the tip of her tongue. “Now, it’s like she’s been stuck in the wash cycle for too long. All the real color and substance bleached right out of her. Replaced by artificial dyes, artificial people. I don’t even know her anymore.”
She stared up as more cranes whooshed into an oblivion of gray. “It’ll be dark soon. They’ll be more snakes.”
“Most of them are harmless. I mean, look at all these cows roaming around.”
She tried to calm herself. “I did climb under an overturned tree root, trying to get away from you. Maybe I asked for it.”
“Nobody asks to be bitten by a water moccasin.”
“I know, but still—”
“Nobody asks to be bitten by a water moccasin,” he repeated.
She glanced at the knot under his eye—swollen and bleeding. “So, what happened to you?”
“Your foot. The one that can still kick.”
“I’m really sorry. I thought you were . . .” She tried to squeeze out that night.
“One of the guys who raped you?”
His eyes held hers so unwaveringly that it was no use denying it. “How . . . did you know?”
“The way you kicked, like a wild, crazed thing. And calling me a fucking bastard.”
She glanced at the knot again—seeming to grow before her eyes. Or was that the darkness overtaking them? She burst into tears.
“Hey, it’s gonna be okay.” He leaned over and awkwardly touched her hair. Stroked it.
“No.” She yanked away. “It’ll never be okay.”
“Have you told anyone?”
She shook her head.
“You shouldn’t keep something like that a secret.”
“I tried to put it out of my mind. Pretend it didn’t happen. But I couldn’t. Because—Because—I got pregnant.”
She squeezed her eyes shut, unable to look at him. It was the first time she’d said it out loud.
“You’re . . . having a baby?”
“Did I say I was having a baby? No! I’m not having a baby!” her voice spiked.
The cows mooed—a discontent choir of jurors. She blinked at their eyes, startled by how large and luminous they were. She threw a stick at them. “Scram!”
As they lumbered away, mooing in protest, a lump rose in her throat. “The baby’s gone now, just like the snake poison. Most of it, anyway. Maybe there’s a drop left—just enough to kill me for what I’ve done!”
The sobs came out in a watershed. She cried for her lost innocence, for her aborted child, for her bad choices, for her rotten luck at having parents, who in their own ways, had abandoned her.
In the end, she cried simply because it felt good to let her own poison out. After the tears finally subsided, she realized she was wiping her hot face with a cool towel that magically appeared.
She turned to Sam who had remained beside her—as still as a snake! Unease swept through her—she’d stripped her mind naked before him as easily as she’d stripped her clothes before all those guys. Had she no shame?
“Please don’t tell!” she begged. “Nobody will understand. Especially your mother.” Her voice dropped to a chilling calm. “She’ll despise me—even more than all the pro-life protesters outside the clinic, flaunting their blood-red signs! Murderer! Murderer! And then, word will get out . . .”
“I’ve never met her.”
“You’ve got to promise—”
“I’ve never met her.”
“Never met who?”
“What are you talking about?”
“We all have secrets. That’s mine. That my real mother isn’t Marian Stevens like everyone thinks.”
“Of course she is!”
His eyes held fast to hers as he shook his head.
“You have the same hair and everything.”
He tore out a handful of grass and absently shredded it. “My real mother left me in a dumpster behind Denny’s just hours after I was born. My adoptive parents were coming out of the restaurant when they heard my cries.”
She grew still as his words pressed down upon her—heavy as the steely hands of her nightmare.
“It’s weird thinking about it sometimes—wondering what might have happened if nobody had heard me—how I could’ve died among the old fish bones. Or, if someone else had come along, what family I’d be with now. And what different kind of person I might be. Not that it’s all bad where I ended up. Even if I am the butt of every joke. Especially”—his eyes seared hers— “with girls.”
Jackie stared at a piece of grass, mottled with yellow spots, the end point frayed. How could she have been so stupid as to spill her guts to him! The one in a million kid who happened to be a “living” abortion?!
“Sometimes, I wonder why she did it. Threw me away.”
She watched with trepidation as he picked up a stick and snapped it in half, a hard line forming along his jaw. He no longer seemed young; rather, an assailant conjured up by the gods of Doom. Sent to Earth to give her Hell.
“It’s not something I can ever ask my mom, who clings to me like Saran Wrap.” He scratched his forehead. “She’s never forgiven my dad for telling me the truth, right before he died. And I don’t know of a single other person I can ask. That’s the real hell of carrying a secret, that it’s a heavy box you feel trapped in.
“But I’d like to think that maybe the same thing happened to my real mom as what happened to you. That she was a kid herself and just got scared.”
Jackie looked straight into his clear blue eyes that were neither innocent nor cold—as the enormity of his words washed over her like a long, cool drink.
For a long time, they sat side by side, swatting mosquitoes, quiet with their thoughts. As darkness crept over the knoll, chasing away the last dregs of the sunlight, the voices of the cicadas rose up in a cacophonous mob. Jackie spied the dim outline of a racer weaving through the sawgrass like well-oiled thread, and was brought back to the present. She tried to shutter her fears as darkness overtook them. Then, God Only Knew what sort of creatures would slither about.
Sam must’ve noticed the snake, too. “Want some Hawaii in a Box? I saved some.”
“Oh, why not?” She took a bite. Tried not to detect traces of boiled bones as the congealed mass slid down her throat. She took another bite and realized she was starving.
“Hey, what do you know? I think I see Honolulu over there?” Sam pointed toward the inky water.
She raised an eyebrow.
“Did you know that Honolulu is the largest city in the world?”
“Geographically. Its tiny islands stretch for 1,500 miles. I don’t even know the name of this obscure one we’re vacationing on.”
“I love the way the mountains here jut up out of the water, don’t you? Hawaiian islands are some of the tallest in the world.”
“Yeah, when you consider even the flattest islands are really mountaintops rising up from the ocean floor nearly 18,000 feet below.”
“How do you know that?”
“I read stuff. That’s how high we are right now, on this dot of an island. All because of underwater volcanoes that spewed liquid rock from the bowels of the earth thousands of years ago. That took a lot of energy. A lot of energy.”
She bit down on something squishy. A tiny piece of real pineapple?
“Then you add another 12,000 or so feet to the mountainous ones and you’ve got some gigantic mountains. Like that one. Sheer ascending rock.”
She realized she was squinting to see through the inky darkness when he turned to her. Flicked away a mosquito on her shoulder, so engorged with blood it was too fat to fly. “Did you know that the happiest people are those who have a mountain view?”
“I’ll bet you read that somewhere, too.”
“Nope. I’m living it.” He smiled.
She widened her eyes to try to see through the darkness closing in. Nothing.
She took another bite. There were pineapple chunks in it. Real ones. She held them between her teeth, squeezing out the sweet juice.
About the Author:
Beth Weaver has one published YA novel (Rooster), hold a PhD in English, and teach Literature and Humanities in Orlando.