Wills stared at the woman. “She’s dead.”
“Oh,” the woman said. “I’m sorry.”
God, but he was tired of those words. “It would mean a lot to her that you remembered,” Johnny said tiredly.
“She had a beautiful smile,” the woman said.
“Well.” She patted his shoulder as if they were friends. “I hope the island helps you. It can if you let it. Aloha.”
Later, as they walked home in the fading light, the boys were so tired they started fighting. Johnny was too weary to care. In the house, he helped them get ready for bed and tucked them in, kissing them each good night.
“Dad?” Wills said sleepily. “Can we go in the water tomorrow?”
“Course, Conqueror. That’s why we’re here.”
“I’ll go in first, I bet. Luke’s a chicken.”
Johnny kissed them again and stood up. Pushing a hand through his hair and sighing, he walked through the house, looking for his daughter. He found her on the lanai, sitting in a beach chair. Moonlight bathed the bay. The air smelled of salt and sea and plumeria. Heady and sweet and seductive. Dotted along the two-mile curve of beach were fires, around which shadowy people danced and stood. The sound of laughter rose above the whooshing of the waves.
“We should have come here when she was alive,” Marah said. She sounded young and sad and far away.
That stung. They’d meant to. How many times had they planned a trip, only to cancel for some now-forgotten reason? You think you have all the time in the world until you know you don’t. “Maybe she’s watching us.”
“A lot of people believe in that.”
“I wish I was one of them.”
Johnny sighed. “Yeah. Me, too.”
Marah got up. She looked at him, and the sadness he saw in her eyes was devastating. “You were wrong.”
“The view doesn’t change anything.”
“I needed to get away. Can you understand that?”
“Yeah, well. I needed to stay.”
On that, she turned and went back into the house. The door slid shut behind her. Johnny stood there, feeling shaken by her words. He hadn’t thought of what his kids needed, not really. He’d folded their needs into his own and told himself they’d all be better off.
Kate would be disappointed in him. Already. Again. And even worse, he knew his daughter was right.
It wasn’t paradise he wanted to see. It was his wife’s smile, and that was gone forever.
This view didn’t change a thing.
Even in paradise—or maybe especially in paradise—Johnny slept poorly, unaccustomed as he was to being alone, but each morning he woke to sunshine and blue skies and the sound of waves that seemed to be laughing as they rolled onto the sand. He was usually the first to waken. He started his day with a cup of coffee on the lanai. From there, he watched daylight come to the blue waters of the horseshoe-shaped bay. He often talked to Katie out here, saying things he wish he’d said before. In the end, as Kate lay dying, the mood in their house had been as somber as gray flannel, hushed and soft. He knew that Margie had let Katie talk about what scared her—leaving her children, knowing they would be sad, her pain—but Johnny had been unable to listen, even on that last day.
I’m ready, Johnny, she’d said in a voice as quiet as the brush of a feather. I need you to be ready, too.
I can’t be, he’d said. What he should have said was, I will always love you. He should have held her hand and told her it was okay.
“I’m sorry, Katie,” he said to her then—too late. He strained for a sign that she’d heard. A breeze in his hair, a flower falling in his lap. Something. But there was nothing. Just the sound of the waves whooshing coquettishly onto the sand.
The island had helped the boys, he thought. From dawn to dusk, they were on the go. They ran races in the yard, learned to body-surf in the bubbling foam of the breaking waves, and buried each other in the sand. Lucas talked about Kate often, mentioning her in casual conversations almost every day. He made it sound as if she were at the store and would soon come home. At first it had disconcerted the rest of them, but in time, like the gentle, ceaseless roll of the waves, Lucas had brought Kate into their circle again, kept her present, shown them the way to remember her. Mom would have loved this became a common refrain, and it helped them all.
Well, perhaps that wasn’t quite right. After a week in Kauai, Johnny still had no idea what would help Marah. She had become a pod version of herself—same elegant beauty and commitment to personal grooming, but with a flat look in her eyes and an automatronic way of moving. While he and the boys played in the surf, she sat on the beach, listening to music and tapping her cell phone as if it were a transponder that could get her rescued. She did everything that was asked of her, and more that wasn’t, but she was a ghost version of herself. There and not there. When Kate was mentioned, Marah invariably said something like, She’s gone, and walked away. She was always walking away. She didn’t want to be on this vacation and she wanted to reiterate that point on a daily basis. Not once had she put so much as a toe in the water.
Like now. Johnny was standing waist-deep in the warm blue water, helping the boys catch waves on their Styrofoam boogie boards, while Marah sat in a bright pink beach chair on the sand, staring to her left.
As he watched her, a group of young men approached her.
“Keep walking, guys,” he muttered.
“What, Dad?” Wills yelled. “Push me!”
Johnny gave Wills a push into the gathering wave and said, “Kick,” but he wasn’t watching his son.
On shore, the young men gathered around his daughter like bees to a blossom.
The boys were older, probably college-age. He was just about to get out of the water, march across the hot sand, and grab one of the kids by his surfer-dude hair when they walked away.
“Be right back, boys,” he said, walking through the two-foot surf to the beach. He sat down next to his daughter. “So what did the Backstreet Boys want?” He tried to sound casual.
She didn’t answer.
“They’re too old for you, Marah.”
She looked at him finally. Dark sunglasses shielded the expression in her eyes. “I was not hav**g s*x with them, Dad. We were just talking.”
“Nothing.” On that enlightening answer, she got up and walked back toward the house. The sliding door cracked shut behind her. They hadn’t had a conversation that lasted longer than three sentences all week. Her anger was a Teflon shield. He could occasionally see glimpses of her pain and confusion and grief, but those seconds didn’t last. She was hidden inside all that anger, a little girl crouched inside a teen with the perfect defense, and he didn’t know how to break through the façade. That had always been Kate’s job.
* * *
That night, Johnny lay in bed, arms wishboned behind his head, staring at nothing. A ceiling fan whirred lazily overhead; the mechanism caught once each revolution, made a clicking sound between the thwop-thwop-thwop of the turning blades. The louvered shutters on his door clattered quietly, buffeted by the breeze.
It didn’t surprise him that he was still awake on this last night of their vacation—if that was what a trip like this could reasonably be called—and he was pretty sure he wouldn’t be able to go to sleep. He glanced at the digital clock: 2:15.
He threw back the sheets and got out of bed. He opened the louvered door and stepped out onto the lanai. A full moon hung in the night sky, impossibly bright. Black palm trees swayed in the plumeria-scented air. The beach looked like a curl of tarnished silver.
He stood there a long time, breathing in the sweet air, listening to the sound of the waves. It calmed him so much he thought maybe he could sleep.
He made a pass through the darkened house. It had become his habit in the past week to check on his kids during the night. He carefully opened the boys’ bedroom door. They slept in twin beds, side by side. Lucas clutched his favorite toy—a stuffed orca whale. His brother had no time for such little-boy’s toys.
He closed the door slowly and went down to Marah’s room, opening the door quietly.
What he saw inside her room was so unexpected, it took him a second to comprehend.
Her bed was empty.
“What the hell…?”
He turned on the light and looked more closely.
She was gone. So were her gold flip-flops. And her purse. Those were the only things he knew for sure, but it was enough to tell him that she hadn’t been abducted. Well, that and the open window—which had been locked when she went to bed and could only be opened from the inside.
She had sneaked out.
“Son of a bitch.” He went back to the kitchen and rummaged through the cupboards until he found a flashlight. Then he set off in search of his daughter.
The beach was mostly empty. Here and there he saw couples walking hand in hand along the silvery foam line left by the waves or coiled up together on beach towels. He didn’t hesitate to bathe anyone he saw in the bright beam from the flashlight.
At the old concrete pier that jutted out into the surf, he paused, listening. He could hear laughter and smell smoke. There was a bonfire up ahead.
And he smelled marijuana.
He walked up onto the grass and around the start of the pier and headed into the big trees that grew in the area locals called Black Pot Beach.
There was a bonfire out on the point of land that separated Hanalei Bay from the Hanalei River. Even from here, he could hear the music—Usher, he was pretty sure—grinding out through cheap plastic speakers. Several cars had their headlights on.
He could see some kids dancing around a bonfire and more were gathered around a string of Styrofoam ice chests.
Marah was dancing with a long-haired, shirtless, cargo-shorted young man. She was downing the last of a beer as she moved her hips, swaying to the music. She was wearing a jeans skirt so small it could double as a cocktail napkin, and a tank top that she’d cut off to show her flat stomach.
No one even noticed him as he strode through the party. When he grabbed Marah by the wrist, she laughed at first and then gasped in recognition.
“Whoa, old guy,” her dance partner said, frowning deeply, as if trying to focus.
“She’s sixteen years old,” Johnny said, thinking that he should get some kind of medal for not coldcocking the kid.
“Really?” The young man straightened and backed away, his hands lifted in the air. “Dude…”
“What is that supposed to mean? Is it a question or a statement or an admission of wrongdoing?”
The kid blinked in confusion. “Whoa. Huh?”
Johnny dragged Marah away from the party. At first she was complaining, but she went quiet just before she puked all over his flip-flops. Halfway down the beach, after she’d vomited twice more (with him holding her hair back), he put an arm around her to steady her.
In front of their cottage, he led her to a chair on the lanai.