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Vitroby Jessica Khoury
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***
Copyright © 2014 by Jessica Khoury
O N E
“Skin Island,” Sophie said for what felt like the hundredth time. “I know what I’m talking about. It’s called Skin Island, and it has to be nearby. Please, can’t you just check again?”
She’d spent the last twenty hours in airports and cramped planes, nearly missing her second connecting flight after getting lost in the Tokyo airport and almost arrested for having a pair of scissors in her backpack, and she felt she would collapse if she took another step. She planted her hands on the travel agent’s counter and refused to move until she had an answer. Behind her, the lobby of A.B. Won Pat International Airport basked in the afternoon sunlight that streamed through tall glass windows. Sunburned tourists and TSA agents navigated through the network of cordoned-off aisles and piles of suitcases, oblivious to the turmoil churning in Sophie’s stomach. Her flight to Guam had landed an hour earlier, but she still felt as if she were caught in a wave of turbulence.
The travel agent’s eyelid twitched. Sophie could tell that the man was nearing the edge of his patience. “I’ve checked every list, every database I know of, young lady. There simply is no Skin Island. It doesn’t exist.”
He spoke with a tone of irritated finality, and leaned back in his chair and folded his arms over his chest. Sophie guessed the man was in his fifties from his balding scalp and drooping jawline. He had sweat stains under his arms and smelled of garlic.
“I can pay you, I swear. I know it exists! My mom’s worked there for years.”
“You could hand over the key to the national treasury, wouldn’t make a bit of difference. It’s not there, I’m telling you! I’m sorry, miss, but I can’t produce an island out of thin air.”
She drew a deep breath to steady herself, feeling like a torn flag whipped and battered by a hurricane. “If you can’t help me, then who can? There must be someone local who knows the surrounding area.”
“I’m telling you, there’s no—”
“Look . . .” She glanced at his name tag. “Randy. I did not come halfway around the world just for kicks. Give me something to go on—a name, a map, a fricking rental boat so I can go find the place myself.” She glanced over the counter, at the desk he was sitting at, and spied a laminated map folded up and tucked between a mug of pens and a stapler. Before he could react, she lunged across the counter and snatched it, dancing backward when he tried to grab it.
The Mariana Islands marched in a gentle crescent from southern Guam to some speck of an island called Farallon de Pajaros on the northern edge of the paper, but none of them was called Skin Island. There were, however, several small, unlabeled islands—perhaps one of these was the one she sought.
The map disappeared as the travel agent plucked it away, and she found herself staring at her own empty hands. He had risen from his chair in the effort, and now sat down again, making the chair squeak beneath him. Heaving a sigh, he methodically refolded the map and tucked it back into place.
“You might check with the local charter pilots,” he said. “Might be your island is too small to be listed with me, or goes by another name. Get a taxi, go to the Station—it’s the bar where they all hang out. If they don’t know your island, then it really doesn’t exist.”
“Thank you,” she said. They exchanged scowls of mutual annoyance before she turned and walked away.
Outside the airport, she stood on the curb and waited for a taxi. It was the first moment she’d had since landing to stop and breathe and take it all in. Guam was a mixture of strange and familiar; strange, because for the last nine years she had lived in Boston, and the warm, damp air and tropical views seemed hardly real. Familiar, because the first seven years of her life had been spent on this island. It was home to her, but a home that was a distant, sepia-toned memory, a life that was folded between the pages of a dusty scrapbook. Now that she was back, she felt oddly shy, as if she were calling up a friend she’d not seen in years. Would anyone here remember her? How much had this place changed? It doesn’t matter, she thought. I’m not here to stay. She was just passing through. Her mother didn’t live on Guam anymore; she’d moved to Skin Island when Sophie was seven, and a month later, Sophie and her dad moved to Boston.
A taxi finally pulled up. She tossed her backpack inside, slid into the crackled leather seat, and told the driver her destination.
When she got there, Sophie thought she’d been played for a fool. She’d asked to go to the Station, and the taxi driver had dropped her at a rusty, tin building that just looked . . . well, cranky. Like it wasn’t any happier to see her than she was to see it. She didn’t remember this section of the island, but then, she’d remembered much less of what she’d seen on the ride here than she might have guessed.
She was doubtful, but then she saw THE STATION painted on the tin in faded, chipped green letters. The small window in the metal door, though dirty and streaked, revealed a dimly lit room within. She stood on the toes of her worn pink Chucks and pressed her nose against the glass. There was a bar, after all. She could see it against the far end of the room, complete with a tired-looking bartender and a small television playing an old ’90s sitcom.
Sophie hitched her backpack higher on her shoulders, then turned the metal handle on the door. It was heavier than she’d expected, and she had to push it open with her shoulder. Once she was through, it slammed shut with a bang, as if offended by her intrusion. Only one table in the room was occupied, by a group of men playing poker. They all stared up at her. Feeling intensely self-conscious, she wondered if one of them might be a pilot she could beg for help.
To be certain, though, she first went to the bar and stood at the counter. “Excuse me,” she said. “I’m looking for—”
The bartender had his back to her, and he threw up a hand for her to wait. She bit her lip and glanced at the men in the corner. They’d gone back to their game, but were watching her between plays. She looked away. On the other side of the room, an A-frame ladder was set up between two tables. Someone stood on top of it, his jeans dirty with grease and rumpled over a pair of work boots. The man’s upper half was concealed by the ceiling; he’d removed one panel and seemed to be working on something electrical she couldn’t see.
Sophie turned back to the bartender, who was intent on polishing a set of shot glasses and seemed happy to ignore her. She drifted further down the bar, to where a small metal fan oscillated on the corner. The building was not air-conditioned, and it was hotter inside than it was outside—and it even felt more humid. She wouldn’t have thought it possible, from the way her clothes had instantly adhered to her skin when she walked out of the airport.
Now she was standing just beside the ladder, and peered curiously up. Whoever it was on top of it, his reaching into the ceiling was making his shirt lift, revealing a stack of abs and a hint of plaid boxers.
“You gonna wipe that drool off my counter when you’re done gawking, young lady?”
Sophie jumped. The bartender leaned over the counter and grinned at her with gleaming, perfectly aligned teeth. They didn’t look real, not in his stubbled, pudgy face.
“The guy at the airport said a local pilot might be able to help me find the island I’m looking for. Are there any pilots here? He said this was where to find them.”
He nodded to the table in the corner. “There’s Jordy and Pete. Ty’ll be along later, but Nandu’s out flying some tourists.”
There was a sudden clatter overhead, and Sophie instinctively ducked, but it was just the guy messing around in the ceiling. The fan turned her way and blasted her hair across her face. “Thanks.”
She made for the table in the corner. Two of the men had gray hair and deep tans, and the third was entirely bald. Sophie stood beside the table and waited. The poker players glanced at her casually, but didn’t give her their attention until she cleared her throat and tapped the table. Then they turned away from their game and stared at her silently, each of them looking offended that she’d interrupted the round.
“Sorry to bother you,” Sophie said, doing her best to keep a rein on her frayed and weary temper. “I was told one of you might know the location of Skin Island, and could fly me there?”
They exchanged looks. The bald man laid his cards face-down on the table and twisted his neck, making his spine crack. “Skin Island,” he said slowly, drawing the words out in a low tone that Sophie barely caught. The other two stared at Sophie again, but this time, there was a guarded look in their eyes. The one who’d spoken was American by his accent, and the other two looked Polynesian.
“Maybe I’ve heard of it,” the bald man went on. “Maybe I haven’t. But I’d sure as hell not fly you there.”
“Wouldn’t fly the president himself to Skin Island,” growled one of the others. He tossed a five-dollar bill into the pot. “Raise you five, Pete.”
“I see you,” the third man said. “And I raise you five back. Look, little lady, what my friends here are trying to tell you is that nobody flies to Skin Island. Nobody. I don’t know what you want with that place, but you’d best just turn around and go home.” He glanced around the room, as if afraid someone had heard him speak.
She started over. “Listen. My mom works on Skin Island. I don’t know what you’ve heard or what your deal is, but I have to get there. Please. It’s an emergency.”
They were unmoved. If anything, they looked even stonier.
“Nandu flew out there a few months back,” said Pete. “Didn’t he tell you about it, Jordy?”
The bald man grunted. “He’d run into engine trouble and had to put down. Skin Island had the nearest airstrip. Said he was met by an armed welcoming committee—they welcomed him to leave. He got a good look around, though. That old resort—Halcyon Bay or something like that—they’d taken over a few of the buildings, had a bunch of doctors running around, real secretive. They marched him back to his plane and sent him packing. Would have shot him, he said, if he didn’t go. He took his chances with the faulty engine.” He shook his head. “He barely made it back in that old junker he calls a plane.”
The story seemed stretched to Sophie, a tall tale told by a pilot to impress his friends, perhaps. Then again, her father had always told her she’d never be allowed to visit Skin Island, no matter how many times she begged her mother to let her come. The security around the place was Code Paranoid, which Sophie found a bit melodramatic considering the focus of her mom’s research was finding cures for psychological conditions like Alzheimer’s. “What are you scared of?” she’d asked her mother once on the phone. Moira Crue had replied, “Our work has the potential to make billions of dollars, Sophie. People have committed genocide for less. Now stop asking questions.”
“See, girl? You’re better off getting a flight to the moon,” said Pete.
“Forget about Skin Island,” said Jordy, and he folded, leaving the third man to collect the pot.
“Is there no one who will take me there?” Her voice pitched upward. I will not panic. I will not panic. But as many times as she told it to herself, it didn’t quench the riot of nerves sizzling like cut wires inside her. She clenched the paper in her pocket as if it were a rabbit’s foot to bring her luck. She had to get to that island. It wasn’t just the e-mail. It wasn’t just her mom. I can’t go back now. I’d look like an idiot. Dad will murder me for this as it is!
“Well . . .” Pete yawned and drummed grease-stained fingers on his Heineken bottle. “There might be just one guy stupid enough to—”
“Pete.” Bald man’s voice was low, cutting the pilot off midsentence.
“Can’t hurt to ask,” Pete replied genially. He peered up at Sophie from beneath wispy white eyebrows. “If there’s anyone who might fly you to Skin Island, it’s Jim Julien.”
“Jim Julien,” Jordy grunted disdainfully as he shuffled the deck.
“Jim Julien,” replied the third man with a thoughtful look. “You know, I think Pete may be right. Jim might take you.”
“Jim Julien,” Sophie whispered. A little bell began to ring in the back of her mind. I know that name. . . .
“Jim!” the bartender yelled suddenly. “Get down here. Someone for you.”
“Not the IRS, is it?” asked a voice.
Sophie spun to see the work boots making their way down the ladder. Her eyes trailed up, over the jeans and sleeveless gray undershirt, to a tan, square jaw and a pair of deep, golden-brown eyes. He was no older than she was, from the look of him, and he was not what she’d expected at all. After talking to the poker pilots, she’d imagined every aviator on Guam was ancient, grizzled, and half-sunk into a bottle of beer. This one was anything but. And the moment she met his gaze, it all fell into place: golden afternoons spent splashing in the shallow blue bays around the island, star-speckled night hikes through the jungled mountains, hours of playing hide-and-seek at the Chamorro fiestas that were held on an almost weekly basis around the island.
Jim Julien. She knew him, all right.
His housekeeper Ginya had practically raised the pair of them while Jim’s mom taught at the university and his dad flew tourists around the islands and Sophie’s parents did their research on Skin Island. Though he figured prominently in most of her memories of Guam, she hadn’t really thought about him in years. He hardly looked like the energetic little boy who was always dragging her into trouble, but there was a trace of mischief in his eyes that was the Jim she remembered, and she found herself grinning ear to ear.
“Oh,” he said, looking Sophie up and down as he pulled a red bandanna from his back pocket and used it to wipe sweat from his forehead. He didn’t seem to recognize her, and the fuzzy feelings in her stomach faded a little. “You don’t look too dangerous.” He pocketed the bandanna and jumped to the floor, then stuck a hand out. “Jim Julien. Can I help you?”
Sophie realized her jaw was open. She snapped it shut and took his hand. It was warm, callused, and she noticed how defined the veins on the back of it were, tracing up his wrist and over the muscles in his arm. Definitely not the little boy I remember. He had an Adam’s apple and stubble on his jaw. The Jim she’d known had had a childish plumpness to his limbs and gaps where his baby teeth had fallen out.
“Hi. Um, my name is Sophie. I was hoping to get a—a ride.” She watched him closely, to see if he’d recognize her, but he just nodded and leaned on the counter, ran a hand through his hair—not, Sophie thought, without some idea of the impression he made when he did so. She narrowed her eyes, irrationally indignant that he didn’t seem to be keeling over with sudden recognition.
“Sophie, huh? It’s hot out there. You want a drink?” “I don’t drink. I’m just seventeen.”
He gave her a bemused look. “Just a Coke. Porter?”
The bartender tossed a can to Jim, who cracked it open and handed it to her. “You sightseeing?” He looked her up and down and grinned. “I know some great spots for sunbathing. You a sunbather?”
“You a pilot? You seem kind of . . . young.” She was being snappish, wondering why he didn’t seem to know her. We used to weave hats out of palm fronds and strut around the neighborhood as if we owned it, stealing bananas from the fruit vendors. Ginya used to let us take naps on the grass, but when she fell asleep we’d sneak off and you’d steal matches from the kitchen and teach me how to light them. They’d set the neighbor’s chicken coop on fire, and then Jim had tried to convince Ginya that the chickens had done it.
“I’m twenty-two,” he said casually, stretching his arms and giving her the full benefit of his biceps. Sophie rolled her eyes. She knew it was a lie. And since when had he been a pilot? His dad had taken the two of them up in his plane on several occasions, Sophie recalled, and he’d let Jim sit up front and pretend to fly. The memories were swarming back like sparrows taking flight, startled out of hiding by the unexpected appearance of this strangely grown-up version of her child- hood friend. Best friend, Sophie thought. When I was four, I was convinced he was my brother. She remembered crying when her parents explained he wasn’t.
“Now, Jim, don’t lie to the lady,” drawled Porter. “He’s eighteen, sweetheart, and that’s a fact.”
Jim laughed, seemingly unfazed that Porter had called his bluff. “Oh fine, eighteen, then. I’ve had my license a year, but I’ve been flying since I was ten. You going to tell on me?” He leaned on the counter and flashed her a smile worthy of a Colgate commercial. “So where you want to go? Want to buzz up to Saipan? Great lagoons, beaches, and we could probably scare up some whales. How many in your group?”
“It’s just me. Whales? Really?” She shook her head, feeling dizzy with nostalgia and almost forgetting why she was here to begin with. She slipped her hand into her pocket and wrapped her fingers around the paper inside to remind herself. “I mean—no! No, not Saipan. Look, I need to go to Skin Island.”
The smile fell from Jim Julien’s face. On the other side of the bar, Porter’s hands froze on the glass he was drying. For a moment, the only sound in the bar was the tick and whirr of the metal fan beside Jim’s elbow and the hum of the neon Budweiser sign above their heads.
“What?” she asked. “What is it?”
Jim’s eyes darted from Porter to the men in the corner, then he took Sophie by the elbow. “Come with me.”
“What? Stop it! Let go!”
He pulled her toward the door, shouldered it open, and then waved her through. Bewildered and irritated, she stepped outside and then whirled to face him as the door clanged shut. “What’s wrong with you? Why’d you drag me out like that?”
“Where’d you hear about Skin Island?” he asked.
“My mom works there. What’s the big deal?”
Jim ran his fingers through his hair, which was thick, unruly, and in need of a trim, and looked around nervously. “You don’t just go to Skin Island. Nobody goes to Skin Island, you—” He stopped dead. His eyes grew wide. “Wait, wait, wait. What did you say your name was?”
“Sophie. Sophie Crue.”
“Sophie . . .” And then it must have hit him, because his mouth spread into a smile. “Sophie Crue! But—but I know you!”
She folded her arms, holding back a smile of her own. “So your brain finally catches up to you.”
“But you’re Sophie Crue! You’re supposed to be this big!” He held his hand at hip height.
“And you’re supposed to be running around shirtless,” she retorted, then she flushed. “I mean—you know what I mean. You used to—”
“Always rip off my shirt and use it to haul the shells you insisted on collecting?” He grinned, apparently amused by her discomfiture. “I remember. And I remember you used to pick your nose.”
She gaped at him. “I did not!”
“Oh, yeah you did. C’mon, you don’t remember? We used to have contests to see who could—”
“Shut up!” she said, her face as hot as a sunburn. “Never mind. Look. We can catch up later, okay? Right now I just need to know if you can or can’t take me to Skin Island. It’s my mom, Jim. Remember her?”
His smile fell away and he paced around her, his boots crunching on the gravel parking lot. Sophie waited impatiently, biting her lip to keep herself from begging with every last breath she had. She wondered at everyone’s reaction to the words “Skin Island.” It’s not like I’m asking for a plane ride to Mordor, she thought.
“She still works out there, huh?” he asked, his tone guarded.
“Always has. She moved there permanently when I was seven.”
“Which is when you and your dad moved to the States.”
“I remember, but I can’t take you to Skin Island. I’m sorry.” He folded his arms and looked mildly embarrassed, but a wall of finality seemed to have risen between them.
“Fine,” said Sophie, her ears burning. “Then at least tell me where it is—and where I can rent a boat. I’ll go myself.”
“What’s going on with you?” he asked, unfolding his arms. “Why can’t your mom help you out?”
“I don’t know the details, but I know she needs me. She e-mailed me a few days ago and asked me to come, said it was an emergency.” She took out the paper from her pocket and held it out. She already had the words memorized.
I need you. Please come at once. I’ll look for you
on Friday. Do not reply to this e-mail.
It was the first time in Sophie’s life that her mom had needed her, the first time she’d ever invited Sophie to the one place she’d never been allowed to go, the place that had stolen her mother from her and ended her parents’ marriage. She couldn’t go back to the U.S., not now. Not back to the stepmother who’d never loved her as much as her two natural children, not to the father with whom she’d argued to the point of tears. There was just one person in the world whom Sophie needed, and now at last, impossibly and wonderfully, that person needed her back.
Jim didn’t look at the note. “You think you’re just gonna sail yourself out to Skin Island?”
She pursed her lips and stared resolutely over his shoulder.
“You’re crazy!” he said.
“Not crazy,” she muttered. “Desperate.”
He studied her, his eyes narrowed, as the wind ruffled his thick sun-streaked hair. Slowly, he shook his head. “If you were anyone else . . .” he murmured. “Sophie Crue. Who’d have thought? I’d almost forgotten all about you.”
“Gee,” she said. “Thanks.”
He sighed. “I’ll take you,” he said, but before she could squeal with delight he held up a hand. “But I hope to God you know what you’re getting into.”
T W O
Jim pulled the chocks from the wheels of the faded old Cessna Caravan and tossed them into the grass on the side of the runway. The temperature seemed to be increasing exponentially, and his shirt was stuck to his skin. After shrugging off his faded bomber jacket, he pulled his bandanna from his back pocket, dark with grease and smelling of avgas, and wiped sweat from his neck and forehead. The heat in Guam was fairly mild, but the humidity could sap the energy out of him in a matter of hours, even after so many years.
There wasn’t another soul in sight. The airstrip was almost completely abandoned, used only by a few locals like Jim and his dad. The airlines all went in and out of Won Pat, on the northern end of Guam. This little forgotten splash of pavement was much quieter, though he still had to deal with the larger airport’s traffic control.
Two unpainted, narrow runways streaked toward the southern curve of the island, abruptly stopping just yards from the beach. The grass around them was tall and uncut, and a perpetual ocean breeze shuddered through it and curled beneath a loose flap of tin on the lone hangar, making it rattle and clap. Jim was so used to the sound he barely heard it, the same way he tuned out the steady hush of the surf and the throaty cries of the seagulls.
He ran his hands over the propeller of the plane, then along the familiar aluminum fuselage, feeling the smooth round rivets against his palm. It was warm to the touch from baking in the sun all day, and the green strip that ran from nose to tail was so faded it was nearly yellow. Dents and scratches marred the metal, each one telling a story of some landing or storm or parking mishap, and the floats beneath it had churned as much water as any boat. He knew each ding and dent by heart. Despite its age and appearance, Jim trusted N614JA more than the pavement beneath his feet. He fingered a scratch along the engine cowl that had come from a freak collision with a seagull during takeoff three years ago.
“Well, beauty, I guess we’d better get going,” he said, slapping the edge of the wing as he ducked beneath it. When he came up on the other side, he found himself face-to-face with Sophie Crue. Her long blond hair and thin white cargo shirt fluttered in the salty breeze. Little Sophie Jane, all grown up.
“You made it,” Jim said. He’d told her it would take a while to get the plane fueled and prepped, so she’d gone off in search of something to eat. That had given him an entire hour to reconsider the deal he’d made. On the one hand, this was Sophie Crue, who’d been his faithful follower for years, letting him drag her from one mild crime to the next, playing the sidekick to all his superhero shenanigans, covering for him when he set things on fire or broke valuable items. On the other, it was Skin Island he was flying to. The only aircraft flying in and out of Skin Island were black, expensive helicopters piloted by men in dark suits and sunglasses. They used the main airport, but never stopped to hobnob with the locals. He knew where the island was—all the other pilots did, because they had to avoid it—but he’d also heard the story about Nandu. The island had a whole canon of urban legends attached to it: boaters who sailed there and never returned, strange lights on the shorelines in the middle of the night, lab-created monsters that were half-man, half-beast. Jim didn’t put much stock in most of the rumors that went around about the place, but he knew better than to test them himself. Now those stories cut through his thoughts like an emergency alert on the television, a warning he was tempted to heed.
He had vague memories of Sophie’s parents, both doctors or scientists or something, who had worked on Guam but went out to Skin Island several times a week. When they did, Sophie stayed with him and Ginya, his Chamorro nanny. His mom had been a professor, and if he remembered it correctly, she met Sophie’s parents at the labs in the university, which they used from time to time. Those days were a distant haze, another life. He thought of that time period as Before She Left, and it was a vault of memories he rarely opened. It only left him with a sucking hollowness in his chest. But Sophie Crue . . . She was a memory he didn’t mind reliving, especially now that she was here in the flesh, nine years older than when he’d last seen her. What can I do? Tell her no? Watch her walk away, disgusted with me?
According to Nandu, the airstrip that serviced the island was set on a smaller spit of land just off its north shore; he might not even need to set foot on Skin Island itself. He’d stay with the plane, let Sophie do her thing, not get involved. He ignored the voice in his head that pointed out that as many times as he’d sworn to stay out of other people’s problems, it wasn’t really his style, and interfering had gotten him in more trouble than he cared to add up. Not this time, though. He’d help Sophie, but he wanted nothing to do with Skin Island itself.
“Are you sure this thing is safe?” Sophie asked, giving his plane a dubious look.
Jim didn’t deign to answer that. “You ready to go?”
She looked ragged, as if she hadn’t slept in days, with shadows under her eyes and tangles in her hair. She was obviously going through some kind of hell, but was trying her best to just keep it together for a little while longer. He knew the feeling all too well.
“Not too much daylight left,” he said. “You’ll have one hour on the ground, two at the max. Got it? No delays. This trip—well, being Skin Island and all, I’ll kind of be flying below the radar. Don’t want to broadcast it to the whole world. They’re touchy that way, these scientists.”
“What do you know about them?” she asked sharply.
“Not much.” Jim opened the passenger door. “You sure about this?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” She gripped the metal doorway and pulled herself into the cockpit, and he had to duck to avoid being slammed in the face by her backpack.
“You want to go to Skin Island.”
“If it’s so bad”—she leaned out of the doorway until her nose was inches from his, her turquoise eyes burning with a look that brought back an onslaught of memories, most of them involving their five-year-old selves running wild through the street markets—“why are you taking me there?”
Jim shut the door, making her sit back quickly to avoid getting caught in it. He grumbled to himself as he made one last walk around the plane, asking the same question. It came down to one, she was pretty and needed help, and that was a powerful combination, and two, simply for old times’ sake. As he climbed into the pilot’s seat and jammed his ancient headset over his ears, a third reason occurred to him: I’m an idiot.
Well. It was done now, and he wasn’t one to go back on a promise. He checked to be sure Sophie’s seat belt was strapped over all the right places and securely fastened—he was paranoid about seat belts ever since a Japanese tourist kid had left his off and gotten his head knocked on the ceiling during landing, resulting in a concussion that had severely damaged Jim’s dad’s finances (such as they were) in the resulting insurance fiasco.
Then he went through the preflight procedures, checking the throttle, flaps, instruments, brakes; on and on the list went. He set the altimeter, then pulled the headset over his ears and took a scratched pair of aviators from under the seat and slid them over his eyes. The plane rumbled and vibrated around him, making his heart beat faster. There was nothing more exhilarating than flying. When he was fifteen, and his mom finally gave up on him and his dad and returned to the States, Jim spent more time above the ground than on it, covering hundreds of miles of open sea and sky, trying to lose himself in the vast blue-white atmosphere. On the ground, he only ever felt half himself, an empty body going through practiced motions while his soul lingered in the clouds. Every time he went up, it was like slipping back into his real skin, like coming up for air after being too long underwater. Easy and natural and right.
Like going home.
The cramped, weathered plane felt more like home than the house he and his dad lived in. He thought of his dad, whom he’d found that morning passed out on their dilapidated porch, surrounded by empty bottles. Jim had dragged him inside and left him on the couch. It was becoming an all-too-common routine each morning.
He pulled an extra headset from the pocket behind Sophie’s seat and dropped it in her lap. “Put that on.” She pulled it over her ears, adjusted the arm of the mic, and then gave him a dazzling smile. He sighed and pushed her backpack over so he could reach the throttle.
Jim revved the engine and the plane jerked into a taxi. The Cessna roared up to speed, fighting to leap into the air, but Jim waited until he was nearly out of pavement before pulling back on the yoke. The climb was steep and swift, just how he liked it. Back when he’d bothered to care, Jim’s dad had always criticized him for flying recklessly, but he himself was just as bad. He glanced at Sophie, wondering if she’d get sick from the rapid, rattling ascent, but she looked absorbed in her own thoughts as she stared out at the towering clouds rising around them like ghostly, vaporous skyscrapers. The smile was gone. He knew she must be worrying about her mom, and whatever emergency had called her to this godforsaken armpit of the universe.
When he reached six thousand feet, Jim leveled the plane and settled back for the short flight to Skin Island, hoping that in doing so, he wasn’t making a terrible mistake.
Sophie’s heart beat as rapidly as the propeller of the plane, as if it might saw right through her ribs and burst from her chest. She didn’t know which was stronger: her worry about her mother or her excitement to finally see the mysterious island that had stolen her mother from her. Her nails, which she’d had manicured just a week ago, were now bitten short, and she dug them into the denim of her jeans. As the plane clawed its way through the clouds, she had to force herself not to grind her teeth together, a habit various dentists had scolded her for on countless visits.
I’m going to Skin Island.
It hardly felt real.
But the plane around her certainly felt real; it jolted and shuddered worse than a subway train. When it bucked suddenly, throwing her against the seat belt, she reached out and grabbed Jim’s arm, her stomach and heart tangled in her throat.
“You okay?” His voice was muffles in her ears, the headset transmitting so much static she winced.
“Fine.” She let go of his arm, embarrassed by her jumpiness. He had only one hand on the yoke, and the other rested lightly on a knob on the center console. His amber eyes studied her sidelong from behind his dark aviators, and his lips quirked into a half smile.
“Scared of flying?” he asked. “We used to go up all the time with my dad, remember?”
“Not scared,” she replied quickly. “It’s just been a while since I was in such a small plane. I forgot how bumpy—ah!”
The Cessna tilted to the right, and she clamped her teeth onto her lower lip and slammed a hand into the window to steady herself. Jim laughed.
“You’re doing great!” he shouted.
“I should have known you’d end up here,” she said. “You loved this when we were kids.”
He laughed again, and the knot of nerves in Sophie’s stomach slowly relaxed. There was something soothing in his easy confidence, the way his eyes lit up as the plane gained altitude. Compared to this Jim, the one she’d spoken to on the ground had been half-asleep. She found herself staring at the line of his jaw, the way the corners of his lips continually twitched as if he were always on the verge of a smile. His thick, dark hair crested over his forehead in an unruly wave, and she wasn’t sure whether she wanted to attack it with a pair of scissors or run her fingers through it. She was intrigued and a bit shy of this grown-up Jim, unsure of how much of the boy she’d once known still remained.
Realizing she was staring a bit too long, Sophie turned away and looked through the windshield. Above them stretched a ceiling of clouds, bending away to the horizon. She felt a flutter of claustrophobia in her gut—a strange feeling, considering I’m surrounded by the whole of the sky—and to distract herself, she reached out and ran a finger over the yoke in front of her, wondering how it worked. She gripped it with both hands and tried to imagine what it would be like to fly the plane.
A string of white beads hung from the ceiling; they swayed with every movement of the plane. On each bead was carved a word in a language Sophie did not recognize. She reached up and took them in her fingers, running her thumb over the delicate letters. “What does it say?”
Jim glanced at the beads. For a moment he didn’t reply, and she peeked behind his sunglasses to see his eyes had a faraway look. “It’s a Chamorrita poem.”
Chamorrita. The call-and-response poetry sung by the Chamorro people, who were Guam’s original inhabitants. She remembered sitting on Ginya’s lap as she sat on the porch with the other Chamorro women, braiding jewelry to sell to the tourists and singing intricate, clever verses back and forth, like freestyle rap, except sung by grandmothers. I forgot how much I loved this place.
“So what does it say?”
“It says, ‘There is no brightness without darkness. There is no body without its shadow.’ ”
She let go of the beads, and they swung hypnotically, the sunlight flashing off them. “Some kind of good luck charm?”
He drummed his fingers on the yoke, and his tongue darted across his lips. “So your mom moved out to Skin Island full-time, huh?
“Yeah. I don’t remember the details, and she doesn’t talk about it, but I think she was promoted or something and had to move closer to the lab out there. That’s when Dad and I moved to Boston. He teaches biology.”
“Yeah. Her name’s Karen. She has two kids, younger than me. What about your folks?”
“About the same as yours. Mom split three years ago, haven’t seen her since.”
Sophie stared at her hands in her lap. “Sucks.”
“Yeah.” He shifted in his seat, lifted a hand to massage the back of his neck. “Have you been to Skin Island before?”
“Never.” But not for lack of begging. Sophie leaned her head against the glass window, then sat up again when the vibration made her teeth rattle. “I see my mom three times a year at least, and she e-mails and calls a lot. We’ve stayed close, considering.” Considering the distance. Considering how much my dad hates every moment I spend with her. She’d never understood why her dad loathed her mom so much, or what had severed them apart all those years ago. Maybe Skin Island held the answers; it had certainly been a recurring topic of contention in their house when she was seven.
“We sure tore it up, didn’t we?” Jim asked, lightening the mood with a grin. “Back when we were kids.”
Sophie snorted and propped her elbow against the window, resting her head on her hand as she looked at him. “It’s lucky I did move, or you might’ve landed me in jail.”
“Nah. You were too cute to get in trouble. It was me they always blamed.” He winked at her, and she rolled her eyes.
“You were the one that deserved it!” She studied him thoughtfully. “So how have you been, anyway?”
“Oh. You know.” He shrugged. “Nothing changes here. Same old faces, same old drama.”
“What about Ginya?”
“She left when I was about ten, to take care of her mom in Yigo. I’ll see her every now and then. She hasn’t changed a bit. You’d recognize her right off. She’s like, ageless or something.”
Sophie smiled, comforted by the idea that some people never changed, could always be depended on to be exactly the way they should.
“What about you?” he asked. “Boston, huh?”
“Ugh. It’s cold and dirty. I miss here.” She turned and looked down at the blue water below. “I miss the beaches and the never-ending summer.”
He grimaced. “I’ll trade you. You know I’ve never been to the States? I’m a U.S. citizen, but I’ve never once set foot on the continent of North America.”
“You have a deal,” she said. But it wasn’t Guam she wanted, not really. It was Skin Island. This was the argument that had her and her dad at each other’s throats lately. With her senior year approaching, Sophie was ready to make college plans, and her goal was to get through med school as fast as possible and then get a job with her mom. She couldn’t imagine anything more worthwhile to do than find cures for the disorders and diseases of the world. Her mom was a hero, and all Sophie had ever wanted was to be by her side, helping her. But for reasons her dad never seemed able to articulate, he was dead set against her plan. Well, if anyone can back me up, it’ll be Mom. If her mom was okay. Anxiety fluttered in her stomach like a wounded bird, and the note in her pocket weighed like a brick. Dozens of possible explanations came and went through her thoughts, from the mundane to the impossible. A broken limb? An incurable disease? The island was out of toilet paper? Was she being held hostage by a tribe of island cannibals out of a nineteenth-century adventure novel? Her imagination rampaged through a host of wild scenarios, and for the hundredth time she wished her mother’s e-mail had been more specific. This wasn’t 1860, when people sent messages by telegraph and had to pay by the letter.
She leaned her head back and stared up at the ceiling, which was covered with bumper stickers, most of them so old their colors were faded and their edges curled up. They blasted slogans like KEEP CALM AND FLY ON, I’D RATHER BE LUCKY THAN GOOD and CAUTION: AVIATION MAY BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR WEALTH. One depicted a Pegasus soaring through stylized clouds, but instead of feathery angel wings it had sleek airplane wings fixed to its shoulders. There were at least a dozen different AOPA stickers. She glanced behind her; the backseat was cramped and in some places, the cracks in the leather were covered with duct tape. It made her a bit nervous, as her mind couldn’t help but imagine the engine being held together in a similar manner. Then she thought, Can’t go back now. Might as well make the most of it.
Suddenly the plane burst out of the cloud and into another world. Sophie gasped. As a child, she’d flown in this same little plane, and she’d definitely seen the sky from above on the big Boeings, but she’d forgotten it could be like this. So close, so real, so immense. The clouds spread below and around them like some silent white city, with coiling spires and rivers and bulbous stacks, all made of the same pinkish white cloud. It was a dreamscape, a world that continually shifted and flowed, sparkling in the sun like ice cream. She felt the urge to open the window, reach out, and scoop the clouds into her hands as if they were foam in a bubble bath. It was dazzling and terrifying, and the more she stared the more impossible it seemed. The clouds seemed spun of silk the color of apricots, piled and folded and flung across the sky by an unseen hand. She had the strangest sensation that she was three years old, completely enraptured by childlike won- der, pressing her nose to the glass while Jim’s dad laughed and wobbled the plane on purpose to scare them.
“Something, isn’t it?” Jim’s voice crackled through her headset.
“Very,” she whispered, and she stole a look at Jim. Their eyes met and held, and he grinned. She found herself smiling in return, and feeling suddenly shy, she looked away.
They dipped back below the clouds, and Sophie fell into a trance, hypnotized by the endless wrinkling sea. It sparkled with a million winking lights, like a sheet of gray silk peppered with golden white glitter. She saw a few islands, dark green and bent into irregular shapes, pebbles dropped carelessly across the sea. They looked so small it seemed she could pick them up and slip them into her pocket.
Jim lifted one hand and pointed toward the east. “There she is.”
Her reverie snapped in two. She leaned toward him and stared out his window as he took the plane lower.
Skin Island expanded as they approached, became brighter, more green, its mountains more pronounced. They steepled down the center of the island like satin green tents, their foothills crowded with dense forests of palms and pines. The shadows of their ravines were a deep purple, testifying to the range’s steepness and height. A cloud cast a shadow over the southern rim of the larger island, where she thought she glimpsed something white—buildings, or perhaps just the beach. A smaller island graced the waters above the northern shore, like a dot over a fat, slightly bent lowercase i.
“The airstrip is on the smaller one.” Jim’s voice crackled through her headset. “I guess she’s expecting you?”
“My mom? Yes. It’s Friday, isn’t it?” Her mind still felt a bit fuzzy whenever she tried to reckon out the time change, factoring in the international date line as well.
“It’s Friday,” Jim confirmed.
Sophie’s eyes were fastened on the island. The whole situation didn’t feel quite real. Skin Island. She had to keep reminding herself that this was it; there was the island rising up from the sea, the island that haunted her her entire life though she’d never seen it until now.
She’d lost count of how many times she had begged her mother to let her come to Skin Island, always to the same negative result—so why now? What had changed? She hadn’t hesitated a moment when she saw the e-mail. It was if she’d been waiting an excuse to do this very thing, running off to Skin Island to see her mother in her element. She’d always wondered why she’d been sent to Boston with her dad, instead of here, with her mother. She didn’t recall having ever been asked what she wanted to do. All she remembered was that one day, her mom kissed her on the forehead and said she’d see her at Christmas, and a month later Sophie and her dad were on a plane to the States. It was a whirl of dizzying changes that had assaulted her too quickly, too wildly for her seven-year-old mind to digest. She’d always resented her father for whisking her away to a new life and new family she’d never wanted, and always dreamed her mother would whisk her back. She’d just never imagined it would happen quite like this.
“They are expecting you, right?” Jim’s voice crackled through her headset.
She blinked at him. Were they? A sudden, new scenario burst into her thoughts—what if the emergency had to do with the company her mother worked for? Sophie had never trusted the shadowy corporation and its penchant for secrets. What if they’d done something to Moira? “I . . . I don’t know. I mean, my mom is, but—”
His fingers gripped the yoke tighter, making the veins stand out on the backs of his hands. “Look,” he said, “I just want to stay out of it, okay?”
“What do you mean?” She slid him a confused sideways look.
“Just saying.” He kept his eyes trained ahead, but she could see the tightness in the skin around them, even behind his glasses. “All I want is to fly in and fly out, okay? I don’t know what your mom’s got going on in that place, and I don’t want to know.”
She shrugged and turned back to her window. That makes one of us.
Jim tilted the yoke, and the plane sank through the air. Sophie’s stomach rose and for a single moment she felt entirely weightless. Within seconds, she was looking straight ahead at the island instead of down at it; the plane seemed so close to the sea that she imagined she could reach down and drag her fingers through the water.
The plane began to jerk and shudder the lower they went, and Sophie gripped her seat and felt her stomach turn over, threatening to slosh up her breakfast. Jaw clamped tightly shut, Sophie trained her eyes on Jim, as if somehow she could will him to make the wind stop throwing itself against the plane.
He must have noticed her discomfort, because he gave her a lopsided grin. “Don’t worry,” he said, rolling his shoulders as if he was on a casual stroll down the beach. “I can handle this.” “Then shut up and start handling it,” she said through her teeth.
Jim laughed. The plane tilted violently onto its side, and for a moment, she was certain they would roll over and slam into the ocean. The grin on Jim’s lips slipped, and then she really began to feel nauseated.
“What’s wrong?” she shouted, resisting the urge to grab onto his arm and hang on for dear life.
“We’re fine!” he insisted.
The island rushed up to them. Too fast too fast, she thought, pressing into her seat with her eyes stretched wide and her heart pounding. Palms whipped past them, and suddenly there was a ribbon of tarmac unraveling below.
The plane slammed onto the ground, and Sophie was certain that was the end, it was over, she would die—but Jim was laughing and saying, “See? No problem! That was easy as—”
POP POP POP.
Something snapped, something Sophie knew was most likely not supposed to snap, and the plane went into a violent spin, skidding out of control across the pavement. She was thrown against the door, then against Jim, her seat belt cutting into her diaphragm and making it hard to breathe. Everything whirled around her as if she were caught in a giant blender, colors and shapes coalescing into a dizzying rush. An earsplitting screech sliced through her head, a thousand nails on a thousand chalkboards, or forks scraping china plates, so loud that she felt it vibrating in her teeth.
She felt Jim’s arms around her, holding her tightly against him, and she pressed herself into him and was so seized with terror that she couldn’t even manage a scream.
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