an odd collection of tales about learning to do the impossible

y1

This page contains a short description of the book y1 followed by the first four chapters.

Zane swore as a child to protect all the odd people of the world, studying chameleons and muscle groups to teach himself to alter his own appearance. No longer a young boy too smart and too different to fit in, Zane starts his first job at a pharmaceutical company where he uncovers layers of corporate secrets that hide surprisingly vile plans. Once he is sent on a sales trip to the South Pacific, it becomes clear that there are those who would kill to protect the mysteries that the company has worked so hard to keep hidden.  

Charged with murder and hunted by an unsavory boot camp manager, he finds himself sailing to remote islands with a shadowy group known as y1. Fantasy, reality and a bit of speculative science come together as Zane uses all his unique abilities to resist turning from a murder suspect into a murder victim. He still wants to find a way to keep his childhood promise, if he can only live long enough to do so.

Before

Chapter 1. February 1993

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Zane hated the question. He was about to turn seven and that seemed pretty good to him, so the truth was that his goal was to be seven years old. But when adults asked this, which they did a lot, and got that answer, which he gave a lot, they became highly likely to lecture him about life. So he tried saying “doctor,” which worked okay, and “teacher” and “fireman,” which usually brought some sort of pleasant reference to his daddy or grandpa. Zane knew that he should stick to those three grown-up-pleasing answers, taking turns so that the lying wasn’t as bad as if he told the same lie over and over. But because Zane didn’t like lying, he kept trying new ideas.

This particular Saturday morning he had been brought along with his daddy to the tennis courts, so that his mommy and little sister could have some girl time. Whatever that was. He’d spent most of the morning reading in the car and practicing wiggling his ears and eyebrows in the rearview mirror. But now his daddy’s very tall and imposing tennis opponent was trying to be nice and talk to him, and of course the man asked the usual question. Zane looked him in the eye. “A chameleon. I want to be a chameleon when I grow up.” The man sputtered out a laugh and Zane’s dad gave a loud annoyed sigh. Too bad. Zane had liked the chameleon answer, but it looked like it would have to come back off the list.

“He told my buddy Paul he wants to be a chameleon when he grows up!” Alex said to Lola two hours later as she tried to calm him down. Zane, within earshot, sat unhappily at the top of the stairs.

“No dear. He was confused. The boy wants a chameleon. For his birthday. He’s so smart in some ways that you forget what a little kid he still is. He doesn’t always understand questions from adults. Don’t be so frustrated with him.”

But Alex was pretty damn sure Zane had understood the question perfectly, and with Lola’s defense of Zane his frustration went up a notch. “A chameleon? How does he even know what one is? Why can’t he want a dog? Like a normal six-year-old kid. A pony. Even a snake. But for God’s sake. A chameleon? This is exactly the kind of thing I mean.”

Lola went to her soothing voice, which Alex hated, because it clearly implied that he needed soothing. “The folks at the gifted and talented program warned us about this, Alex. Kids as bright as Zane and Ariel are going to be unusual. It’s not going to be easy parenting them. We’ve got to stay flexible. I’ve been trying to find a good time to talk to you about this chameleon thing.”

“Oh come on, Lola. You’re not seriously considering getting him one?”

“Why not?”

“A pet is the last thing we need around here. We’ve got two working parents, a four- and a six-year-old kid both enrolled in every enrichment program you can find, a sink full of dishes, a yard full of chores, and a checking account that drops into negative numbers on occasion. You want to add a pet to the mix? Great. Good thinking.”

Alex looked carefully at Lola’s expression and realized that the chameleon was already a done deal. She hadn’t been looking for the right time to discuss it with him. She had been looking for the right time to tell him.

“Then that stupid thing is entirely your problem. Don’t ask me to buy it food or to clean its cage or whatever it lives in. I am looking for ways to make my life simpler, not more complicated, thank you.”

“Okay,” Lola took a breath. “I will make the chameleon completely my and Zane’s responsibility. You won’t even know we have one. I promise. Please Alex. Let’s not fight.”

“We’re not fighting.” He took a beer out of the refrigerator, picked up his bowl of chips and headed to the living room to watch basketball. “You’re informing me of the new pet you and Zane are going to have. I’m watching the game.”

It made Zane angry to hear his parents fight about him. Angry because they acted like he could not hear them, which he always could; angry because they seemed to think he did not understand what was going on, which he always did; and angry because parents were not supposed to fight. They were supposed to love you and love each other. That was their main job. His weren’t doing it so well lately.

Zane stomped into the playroom he shared with his little sister. In truth, four-year-old Ariel was his best friend. She never made fun of him, was happy to play any game he made up, and, unlike other kids, she caught on fast. Better than that, she came up with good ideas, and she had this lack of fear about her that Zane really liked. She’d try anything. There was no question—she was as good as little sisters got. So Zane didn’t really know why he walked over to her and kicked at some of the building blocks she was carefully arranging into an elaborate structure.

She didn’t say anything, and all Zane could see was her bright red hair as she kept her head down and just put the blocks back up. That made Zane even madder. He kicked over more blocks. “Stop it Zane.” Now she looked up at him, glaring at him hard with those crazy light blue eyes. So he kicked over more. “I said, stop it Zane.” Ariel sounded just like mommy when she got mad.

Lola was loading the dishwasher and thinking about the problems involved with having to buy and keep live crickets around as pet food when she heard a high-pitched shriek from upstairs. Alex looked up from the game quizzically as Lola ran up three stairs at a time. The shriek had come from Zane, who sat on the playroom floor holding his head in pain. Behind him stood Ariel, tightly grasping a heavy three-ring binder full of paper in both of her little four-year-old hands.

“Okay. What happened?”

“She hit me over the head with that. Hard.” Tears of pain were pouring out of Zane’s eyes.

“Ariel??? I can’t believe that you did that. Why?”

The little girl’s chin jutted out with determination. “He told me to. He told me to do it.”

“Zane?”

The little boy looked down dejectedly and said nothing.

“Zane. Why would you tell your sister to hit you over the head?”

Ariel chimed in. “He was kicking over my blocks, Mommy. He kicked over almost all of them. ” Zane nodded in guilty affirmation.

“I told him to stop but he wouldn’t. He said ‘make me.’ So I did.”

Lola burst into a laugh. She knew it wasn’t an appropriate response, but this was just too funny. “Okay Zane, I think you’ve learned your lesson without any punishment from me. And Ariel. You are not in the least bit of trouble.” Ariel’s pale eyes widened in surprise. “I don’t want you hitting people, sweetie… but if someone is picking on you like that, well, that is exactly what you do. You make them stop.”

Zane spent the rest of the day in his room because even though his mommy had just laughed, he thought he deserved to be in time out. He’d acted as mean as the kids he hated, and he didn’t like knowing that he could do that. He swore to make it up to Ariel, and promised himself he’d never be a bully again. In fact, he wanted to always remember how easy it had been to become one.

Then, as Zane sat on his twin bed with the Ninja Turtle bedspread, he had an even better idea. He could make up for what he did today by learning to protect people from bullies. That was a much cooler response. He, Zane Zeitman, could figure out how to use his odd brain and his odd body to secretly become a real-life superhero, like Inspector Gadget or one of the Rainbow Brite kids, but way better because he’d be real. And no one would ever suspect him.

So in February of 1993, six-year-old Zane declared to himself and to the world that he would start looking for ways to be a better human. He made himself whisper the words aloud. And after the promise ceremony, as he came to call it in his own mind, Zane felt better.

Lola waited until later that night to share the anecdote with Alex. Relaxing in bed, Alex laughed too and seemed to enjoy the story even more than she had. She couldn’t help thinking that he was probably just happy that for once his two overly cerebral children were acting like normal kids.

About a thousand privately owned companies “go public” each year, as the founders of a business decide to sell shares in their company, usually in the form of stock. An “IPO”, as it is called, is expensive, typically costing even a small company over a million dollars. Furthermore, once the deed is done the owner has given up outright control of the company and placed it in the hands of his or her stockholders.

Peter Hulson was all too aware of these downsides as he finally and reluctantly allowed himself to be persuaded to take public the pharmaceutical company he had founded in 1972. The decision reminded him of his own stubborn reluctance to incorporate back in the mid-‘70s, when he had been persuaded by his lawyer’s insistence that both favorable tax laws and limited liability made incorporating a no-brainer. But, back then, he had not really wanted to found a corporation. He had wanted to build his own business. Peter Hulson, no, Peter Hulson Sr., and his company.

The “Sr.” was important because today, Peter Hulson Jr. stood with him. His thirty-one-year-old son, with his dutifully acquired Ph.D. in biochemistry and his easygoing nature, would surely succeed him someday at the helm of Penthes Pharmaceutical Inc., even if he so clearly lacked his father’s strong drive, passion for the industry and genius for understanding the chemistry of the human mind. For the fact remained that Pete was still plenty capable, smart enough, willing to learn, and, most importantly, his son—and that counted for more than anything. Better yet, next to Pete stood Pete’s young son Joel, an awkward almost ten-year old clearly bored with the proceedings. Peter had no idea where the name Joel had come from, and it still irked him that there was no Peter Hulson III, but the important thing was that the boy already showed bits of genius that had left his grandfather proud and eager to watch him grow.

And on the other side of Peter Sr. of course was Neil. Peter sometimes thought that Neil Bennett might turn out to be his son Pete’s greatest single contribution to the company. Armed with an undergraduate degree of his own in biochemistry and an MBA, Neil had befriended Pete in college and attached himself firmly to Penthes and the Hulson family, showing a zeal for business and profit-making which the Hulsons all tended to lack. It was Neil who had pushed Peter into this IPO, finally persuading him that public companies can raise more capital, attract better employees, and are just plain worth more. In fact, a public company is generally valued at over fifteen times its earnings, while private companies are valued at more like five times. Neil had insisted that being a public company would be more prestigious, and didn’t Penthes deserve that prestige?

And so in February of 1993 Penthes Pharmaceutical Corporation became PNTH, and thanks to its previous two decades of success and Neil’s careful planning it was able to meet all requirements to be traded on the NASDAQ stock exchange. Friday morning, February 19, the stock sold for the first time at an even seven dollars a share.

A chameleon is a kind of lizard that in some cases can go from deep green to bright orange in a matter of seconds. Contrary to popular perception, it changes not only its color but also its general shape and manner of movement to better camouflage itself, and it also makes color changes to signal its mood and intentions to other chameleons. Adult males grow up to two feet long, and require screened cages at least four feet cubed with one or more small live trees in the middle, a heat lamp with a timer on top, a continual water drip, and a variety of live bugs served daily for food because they do get tired of having the same species of bug every day. And, oh yes, they need to be taken outdoors for direct sunlight for several hours each week. In other words, this is not the ideal pet for a busy household.

But Zane had always been such an easygoing little boy, not the kind of child who begged his busy parents for toys. He tended to his schoolwork and chores and played whatever sport his dad enrolled him in without any particular enthusiasm but also without complaint. His greatest passions seemed to be reading books, and making funny faces in front of the mirror. This chameleon was the first thing Lola had ever been aware of him really wanting, and she was determined to make it happen if she could.

Research narrowed it down to either a veiled or a panther chameleon, bred in captivity. The veiled had the advantage of being willing to get half of its food from the vegetable kingdom, but the panther chameleon was a bit smaller, less aggressive, and likely to be more of a dramatic color changer, which is what Lola suspected had intrigued Zane in the first place. The animal itself would cost about a hundred dollars, but the setup for keeping it would fill a quarter of the playroom and cost a couple of hundred more. Yikes. And worse yet, in the most successful case it could live for a decade.

But Lola charged ahead, and on February 20, the Zeitman household gained a young male chameleon named Balthazar who was disappointingly pale shades of browns and greens, but according to all sources would become more colorful as he aged. Both Zane and Ariel were intrigued with his bug feeding ritual, sitting tight against Lola on either side watching with fascination as Lola squeamishly pinched the little cricket’s legs so it could not hop back out of the cage if it squirmed out of her hand before it got devoured.

While Zane seemed to prefer to just observe the dinner process, after a few days Ariel was willing to help pinch cricket legs to get the job done. So after a week Lola put her four year old in charge of Balthazar’s dinner, and Zane was put in charge of monitoring the heat lamp, the timer and the ice cubes in a paper cup with a hole in the bottom that provided the water drip. If I am going to have such bright kids, I might as well take advantage of it, Lola thought.

Alex was caught upstairs in the playroom more than once, watching with interest while the creature snagged its food with its foot long tongue. But best of all, Zane was truly enthused with his chameleon, and gently held, touched and talked to his new pet each day as instructed. After only a couple of weeks, Balthazar would lay calmly along Zane’s palm and wrist and look at Zane with one eye and Zane seemed sure that there was understanding in the chameleon’s expression. With so much loving care, little Balthazar grew bigger and thrived.

Balthazar was the best gift Zane had ever gotten, and he didn’t even care if his daddy didn’t like the chameleon and thought he had a stupid name. Balthazar had been one of the wise men, or so his religion class teacher had said, and Zane was sure that this Balthazar was a wise animal because he had these really cool eyes that could look at two different things at once.

His second best birthday gift had, surprisingly, been a book from Aunt Summer. It was only a Dr. Seuss book, meant for way littler kids than him but Aunt Summer lived far away and didn’t understand that he had been reading chapter books for almost a year now. Zane could see why his aunt had bought it for him because it was called Happy Birthday to You, which of course made it seem like a great birthday gift. And it turned out that it was, but only because it said something Zane had never heard said before. It told him that there was no one alive who was more Zane Zeitman than him.

Zane wasn’t sure why, but those words made him incredibly happy. As long as he could remember, teachers, relatives, all grown-ups had said he was “different” in a kind of whispered way that made different sound so bad. Other kids, of course, just called him names. Brainy Zany. He’s a pain-y. But this guy, Dr. Seuss? He made being Zane Zeitman sound like a really fine thing. So thanks to Aunt Summer’s book, he now had a new answer for the grown-ups.

At the end of February, the television kept talking about a bomb which had gone off in the parking garage of some giant building in New York, killing five people. The man on the TV said the bomb had ended the belief that Americans were safe from attack. His mom had taken him and Ariel to see Aladdin for a second time at the dollar theater because they had both liked it so much. The movie’s hit song, “A Whole New World,” had just made it’s way into the number one spot on the charts. Zane sang the title to himself. “A whole new world … ”  ($) He didn’t sing very well, but Zane had liked the movie. He liked all stories about creatures with special powers, and he thought that the genie was really funny.

Zane was glad that no one else was upstairs with him that day as he sang because after Balthazar gave Zane one of his one-eyed knowing looks, his reptilian skin made its first transition from subtle greens and browns to a spectacular bright orange. Zane grinned. He didn’t know what orange meant with other chameleons, but Zane felt sure that it meant that Balthazar was very happy.

Then Zane took a deep breath. Forcing back his fear, he made himself remember that time last summer. Every so often Zane’s dad made him go outside and play with whoever was around, and he had been playing hide and seek with neighbor boys he didn’t really like because they did more mean things than most. On this day, Zane had taken great pains to conceal himself particularly well because he especially did not like to be “it” with these guys.  But as the one boy came close to the bushes in which Zane was so carefully hidden, Zane had noticed his bare foot was still sticking out onto the orange-brown soil. He dare not move it now. So he thought hard about his foot muscles and did his best to flatten the foot tight against the ground, and to hold it very still. While he did this thing, the skin on his foot had started to burn and itch too. Zane looked at it, alarmed at first, and saw that his foot was blushing. At least, it had turned a shade of red orange brown that mimicked the dirt. And that had been his first inkling that he could do more than make his body’s shape twist and warp a little more than most people could. Zane had watched his orange brown foot in fascination while the neighbor boy ran on by.

Afterwards, Zane worried that he had imagined it. But then every so often after that, Zane’s skin would surprise him, just like his muscles had already sometimes surprised him too with what they could do. After awhile, he could feel a color change coming, this kind of burning feeling, and he knew what to expect. So he finally figured that he needed a teacher. A wise teacher. Like Balthazar.

Zane watched the chameleon’s orange skin with fascination. “Can I learn to do that when I want to, wise man?” he asked. He tried hard to make the feeling inside that he felt when his skin did this all by itself. He concentrated hard on his arm. At first nothing happened. Then, yes. He felt the feeling. He made the feeling. And his skin on his arm went from its normal light tan to a tan orange.

“You and I are going to be great friends,” Zane told the chameleon quietly. “You are going to help teach me ways to fight the bullies in this world. And you are the only one who is going to get to know just how really strange I am.” And Zane could have sworn that Balthazar turned even brighter in delight.

“Our son has turned into a philosopher,” Alex announced, carrying in the groceries he had just bought. Lola looked up in surprise. “I ran into another teacher at the store, and she asked Zane what he wanted to be when he grew up. Of course. You know what he said this time?” Lola prepared herself for the worst. “He said he just wants to be himself. Now that’s a good answer.” And Lola was relieved that for once Alex wasn’t annoyed with Zane.

Zane, who had heard every word from the garage, came in smiling. “Now, doesn’t wanting to be yourself when you grow up make a little more sense than wanting to be a chameleon?” Alex asked his son while Lola glared at Alex to drop it.

“Sure daddy. Unless of course being yourself means being a chameleon. You know. Because yourself is a chameleon.” Both of his parents gave him a puzzled look as he grinned at them and then bounded happily up the stairs to check on Balthazar, who turned a cheerful shade of orange when Zane walked into the room.

Chapter 2. December 1999

There are between six and nine hundred muscles in the human body, depending on the classification system used, and by December 1999 Zane Zeitman had memorized the names, locations and functions of each one of them. He kept his little project a secret because he didn’t want people to think, once again, that he was trying to be a know-it-all. He wasn’t. The truth was that he had done it largely so that he wouldn’t fall asleep in class.  Dozing off in there inevitably got him in trouble, making life less pleasant. At thirteen years old, Zane had concluded that one of the keys to happiness was getting adults to leave you alone.

So in his computer class, he studied the muscles in his legs and feet. Learn the name of it. Find and flex it. Learn to use it better. In science, he concentrated on identifying, locating, and manipulating each of the muscles of his torso. In Texas history, he worked in detail on his hands and arms.

But he saved the human face with its fascinating more than forty muscles for English class. While keeping an ear out for the necessary tidbits on literature, he contemplated the subtle upper lip movements caused by the zygomaticus minor and amused himself by focusing on the changes that he could make in the area between his eyebrows by learning to exercise his procerus muscle. No question, the muscles in his face were absolutely the most interesting ones to learn to maneuver. He tackled them in English, obviously, because during English he was the most bored.

While Zane struggled to flex his orbicularis oculi, a small but industrious segment of the world’s population was spending much of its time confronting the possibility of chaos and doom. These computer programmers, mostly aging geeks who knew machine code and legacy programming languages like Fortran, Basic and C, found themselves hired by companies the world over to fight small personal battles with ancient (that would be 1950 through 1980) software. Their mission? To see that computers, and all the myriad of utilities, finances, government records, shipping, and communications largely run by these machines, would not all come to a grinding halt because decades ago well-meaning programmers just like themselves had told computers that years only had two digits.

As the year 1999 neared its end, another segment of the world’s population wrote increasingly horrific articles about this villain, dubbed Y2K, telling of confused computers leading to the end of modern society as we knew it. As the end of December approached, security forces the world over went quietly on the highest of alerts. Just in case.

Prince’s 1982 hit “1999” ($) was rereleased again in time for year’s end, and at least seven other recording artists did timely covers of the song, leaving much of the world’s population singing that they personally intended to start partying like it was 1999. It was an exciting time to be alive, this end of a millennium.

But wait. It wasn’t actually the end of the millennium, and everyone past the age of four knew it. Because the Gregorian calendar, based on a perceived date for Christ’s birth and now in common usage the world over, had begun with the year one, not the year zero, everyone knew that December 31, 2000, not 1999, would mark the real end of the millennium. And no one cared. December 31, 1999, was the big day. It was the day on which the odometer turned over, the day on which all the nines rolled into zeroes. It was the day that everyone cared about. It was the day on which the world might end. It was the day on which everyone wanted to be somewhere safe. Or somewhere special. Or both.

When your country is one of the poorest and least known on the planet, you need to be particularly clever about finding ways to bring in income. The tiny Pacific Island country of Tuvalu, with just over nine square miles of land, ten-thousand citizens, and the fifth smallest economy in the world, managed one of the greatest feel-good stories of the internet age. In 1996 it was assigned the two-letter suffix .tv as its domain name, just like France was assigned .fr, Afghanistan, .af, and Uganda, .ug. Nobody particularly wanted .fr, .af, or .ug, but several enterprising folks had great ideas for what they could do with the domain names that ended in .tv. Tuvalu had the sense to recognize its bit of good fortune, finally selling rights to the suffix to a Canadian entrepreneur for 50 million dollars. When Tuvalu received the first 18 million dollar payment, it increased the country’s gross domestic product by fifty percent and allowed Tuvalu to put electricity on the outer islands and set up a scholarship fund for its citizens Not bad for a domain name just assigned to them.

The neighboring island nation of Kiribati has about ten times the population of Tuvalu and thirty times the land mass, but pretty much the same natural resources of fish, ancient bird shit that makes good fertilizer, coconuts and beach. However, a few years before Tuvalu managed to capitalize on its lucky abbreviation, Kiribati stumbled on an equally fortuitous manmade phenomenon.

In 1884 a group of nations on the other side of the world had decided that the prime meridian of the earth ran through Greenwich England.  This conveniently put the 180 degree meridian out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean where the twenty-five nations making this decision did not have to worry about the jump from one date to the next. Not so for the Pacific Islanders who lived there. When the Line Islands at around 150 degrees west longitude became part of the nation of Kiribati, they were unfortunately on the other side of the International Date Line from the rest of the country.

In 1994 the I-Kiribati, as they call themselves, grew tired of the confusion of running a country experiencing two different days of the week at once and redrew the International Date Line with a bulge so that the whole country was in synch. Others grumbled at the untidiness of it and many globes just ignored the change.

And then some business leaders from Tonga and from New Zealand’s Chatham Islands protested this move as sullying their own claims to being the first to see the upcoming dawn of the new millennium and the lucky I-Kiribati realized that they now had the easternmost piece of land on the planet. Indeed, Caroline Island, about six-hundred miles south of the Equator and four-hundred-fifty miles north of Tahiti, would be the first land mass to experience the new millennium, at least if one was willing to ignore pesky Antarctica which straddled all longitudes and therefore could not really count.

As 1999 approached, newswires picked up the story. Travel agencies were flooded with requests for lodging on Caroline Island. The only problem was that there wasn’t any. The island, shaped like a woman’s dress boot, is an atoll about five miles long, mostly less than a mile wide, no more than twenty feet high, and is pretty much all beach.

But the I-Kiribati would not let this opportunity pass. Tourists were invited to secure lodging on Christmas Island, a mere thousand miles to the north-northwest, to still be among the first humans to greet the year 2000 from there. Meanwhile, the country changed the name of Caroline Island to Millennium Island to draw attention to it. Then, as the big day approached, the people of Kiribati assembled their seventy best singers and dancers, gathered up logistical support worthy of a great nation, and sent them all, along with a few dozen willing journalists, from Kiribati’s capital on Tarawa over twenty-five-hundred miles by boat through the wide-open Pacific Ocean to the flat sandy expanses of Millennium Island’s uninhabited beach.

The yachting crowd had already been encouraged to attend the festivities by anchoring off of the island itself, and several yachts were standing by. The news media established satellite connections.  I-Kiribati volunteers distributed pre-packaged food while the dancers put on beautiful gold headdresses and more volunteers lit flaming torches. The dancers added their many gold bracelets and anklets. The journalists double-checked their equipment. As the sun began to set, it was serious show time for Kiribati.

During the day of Friday, December 31, 1999, (the exact time varying by one’s individual time zone) over a billion anxious folks of every nation on earth turned on their television sets to watch the performers of Kiribati dance into the midnight. There were no bombs. There was no apocalypse. The open beaches remained devoid of aliens, of vengeful angels, of aggressors of any sorts. All of the reporters’ equipment, including their computers, appeared to function just fine. In fact, there were no problems at all.

The first image of the New Year was that of a flaming orange torch being passed from an elder to a child. The first sounds were that of a beautiful chanting of farewell to the pain of the past. The first impression was that given by healthy and happy young bodies moving with joy in a traditional dance to call for good luck.

Viewers watched with relief as midnight rolled its way without incident into New Zealand and eastern Australia and Asia, with television coverage of parties in Tokyo and Sydney. And a few hours later, while the world again watched, the I-Kiribati greeted the first dawn of 2000 with a call through a conch shell and a song asking for love and peace. An informal and unofficial poll the next day concluded that the feeling of most of the people watching the I-Kiribati was one of relief. The main thought was “Way to go, humanity. We didn’t screw this one up.”

Zane ate his cereal that morning in front of the television set watching the taped footage of the dancers from Kiribati. He thought that they looked as exotic as anything he had ever seen and he wished desperately that he could be there. Or anywhere more exciting than here.

Later that evening, his parents were going to go down the street to a neighbor’s house for a party. Ariel was going to a friend’s for a sleep over. And then he was actually expected to greet the new millennium by watching his littlest sister. Nothing against her, but this was 2000. You were going to remember this night and where you were forever, right? You couldn’t just sit home and not do anything… how lame could you get?

So for the past few days he and his two closest friends had been planning to try to have a party somewhere on their own. They weren’t exactly clear on how they were going to manage this. Zane wasn’t crazy about sneaking out even for a while because of what could happen to his sister while he was gone. Neither Bhadra nor Mei had younger siblings, so maybe they could come over here? Zane had spent the day trying to coax his cohorts into this new plan while thinking of ways he could maybe slip just a little something out of his parents liquor cabinet without them noticing. His folks were pretty trusting, he assured his friends, so if they could get to his house then he thought that his chances were good.

But in the end Bhadra’s parents, who tended to be even more protective than Zane’s, had refused to give her a ride over, insisting that she stay home for the evening. And Mei had disappointed them by accepting a last minute invitation to go out to dinner with the family of a boy she liked.

So as the evening began, Bhadra and Zane devised an alternate approach which they both thought was rather clever. Zane snuck a bottle of some kind of coffee liquor that looked like it might not taste too bad upstairs to his room, and Bhadra found a way to get a hold of one of her father’s bottles of beer. At midnight when both sets of parents would still be gone and four-year-old Teddie would certainly be asleep, the two teenagers planned to go to their rooms and call each other.

At 11:55, as previously agreed, they got on the phone together, and each opened their illicit stash for a toast. At the stroke of midnight Zane and Bhadra both drank all that they could swallow, then they laughed and giggled at the daringness of it all and the sheer joy of being old enough and smart enough to greet this midnight right. It was wonderful. They drank some more and talked and laughed and then they drank even more. When Zane got off the phone, he felt a little queasy. Actually, he felt very queasy. He made his unsteady way to the bathroom, and then threw up for five minutes. With his head hanging over the toilet, he wondered seriously about why this was considered to be such fun.

Off the coast of Millennium Island, Peter Hulson Jr. took only a few sips of the very expensive champagne he had opened to toast the midnight. Nikolas, who straddled the fine line between employed helmsman and invited friend, passed on the champagne altogether. Pete had encouraged Nikolas to get off of the anchored 44-foot sailboat if he wished to enjoy the dancing spectacle on the island up close. An area onshore, which had been cordoned off for guests, beckoned invitingly. But with a night of sailing ahead of them, it was characteristic of Nikolas to decline, to maintain his energy and his focus. Pete scratched his thick head of blonde hair which could have used a good shampoo, and thought to himself that it was to Nikolas’ credit that he took the sea so damn seriously. So the two men, each lost in his own thoughts, watched the dancers and the chanters and the torch passers with mild interest.

Pete had half expected that his wife Sylvia would join him after all at the last minute for this particularly well-publicized New Year’s Eve. Although he knew that she had considered it briefly, in the end she had decided to pass on even seeing him off in Hawaii, where they kept the sailboat docked. It was just as well; it made things easier. It had been a full two week sail from Honolulu to Christmas Island and almost two weeks more of hard sailing after that to get here. She had humored him in the past by spending weeks on end like that on the boat, but she had never really shared his love of the open sea, and that was something one could not fake. Over the last several months, they had each gone their own way more often and they both knew it.

So Pete could only hope that Sylvia was doing something that she enjoyed tonight. Anything she enjoyed, actually. As for him, there was nowhere on earth he would rather be than moored off of an island in Kiribati.

Nikolas had little family to be missing either, which was another reason he was there tonight. The rest of Pete’s hired crew, and for that matter the other guys who passed as friends in his social circle, all had lovers, wives, and obligations for this big night. Only Nikolas seemed as happy as Pete to be here, and frankly as anxious for the Kiribati show to end just so they could both go back to sailing.

The late waning moon finally rose, and as the beautiful orange crest lifted above the waves, the two men wordlessly began their preparations to head out, ready to indulge Pete in his odd idea of sailing along the International Date Line on New Year’s Day, letting the winds take him in and out of the past millennium, letting the waves steer him forward into the future over and over again.

Pete loved the sheer poetry of the image, even though he was plenty bright enough to know that the current calendar system was absolutely arbitrary, that the number 2000 held no more magic than any other, that the International Date Line was a man-made artifice, and that the waters he sailed upon tonight would no more be in two different millennia than any water elsewhere. He didn’t care. All those man-made conventions added up in his mind to a bit of magic that he could choose to believe in. Just for this night. And frankly who couldn’t use bit of magic once in awhile.

So as the moon rose into a sky already radiant with stars, he and Nikolas finished their preparations and headed silently away from Millennium Island. They smiled at each other when their navigation showed them that they had finally sailed back into the past, then they laughed as they re-entered the future. They couldn’t have felt safer as they zigzagged along the date line. Finally, the eastern horizon began to glow faintly with a coming dawn and the fourth quarter crescent moon overhead looked like a grin in the early morning sky. And then the fun ended.

The search for their bodies and for their missing boat would begin several days later, once they failed to reach Tahiti and it became clear that no one had heard from either man for days. Families and friends would seek information and closure for years before they would finally accept the inescapable truth and move on.

Part 1: Fire Dancing for Fun and Profit

Chapter 3. June 2009

Zane Zeitman had spent nine months pretty well establishing to his own satisfaction that being a lab technician sucked. At least it did here at Penthes Pharmaceuticals, a downtown Chicago-based mid-sized corporation known for its philosophy of stiff internal competition and high rewards for the golden few capable of rising above the company’s other eight-hundred or so employed peons. What was worse was that Zane had understood the situation perfectly well when he took the job. So as he lurched along, holding on tightly to a pole he shared with four other commuters on the overly full El train, he figured he had only himself to blame.

Zane’s slightly slender, five-eleven frame seemed to have become shorter and rounder over the last nine months of work, and his skin was pastier. His non-descript medium ash-brown hair was disarrayed as usual and the khakis he wore, one of three pairs of acceptable work pants that he now owned, had permanent coffee stains from the long hours of trying to stay awake in the lab.

Dr. Peter Hulson Sr., Penthes’ still highly involved seventy-three-year-old founder, was exceedingly proud of being a self-made multimillionaire. He catapulted in the 1970s from the middle class into significant wealth and power on the sole basis of his intellect, drive, and hard work. Or at least that is how Dr. Hulson told the story when interviewed and when addressing his employees. Zane supposed that the real story behind the myth was a bit more complicated, as real stories tended to be, but he was willing to give the old man his due as being brilliant in the field of modern drugs relating to mental health. And he fully acknowledged Dr. Hulson was entitled to shape whatever sort of corporate culture he wished in his own company.

But when one was basically on the low end of the hired help, not deemed qualified to make decisions or contribute in any fashion other than by doing exactly what one was told, Zane was discovering that life in the jungle was pretty miserable. Do well, and the competitive geniuses above you in the hierarchy just want more. They are trying to get theirs. Do poorly and you’ve caused them to stumble, a sin which will not soon be forgiven.

As a particularly large woman bumped against him when the train screeched to one more stop, Zane shook his head, trying to reconstruct how he had gotten himself into such a miserable position. Graduating a year ago with his shiny bachelor’s degree in neuroscience from one of the nation’s most prestigious universities, he and his friends had celebrated mightily with drunken relief. And when he got his diploma, his parents had literally cried with pride. Their genius son. Their firstborn.

It turned out that it was nice someone had thought he was so very special, because the job market the summer of 2009 was considerably less impressed. As his friends had scattered off into graduate schools, jobs, volunteer work and under-employment, Zane became increasingly aware that he himself had landed in a field in which a Ph.D. was a minimum requirement for responsibility and advancement. And though the workings of the human mind and how it interfaced with the body absolutely still fascinated him, the prospect of five or six years of, say, pulverizing rat brains in a blender and examining the results, did not enthuse him. He had hoped that a few years break in the working world would help.

But the working world did not have so much to offer. If he wanted to get away from academia, which he did, then he was either going to end up tending to others’ lab experiments in the private sector, or he was going to end up in something like sales or marketing in a field related to pharmaceuticals. Both sounded distasteful. But so did waiting tables.

Worse yet, entry-level jobs for those in his situation at bigger firms with reputations for caring reasonably well for their employees seemed to have gotten filled before he ever got his application in the door. Zane thought it was fairly apparent that it would have been helpful to have had an uncle or old family friend at one of these places, looking out for a suitable spot for him well before graduation. That was just the way of the world.

But after a few discouraging months of job searching, first from his campus apartment and then from back home in Texas when his money ran out, Penthes had interrupted his growing desperation with a request for a phone interview. Zane knew he was not particularly outgoing on the phone, but he had tried his very best with this one as he was frankly running out of options. And something must have impressed these folks enough, because they offered him a position in Chicago. Maybe, he thought in retrospect, they were impressed by his desperation.

There was no moving allowance offered, but yeah, his parents would help him get there. And it wasn’t so much a job as it was a sort of poorly paid contract for an eighteen-month probationary period. Nine months as a lab assistant, then the same as an assistant in sales and marketing. This was unusual, but the company said that they wanted him to experience both entry-level avenues, to see what he was best at. Frankly he agreed it would be good for him to try both. Then, the contract specified that they would talk about his future.

Zane figured that the nine months in the lab would be relatively easy, mildly enjoyable, and, if he was lucky, even a bit informative. Instead, it had been hell. Driven young researchers, fighting each other to impress every boss between themselves and Dr. Hulson himself, were more than willing to use and abuse Zane with workdays that went late into the night, and weekends that almost always required his time as well. Appreciation was nil, and he figured out quickly that there was no way for him to get an “A.” He was tense most of the time.

Except for Britta, a fellow graduate of his who had also landed a job in Chicago, and her housemates who had taken him in, he had no real friends in town and no time to make any. Life had gone from hard work and fun to just plain hard work. Zane was puzzled by how thoroughly this had happened. He could not believe that his life, actually anyone’s life, was meant to be little more than a series of long tedious days drinking bad coffee in windowless rooms, punctuated by sleep, food, a little TV and then more of the same, with the occasional drunken partying on weekends to provide the rare moment of joy. That was just crazy.

As his mandated stint in sales and marketing approached, he realized that he had gone from dreading it, to looking forward to it. He had no illusions about being good in a field which required that he act friendly when he didn’t feel like it and that he exaggerate the good points of products he did not necessarily believe in. Zane had never liked lying. But any change right now just had to be a good thing.

To make matters worse, vacation time during this probationary period was ridiculously limited. He had barely managed to get a day off to go back to Texas for a long weekend before he began his new assignment. What he really would have liked was several days in Cancun, but neither the money nor the time was there for that. So Zane figured he could settle for just some of his dad’s home cooking and his mom’s sympathy. Way better than nothing. And the really good news was that he left for Texas tomorrow.

His mom looked baffled when she met him at the airport, and it took Zane awhile to figure out that it was his physical appearance. Oh right. Damn.

The days had long since passed when he had spent hours holding Balthazar on his arm, working individual muscle groups and practicing the odd tint changes of which his skin and eyes were capable. As a young teenager, he’d studied endless videos of shape-changing flounder and squid and octopi until he had them memorized. But in the end the biggest thing that he had learned from all of this was that many a creature on this earth could control its appearance and its coloring. It wasn’t magic; apparently it wasn’t even particularly difficult. Hell, cuttlefish could do it. They didn’t think about it, they just did it. Like he did.

But he was no longer a little boy hoping to avoid trouble, or an odd lad in high school who sometimes had benefitted from not being easy to find. The fact was, after leaving for college, there had been little incentive to alter his appearance because for the first time in his life he was almost totally surrounded by people who, at the least, had no quarrel with him.

Thankfully, he also had the sort of personality that had kept him private even as a child. As a loner, he’d had no desire to show off his abilities and little desire for the attention lavished on the very attractive. Another type of boy might have boasted and demonstrated, or cultivated subtle improvements in appearance, but not Zane. He liked quietly remaining just as he was. So no one, other than the now-deceased, wise chameleon Balthazar, really knew what sorts of physical transformations he could make his body do.

But he forgot sometimes that his reflexes continued to work on his behalf without his conscious choice. Just like a cuttlefish’s did. More than once he had worked at making his eye color go back to normal, lest others make note of it. “It’s just what I’m wearing.” The explanation seemed to work so well only because it never occurred to anyone that there could be any other explanation.

During his time in the lab at Penthes, something in him had figured out that any sense of personal pride—dressing well or looking well or appearing to be a threat on any level at all—would only bring him grief. You don’t challenge the alpha dogs in their own territory. So without his asking, his body had helped him out. The long hours aside, he had become a chubbier, shorter, dumpier-looking nerd with stooped shoulders and a more receding chin. His whole body practically screamed, “Don’t hurt me, I’m no threat to you.” And he had hardly noticed the change.

But, of course, his mother did. The best he could do now was to change slowly back, only as much as he could get away with on the way home before he saw the rest of the family. Zane knew from experience that they would eventually think that they had imagined it, because, once again, that would be the only reasonable explanation.

The visit went well. His family, annoying sometimes in large quantities, was always great in small doses. Especially when he was down. His dad’s signature eggplant parmesan and Caesar salad meal had only improved since last consumption, and mercifully his Mom was preoccupied with her own issues and for once held back on the questions. Ariel, now twenty-one, happily shared several beers with him one night and got him laughing. Only Teddie, his fourteen-year-old sister, informed him with disdain that he was turning into an adult. He supposed, with a bit of sadness, that she was right.

Zane laughed aloud the following Monday morning when he arrived back at work and walked up to the receptionist desk in the marketing division to find out where he should report. A very attractive well-dressed young woman smiled at him cordially from behind a beautiful mahogany reception desk. Off to one side sat a large inviting decanter filled with water and floating orange and lemon slices and real glasses sat next to it. The carpet was lush olive green under his feet, and a wide variety of big office plants sat scattered artfully around the waiting area, kept alive by the natural light which shown in through the ample windows.

“What’s so funny?” The young woman was friendly but puzzled.

Zane was a little embarrassed at the honesty of his reaction. “I’ve just been working in research. Shall we say the amenities are a little different here on this floor.”

She nodded with understanding, like it was a perfectly reasonable situation requiring clarification. “It’s all about value here at Penthes.” She sounded like she was reciting from memory. “The research guys have the best lab equipment money can buy. Our job over here is to sell confidence and trust. And this—” she gestured to the rich brown leather chairs and mahogany end tables, “this is our equipment.” She smiled at Zane like she had been happy to clarify the situation.

Zane remained dubious about how he could possibly fit into this world of “selling trust” until he found himself in the office of Brenda, the head of sales. She was an older woman, probably almost his mother’s age, and she seemed both reasonable and intelligent. A beauty-shop-haired brunette, she was as well decorated—make-up, clothes, and jewelry—as her office surroundings. But underneath her applied coat of gloss, she struck Zane as someone who had been fighting hard for respect all of her career. Thanks to his own mom, this was a dynamic Zane recognized with some sympathy. He responded instinctively with warmth instead of dismissively like he supposed other up-and-coming young males might, and Brenda softened a bit right away. Zane was sure immediately that this was going to be a more pleasant working relationship than the ones he had had with his bosses in the lab.

“Your background is very much oriented to the research end of our business, Zane, but Dr. Hulson insists that all of our bachelor-degreed new hires go through this department, so I would genuinely like to give you every chance to succeed here in sales and marketing.” Brenda jangled the bracelets on her right wrist as her tone changed to one of being distinctly pleased with herself. “I am happy to say that I think I’ve found the perfect project for you. You will be reporting directly to me, as this whole thing you are going to work on is a little bit outside of the normal chain of command.” Then she wrinkled her nose just a bit to let Zane know that she personally found the chain of command kind of silly.

Zane found himself with a small interior office all his very own, with incredibly nice furniture, decent carpeting, and all the citrus water he cared to consume. He had mostly normal working hours, with time for lunch, which he noticed right away was never consumed at one’s own desk. And most importantly, he finally had a chance to think for himself and direct his own day-to-day activities. What a difference that made.

He also found himself with data on every doctor in the greater Chicago area who could, would, or should prescribe drugs for mental health issues. Incredibly, he had data on which drugs they prescribed—how often, how their patterns had changed, how often they had been approached by Penthes representatives, in what way, and so forth.

“We are quite behind the times in not having a more extensive and more useful database for tracking our sales efforts,” Brenda cheerfully explained a few days later while she made little marks in her day planner with her bright turquoise pen. Brenda made the task of revamping and improving the database sound perfectly reasonable. Zane thought with relief that this was fortunately something he could do seriously well. He was no programmer, but he was hell on wheels with either an Access or an Oracle database, and the logic behind such a design was just the sort of reasoning that came to him naturally. So he rolled up his sleeves and began to think about a design for what he hoped would be a killer tool for managing and improving Penthes’ sales efforts. Maybe he was finally in a situation where it was possible to be appreciated.

Afi knew he was in trouble as soon as he noticed the small group of Samoan men watching him intently from an outside café a block away. He had not expected that they would have people in town to look for him, or that they would have realized that he was missing so quickly. His escape plan had been merely to get out of the facility, to walk as fast as he could all the way into Apia, Samoa’s capital and largest city, and then to get lost in the crowds along the pier. Beyond that he had expected to improvise, but he had hoped for enough time to do so judiciously.

As it turned out, though, he also had a bit of luck on his side. There was an older, but well-maintained sailboat tied up to the main dock. Not that big of a boat, but a nice one. Afi thought it might be a thirty-three-foot Hans Christensen, as he could see all its beautiful teak wood peaking out of the cabin. The owner, in obvious defiance of good taste, had added bright orange sun to his main sail and had applied an orange stripe around the girth of the boat, both giving increased visibility. It let Afi know that this sailor was more concerned with practical survival than style. Afi liked that.

The captain and crew seemed to consist of one wiry, well-tanned Anglo, probably in his forties, with older, lined skin but a healthy head full of dark brown hair. He was intent on overseeing the sorting and handling of the rest of the fresh fruit, water, and fish he was preparing to load. This was very good. It looked like the man was a “single-handed” sailor taking on provisions and prepared to head back out to sea. Afi gulped as he walked as nonchalantly as he could out onto the public pier and ambled in the general direction of the sailboat. He hoped to hell that the man had a kind heart.

Toby was considering whether he should buy more pineapples. Samoan pineapples were consistently tasty and he loved them, but he didn’t want to buy more than he could eat before they spoiled. He was also concerned he had bought more fish than he could eat, but it was too late to remedy that.

He looked behind him and saw a young man with unusually straight jet-black hair and a Polynesian’s round face that held East Asian eyes. A genetic blend of the Pacific Rim, the young man was wandering along the dock near the back of his boat. He was thin and wiry for a local, and looked harmless as he took off his shirt and shoes as though he were thinking of jumping into the water. Toby glanced away, giving himself one last minute to enjoy the sight of the pretty harbor with the older wooden houses and shops framed by the fast-rising hills and dense trees.

He smiled at Aggie Grey’s famous hotel, where yesterday he had been pleased to enjoy essentially the same hamburger as those that the legendary lady had served to America’s servicemen in World War II. You had to appreciate a tourist place that served such good food and had such a fine story to tell. And you had to appreciate a harbor town that in today’s world had maintained a feeling of existing somewhere between the 1800s and the 1950s.

As he nodded to the stately twin spires of the Roman Catholic Cathedral that had guided him in safely between Apia Harbor’s two reefs at least a dozen times over the last few years, he heard a splash that he assumed had been made by the young man going for his swim. He turned and focused on getting the rest of his gear aboard and heading out.

He was just starting his engine, always preferring to use it to get easily in and out of a harbor, when he noticed three stout Samoan men wearing the traditional wrap around lava-lavas marching rather quickly out onto the dock as though they had just made a decision.

The older of the three waved at him and shouted. “We need to check your boat for a missing boy. We saw him heading out onto this dock.”

“Oh, sure, I saw him,” Toby yelled back as he waved a hand agreeably, pointing towards a shirt lying on the wooden pier. “He jumped in the water here. A little odd, but no harm done. He didn’t bother me.”

“We’d like to make sure he’s not on your boat,” the Samoan persisted as the three men approached the craft. Toby shrugged. “Look for yourself.”

And Toby thought, I wonder what happened to the boy’s shoes?

There wasn’t that much looking to do on his boat. There was seating for up to six above deck, and a cabin with a head and separate shower, a compact galley area and sleeping arrangements for up to five, depending on what was raised or lowered and how. The men boarded without further courtesy, which irked Toby a little. He was sensitive to people walking into his home. One man methodically began opening each of his storage areas above deck, while another descended below and opened the door to the head to reveal a small toilet seat with no one on it.

“I’ve been right here. I promise you he is not onboard,” Toby added with growing irritation, not so anxious to have this bunch of strangers pawing through all his possessions, legal though they were. “Please gentleman, I would like to be on my way.”

The man who had opened the door to the head ignored him, opening the larger storage areas located below deck, starting with those beneath his sleeping and sitting areas. One was filled with kitchen supplies, another held clothes and toiletries, yet another lifejackets. He shrugged to his cohorts.

“We guess he jumped in the water then. Let us know if you see him. He could be dangerous.”

Toby’s dark brown eyes widened. “What’s he done?”

“We don’t know details. He’s one of the young men being kept at one of those special schools for troubled teens here on the island. We have a few of them. These kids are lavished with good care and opportunities to grow into decent adults, but sometimes they don’t realize what they’ve been given, and they try to escape so that they can return to their old and troubled ways. We help the school by returning the misguided ones. He’s better off at this school, believe me. So if he does turn up, do him a favor and let us know.”

“I will. Thanks for telling me.”

Well that was a new one, Toby thought. Maybe these men had a point. He didn’t even realize that there were schools for, what, misguided youth on Samoa? Go figure.

He had just gotten safely past both reefs and was tacking slightly under a nice slow breeze, heading northwest on a course for Funafuti, when he decided to go below and grab some water. A movement caught his eye. The lid to one of the smaller storage areas tucked around in the back of the cabin was opening slowly. Surely a person could not have fit into that space? Toby felt a surge of fear, and looked around for something that might do as a weapon.

He grabbed a knife as the stowaway tumbled to the floor in a mess of ropes. The small young man in the briefest of underwear rose slowly, shook himself as he stood, then turned around, with apology in his eyes, to face Toby.

“I am so sorry about this. And I am so sorry about no clothes. Please do not hurt me. Please.”

Toby took a deep breath and decided to hear the other side to the story.

Afi spoke English well and his words spilled out quickly. “I am twenty years old. Not a minor. Not a criminal. I don’t do drugs. I don’t steal. I promise. I don’t hurt anyone. Just don’t make me go back.”

He hesitated, waiting for a response from Toby, but Toby just waited in silence for more information.

After a few seconds, Afi continued. “I really tried to last there. I wanted to be reunited with my family. I wanted them to choose to free me, which the headmaster told me was the only way to ever get out. But it has been over a year now, and I cannot do it anymore. I cannot watch what they do to those boys.”

Toby was surprised at this last claim. When he raised an eyebrow, Afi explained. “No, it really is bad there. They have this little cage that they put you in when you do something they don’t like, or even when they think you aren’t showing them enough respect. Two of the guys are, what is it, claustrophobic, and they panic every time they get put in that little cage. The other guys, it’s not so bad for them as long as it doesn’t last for very long, and it doesn’t bother me. But the instructor, Brian, he knows who hates the cage the most and so he puts those kids in there every chance he gets. I can’t watch it anymore. It makes me so angry.” Afi was pleading now. “Please don’t make me go back.”

Toby basically lived alone on a boat, with limited email and a collection of DVDs. His interactions with other humans were generally business transactions involving food, water, fuel and, occasionally, sex. This was more words and emotions than he had had coming at him directly in a long time.

He walked over to one of his drawers and pulled out a pair of shorts. “Here. Put these on. I’d rather talk to guys wearing more clothes.”

“Sorry.” The young man pulled on the trunks.

“And stop apologizing.”

“Sorry. I mean yes. Of course. Sorry for saying sorry.”

Toby rolled his eyes. “Let’s start over. I’ll ask questions. You breathe deeply and try to answer me with one or two words. Okay?” The young man nodded. “Good. What’s your name?”

“Afi.”

“Isn’t that the Samoan word for fire?”

“Yes.”

Well, Toby laughed to himself, the boy did follow instructions well.

“Are you Samoan?”

“No.”

“Uh, Afi, we are now at the point where you can embellish each answer with a few more words. Okay?”

“Yes. Of course.”

“Afi, what nationality are you?”

“I am from Kiribati.”

Ah, Toby thought, the giant island nation to the north that covered an area almost the size of  the continental US but had a total land mass about the size of Rhode Island.

“Are you from the capital? Tarawa Atoll?

“Yes.”

Toby had been prepared to fight, not to have to calm down and encourage his uninvited guest. “Would you like some water?” Afi grinned, and Toby realized belatedly that this offering of a drink might signify more welcome than he had intended. Oh well. He clearly had a situation on his hands.

“Are you in legal trouble?”

“I don’t think so. This school is for Americans. Rich Americans. But my father is a man of some importance in my village, and the people who run the school are part of the same church as my family. My dad somehow got me in almost for free, and got our church to pay the rest of the money. It’s not voluntary for teenagers. Parents usually have their children kidnapped and taken there  against their will. Well, some come willingly because they’ve been lied to about it.”

“Wait. Afi, rich American parents aren’t in the habit of having their kids kidnapped and sent off to boarding schools in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It’s just not part of our culture.”

Afi shook his head. “These are kids who’ve gotten in a little trouble. Drugs. Sex. Bad music. Showing a lack of respect. Things that are embarrassing or maybe even frightening to their parents.”

Toby laughed. “Sounds like half the teenagers in America.”

“Yes, but these are the parents who will not tolerate that—the very socially conscious, the very religious, the very strict. I don’t know. In some cases maybe the rightfully worried. It’s a mix. But a lot of these kids are guilty of nothing worse than having a nose ring and a love of hip hop and having written a few angry things in what they thought was a private journal. They were going to grow up pretty much fine, at least if their folks stopped yelling at them long enough to listen to them.”

“Sometimes it is simply about control,” Toby agreed. “But even then, strict, worried, unreasonable parents don’t send their kids off to be tortured. They really don’t.”

“Not knowingly.”

“You’re saying the parents don’t know what goes on there?”

“They have no idea. They get this glitzy brochure about tough love and responsibility and time outdoors and away from the temptations of city life and it sounds so good. And then they get told how important it is that the kids don’t contact them, because that way they can’t whine for sympathy. So the parents, they buy into the no contact rules.”

“Okay,” Toby said thoughtfully. “You’ve been at a school with spoiled angry kids who for the first time in their lives cannot turn to their parents for help.”

“Which maybe could be good,” Afi surprisingly agreed. “Except it turns out that the people who run this program don’t care about the kids and some, I swear to you, like to cause them pain. I’ve had to watch kids being forced to eat their own vomit. Kids not allowed to go to the can even when they begged, until they soiled themselves, and the instructors laughed at them and called them names until they cried. Then they forced them to wear the clothes for days to teach them a lesson. The crime of the last guy I knew who had to do that? He complained that one of the younger kids, a fifteen year old, was covered in rashes from working in the heat all day in clothes they had forced him to pee in continually. This guy, who was working really hard to stay out of trouble, begged for the kid to be allowed to shower and change clothes. So they did the same thing to him. And when the older boy wore his stained clothes proudly? They locked him in that three-foot-square metal box with a few tiny air holes and told him to smell himself for awhile and then see how proud he felt.”

“I’ll accept,” Toby interrupted “that you’ve got unsupervised adults there who are at best scared and lazy and at worst sadistic. They can do whatever they want and nobody’s stopping them.  When one crosses a line the next one goes further, and after awhile behavior that was unbelievable is normal. I’ve seen the dynamic.” He laughed without amusement, moving effortlessly to adjust the main sail a bit as he spoke.

“Look, Afi, you’re not going back. Even if you are exaggerating, and I’m not saying that you are, the whole idea of such a school is disturbing.” He paused to glance at the navigation equipment.  “Plus, I’d promise not to send you back just to get you to stop telling me any more stories like this. Yuck.”

Afi smiled apologetically. “I’m not trying to gross you out. I just have to convince you. Please. I am a great assistant.” He gestured to the galley below deck. “My mom taught me to cook really well.” He pointed to the sails. “And I’m good with boats. I know the sea.” Finally he looked Toby directly in the eye. “I don’t need much, and I don’t need you to pay me. Just make me your crew until I turn twenty-one in a few months and then I will find somewhere safe to go and I promise you will never be sorry you helped me.”

Toby didn’t want a crew. He had come to like his life alone very much. But he recognized a desperate situation when he saw one, and he had much too kind a heart to take Afi back to Samoa, or even back to Kiribati to the family who had sent him here.

“Let’s start with a trial run over to Savusavu,” he suggested. “Lucky I took on more food than I needed for the next several days. You got any problem with visiting Fiji?”

Afi’s relief was visible as he sat tentatively along the back of the deck. “None at all. I will make you so glad you decided to do this.”

“You don’t have to Afi. I’m doing it because only a monster would do anything else. I’m not the nicest guy in the world, I’ll be honest with you. But I do try to stay out of the ‘monster behavior’ category.” Toby settled back into his captain’s chair and sipped his water.

Afi said, “So can I ask you a question? How does a man get to be so rich in America that he can have this nice boat and play in the ocean all day long?”

Toby laughed. “You get one question a day, okay? If you talk to me for hours on end I will be leaving you in Fiji.” Afi looked nervous instantly. “I’m kidding. But I am also not much of a talker. I’m sure you can respect that. And I’m also not rich. I’m a software engineer. Was one. From Northern California. Do you know what the internet is?”

For the first time Afi looked insulted. “I spent most of my free time growing up at the library on Tarawa. The internet taught me. It made me know about a bigger world, and it gave me more ideas. It helped me to know myself and to learn about others.” And then Afi looked wistful. “It is why I got sent to teen prison. My family did not like the things I thought and said after spending so much time on the internet.”

“Well, that’s kind of a problem worldwide I think. I guess then in some odd way I am responsible for you because I’m one of the many folks who helped turn the internet into what it is. I played a small but lucrative enough part in it, anyway. And then at some point a few years ago I realized that having even more money was not going to make me the least bit happier. In fact, the only thing that was going to make me happier was to use some of that money that I already had to actually go do something I wanted to do. So I dropped out, as they say, bought this baby and sailed around the world. And when I finished, I realized that I was done working. But I wasn’t done sailing. So here I am.”

Afi nodded as if that made perfect sense to him, which Toby imagined it did. It was only his own friends and family that could not possibly understand.

Toby added. “Now, I get to ask you one more question, and then we call it quits with the information exchange for today, okay?”

“That is fair,” Afi agreed.

“How the hell did you manage to hide in that storage bin?” This time Toby looked Afi in the eye.

Afi looked back and said nothing. Then, finally, “I guess you do have a right to know this. My body is unusual. How much do you know about an octopus?”

“I like to call them calamari and eat them.”

Afi laughed. “My mother says I am the son of an octopus. Not really of course. In spirit.”

Toby looked puzzled.

“You don’t know that much about them, do you? They can hide anywhere. Watch.”

Afi crawled into the area under Toby’s captain’s seat, then began wrapping his legs and arms around his body, bending and squeezing his limbs together in a way Toby could never have done. In the end, Afi’s skinny body was crammed into a space below the seat into which Toby would not have believed a person could fit. Only his head and his clothes seemed to take up their normal space, making it clear why Afi preferred less clothes.

“I’ll be damned. You’re double jointed.”

Afi began unfolding himself and shook his muscles as he stood back up. “I don’t know what that is.”

“Its real name is hypermobility. It’s actually a disease, Afi. Your connective tissues have less strength in them. It can cause you health problems, especially as you get older, although all sorts of folks including great musicians and illusionists have used this condition to their advantage.”

“My people just thought I was created weird,” Afi laughed.

“Is this why they locked you up?” Toby asked.

“No, but it is how I got out. No one really knows how well I can do this, except my mother. And I am trusting her, even with all that has happened, to keep this to herself.”

Joy Cabrini hung up the phone, wishing that just once her mother could keep something to herself. Joy had spent three years running away from a relationship with a man her parents just loved. And she didn’t. Well, to be truthful maybe she still wanted him on some level but she could not be more positive that the life she would have while married to Doug would be mostly miserable. Smart women do not marry attractive, rich, and charming guys who are already cheating on them before they are even technically engaged. Smart women know how this story is going to end, even after the lavish flowers and showy apologies. Both times. Smart women know how to spot a pattern.

But with no support at home (“Joy, dear, he’s just getting it out of his system before you marry. Men have to do that, you know?”) or from her closest friends (“Honey, I’d take fifty percent of him any day… not to mention what kind of life do you think you’re going to have as a elementary school teacher? Huh? Elementary school teacher married to investment banker? A little different, don’t you think?”)

Joy had gotten tired of it all around. She had filled out an online preliminary application for the Peace Corps, and eventually, in spite of the program’s strict requirements and over the protests of everyone she knew, headed out to spend two years teaching the small children of Fiji.

It had been lonely, difficult, hot, and not particularly exotic after all. She had seen cockroaches bigger than pets back in Boston and, living in Savusavu on Fiji’s large northern Island of Vanua Levu, at times she had desperately missed the comforts and conveniences of home. And you know what? It was already the greatest thing she had ever done.

At twenty-nine years old she was ready to return as a new person. Self-sufficient. Mistress of her own mind and soul. Looking forward to teaching and making new friends and living a life that brought her happiness. A life she chose.

Then her dear mother had called to let her know, just as she was packing up the last of her things, that she just hadn’t been able to keep herself from letting Doug know that Joy was arriving back in the U.S.A. in two days. And Doug had seemed so excited. “I think he’s maybe forgiven you for running away like you did,” her mother said hopefully.

Joy pulled with irritation on her thick, long, glossy black ponytail. “I didn’t do anything that requires forgiveness. His or anyone else’s.”

“Sweetie. You ran away from your engagement.” Her mother sounded like she was trying to reason with a mentally challenged child.

“We were not engaged. I broke it off with him.”

“But everyone knows you didn’t mean it. He said it was all a misunderstanding and that he loved you way too much to let you go. It was so romantic. And then you just left.”

“Mom. Let me be very clear. If he steps within five-hundred feet of me I will re-up for another two years in Fiji. I swear.”

“Oh sweetie, don’t be that way. He asked if he could come along to the airport to pick you up. I thought you’d be so happy. I can’t say no now, I already told him he could.”

“You know, Mom, forget it. I’m not going to be on that plane. I’m here and I’ve got a little extra money and I’m going to travel around for just a bit. See more of the place. I’ll give you a call back when I know my plans.” And for the first time in her life, she hung up on her mother.

She wondered what she was going to do now. She actually had almost no money saved, thanks to a bad habit of buying things for her students. It hadn’t seemed irresponsible, given that she was planning to return to her folks’ luxurious house for the rest of the summer, and that she had fully expected to be teaching and earning a U.S. salary come fall.

Meanwhile, her housing and living allowance here would run out in a few days. She thought that her visa was good for ninety days more, but she had better check. And, except for a single credit card she had promised herself she would not use, her only real possession of value was her plane ticket home, which could possibly be turned in for cash, but that seemed like a very bad idea. The problem was she didn’t have a lot of good ideas to weigh it against.

Brenda sat at her desk with her hands wrapped tight around her first cup of morning coffee, sad and surprised to have just learned that singer Michal Jackson had died the night before at age fifty. Fifty. My god, in just four years Brenda herself would be fifty.

She typed his name into a common search engine to learn more about what had happened and began muttering in frustration at the unexpected slowness of the response. A voice muttered something back and she looked up startled to see Peter standing in her doorway.

Of course. For the last nine years there had been only one set of circumstances that brought Dr. Hulson to her office, but, Brenda thought, when he did drop by, his visit was as predictable as clockwork. Well, this time at least she could give him an answer that would make him happy.

“How’s my new boy?” he asked with an almost childlike hopefulness in his still sharp grey-blue eyes. “This one is a boy, right?”

“Yes,” Brenda nodded her head. She knew that he still had an old man’s preference for the male worker, and nothing in the modern world was going to change that. “My best one is Zane Zeitman. Ivy league. No pedigree, Texas born. Sharp as a tack and tearing into our database. He is full of ideas. This one’s a keeper so far.”

“Good, good,” the old man nodded. “Keep me posted. Let’s make sure some nice perks come this kid’s way. Keep him motivated. Keep him challenged. I don’t have forever to find what I’m looking for, you know?”

“I know sir. I’ll give you updates, I’ll let you know if I need anything.”

“Good, good,” the man muttered as he left.

Zane Zeitman, Brenda thought to herself. Are you going to be the undiscovered protégé that the renowned doctor has been searching for all these years? Then she added as an afterthought. Do you want to be?

Chapter 4. July 2009

Joy had one more night of Peace Corps-provided lodging left in Savusavu, although she felt certain that another teacher or volunteer would lend her space on a couch for a few nights if needed. She had spent the last few days trying to come up with a plan for getting home that would take the most time to execute and cost the least. The best alternative seemed to be finding work on a boat, and so she had spent the last two days scouring the internet for any reasonable option for a young woman seeking limited adventure, slow transport, and a little pocket money. Her computer chirped to let her know that she had an email. Thank goodness. Maybe she had finally gotten a response to one of her queries.

But it was only her mother, writing from what was, for mom, still late last night back in Boston. Her mom wanted her to know that dad had left the previous evening on a flight to L.A. and had boarded a flight on to Nadi on the western side of Fiji’s main island. His commuter flight up to Joy’s island would be taking off in a few hours. He had a car waiting to take him to her apartment in Savusavu. Mom wanted Joy to know that she had tried to talk the man out of going, because frankly she thought it was a waste of time and money. But Judge Cabrini had announced that he was not going to let his only child continue to throw her life away in one more ill-advised act of rebellion. Even if she was twenty-nine years old. She was coming home with him and that was that.

“You know how your father is when he’s mad,” her mother wrote. “I thought about not even contacting you after you hung up on me like that, but you’re my daughter and even though I don’t understand it, I forgive you. Besides, I thought your dad might be less angry if you were packed and ready to go.” Joy felt like crying. “It’s going to be okay, honey,” her mother’s email continued. “He really is trying to look out for you. So please don’t make a scene. Come home with him.”

“Goddammit, how old do I have to fucking be?” she muttered to herself. The sad thing was that she knew that in his own way her father did love her, even if mixed up with his love was a sense of ownership, because what she did reflected on him and his precious reputation. To Judge Cabrini, only his own happiness really mattered. It wasn’t that he knowingly made such a selfish choice. It’s that no other choice had ever occurred to him.

“You get to own your own happiness,” she muttered the words to her father’s image in her head. “But I get to own mine.”

And with that she fired back an email to her mom.

“Please contact dad to tell him not to bother boarding the commuter plane because I will no longer be in Fiji by the time he arrives here in Savusavu. Tell him that I am sorry he wasted the journey, but he should have contacted me himself before leaving. I have found work aboard a ship that leaves in an hour and am greatly looking forward to the adventure. I will be in touch when I know more about my plans but under no circumstances do I expect to be home for a few months.”

And then, as an afterthought, “I love you both and hope you will wish me well as I enjoy the life I have chosen,” because in spite of it all, she did love them. And she did, truly, hope that they would wish her well.

Now, she had to go find a boat to work on fast. Her dad would fly in to look for her just to call her bluff. So she stuffed the last of her most essential possessions into her giant backpack and accepted that she would have to simply leave the rest. The flight in the tiny plane was going to be more of an adventure than Judge Cabrini had envisioned when he had merely looked at a map. She hoped that he bothered to enjoy the spectacular scenery. But whether he did or not, after that bumpy last leg of his journey he would arrive in Savusavu, so it was no time to be choosy about her future employer.

As June turned into July, Brenda could not help but notice that Zane showed up for work a little happier and more productive each day, even a little better dressed and, she could have sworn, a little better looking. He sipped free citrus water while he discussed some of his thought processes with her, and Brenda had to admit that she was enjoying the company of her new assistant and potential wunderkind. He had a dry wit about him and a sort of relaxed sense of self that was a welcome break from the intensity of the rest of the staff. Yet his insights into the sales database showed a surprising lack of naiveté. He understood exactly what the sales reps needed to know.

“I am trying to do more than just track what has been done,” he explained. “I am trying to design something that will help us ultimately apply the right sales person, the most effective techniques, and even the most influential incentives for each individual doctor. The key will ultimately be finding and tracking what sales techniques each doctor is the most receptive to.”

“That’s excellent,” Brenda agreed.

“‘So okay, to start with I have the prescription data from all the pharmacies in the Chicago area which we cleverly bought from the people who, whatever, sell information like that. It amazes me that they exist, but they do. So I now also have all of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s numbers of who wrote every single prescription for a mental-health-related drug in the entire greater Chicago area for the past two years. And better yet, I have the decoder ring which the AMA sold to us so I can now match all the area doctors’ names with the prescriptions that they have written.”

Zane paused. “Don’t you think it’s a little weird that a group like the American Medical Association would sell us the names of what doctors go with what DEA numbers?”

Brenda laughed. “It’s all about money, honey. The AMA makes millions selling that information.”

“Yeah. Makes the world go round. Okay. Well, once I get an easier to update format for you guys to track doctor’s prescribing habits of Penthes’ drugs, which you have been doing but not updating so well, then I am going to move on to tracking doctors who have started prescribing another company’s drugs in significant quantities. That way the sales staff can be easily alerted to any changing loyalties, or maybe to a concern a particular doctor is having, and they can address those issues as needed. I’m also working on a way to output all this information in an easier to use, easier to search format, so your sales reps won’t hesitate so much to use the database.”

Brenda was nodding and had a huge smile on her face. “Zane, this is just perfect. Just the way I hoped you would grab onto this project.” And Zane thought about how very good it felt to have someone be proud of him. He was getting an “A” again. He was Brainy Zany. Goddammit, he had missed that guy.

Brenda knew that Neil would be by her office to visit as soon as he was back from vacation. He always made it his business to know about the latest bright young thing his own boss was hanging his hopes on.

“So what’s this one like?” he asked Brenda casually.

Over the years, Brenda and Neil had achieved a sort of treaty of cooperation. She knew that she would never come to run the company, in fact would never rise out of the ranks of marketing. When it came to women in charge, Peter Sr. was what he was. So rather than alienate herself by fighting it, she enjoyed the perks, the salary, the sense of importance within her own department, and she left it at that.

Neil, in his own way, suffered from the same sort of problem. As Peter’s COO and CFO, he ran much of the company these days, and some day, in the not-too-distant future, he would likely run Penthes completely, at which point he would have achieved everything he wanted in life. Except for the one thing he wanted most.

Brenda understood quite well that Neil wanted Peter Sr. to want to turn the company over to him. Not to do it because he had no better alternative. Not to do it because the board of directors insisted. To do it because it was an excellent choice, not just the most realistic choice.

Yet day in and day out Peter found little ways to remind Neil that he was someone he was merely settling for. Smart but not brilliant. With neuroscience in his background, but not in his heart and soul. Or blood. A competent number cruncher but not a genius biochemist. A guy who could run the business for a generation without killing it, but who could never, never take it to the next level of greatness.

No, for that special person the old man kept searching. Every year Penthes hired a couple of new Ph.D.s, and a few lesser degreed bright young folks with promise who could be sent back to school. Every year for ten years now the old man watched each new crop, searching for that spark of genius he was so sure he would be able to smell, touch, and feel once it was here. Searching for that protégé that could be trained, just so that second-class Neil could keep the company alive while this rising spark learned and grew and truly took over the company’s heart and soul some day. Neil and Brenda both knew that Peter had every hope of still being alive to see that happen.

So every year Peter checked in with Raju, his head of research, and Brenda, his head of marketing, and Neil, his head of finance, to see who in that year’s crop had shown some promise. Often Brenda and Raju were happy to report one or two names with high potential. Occasionally, Neil reported one as well. Every year Peter Hulson kept a particularly close watch point forward on those young people who had been recommended to him.

And every year for the last ten years now, Neil also dropped by to visit with Brenda about the new hires being rotated through her department, largely for her evaluation. And every year Brenda, in a spirit of cooperation, passed along the names of any of her best candidates. Neil was a good friend to have. Someday soon, he would be a great friend to have.

And every year, her best candidate met with some change of fortune. One had personal problems arise which forced him to break his contract. Two had gotten great offers from elsewhere and unprofessionally left. One became very ill. Another flubbed up in such a major way that they had to let him go. The remaining three had made a series of small mistakes, just little things, and while they were allowed to finish out their contract period, they clearly needed to be removed from the list of “those with high potential.”

Funny. The guys from the lab and even the one or two candidates from finance ran into a similar and varied laundry list of problems. Year after year after year, not one new hire ultimately lived up to Peter’s hopes. Were Peter’s hopes too high? Neil would remind Peter that they were all really just kids, and that kids today were less well trained, less motivated, certainly less likely to have the qualities Peter sought. All those electronic toys, what did he expect? The kind of young man he was looking for, hoping to still find and train to succeed Neil probably didn’t even exist.

During these conversations, Peter would look sad. Sometimes he would nod in agreement. Then he would hope for the next year.

Brenda found herself annoyed by this year’s request from Neil to “share.” She enjoyed Zane, and she had long since decided that Neil was somehow encouraging or facilitating the demise of each year’s best candidate. She knew that sounded kind of paranoid, and she wasn’t sure how Neil could even manage to contrive such events, but the fact was that she had a bad feeling about the whole thing. She figured once every nine years she was entitled to just one little lie.

“No one.” She shook her head, tossing her curls a little for effect. “Got a beauty queen who will be great in sales but doesn’t have it upstairs, a laid back computer nerd fooling with the database who’s got no particular drive or business sense, and a guy I put into the marketing group to improve the powerpoints who is smart but so nervous he’s scared of his own shadow. And those are my top three. A pretty disappointing little group this year. I think HR needs some talking to.”

“Well, that’s too bad,” Neil said in a way that made it sound like it wasn’t bad at all. “Not much this time around in my group either. Guess I’ll check in with Raju.”

Toby was pleased to find that Afi was, if nothing else, a young man eager to please. He did cook well, he was competent manning the sails, he cleaned and scrubbed the boat over the next several days without being asked, and, as requested, he kept the conversation to a minimum. Toby left Afi on watch while he slept, and a full night’s sleep while at sea was a pleasant change. When Afi wasn’t sailing, he was napping himself, finding work to do, or sometimes just staring out to sea. Twice he took Toby up on his offer and watched DVDs. The week long trip from Apia to Fiji passed without event.

As Toby’s much-loved sailboat Miss Demeanor finally made her way through the Nanuku Passage towards Fiji’s main two islands, Toby radioed ahead to ensure that a health inspector would be available to clear the boat so they could proceed out of quarantine anchorage with minimum delay. As he spoke with port control, he watched Afi expertly use the sails to turn the boat to pass to the north of Koro Island, and Toby decided that Afi made a great crew. Perhaps he would let the boy work on board until he turned twenty-one. In which case he should learn more about him after all.

It didn’t take much prodding to find out that before being whisked off for unnamed crimes, Afi had a hobby, of sorts, in that he aspired to become proficient in the Samoan fire knife dance. Apparently Afi had practiced a lot and on occasion performed for friends and family, and even for profit. His unusual flexibility had enabled him to perfect a few unique moves that other dancers could not even attempt. Toby guessed that wanting to fire dance in the South Pacific was a little bit like wanting to play baseball in U.S.

Toby had long since installed a high-end J.L. Audio marine sound system on his boat, and it was one indulgence he had never regretted.  He prided himself on maintaining an immense collection of music on the best MP3 player he could find. Sometimes the quiet at sea was soothing. But often, whatever music suited his mood was far better. He had genre days. One day, nothing but classical music. On another day, it was all reggae. He had theme days, a day in which, for example, no song would be played that didn’t have a word describing weather in the title. On this journey he had played classic rock and roll, which Afi had seemed to enjoy well enough.

Once he learned of Afi’s love of fire dancing, though, he decided to find a couple of fire songs as they approached Fiji. With a smile of satisfaction he selected a few oldies from the fifties and sixties that referred to fire. When he played  Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire”, Afi smiled in recognition. But when the speakers began to blare the Doors 1967 hit “Light My Fire” ($) Afi grinned at this one and started to sing along. Pretty soon both men were belting out the chorus. “Fie… errr…” drifted out over the waves of Savusavu Bay along with their laughter.

“What to do you think?” Toby asked.

“I think you have a great sound system.” Afi was honest. Toby waited.

“I think you found fire songs for me, which was nice.” Toby waited more.

“I think your music could use a little updating?” Toby laughed. He had been expecting that remark for days.

Afi continued. “There are a lot of great new songs about fire too. Maybe in Fiji we can download some? And we can make a bigger collection, with the old and the new?”

“We absolutely can. Music is one of the supplies I continue to stock up on, even if I don’t need anything else. I usually just add more oldies, but we will see what we can find from the last five years. I promise.”

The silence stretched on for a bit. “Afi, I think I should know what exactly it is that a fine young man like you could do to get your parents to send you off to kid prison. It’s hard to believe just modern ways and ideas would unsettle them so.”

Afi looked down and fidgeted.

“That depends on what modern ideas you are talking about.”

“Okay,” Toby said. “Try me.”

Afi waited a minute. Finally he merely said, “According to Penal Code 153, unnatural offenses, 154, indecent assaults, and 155, indecent practices, the penalty for being gay in Kiribati is five to fourteen years.” He paused. Toby looked uncomfortable but said nothing. “I think that my parents actually accepted who I was, that they always knew it, that they always loved me. But part of the unspoken agreement was that I remain very secretive about myself, with them and with everyone else. Then I saw on the internet how things are changing in so much of the world. How people like me don’t have to be so silent and so afraid. Please understand. It’s not that I want to make anyone uncomfortable. That just isn’t the kind of person that I am. But I also got tired of pretending. I told my parents all this, because I really thought that they would be happy for me and my new found courage. But the church we go to has a particularly large problem with this issue, and my father is very active in the church. I could see how troubled this made him. And then one day not long after that I woke up in Samoa. Where, I was told, they were going help me beat this demon out of myself and I should be thankful.”

Toby was silent for a moment. He looked even more uncomfortable than Afi. “I’m an old school kind of guy. You should know that, Afi. I left the U.S before a lot of the changes you’re reading about took place. I honestly probably have more in common with your dad on this subject than I do with you. Is homosexuality illegal in Fiji too?” Toby looked a bit nervously at the approaching harbor.

“It is. I don’t know if the rest of the world understands this, but most of the island nations of the Pacific have very old-fashioned Christian beliefs and practices. Until very recently, we haven’t had all that much contact with the modern world except through missionaries and churches. Right now, it’s pretty much illegal anywhere that isn’t under U.S., Australian or New Zealand jurisdiction, although places are slowly changing. And the laws are hardly ever enforced as long as you don’t do anything to draw attention to yourself. Secrecy seems to be the requirement.”

Toby shook his head. He simply had not seen this one coming. “And now we’re two guys on a boat.” Toby laughed at his own discomfort. “Okay Afi. One more question. That older kid who got in so much trouble at your school trying to help the fifteen-year-old with the rash in the piss-soaked clothes. What ever happened to him?”

Afi looked embarrassed. “He escaped and he’s on your boat.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought. I figured when you told me that story that the student you were talking about was really you.”

Toby busied himself for a moment with the instrument panel while he gathered his thoughts.

“Look, you’re going to have to put up with my awkwardness here.” Toby swallowed hard when he finally spoke, and Afi could see the discomfort in his face. “I know damn well that it doesn’t matter that you are gay, and the fact remains that what you tried to do for that other kid was admirable. And I know that it’s painful to watch suffering and to be able to do nothing about it. So, as far as I’m concerned, you’re not going back there. I’ll hide you and I’ll deal with my personal issues on the subject.” Toby chuckled to himself. “Hell, it’s probably time I did anyway. Furthermore, we’re going to have to find a way to get your friends out of there too, although right now I haven’t a clue how we’re going to manage that one.”

Without saying anything further Toby turned his attention to fooling with the boat’s engine, then going to engine power so he could easily put the boat in the quarantine anchorage. He ignored Afi’s appreciative smile as he raised his Q flag and thought to himself, What in world have I just committed to?

After Toby paid the health inspector he made his way over to the Copra Shed Marina to a wharf where an immigration officer gave him paperwork which he filled out in duplicate so that he, Afi, and Miss Demeanor would be able to legally cruise the various islands of Fiji. It amused him that most Americans thought of the Pacific as a mass of unregulated sea, dotted with lush islands one could just go to. The fact was that the ocean of the twenty-first century was divided into countries just like the land, and each country knew exactly what islands belonged to it. One did not just cruise into another country any more than one just wandered into Austria or Uruguay. One reported to customs and immigration. One passed a health inspection, temporarily surrendered contraband and firearms, filled out paperwork, secured permission to visit, and then and only then, one cruised around.

Toby was very lucky to be able to get by without any paper work for Afi. He was able to persuade the immigration official to accept a bond in lieu of the boy having a passport, and listed him as a Kiribati crew member that would be returning directly to Kiribati upon departure. Clearly Afi’s lack of identification was going to pose problems everywhere down the road and could well have caused problems here with a stricter official.

With permission to enter fully secured and the sailboat safely moored in a temporary loading area, Toby had intended to make a quick visit to the farmers market next while Afi stayed aboard to watch the boat. But as he made his way toward the market, he noticed a young woman with a long, thick black ponytail and huge backpack leaving the market area and rushing towards him with relief. Her clothes and gear spoke of the States and of money, sensible yet fashionable. She was out of breath and kept looking back over her shoulder like she was expecting someone she did not want to see.

“Please. Can I board your boat?” She was pointing to Miss Demeanor and as she got a little closer to him he saw that she was a tall young woman, more handsome than pretty, with olive skin and very dark brown eyes filled at this moment with a pleading, desperate look. “Like maybe now?” she asked. “I need passage off of this island really bad. I’m not in trouble with the law. I promise.”

Another runaway? Had somebody put a sign on his back advertising his boat as an escape vehicle? Toby almost laughed aloud at the image.

“I will work hard. I cook. I sail. I clean. And you can drop me anywhere you are going next. Please?”

Toby almost responded with, You don’t just grab strangers off of a pier as crew members, lady—what the hell is the matter with you?, but reconsidered. What is the matter with me? Under the slightly uncomfortable circumstances in which he found himself, another crew member might be just what he needed while he became a bit more comfortable with Afi.

“It’s your lucky day, lady,” he said. “Get yourself on that boat with the bright orange sun on the sail. Tell the young man on board I said you could wait for me in the cabin. Talk to him. He should be fairly sympathetic to your situation. Let me buy some supplies and I’ll be right back. Then you and I will talk.”

As July neared its end, Penthes invited Zane to attend a Cubs game, in one of the corporate boxes located up high behind home plate. He didn’t particularly like watching baseball any more than he had liked playing it as a child, but he recognized that the gracious thing to do was to say thank you and show up. It sure beat his old schedule of working nights in the lab. Plus, it was being billed as a reward for some of the more highly achieving new employees, and that struck Zane as a good group with which to be associated.

He arrived looking as well dressed as he could manage, and even with concentration he couldn’t seem to stop his eyes from turning just the right shade of green to match his shirt, so he went with it.

It turned out that Brenda was attending not only with him as her protégé, but also with an absolutely gorgeous young woman named Raven with long tendrils of blonde hair, noticeably huge breasts, and a biology degree. She had just been hired as a sales representative. So far, word was that Raven had yet to be turned down by any male doctor for lunch when she requested the meeting in person. Marketing was also represented by this nice but extremely quiet guy doing something with powerpoints, and a mid-level balding manager with thick glasses named Gil who was planning the next big sales event, a symposium on treating mental illness in younger teenagers to be sponsored by Penthes and held at a resort location.

The best part of the night, as far as Zane was concerned, was that not only was sales and marketing in attendance, but finance, production, distribution, and general office services all had a couple of managers, each with proud new hires in tow. As did research. Yes, there was his old boss Raju, who had barely bothered to speak to him, along with the two unreasonable newly hired Ph.D.s, sitting right next to Zane in seats no better than his. Zane hated to gloat, too much, so he just waved hello.

He turned to chat with Gil, who was looking for just the right exotic location for the mental health symposium. Penthes had cleverly chosen to proudly sponsor it late next winter when every snow-weary man, woman, and child would be dying to get out of Chicago.

“Is the Caribbean too ordinary?” Zane asked, trying to make polite conversation.

“It’s been done a lot,” Gill agreed. “It’s more dependable than the Mediterranean for good weather, and easier to get to of course, but also easier to turn down. Brenda here thinks I should go totally exotic. Something in the South Pacific.”

“Tahiti?” Jeez, now there was a destination for a conference.

‘”Could work, but some of our doctors have been there more than once, you know? It’s better to find somewhere they haven’t been, so that they just can’t resist. I was thinking of Thailand, personally, but our boss Brenda there says I need to look into Fiji.” He winked at Zane, “I have a feeling that I’m going to find that Fiji is a great idea.”

“Fiji should qualify as unique,” Zane nodded agreeably.

“Well, I’m glad to hear that you like the idea of Fiji,” Gil said, and he lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “because the word I’ve gotten from Dr. P himself is that he’s heard that you are such an up-and-coming hotshot that he wants to make sure you are at this conference, helping out with logistics or something.”

“Me?” Zane’s voice raised half an octave. “Going to Fiji?” Several of Penthes’ finest turned their heads in Zane’s direction.

“Shh,” Gil chuckled, then added in his fake whisper, “This is entirely on the QT. You never heard it from me, and if asked I will deny having ever told you.”

Zane noticed out of the corner of his eye that the Cubs had just hit a home run with the bases loaded. How his dad would love to be here, he thought. About half the Penthes group looked up in mild interest at the grand slam. The other half didn’t even bother. They were too busy letting their bosses and each other know just how intelligent they were. In the corporate world, the smart and savvy knew better than to waste good face time like this by actually watching baseball.

Before the evening wore down, Zane tried to engage Josh, the powerpoint guy, in a little conversation. Josh appeared genuinely grateful for the effort, but it was still like pulling teeth to get him to talk. After a bit Zane turned his attention to Raven, the beauty who had, he noticed, oh so politely brushed off every male in attendance.

“I can’t help but note that you’re pretty good at making guys go away and they actually feel good about it,” Zane remarked quietly and Raven smiled.

“The training comes with having equipment like this,” she said looking down at her chest. “Unfortunately I had to start learning at about twelve years old.”

“Well it’s good to meet another fellow new hire. Can I assume that taking doctors out to lunch is not your ultimate career ambition?” Zane asked in a friendly fashion. “And, if not, I am curious what your plan is here.”

Raven seemed glad to be asked. “They keep saying I have a degree in biology, but that’s not true.”

Zane raised an eyebrow. Did bra size substitute for a degree if one was in sales?

“What I really have is a degree in botany, but that doesn’t make me sound quite as qualified.”

“Plants?” Zane asked puzzled.

“Yes. That would be botany.”

“So how did you end up here? Interest in herbal medicine?”

He meant the question sincerely but Raven laughed, and Zane could see her very small, fine straight white teeth, and then he noticed how much else about her was almost porcelain delicate. Once you got past looking at the huge whatevers.

“I ended up here because this was the only place I could find that was hiring. Except for Hooters. Or worse. No offense to the girls who work there, I’ve had friends who did. It’s just not my style.”

“Aside from the fact that you’d be an obvious hit, I can’t say I blame you. But what is the plan for here?”

“That depends on whether you ask me or ask my mom.”

“Okay,” Zane laughed. “Let’s ask your mom.”

“Well,” and Raven scrunched her face a little in what Zane could only guess was meant to be an impersonation of the girl’s mother. “Beauty is not going to last forever, you know. I personally cannot think of a better job than one in which a beautiful young woman meets doctor after doctor. Some of them have to be unmarried. Maybe the right one has to decide to become unmarried, if you know what I mean.” And “mom” gave an ugly little chuckle.

“Hell,” Zane muttered in sympathy. “Home wrecker. Now there’s a career path for you.”

“Exactly. And me? I’m just trying to save some money to go back to school. My mom’s a teacher and my dad disappeared long ago, so I’ve got forty-thousand dollars in loans to pay off before I take out more. And then I will go back to school and hopefully study which non-genetically engineered plants are the most hardy and reliable, and which will be best to turn to when we need or choose to get away from their genetically engineered brethren. I’m really interested in tomatoes. They’re kind of a passion of mine.”

“Feed the world without messing with nature. It sounds great Raven. I hope you can do it.”

Zane left the ballpark that night feeling pretty good about himself. He’d made an effort to fit in, talked to some folks he rather liked, and felt like he was finally being recognized for what he could do. Hell, if Gil was reliable, he might even get to go to Fiji. What a difference two months could make.

The woman’s name was Joy; Toby liked the name. He had guessed initially that she was fleeing a nasty and possibly abusive boyfriend, but once he got back aboard he was surprised to learn that apparently she was yet another runaway from a controlling father and she and Afi seemed to have already bonded by comparing stories. “I’m starting to feel like I run a theme boat here,” he smiled at Afi. Then to Joy, “Where do you think your dad is about now?”

“He’s probably been somewhere in town for the last hour or so trying to find me. Talking to neighbors, school officials, law enforcement. He’s very good at throwing his weight around, and his title of “judge.” Offices are closing now so he’ll be getting lodging for the night, and tomorrow when offices open again he’ll be here in the harbor finding out what boat I left on.”

“Then I guess you better leave on one. How about a sunset cruise, folks? I think I can find a beach we can moor off of for the night, and we will take it from there.”

Any beach in Fiji is somebody’s back yard. You don’t just drop anchor and camp. Toby headed around to the southwest side of the island, looking for a place where he had been often before so that formalities could be kept to a minimum. Once in close enough he dropped anchor and waded ashore, asking one of the many inevitable, inquisitive children watching them from the safety of the tree cover to please take him to the village chief so that he could present the customary offering of kava root.

“He says to tell you that you do not need to bother, Toby. He is too tired tonight, and he still considers you an honorary member of the village from last time you were here,” the child laughed.

“Tell him I thank him for his courtesy, Lela, and I will visit him in the morning.” Sometimes it was good to know people.

Toby and his crew set about making a camp and a fire in the dusk. Joy was happy to help cook. Afi gleefully unloaded the best of the new provisions and hammocks that would give them a night off of the boat.

“What’s this?” he asked Toby, lifting a large bulky paper sack out of the dinghy.

“Tonight’s entertainment,” Toby replied. Afi’s eyes widened as a single, almost forty-inch-long fire knife fell out onto the sand, its regulation fourteen-and-a-half-inch blade glistening. There was a fire wick and a small can of outboard motor fuel.

“It was just sitting there when I walked into the farmers market,” Toby confessed a little sheepishly. “The man was quite happy to sell it to me, and I figured you could use it to at least start getting back in practice.”

Afi shook his head in disbelief and Toby thought he saw a hint of tears in Afi’s eyes. “After dinner I want you to show me and our new crew member what you can do with this,” Toby said.

So after food was finished,  the knife and wick were prepared, and as the very last glimmer of light vanished off to the west, Afi did a careful hand spin with the burning baton. Then he tried a slow figure eight. Then a cautious toss and catch, followed by a slightly more confident toss and catch behind his back. Then a bolder under-the-leg throw. He was grinning now, and the muscle memory was coming back. Joy and Toby watched in increasing wonder as Afi’s hesitant movements transformed, until he was confidently moving the glowing stick to the beat of drums only he could hear in his head.

He began to stomp his feet as he moved, adding head movements in the Kiribati style. Toby and Joy gained a sense of the rhythm to which Afi was moving. Joy began softly clapping with the motion, adding a little percussion. Afi grinned in appreciation and she clapped more forcefully. As his movements speeded up, her clapping speeded with them, and the two of them were working together now to create the performance. Joy clapped. Afi spun the fire knife. Toby watched in absolute fascination. Finally, by the end of the dance, Afi had become a whirling, glowing swirl of orange flame, powered by Joy’s now jubilant participation and by his own sheer joy in the exhilaration of doing  something that he truly loved.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Tag Cloud

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,819 other followers

%d bloggers like this: