(2016 Ian MacMillan Awards, Fiction Finalist)
Plenty times before, Pastor Cooke had surfaced from deep sleep to find he was stuck inside himself. On those mornings it was normal to wake with heat and tightness in the chest, and like a shifting under the skin––just like organs rubbing, grinding, maybe. Sometimes he’d panic. If the limbs stayed insubordinate for too long or the tremors inside got to where they might split him up the middle, he would close his eyes and pray, ask for calm and clarity of mind, for reason, and he’d wait out the paralysis, which was just an awakening before the body had finished its R.E.M. cycle, a malfunction of the flesh that would soon fix itself, God willing.
This morning, waking on the living room couch with the rattan armrest digging into the back of his neck, he couldn’t talk himself calm. The body, he told himself, was imperfect, this paralysis the same as all the others. But he couldn’t ignore feeling like something was in the room with him. Cooke thought to belly breathe, a trick he taught to congregants when they felt overwhelmed in a counseling session. He watched the chest inflate with a long, deep draw, but it was only the mechanics of breathing, not breath itself, the air getting lost in the lungs, never making it to the blood.
The room flickered, his head expanding at the temples. The thing was watching him. He sensed it, tucked away in the periphery. He called for Lani, asleep in the bedroom, but he could only make guttural, underwater sounds.
What Cooke saw when it stepped from the periphery on the far end of the couch was an upright figure, black and long-limbed, dimensional but featureless. It stepped over the armrest and began to crawl over his body, just like a shadow man with eyes, yet Cooke could feel like its gaze on him. He shut his eyes, felt the thing’s dull weight pressing on his chest, and began to say a prayer that quickly unraveled to the word please, repeated again and again. He tried to force the idea that this was all just sleep paralysis, the black figure nothing more than a hallucination caused by being stuck between sleep and waking. Soon, and with lots of focus, he was able to ease into this explanation, accepting the premise and its reasoning when the weight on his chest lifted and his anxiety began to calm, as he peeked through his eyelids and saw that he was alone in the room.
Dusty sunlight came through the blinds and shone in slants on the carpet beside him. From somewhere in the forest, he heard a band of wild roosters crowing into the morning. Cooke raised his leg a few inches. He shrugged a shoulder. His arms and legs felt just like touching an electric, cattle fence, the pulsing and popping. A breeze lifted the blinds, filling the room with sunlight and sweet and brine, the trades coming in from the ocean, banking off the cliffs and through the stand of plumeria trees, through the picture window screen. He wiped the sweat from his hairline and neck.
The roosters crowed again, closer now, in the backyard, but this time he noticed how clearly he could hear them, how their calls were plain and undevoured by the noise of the heavy machinery next door.
No diesel engines, Cooke thought. No beeping from trucks backing up, no tires grinding the cinder road. He listened for the hammers on wood, the churning cement mixer, and he listened for the blown speakers that buzzed the low notes of jangly country music.
Almost two years and Jenkins still wasn’t done with that house. He’d been building it piecemeal, when money was good, Cooke assumed, because he’d seen how the gaps in construction were in line with the gaps in Jenkins’s tithing frequency and amount. The records showed that Jenkins was having a fruitful year, which pleased Pastor Cooke. But, he was also displeased with the recent additions and alterations to Jenkins’s never-ending project.
Jenkins’s house was just like a cartoon, exaggerated and bloated, something from a dream. Its imposing walls, made of dull concrete, rose 30 feet and were shaped into battlements at the top. Encircling the compound was a koi-filled moat that had gone green with algae. With the new money, he’d installed a plywood drawbridge that raised and lowered on a pulley system.
Cooke had tolerated the project at first because Jenkins had been a faithful member, an asset to the congregation, and had taken an interest in the spiritual life since their first meeting. That tolerance had lessened in recent months when, one by one, turrets went up at each corner of the compound, stretching beyond the tops of the ohia trees, the second taller than the first, the fourth taller than the third, until the house blocked Cooke's view of the ocean and the horizon. Jenkins’s castle belonged in Disneyland. Not here. Not in Puna.
Jenkins had been part of the most recent wave of mainlanders washing up in Puna, some of them speculators, some of them looking to own a piece of paradise for good—silver-haired retirees, gays starting bed and breakfasts, nirvana seekers. Never mind the unpaved roads. Never mind that they were off the county water line. Sidewalks and streetlights were the kinds of things that bored them, anyway. The talk going around blamed Oprah. She was one of the first to go on TV and encourage everyone to buy up the cheap land in Puna, even if it was off the grid and Kīlauea flows constantly remade the landscape. God’s not making any more land in Hawaiʻi,” Oprah said. Cooke had been around long enough to know that this was a thing before Oprah said it was. He had grown up here, on the cliffs at the border of Kīlauea and the ocean, where shafts of vog lifted from volcanic vents on one side and the tides rose and plunged on the other.
He'd met with Jenkins in the church office the previous day to talk about some faith issues he was having––a common reason for congregant appointments. Jenkins sat down on the other side of the desk, reluctant to make eye contact, and instead concentrated on his hands, which were cracked and scarred. He nervously stroked a blackened thumbnail.
"I think you're doing OK," Pastor Cooke said. "Reading your Bible? Daily Prayers, yeah? Then you're doing all the things you're supposed to do.” He closed his eyes and tapped his finger between his eyebrows. "Although, it's guaranteed nothing, but I'll ask anyway. Because, I've noticed you've been attending Sunday services more infrequently lately. And, I wonder if your project is becoming an idolatrous activity, the reason for your faith issues."
Cooke couldn’t put things in order. He had been aware of the paralysis as soon as he woke and he remembered feeling the other’s presence in the room. But, he started to second guess his own story. Because he swore he felt the dark presence even before he opened his eyes. He couldn’t arrange in a timeline when he heard the rooster, when he saw the black figureman. When did he notice it was silent next door? It was as if all of these moments had converged on him in a single revelation.
“This morning when I first woke up was crazy,” he said to Lani at dinner that evening. They were sitting at the table closest to the giant fishfist tank near the entrance of the restaurant. Neon tetra flitted through the dust-flecked water, avoiding the large, bug-eyed one hovering just beneath the surface.
“Cause you couldn’t move?” Lani asked, motioning for the shoyu. She took it from him and poured it in loops over her noodles, never looking down from the mounted TV.
"Yeah, but I was thinking about Jenkins at the same time. Weird, yeah? I was thinking, 'What? No racket from that damn house?'"
“He wasn’t working, huh?”
“Nope. I don’t know why.”
"Maybe he chickened out and went home.” She nodded toward the TV. “I would chicken out, too, if right after I moved here Pele started taking people’s houses. Look, Tanaka’s store is about to go.”
“If it was that, he would have told me. The guy’s got problems, and lucky for me I get to hear every single one.”
“That’s how, right?” she said, shifting her focus from the TV to her bowl. “He wouldn’t see you if you he didn’t have problems. They have problems, you fix problems, they feel better, the Lord blesses everyone.”
"But, I blamed the house when he came to see me. He was having faith problems again. He was doing grouting up on one of the towers of that thing and the wind blew him back. He almost went over the edge but grabbed the wall and got himself back up. Not before seeing that water twenty feet below, breaking on the cliff. He swears to me he felt the spray. Sat up there until evening time. Just thinking, he said. He felt hopeless. But who doesn't feel hopeless sometimes?"
"He needs a wife, kids, something to make him responsible." Lani's hand was halfway to her mouth, a tangle of noodles pinched at the end of her chopsticks. "You blamed the house..."
"It's just with everybody else, when they come to talk to me about problems they're having, spiritual or temporal, whatever, I run through the church-bible-prayer questions, and tell them as long as they're doing those three things they're on-track, on the straight and narrow, and when our spiritual responsibilities are fulfilled our temporal ones are as well." Pastor Cooke picked a grain of rice from his empty plate and slipped it into his mouth. "You know the talk. If they're missing any of those three—with Jenkins, we hadn't seen him in church as much—we work to strengthen those areas, put them on a plan. You're going to read x-number of scriptures each day, x-number of missed Sunday services before we come by your house to pick you up, three prayers a day to start. Talk about the blessings to be had. If not the blessings, then punishment. That kind of talk. But, yesterday, with Jenkins, I totally left the script and launched into talking about idolatry. How for some people it's that brand new car. Or their job, making money. For a lot of people it's buying things they can't pay for. Worldly things. Maybe I just got tired of telling him the same thing. I mean, since he's been here he's come to talk to me every month. But, you think he ever listens to me? No way. I say, 'Steve, this house might be affecting your spiritual progress. Already you're missing Sunday services to work on it. It's taking your attention away from God.' I start to ask him questions about almost going over the edge that day. Try to make him relive it. 'What did you think of first when you started to go off balance? What did you feel when you saw that water?' He doesn't say much. Always, he never says much. Tells me again he felt hopeless, but when I ask him to describe it more, he can't."
“Lani took another bite, slurped up the noodles dangling from her lip. "And what?" she said.
"And... And, I should've stuck with the script. I don’t know why–"
Their waitress interrupted, asking if they had room for dessert, but Pastor Cooke waved off the idea. “Full,” he said. He complimented the food, said it was real tasty, like always. The waitress placed two foam containers and the bill at the edge of the table.
“Here, take it. I cannot see,” he said. He slid the bill across the table through a pool of water.
“She didn’t give us discount,” Lani said, handing back the bill. “She’s right there. Hurry, before she goes.
Pastor Cooke put on his glasses and held the bill away from him as he read it. “I don’t know how you can read this chicken scratch,” he said.
“You know what hurry means?”
“Oh, never mind. I see.” He turned and waved his hand to get the waitress's attention, but she was busy scribbling on a small notepad the orders of the next table. Pastor Cooke leaned over and tugged lightly on her apron. She jumped, glared at him as he explained she'd forgotten to include in the clergy discount. "Is it five or ten percent?" he asked.
She smiled flatly and told him she’d be with him afterwards. She was new. Probably didn’t even know what the daily specials were, or what clergy means, or who the regulars are. She would learn, eventually.
“I don’t see it on here,” Pastor Cooke said when the waitress returned. “I don’t see it.” He held the bill out and she leaned in to read it. “The clergy discount.”
“I don’t know what’s that but I ask my manager.”
“Who’s tonight? Wayne? Tell Wayne it’s for me. Tell him Pastor Cooke.”
“Wayne, I don’t know. It’s Linda,” she said, pointing across the room. “It’s OK, I ask Linda now.”
“Linda?” Lani said, after the waitress left. “Who’s Linda?”
“That’s what I just said.”
“Oh. I couldn’t hear. I don’t know who is Linda.”
Cooke rested his glasses on his forehead. He stretched his neck so he could see over the top of the booth. The waitress was at the register, pecking on the keys and speaking over her shoulder to the woman behind her, a gray lady with a half-palsied face. She looked like a fresh-off-the-boat from Guangdong, another cousin or aunty or sister shipped in to work and earn.
Cooke sat back in the booth and twisted up his face so Lani understood that he had nothing new to report. He refilled his teacup, lifted it to his lips and blew into it, cautiously sipping as he tried to remember what he was saying before the waitress interrupted. Yes, that’s what it was.
"Maybe Jenkins would start thinking,” Pastor Cooke continued, “about how the house was affecting his eternal well being. Falling over the edge might be some kind of message from up there.” He pointed to the ceiling.
“Just… You,” Lani snorted into her glass. “Nothing. Never mind. Oh yeah. It’s ten, tell her. Tell her Wayne usually gives us 10 percent.”
The waitress was still on the other side of the room, now huddled with the gray lady, bent over the counter. Cooke scratched the skin between his eyebrows and gave in to the weight of his eyelids. Closing his eyes relieved the pressure in his temples.
A lot of the members had a hard time with Lani. He watched her gulp down her glass and could see how some of the members said she was stuck up, which is the gossip he’d heard for a long time. She was like hisher mother: if you say or do the wrong thing, she was going to make you pay for it. Now he felt stupid for trying to talk to her about it. There was no point trying to explain himself, how he handled the Jenkins situation. And, he didn’t know how to tell her that he spent the day feeling like the ocean would come up over cliff and sweep him out to sea, or how he was too aware of the size and speed of each car in the opposite lane as he drove to Hilo.
The bells fastened above the entrance doors jangled.
“James,” Lani said.
Cooke opened his eyes.
"Honey... Duane..." She cupped her hand to her mouth to contain a dribble of water.
A dark kid had come in wearing only board shorts and a thick-linked, gold chain around his neck. He stood at the entrance trying to make eye contact with the waiters. He was long and sickly, his arms and chest marked with the shaky lines of green tattoo ink. He was barefooted, his toes caked with mud. He looked eighteen or nineteen, twenty, maybe—about the boy’s age. But, this kid had a different face, the nose too thin, the chin too sharp. The posture was different. When a waiter asked him what he wanted he said he needed to use the phone, but the waiter, pointing at the dark kid’s feet, laughed at the idea.
“Stop looking,” Cooke said. “It’s not him.” He turned to get another look and saw the waiter holding the entrance door open, yelling words that sometimes sounded English, sometimes not, but the dark kid was begging, his hands steepled. He said he’d be real quick, no long distance.
This kid looked nothing like the Boy. Lani was crazy. Maybe a little bit here and there, the height and the shape of the arms—his grandfather’s arms. But, that’s it.
Almost a year the Boy had been away, somewhere out in the thick Puna forests, rambling with the wild ones, the lawless ones, the unmonitored and unprincipled ones. Despite Pastor Cooke's efforts, tThe Boy didn't choose the path of righteousness, and let the world to get to him. It started with the lawnmower, which he denied taking. Other things disappeared: the grill, the power saw, cash. The Boy denied all of it. He was at home less and less, until he stopped coming home altogether. "It's not James," Pastor Cooke said.
Strange to say his name. He wondered what it meant—if it meant anything, at all—that calling the Boy by his name made him uneasy. It always had. On the TV, the flow was approaching the old plantation cemetery. Tanaka’s store would be gone in a few days. It reminded him of the way the Boy felt in his arms one night, many years ago, as they watched Pele crawl toward them, up a hill, in a Kalapana subdivision just a ten-minute drive from their house. The park rangers were there, managing the crowd, herding everyone back—mostly tourists, but some locals—putting them behind a wood traffic barrier. One of the rangers' voices crackled through a megaphone, appealing to the crowd to stay close, not to wander off, to listen to his instructions because their safety depended on it, that this particular flow was a pahoehoe flow, the smooth, viscous kind, as opposed to an a'a flow, which was rough and crumbled as it moved forward. The ranger spoke of the mythology, of gGods who lent their consciousness to these kinds of natural phenomena; he spoke of geology, of pressure and the movement of heat beneath the crust, of an earth unaware of its processes.
Up the road, flashlight beams were sweeping over the pavement and behind them the headlights of dozens of parking cars. They were here, like Pastor Cooke was here, to see a show. Maybe a house or two would go, maybe the whole subdivision covered. Not Pastor Cooke's house, not his subdivision, though it easily could have been, and he made sure to tell the Boy this as a lesson. Occasionally, a heavy gust from the ocean spiraled the embers into the air, sending an uncountable number of glowing pieces into the air. The Boy stood in front of him, his round shoulders fitting neatly in Pastor Cooke's palms. Another gust came, everyone cheering when they were swept up and extinguished overhead.
The rangers shuffled the crowd further uphill. But, there was a resistance in the Boy's shoulders. With each retreat up the hill, each shuffling of the crowd to a distance deemed safe for the time—a safer distance marked by a change in air temperature, a coolness that registered first on the eyelids and the upper lip—Pastor Cooke found himself pulling more forcefully on tThe Boy's shoulders to dislodge and stagger him backward.
Earlier that week Pastor Cooke got a call from one of his congregants, a newly married man in his thirties. The young man was calling about his marriage, said it was falling apart because his wife was hanging out with her high school friends again. She was living secularly, going out to bars on the weekend, coming home late, probably fucking other guys. The young man apologized for swearing. He said he was just happy that they didn’t have kids because it’d just be another thing for her to fuck up. He apologized again. They had another argument about it that morning. They were driving to work. She was being too crazy so he pulled off on the shoulder. She was telling him if he couldn’t love her for who she was, she could find other men, better men, who would.
Pastor Cooke interrupted him. “Are you having daily prayers? What about prayers with your wife? Because,” he explained, settling into a rhythm, “the power of prayer, especially when shared between husband and wife, could move mountains and dry up the seas.” The young man said he was praying, but said he could pray more. He’d asked his wife to pray with him many times, but she would act like she didn’t hear him, or just wouldn’t say anything. But he would keep trying. He’d never lose faith. “But, what about your scriptures?” Pastor Cooke asked. “Are you reading them? I think a chapter a day can change your outlook, change your life.” For good measure, and because it related to his counsel about prayer, he suggested Ephesians 6:18, and quoted the verse out loud and from memory because it built confidence in the listener, and because after all these years he’d forgotten how to say certain words and phrases and passages, forgot how to speak about the spiritual life without being overcome by that cadence, the Holy Spirit: Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the spirit.
He had repeated this same verse over the phone in what would be the last time he spoke to the Boy, but he was interrupted before he could finish when the Boy asked to speak to Lani instead. He handed her the phone. "Hello," she said. "Are you OK?" Pastor Cooke couldn't decide if he wanted to walk away or take the phone back, so he stood there, cracking his knuckles. "Do you need anything," she said. He could feel it, the promptings of the spirit overcoming him, that warm, numbing sensation spreading through his body, pushing outward from his chest. He snatched the phone from Lani and yelled into the receiver that he would pray for the Boy, that there would come a day when tThe Boy would have to answer for his life. There would be a judgement. Which side of that judgement did he want to be on? The Boy hung up.
After that it was tense between him and Lani. Though she never said it, he guessed she blamed him for all the trouble with the Boy. She didn't need to say anything. It was all there, in her silence, how she refused to talk about anything but the most trivial, day-to-day stuff.
"We need to talk to him," Lani said, shifting in her seat, returning her attention to the greasy, half-empty dishes, then to Cooke. He stayed quiet, nodding halfheartedly at the proposal as he watched the kid and the waiter argue on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. The waiter shoved the kid over the curb and into the parking lot. The kid stood and walked toward the waiter.
One punch was all it took, a flash of movement, the torque of the kid's torso and the extending of his arm blurred by speed and the yellow lamplight of the parking lot. One shot to the jawline shut the waiter off. His body seized up and fell like a post. He lay there on his back, rigid, feet inches off the ground, arms extended upward, wrists and fingers gnarled, trembling. The kid left the scene, slunk across the parking lot and disappeared into the overgrowth, the whole thing unnoticed by Lani, who was scooping the remaining food into the Sstyrofoam containers. She was still talking about the Boy, saying he was only seventeen-years-old, still their responsibility, that it was time to take initiative, call around. What was faith without works, right? And though Pastor Cooke had been nodding in agreement while Lani spoke, he didn't hear the details of what she said. He'd been unable to take his eyes off of the waiter, who was beginning to regain consciousness, moving his legs, turning over onto his side. Pastor Cooke looked around the restaurant. Nothing, no alarm. No one else saw what he’d just seen: the waitresses scurried back and forth between the tables and the kitchen; the other diners were still hunched over their meals; in the back, Linda the supervisor was breaking a roll of change on the register drawer; and there was their waitress, approaching their table again with the bill in her hand.
"My supervisor said there's no discount," she said, handing Pastor Cooke the bill. "I'm sorry." She twisted her face in a way that was meant to be sympathetic.
"Well, I guess it's coming out of your tip," he said.
"Is there any way you could call Wayne?" Lani said, politely. She reached across the table and rested her hand on Pastor Cooke's hand. "I'm sure he could talk to your supervisor. Linda, right?"
"She said that Wayne wasn't supposed to give discounts like that. I already asked her."
"Like I said, it's coming out of your tip." He pulled his hand from underneath Lani's hand and reached for his wallet. "God only gets ten percent, but you get fifteen? Here. And forty six cents."
"I'm sorry sir. I'm not trying..."
"No, you're not trying. You're not sorry either."
"I've been coming here longer than your supervisor's been on this island." Pastor Cooke gathered his things and motioned for Lani to do the same. "Longer than you've been alive."
At the entrance, Pastor Cooke held the door open for the waiter, who was still in bad shape. As the waiter lurched past, Pastor Cooke patted him on the shoulder. "You did the right thing," he said.
The waiter, still somewhere just beneath the surface of consciousness, wrinkled his brow. He rubbed the side of his face and continued into the restaurant.
At home, later that night, Pastor Cooke sat out on the lanai, on the wooden table and bench, facing mauka. In the distance, low resting clouds, thick and curdled with sulfurphur dioxide, collected over the vent, reflecting and diffusing across the sky the deep, red glow of the lava beneath it. It must only be a miracle that this property had lasted through the years, a miracle marked by the ‘86 flow that spilled over the western boundary of the property but stopped and hardened as it approached the house.
Pastor Cooke crossed the yard to the spot where the black fingers of the flow touched the centipede grass. That night, as he and Lani stood at the living room window and watched the flow crawl across the yard, he had been no more afraid of it than he was now, no more threatened by the heat and flames than he was by the porous basalt, silent under his feet. He'd been unshakable in his faith, knew without a doubt that his home and life would be delivered from harm. He—his family—belonged on this spot of land, which had been purchased way back in the Kingdom days and had been passed down ever since. Generations of his family had put their faith and flesh into the ground here.
As the flow encircled his property, Pastor Cooke understood what it meant to have faith. To have faith was to know that terrors will skirt the boundaries of our lives if we're deserving, if we've earned it.
Surely, he was deserving. Maybe Lani, who held him so tightly that night that she bruised his sides, didn't feel this sense of entitlement, and for this reason she preferred to intervene in God's work; if he was honest, she'd never been very faithful, not when it counted.
Pastor Cooke walked the southern edge of the property, ripping naupaka leaves from their bushes as he went, looking eastward, toward the ocean. He stopped at the southeast corner when the turrets of Jenkins's castle appeared in plain view. No lights were on. It seemed to slant like a shadow, its outline a relief carved into the darkness.
After all, he deserved the view of the Kalapana ocean, which had always been a part of his life and the lives of his ancestors. He deserved his son's obedience; James belonged to him. Faith didn't promise a life without suffering, but it did promise restoration, that a man, such as himself, who had worked hard and been diligent, would not only receive all that he should, but all that had been lost. He continued along the eastern edge, heading toward the front of the house, the presence of Jenkins's castle looming over his shoulder.
In the bedroom he pulled back the sheets and lay beside Lani, who stirred, mumbling something unintelligible, asking if he was clean, because she'd just changed the sheets. He didn't respond, but brought his body up against hers, draped his arm over her and stuck his fingers snuggly between the mattress and the spongy skin of her back. As he often had been as a child, he was afraid to close his eyes now, afraid to let go, to drift away into sleep, where he was most vulnerable; what if he woke separate from himself, under the weight of a ghost? He pushed his hand in deeper, the palm turned upward to feel Lani's flesh, which filled the spaces between his fingers, viscous-like, salt water warm.
Spencer Yim Kealamakia grew up on the Big Island of Hawai‘i and has lived in South Korea, Spain, Wisconsin, and North Carolina. He earned his bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His short fiction has appeared in Anderbo and The Greensboro Review, and has been named a finalist for the Million Writers Award. He’s currently at work on a novel.