By the time we land in Hilo’s tiny airport, it’s getting dark. The sky glows a smoky purple, but there’s no sunset—we’re on the eastern side of the island. Rae and I make a dash for the car rental, hoping to avoid night driving, but by the time we leave the lot, evening has arrived in full force.
Rae punches the address of Koa House, our B & B, into an app on her phone. A male voice dispenses directions with a refined British accent, sounding both polite and knowledgeable, if a little bored.
“I call him Nigel,” Rae says with a yawn. “Makes me feel like I have a butler.”
With about forty thousand residents, Hilo is the most populous city on the Big Island. On a sleepy Sunday evening, that’s hard to believe. After passing a couple of strip malls with generic mainland chains, civilization dwindles. Trees rise up along the one‑lane high‑ way and form dark shapes against the dimming sky. Exhausted from her day of travel, Rae leans her head against the window, drooping.
“Go to sleep,” I prod her. “I’ll wake you when we get there.” Our B & B is, by its own admission, “off the beaten path,” but if Nigel’s not sweating it, why should I?
“Nope.” Rae props her head up with one hand, although her eyes are still half closed. “I’m good. Totally awake. Let’s do this.”
Living in Tucson, I’m used to unlit, winding roads, but the lush jungle‑scape of eastern Hawaiʻi is quite unlike the barren desert lands of home. And the air. I roll down the window, breathing in that damp, earthy smell.
On its website, the Koa House Bed and Breakfast proclaims itself a “tropical hideaway nestled between sea and fire.” That poetic turn of phrase, coupled with a recommendation from Dr. Nakagawa, made my scramble for last‑minute lodging an easy one.
Situated in the Puna district, on the southeastern side of the Big Island, Koa House promises something more authentically Hawaiian. Granted, that includes a rather lackluster nightlife, but I figure Rae and I can cram our days with adventure enough.
The whole plan seemed brilliant and exciting when hatched in Arizona, but as fatigue sets in and the B & B proves more remote than I anticipated, I feel pangs of doubt. The unlit road dips and curves and the plant life lining the highway swells, growing both taller and thicker. Periodic breaks in the flora give way to unpaved driveways, barely visible in the dark, but few of these properties have obvious signage or clearly marked street numbers. Even more disconcerting, the GPS loses its signal at various points in the drive.
“Don’t leave me hanging, Nigel,” I beg as Rae snores beside me.
Despite technical lapses, Nigel manages to get me all the way to Kalo Valley, the small town of about twelve hundred that Dr. Nakagawa calls home. At first glance, the village is a little disappointing. I see a gas station and something called the Rainbow Drive‑In, but not much else in the way of commerce. Occasionally, I pass a side street to a residential area, but the main road forks only once, at Kanoa Drive. Beneath the street marker, a sign with an arrow indicates the way to the School for Free Thought. Weird name, I think. Per Nigel’s instructions, I don’t turn.
The houses thin, leaving nothing to indicate human inhabitants but a few dirt paths that stretch into the dark. Nigel’s claims that we are very nearly there concern me. We are very nearly nowhere. Perhaps Kalo Valley was a mistake.
Rae and I didn’t have to stay here. We could’ve opted for Hilo, Volcano, or the vacation‑friendly Kona coast with its expensive resorts, exclusive golf courses, and pretty beaches. I chose Kalo Valley not just for its proximity to Dr. Nakagawa, but because I wanted a taste of the kamaʻāina experience: the unhurried pace of a Big Island village, the feeling of a home, conversations with locals and not drunken hotel guests. Rae agreed. None of that standard tourist crap, she said. We’ll have an adventure! Now I wonder about our decision. A tacky hotel might not be so bad.
“Arriving at destination, on right,” Nigel informs me, although there’s nothing outside but unchecked vegetation.
Rae bolts upright and shakes herself awake. She presses her face to the window, trying to discern some hint of our B & B. “Where are we?” she asks with a yawn.
“Koa House, supposedly.” I gesture uneasily at the woods. “But I don’t see anything out there, do you?” In truth, it’s not the things I see that unsettle me. There’s a stifling thickness that emanates from behind those trees, something potent and unnatural.
Rae rubs her eyes. “Slow down. It’s got to be here somewhere.”
I pull into the next dirt road I find. A rusted metal gate extends across the path, blocking all vehicle entry, and a hand‑painted sign nailed to a tree announces, “Wakea Ranch. Private, No Trespassing.” Anxiety coils in my gut. This place is all wrong. Nothing good will happen here. For a brief second, I catch a whiff of spoiled milk, and my stomach turns. Have we been swindled in some elaborate Internet ruse? Is Koa House’s proprietor, David Kalahele, a phony, just another Nigerian prince promising to wire money? Or worse, a guy who lured us out here with bad intentions?
Whether it’s gut instinct talking or just my overactive imagination, I want out.
“Turn around,” Rae says. “We must’ve missed it.”
As I execute a clumsy three‑point turn at the foot of the Wakea Ranch driveway, something moves behind one of the trees. My skin begins to crawl. On the other side of the rusty metal gate, half‑hidden from view, a figure stands observing us.
Someone must’ve been out there crashing around the woods at night when our car pulled mistakenly into the drive.
“Jesus,” Rae mutters under her breath.
Our headlights sweep across him, and in that fraction of a second, I catch a visual. A boy, probably a teenager, with straight black hair and bangs that half‑cover his eyes. He ducks away from the light, one arm shielding his face. Then he’s gone, swallowed up by the shadows.
I can’t shake my bad feeling as we pull back out onto the road. “He didn’t even have a flashlight, Rae. What if he was an intruder?”
She pats my arm. “Relax, you. I have no clue what that dude was up to, but he must know that land pretty well if he’s roaming around in the dark. Let’s just find the B & B.”
On our second pass, we spot another small dirt road about a quarter mile up from the forbidding Wakea Ranch. Wrapped around a post at the foot of the drive, a cluster of flowers heralds an otherwise imperceptible path. I turn down the drive, my misgivings about the boy, our accommodations, and the entire trip not yet quelled. Rae has no such reservations. Her body tilts forward in the passenger seat, eager for whatever’s coming.
Eventually the forest gives way to a buttery yellow house. Lit up against the night, the glowing windows and plant‑lined front patio convey all the warmth and welcome one could hope for.
Our hosts, who appear to have been enjoying a pleasant night on their porch, rise to their feet, waving. David Kalahele and Thom Marcus, our smiling proprietors.
“Aloha! You found our little hideaway!” The taller of the two men comes to greet us, strings of flowers spilling from his arms. “I’m David.” He’s slim and barefoot, with gray‑streaked hair and bright black eyes—likely of Hawaiian descent, judging from his surname. “So,” he says, eyes moving from me to Rae. “Which one of you is Charlotte?”
I raise a hand, my apprehensions rapidly subsiding. “That’s me. Thanks for hosting us on such short notice.”
“Happy to do it.” David places a lei of purple and white orchids around my neck. “Welcome! I hope you’ll enjoy your stay at Koa House. And you . . .” He turns his attention to Rae.
“Rae Shapiro.” She beams as he bestows a second lei upon her. “This is my husband, Thom,” David says, and Thom grins. He’s already all over our suitcases. A solid white guy of average height, Thom has embraced his hair loss and shaved his head completely. A neatly trimmed goatee and rectangular silver spectacles offset his pale dome. His T‑shirt reads, There are only two kinds of people in the world: those who can extrapolate from incomplete data.
I break into a smile in spite of myself. Nerd.
“I’ll just get these up to your room while David shows you around,” Thom says.
The tour takes only a few minutes. Having spent most of my life in the Northeast, I’m accustomed to sprawling Victorian bed‑and‑ breakfasts with antique furnishings and stiff, vaguely oppressive décor. Koa House is entirely the opposite. Light wood floors, yellow walls and splashy upholstery, thriving floor plants, large windows with sheer curtains, and sliding doors. Rae swoons at the private outdoor bath, a fenced‑in area with a claw tub and strings of Christmas lights woven through an avocado tree. In the living room, I ogle the shelves of awesomely trashy beach reads and smile at the pair of cats, one black and one orange, who lie snoozing together in a furry pile. Everything looks neat, comfortable, and unpretentious.
“This already feels like a vacation,” Rae says, grabbing a Michael Crichton novel from a shelf and clutching it rapturously to her chest. Upstairs, our suitcases wait in adjoining bedrooms. I get the Bamboo Room, and Rae the Tree Fern Room, designations that I think my horticulturally minded fiancé would appreciate. A pair of newly-weds will arrive tomorrow to claim the more extravagant Paradise Suite, David says, but tonight we have the place to ourselves. The Bamboo and Tree Fern Rooms are decorated according to their names and share a balcony that overlooks the backyard. In daylight, the surrounding jungle probably makes for a peaceful retreat, but at night, the dense growth appears forbidding. Around us, hundreds of unseen creatures chirp a dissonant two‑note song—a tropical insect, maybe, or some kind of night bird.
“I can’t get over how dark it is.” Rae leans out over the railing. “I don’t see any lights. Don’t you have neighbors, David?”
“The lot to the east is for sale,” he tells her. “All that forest to your left is part of Wakea Ranch.”
I look at Rae, and I know both of us are thinking about the boy we saw wandering around the property at night.
“Don’t they have electricity?” I ask.
David smiles. “You’re in Puna. A lot of people out here live off the grid. Thom and I use solar energy and a rainwater catchment system, but some folks make do with a lot less. Buckets instead of toilets—that sort of thing.”
“So you’ve got nutty‑crunchy hippie types next door?” Rae peers into the dark as if hoping to spot a flower child in its natural habitat.
“Not exactly. Wakea Ranch has its own story.” She glances back at him. “Go on. I like stories.”
“Well . . .” David looks reluctant to spill, as if he’s not quite sure of the impression this tale might make. “Back in the seventies, that property was purchased by a religious group. It was a pretty self‑sustaining community from what I understand. They farmed, lived off the land, didn’t really mix with the rest of the world. That was how they chose to live.”
“Are they still there?” Rae asks.
“No,” David says. “The leader ran into some trouble with the law in the early nineties and everyone disbanded. His daughter ended up marrying a local man, and she inherited the place. Naomi Yoon.”
Rae cocks her head to one side. “Wow. What’s she like? I mean, growing up in a cult and living without electricity . . . that’s unusual.”
“Yeah, she’s a character,” David says. “I don’t know her well. Naomi lives out there with her kids, and they mostly keep to themselves. I doubt you’ll run into the Yoons.”
Something in a nearby tree begins to chirp, adding its refrain to the night’s song. “What is that noise?” I ask. “Are those bugs?”
“Little frogs with a big voice,” David says. “The coquí. They hitched a ride in from Florida a couple decades back and they’ve taken over this side of the island. That’s their mating call you hear. Loud, aren’t they? But they’re only about the size of a quarter. They’re white noise, as long as you don’t start listening to individual frogs.”
I stare out at the tree line, comforted to know that racket is coming from frogs and not a bunch of large, unholy insects. The woods are off‑putting enough as is. The image of that boy at Wakea Ranch, his face white and strange under the glare of the headlights, will not leave my mind.
I turn to David. “Your neighbor Naomi . . . does she have a son?”
“Three of them,” David replies. “Two teenagers and a little one. No daughters, though.” He steps off the balcony and back into the guest bedroom, as if to avoid further questions. “Is there anything I can get you? Some water, maybe, or iced tea? I’m sure you’re both tired from all your travels.”
“I think we’re good.” Rae follows him to the doorway. “You and Thom have a lovely place. Thanks so much.” She smiles broadly as she watches him leave, and then turns to me. “Feel better? The kid we saw at Wakea Ranch must have been one of Naomi Yoon’s boys. Nothing sinister.”
Rae gestures to my room. “Nice little place.” She’s not wrong. An airy yellow with green accents, the Bamboo Room possesses the same clean simplicity as the rest of Koa House. A pair of potted bamboo plants flank either side of the bed and elegant Japanese‑style prints reveal David and Thom’s good taste. “I love that we’re next door to a cult,” Rae says. “It adds a little, I don’t know, ambiance.”
If anyone else were to utter these words, they’d be heavily laced with sarcasm, but I know Rae. She probably does love being next door to a cult.
“It’s not a cult anymore,” I protest. “David said they disbanded, remember? Now it’s just some eccentric family with a weird origin story.”
“Super‑religious with no electricity? That’s a cult.”
“Oh, come on. By that definition, the Amish are one big, giant cult.”
“Well, duh,” she says. “Didn’t you ever see that show Breaking Amish? Point is, if you want followers to mindlessly obey you, electricity is the first thing to go. You have to keep people away from television and the Internet if you want to maintain authority.”
She speaks like someone who has given a great deal of thought to best brainwashing practices.
“Congratulations,” I say dryly. “I think you’re ready for that dictatorship. Now can we talk about tomorrow? I’m supposed to meet Dr. Nakagawa at nine. Are you staying here or coming with?”
“Of course I’m coming! I want to get a peek at the volcanologist, don’t I? Mr. Ironman? I bet he’s fit.” Rae gives me a loose hug and air‑kisses my cheek. “Wake me up for breakfast if I’m still snoozing.”
“I love you, Rae. Thanks for coming with me.”
“Love you, too, Charlie‑girl. Don’t look so worried. We’ll have a good time.”
As I sit alone on the balcony, drinking in the immense sky, I can almost believe her. Here, on this remote island in the Pacific, I am safe from prying reporters, thousands of miles from anyone who might recognize me as that crackpot on the news. There is no laundry to be done, no meals to be made, no whining or sassy children requiring intervention. Just me, untethered from so many of the roles that have come to define me.
The night swells with the calls of amorous coquís. I think about my interview with Dr. Nakagawa tomorrow and wish I’d had more time to prep. Mentally, I review what I’ve learned in the last couple days about volcanology, run through the terms that will help me to speak Nakagawa’s language. Somewhere between thermal plumes and harmonic tremors, my mind begins to drift. My eyelids grow heavy; my thoughts tangle in senseless strands.
And then I feel it. That insistent pull, both dangerous and familiar.Somewhere between thermal plumes and harmonic tremors, my mind begins to drift. My eyelids grow heavy; my thoughts tangle in senseless strands.
Not now. Not again.
Shades of night. Warm, dense forest. A teenage girl, alone in the woods.
I become someone else. Wear his eyes like a pair of sunglasses.
Hear his thoughts, louder and more insistent than my own.
Crouched behind a shrub, I watch the girl. Rocking in her hammock. Signaling with her flashlight to someone who never comes. I watch her, like I have so many times before, and I want her. But this time is different. This time I don’t fight my urges. This time I give in.
It’s just us now, I say. What are you going to do about it?
You’ll regret this, she tells me, and that’s probably true. There will be consequences, but they don’t matter in this moment. Only my need. Only the satisfaction of my desire.
When it all begins to fade, when I’m safe at Koa House again, there is nothing but relief. My eyes are no longer his, thank God. My thoughts are mine alone. I don’t want to see what he saw, don’t want to know what happens next. I can still feel the buttons of her shirt against my fingertips, still smell her baby‑powder skin and the fragrance of her hair.
This was not supposed to happen. My time on this island was supposed to be a reprieve, not a disturbing reminder of my abilities. I hurry into the Bamboo Room, shaken. Who was that girl in the woods? What exactly have I seen, and why? Most importantly, whose gaze was I inhabiting? Someone who lurks in bushes, secretly watching young women in the dark. Someone who doesn’t care who he hurts.
I remember the boy Rae and I saw prowling around earlier and draw my arms across my chest, suddenly cold.
I’m not an idiot. That tropical jungle‑scape of my dream was not in Arizona. It waits for me here on the Big Island, a dark and ugly secret. I don’t know what it means, not yet, but I know that it portends trouble.
Something happened to that girl, I think. Something terrible.
Rape? Kidnapping? Murder? She could’ve met any number of bad fates. I thought I’d faced the full power of human cruelty in my dreams, but what I saw tonight was different. It was his eyes, the way he forced me to look at her.
Maybe I can ignore it. The vision was so vague, after all—an Asian girl in a hammock, a tense encounter in the woods. No names, no words, no landmarks. I could let it go, tuck the dream into some forgotten corner of my mind, and just kick back. Hang with Rae, write my article on Dr. Nakagawa, and studiously ignore any mention of dead or missing girls, any hint of sexual assault. I could enjoy Hawaiʻi.
There’s just one problem. My dreams are not always of things past. Sometimes they warn of what’s coming. I spent an entire day wandering through Sabino Canyon because I knew there was a chance that Alex Rocío was alive, that he could still be saved. What about this girl? What if she’s out there, too?
You’re going to hurt a lot of people, she told the guy in the woods, and I’m afraid she’s right. Can I let him do that? Can I really sit this one out, cause another family pain through my own inaction?
Not after losing a child. Not when I have two daughters of my own.
I sit on the edge of the bed and groan. This is not the “dream” vacation I had in mind when I came to Hawaiʻi, but what choice do I have? I know what I’ve got to do.
I need to find that girl.
From THE BURNING ISLAND. Used with the permission of the publisher, G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Copyright © 2010 by Hester Young.