Chapter 2 – FLYING BACK
I hate heights.
I abhor flying.
I can feel it start. The dizziness. The nausea. A healthy concoction of sleeping pills and airsickness medication was traveling through my system. I toss in my seat. The plane is taking its time taxiing through Hilo International Airport. I don’t feel remotely tired. Not that I’d ever fall asleep on a plane. It is too dangerous. My system usually rejects the meds but that was okay. I just need them to make me drowsy enough during the whole trip so that I’d be in a constant state of nothingness. That’s not happening. I need to be in my nothing state and I need it to happen right now. If this plane took off with me still conscious, I would throw up. My silver bracelets dig into my wrists as I grip the handles of my overpriced and under-cushioned seat.
“Honey… Are you okay?” The elderly woman’s voice next to me sounds slurred and distant. She sort of reminds me of my Tūtū. Tūtū said nothing as she trimmed my hair this morning. She talked about random things and pointedly said nothing more about her argument with my Aunt Mel or anything about Stellar Academy. When I made a move to mention it, Papa shook his head. I touch the necklace and pendant they gave to me before I entered the airport. “This will keep you safe.” Tūtū smiled a somber smile and they both kissed my cheeks and sent me off.
The plane lurches and I grip the seat handles harder.
I know my neighbor is trying to be helpful but she is drawing more attention my way and that is not helping. A couple across the way looks at me with sympathy. They look away. I may have just snarled at them. I don’t even know at this point.
The plane begins to really move. A small whimper cracks through my tight lips. I will think about my pendant. Made by my Tūtū, it is a tooth and a feather hung on a bit of leather cording. My Papa made me a koa box to keep it safe in. The plane seems to spin a little. Maybe I could close my eyes for a bit.
I jolt awake. The woman next to me says something and pats my hand. I didn’t hear what she said. I try to look at her mouth to focus on the words but it is muffled. Her face seems blurry too.
The nothingness takes me.
I open my eyes. My head turns to the side. The green canopy below is lush and full of life. I want to stop for a quick snack but I had to push forward. A warm current propels me toward the horizon. The canopy turns to rock and rock becomes sand and the sand becomes ocean. I soar over the brilliant crystal blue waves that call out to me. I dive lower, flying directly above the cold water. My talons skim the surface. I flex lethal claws. I’m hungry. I have to hunt soon but I’m having too much fun. I keep flying. Then, I smell it. The blood. The rapids become a river of blood. The river of blood becomes a snake. The snake laughs and opens its jaws wide. I am engulfed in the bloody red snake. Coppery blood fills my throat. Someone is screaming.
Now I am in an alley. I can still hear the screaming. A torrential river of blood runs under my feet. The rapids should pull me under but I walk calmly on the surface to the back of the alley. Someone grabs my hand.
The world drops out from under me.
A plastic voice cracks over the load speaker, “Welcome to JFK… Thank you for flying with us…” Groaning, I put my hands over my ears and I try to get comfortable again. I was having such a happy dream. At least I thought it was happy. The more I reached for it the less I could remember.
I try again. I’d been flying. Please, no. I’d been standing in a river. Blood? Ewww. Maybe not so happy.
The lights of the cabin filter through my arms. I look up and laugh. For the first time in my life I had fallen asleep on a plane and I am alive to tell about it. My grin dissolves as flashes of the back of an alley haunt me.
The air is nasty as I step off the plane and onto the bridge. I take a deep breath in as it gushes through the cracks. I love New York. A man pushes past me in a rush to get off the plane. Normally I’d be racing along with him but right now I just want to take in the pleasure of being back home. I stop in the doorway.
Bad move. “Keep walking!” Someone curses at me from the bridge. I want to fling back a retort but I swallow it and find my way to the baggage claim. I collect my bags and go outside. The murky air still has some of that summer humidity to it. Home.
In the hustle of NYC airport traffic, I search for my aunt’s old BMW.
My phone buzzes in my pocket. Aunty Mel. A picture of what looks like a shiny, new, souped-up golf cart and a text, “I’m behind you! Hi KITTEN!!!”
I turn around just in time to see Melanie Lyons’ beautiful porcelain face poke out of the driver’s side window of a new Mini Cooper. “Julia!!” she hollers. I swear the entire airport stops to look at us. I put my head down as I rush over to the car. I don’t look up again until I fling my bags into the car. Wow, these cars were tiny. I look at my Aunt and smile. She smooths down her cap of golden blond hair. She’s a crazy cat who loves attention. I am the exact opposite. So was my mom. Mel gives me a huge hug and I hug her back equally as tight.
“I missed you Aunty!”
“Hey… hey! I said no more with the ʻAuntyʻ stuff. This isn’t Hawaiʻi! I missed you too, Julia, my little Kitten.” She swipes a long curly brown lock out of my face as her eyes water with the reference. “Kitten” was my mom’s name for me. Only my Aunty Mel called me that now.
“Tūtū and Papa say hi!” Aunty Mel’s face clouds over. “Aw, come on! They are amazing! You really shouldn’t give them such a hard time.”
She scoffs as she pulls into the bustling airport traffic.
“I know, I know!” It really wasn’t Aunty Mel’s fault. My grandparents didn’t have anything nice to say either. I let the subject drop.
“So… Stellar Academy…”
That was all my Aunt needed… “You are going to love it! Both your mom and I graduated from there when it was just a few brick buildings. Since the war ended… they’ve taken all of Central Park North… it’s stunning…” I half paid attention to what she was saying. I was just so happy that I wasn’t going back to my old school and what was more important, Nicky was coming with me.
The lush green canopy stretches out in all directions. I wait patiently for the right current. I feel it coming closer. I let my wings expand and I soar. I dive a few feet lower, the warm wind caresses my light body. My eyes scan the ground below. Floating on a drift, I feel free here. I am free here. I spot a slight movement in the brush below, something gold glimmers there. I need to feed. I fly closer. It is too big to eat. I gain a bit of height as the slight drift I’d been floating turns into a gust. I adjust. Not quick enough. The winds become stormy. How hadn’t I realized this? I fly into the nearest tree. I grip the branches. This will not be enough. I land roughly and hop over to a small cave. That is when I smell him. My head turns. There is something staring at me from the nearby brush. Hunting me.
The ground rumbles under me and I jump, startled. I look back to the brush but the eyes are gone. My body rocks up and down in the tremulous earthshaking wave. The earthquake sucks me into the dirt. The ground is laughing, calling my name. The dirt turns into quicksand under my feet. I kick against it. I’m hyperventilating. I am going to die.
The earth laughs again and shakes harder.
“Rainbow… Jules… Jules!” The earth sounds strangely like Nicky. The soft fabric of the Nicky-sounding-earth tangles around my feet. The quicksand begins to feel a lot softer.
“Don’t call me that.” I still hated that name. Removing the quilt that smothers my face, I squint in the bright light of my lamp.
Groaning, I bring the quilt back over my head. My world is still undulating. There was only one person in the world that was allowed to call me Jules: Nicky. I’m crazy happy to see him but the surging and heaving of my bed was going to make me seasick. I peek out from under my purple quilt, my eyes adjusting to the light. Nicky is jumping on my bed, his head threatening to punch a hole in the ceiling of my bedroom.
He has a huge grin plastered on his dumb cute face. His blue-eyes dance with light. I can’t help but smile back. His early morning antics, though irritating, are infectious.
“Hey sleepyhead!” Nicky sings, jumping higher. The cute butt-head is trying to touch my ceiling.
I sink my head back into the lunging pillow beside me. “Cornflake? What time is it?” My voice was a cracked muffled squeak. I can’t see any light filtering through my curtains.
“Jules,” He bounces, reaching for the ceiling, “I hate that name.” Bounce again, “The sun hasn’t even come up yet. So I’d say around five um…” Again with the bouncing, “maybe five-thirty. I was going to wait until seven to come get you for school but I couldn’t wait to see you and I just…” Bounce.
I’m going to kill him. I didn’t wait for him to finish. In one fast move I pop up and grab his legs out from under him. His head comes crashing onto the bed. Nicky is such a punk! I climb on top of him and start poking at him and tickling his sides. Nicky hates to be tickled.
He squirms and laughs uncontrollably under me. “You. Woke. Me. Up. At. FIVE!” I try to make my voice harsh but my scolding sounds are muted behind my laughter.
“Five-thirty!!!” He yells-laughs. He grabs my arms and holds them firmly at my sides. He’d gotten stronger. I can’t get out of his grasp.
“Stop it!” He laughs shoving me roughly off of him.
I didn’t mind so much though. I gave him a small punch on his shoulder. The corners of his eyes crinkled just a little as his dumb smile took over his face again. This was how it was like between us, ever since we were nine, ever since the incident. The pale scar above his right eye was a punch in the gut reminder of how our friendship had begun. Because of the accident, I was kept for observation in the New York State Hospital until my Aunty Mel officially adopted me. Going back to school after everything was difficult. But Nicky saved me. He stayed by my side. He kept the bullies at bay. He said that even though he couldn’t remember what happened… He knew I had saved him somehow. He would always be by my side. His dad was even my psychologist. When my Grandparents appeared they met Dr. Hart, Nicky’s Dad, and convinced him to help take care of my crazy brain.
Everyday, before school, Nicky walks across the street to my building and sneaks into my bedroom through the fire escape. When we were kids, he’d bring me toads and other scientifically interesting creatures to peruse and poke before my Aunt, disgusted, would release the creatures into the back yard and take us to school. Growing up I remember having a symphony of toads in my garden. As we grew older, Nicky decided to bring breakfast instead. Ralph’s Deli at the corner has a great selection of glazed jelly donuts and bagel sandwiches that any scraggly teenager could live off of.
I give him a shove in his middle.
“Ouch.” He let out a low laugh.
I could challenge him to a sparring match right now. No … better not. I was still a little groggy and I probably had morning breath. I could at least knock him out with that. It might give me the upper hand.
Instead I kick the covers to the side and rolled onto my stomach next to him. “You owe me donuts!”
“There’s a bag on your desk.” His words came out a little muffled. “Ralphʻs old-fashioned donuts right outta the fryer!” I saw that he already ate one and was picking out the remains from his teeth.
“Nick-y! Gross!” I wrinkle my nose. Old-fashioned donuts were our favorite. Climbing out of bed, the room swims a little as I stand too fast. I grab onto the wall. My image in the mirror blurs a bit. I shake my head. Ouch. I could feel another bad migraine coming on.
“Hey, earth to Jules! Hey, I just asked you if you got me anything?” Nicky whines.
A pillow smacks me in my face. “Bah! … NO!” Of course I did. “Not if you’re going to throw things at me and wake me up at five frickin’ thirty in the morning.”
“Aw come ON! Jules! You always get me something from Hawai’i! Did you get me a surfboard this time? I still have the surf shorts from last year.”
“Yeah, and they have a huge hole in the butt.” But Nicky still wore them. He was going to have to wait. “Meet me in the garden. I have to get ready.”
“Can I watch?” He grins mischievously.
“You wish!” Heat rises to my cheeks as I saunter into my bathroom.
“I was just joking … geez … like I’d actually want to watch you brush your teeth. Ewww. You gotta do something about that breath of yours. Jules, I could smell it from the deli … ouch!” He stops abruptly because I launched magazine at him. I didn’t watch where it hit him, but it must have been a direct shot.
Music blasts as I turn on the shower. An album from what was probably Nicky’s new favorite band. I don’t recognize the band. He has a new favorite band every week. I smile. Another thing we had in common, our uncommon taste in music. We listen to everything.
I pull at my silver bracelets. They were bothering me and getting little tight on my wrist. I hadn’t taken them off except to get them resized. Maybe I needed to again. Ever since that day in the alley… I keep them on as a reminder. My Tūtū and Aunt said they would protect me.
Geez. I wouldn’t go there. Not today. There was enough to worry about. I step out and cringe. There, hanging on the back of my bathroom door, is my new uniform. Another new school. At any other time in my fourteen years the thought of going to another new school would have scared me.
“I have Nicky,” I whisper.
The door open a crack. A black and white mitten paws through. Then a little pink nose followed by a masked face pokes through and meows loudly. I giggle. Mochi, my little tuxedo-cat, inches open the door just wide enough for her large black and white body to slink through. She’s my therapy cat. The doctors said she would help me with my “difficulties”. She was an oversized, polka dotted, weirdo … and she was all mine. Besides Nicky, she was the only one I could talk with. I tell her my problems and she meows back at me in cat-speak.
Mochi hops onto the sink. It was bath-time. I stroke my wet fingers over her face and down her back. She nips my fingers in appreciation and pushes her black-masked face under my hand. I scratch her furry neck. “Okay … I have you too.” Satisfied she fluffs up in the sink and closes her little yellow eyes.
“Kooky little Mochi. You’re a strange cat. Sleeping in the sink. Getting baths.” I laugh and give her a little scratch under her chin. “And they say I need a therapist.”
I throw on the stiff white blouse and green skirt and scan myself in the mirror. The image blurs again. I shake my head. The blurriness goes away and I look up. My eyes immediately change. My sky-blue eyes turn to a leafy green color. No one could tell me why my eyes were so different. Sometimes they changed with my environment, sometimes my mood.
I let my hair fall out of its bun and I run my fingers through it a few times before throwing it into a messy braid. I could fix it later in the car. The beat outside was becoming infectious. I open the door. Nicky was thrashing around in front of my sound system. He’d definitely gotten bigger. He lost all the baby fat that had lingered around his face and middle before I had left at the beginning of summer. He looked good in his new khaki’s and green sweater. The edges of his button down were poking messily through every available hole. His hair was long enough to touch his shoulders. It had darkened a bit, but the golden streaks still dominated.
I throw a roll of toilet paper at him. “I thought I told you to meet me in the garden.” I laugh as he drops his phone in surprise.
Something flickers across his face, his blue eyes widen and he charges me. I grip the edge of the doorway as his body collides with mine, holding me close. I bury my face in his neck. I can’t breathe.
“Hey there, Jules.” He hugs me tighter. “Missed you.”
But, hey, who needs to breathe. I could live off of hugs like these.
I smile into his rough green sweater. He smells good. Like lavender and pine and Nicky. “Missed you too.” I whisper. I look over his shoulder at the full length mirror there. A gift from Nicky and his parents a few summers ago while I was going through pimples and braces. He’d been digging something out of his nose when he told me that the girl in this mirror would always be pretty. I’d punched him. I smile not only at the memory, but also at the image of our bodies in the mirror. I like the picture we made.
I felt his nose and his lips on top of my head. The heat rises in my face but I do not want to let go. He takes a long lingering breath in. “You smell much better.” Laughing into my hair, he pulls back abruptly looking into my eyes. “Cool! Your eyes are all leafy green now. Like spinach!” He bounces back a foot, still laughing. Good. That was getting a bit too close.
“You’re so sweet! I bet you say that to all the girls. ʻYou’re eyes look like spinach!ʻ” I push him. “Punk.” I walk over to my dresser to grab the green and white socks that would complete my transition into conformity. I wiggle my feet into them.
I sigh at my image in the mirror and pull at the skirt. I hate skirts. Nicky is looking over my shoulder at me. That weird hungry look crosses his face. It make me feel like throwing something else at him. Instead I concentrate on my socks and ask, “Who’s the band? They’re amazing!”
That snaps him out of his reverie. He bounces again, smiling hugely, hair flopping around. “You like it!?! GOOD! ‘Cause this is your copy! I found the album at a small music store in Berlin. They’re unknown but I think this band is going to blow up next year. I also downloaded a bunch of that oldie rock and pop stuff you like.” During their vacation, his foster father took them on a road trip through Germany and into Russia. I was sure Nicky would fill me in. He learned Russian and German in middle school to prepare for this trip. He’d been so excited.
I bounce with him, “I love it!” Nicky knows how much I love the classics. My walls bookcases were filled with my Moms old cd collection and I had a whole shelf of vinyl records that had belonged to my biological father. But I did have a soft spot for unknown musical genius and this band was slowly nearing the top of my eclectic treasure trove of music.
The song ended, and I noticed an iPhone connected to Nicky’s slim new laptop. He disconnects the cords and throws his computer into the padded compartment of his backpack. He tosses the phone to me. “All the music is from me, and I programmed all important numbers and addresses into it. The phone is a ‘Welcome to Stellar Academy’ present from my Mom and Dad.” He shrugged and his eyes flickered my way, slyly, “I don’t know why they like you so much, you’re kind of stinky.” He grabs his bag and launches down the stairs before I can fling a retort.
I shrug on the forest green cardigan that completes the uniform. Grabbing my backpack and donuts, I bound down the stairs into the kitchen after Nicky.
“Hi Melanie!” Nicky has my aunt in a bear hug. On the counter there are two steaming cups of… “COFFEE!!! I love you Mel!” I grab the beautiful dark liquid and spoon just a little bit of brown sugar in. I take a tentative sip. Perfection. “Oh, Coffee, how I did miss you.”
“My dear, you got big!” Nicky pretty much towered over my aunt’s slight frame. “You’re taller, Nicolas.” She backs up, “Let me get a good look at you. That German food must have helped! How tall are you now? Six-one? Two?”
I almost snort coffee. He’d grown four inches since the beginning of summer. Snickering, “Wow Mel, I think all your fawning is making him taller or is that just his head?”
I grab some orange juice from the fridge as a dish rag flies over my head. “HA! Missed!” I launch out the back door and into my garden, careful not spill my coffee, though. We have a small grassy garden area behind our brownstone. I breathe in as I set breakfast down on the grass. I could always breathe easier out here.
“NICKY!…” I furiously yell. My coffee mug goes flying into the air as Nicky tackles me to the ground. “MY TURN!” He laughs.
I scream, twisting under him. If anyone hated to be tickled more than Nicky, it was me. I kick under him. He laughs merrily in my face. He was tickling me so much that I couldn’t take in a decent breath. I was going to kill him! But then everything blurs and I get a little woozy.
He stops abruptly. “Woah!” He crawls backwards, away from me and looking a little scared. “Um… COOL! I’ve never seen you do that before. How’d you do that?”
Confused, I catch my breath. “What?”
“Your eyes. Wow. They went all black for a second.”
I crawl over to him, like a cat stalking its prey. “Maybe it’s because I’m going to kill you now. I barely got any coffee!” I poke him. My finger hits something hard in his breast pocket.
“Ouch! What’s that?” We ask at the same time.
I shake out my bruised finger as he takes the package out. Mel pokes her head through the kitchen window. She’s smiling. “My aunt’s sneaky.” Then I sulk a little, “If she had told me I would have programmed some songs in there for you too.”
“Niiicce! Thank you Mel!!!” he yells over his shoulder. My aunt yells something incoherent from inside the kitchen. “I was kind of jealous that my parents had gotten you one and not me.” He tinkers around with it for a minute and tosses it back into his pocket.
I drink some orange juice. It’s not coffee but I guess it’ll do. “Pass me a donut.” I pass Nicky the juice as he hands me a crumbly delicious donut. Old-fashioned donuts from Ralphie’s Deli were the best. He chugs the orange juice looking at me expectantly from over the bottle. A little juice drizzles down the sides of his mouth, just missing his sweater.
“What?” I hand him a napkin, pretending to be oblivious. He obviously wants to know what gift I’d gotten him this year. I fiddle with the front pocket of my backpack. I’d gotten him another pair of surf shorts but I thought this might be better. I hope he likes it. I wasn’t supposed to give it to him but my grandparents had said to keep it safe and I couldn’t think of a safer place than with Nicky.
“So…” He runs his fingers through his unruly hair, the rising sun and the warm light that pokes through the trees turns it to liquid gold. Patience has never been Nicky’s strong suit. I take my time. I love to watch him squirm.
“COME ooonnnn! Juu-ules! I’m gonna tickle you again if you don’t hurry up!”
“Okay, okay!” I take the small box out. The swirling lines of the beautiful koa wood shine like honey in the sunlight.
I laughed, “Sorry, you can’t have the box, my Papa would kill me.” My Tūtū wouldn’t be so thrilled either, but I would deal with that later. Nicky’s face drops. “You can have what’s inside the box.”
I climb around so that I am across from him, my knees touching his and pass him the box. His blue eyes glow with excitement. He opens it. There was a silence that seemed to extend all around my little garden. He breathes, “Wow.”
I smile. He likes it.
I look over the cover and into the box. The rough cord was nestled in the tapa cloth my grandfather told me to put it in when I wasn’t wearing it. A tigers tooth rests on a soft brown feather. Both were tied expertly to the center of the necklace between two worn white beads. I reach in and take the piece out. A bird sings in the distance.
“My Tūtū and Papa made it.” I shuffle around to place the necklace around his neck. He pulls his hair to the side. I tie the cord and let my fingers rest on the back of his neck for a second. I could feel the warmth there, flowing through into me and back out into Nicky. I knew my grandfather would approve.
I shake my head and laugh. My grandparents superstitions were getting to me.
I shuffle back to sit in front of Nicky, knees touching. His eyes were closed, face lifted to the sun.
“My grandfather said it has the power to keep me from harm. He also said to keep it safe… I figured you could help me do that.”
He opens his ocean blue eyes. The weird look was back. “Then what about you?” He puts hand on my face.
I lean into it. “I have you.”
“Thank you. I’ll never take it off.” He whispers. Then he shakes his head, laughing. “Now you’re going to expect me to get you jewelry too! Grrreat.”
I sock him in the shoulder as he stuffs the feather and tooth pendant unceremoniously into his sweater and pressed white shirt.
“Ow! Owowowo…. OUCH!” He scrambles up yanking his sweater off and practically ripping the buttons off his new uniform. I see a small spot of blood seep into the white starched shirt at the front of his chest.
I fly up and help him with the buttons. The cut is shallow but bleeding badly. The tooth had scratched him when he stuffed it into his sweater and against his skin. I grab napkins out of the donut bag and hold it against his chest. “Don’t be such a wimp, Nicky.”
He laughs. Thinks about something and laughs again. “It bit me! I got bit by a tiger!!!” Under my hands his chest heaves with glee.
I giggle along with him. “Stop moving so much. Let me check the bleeding. Stop moving!” I command. He stops moving and smiles broadly.
I shake my head as I remove the napkins. I take my glasses off and look closely. There is an angry red line about an inch long right under the sharpest end of the tooth. At least the bleeding has stopped.
He snickers, “So, Doctor Lyons, you gonna kiss it and make it all better.”
To spite him, I do. I tip forward slightly and give his chest a playful little peck. At least that’s what I’d meant to do. As my lips reach to touch his skin, the feather and tooth brush against my cheek. There is a jolt somewhere in the universe between my lips and his skin. My lips never make it. I jump back, holding my mouth.
I look into Nicky’s face. His features were drawn into that weird hungry look again.
We stare at each other for a second. I blush. He giggles.
“That was weird!”
“You felt that too?”
“What was that?”
We ask at the same time, look at each other in surprise and fall to the ground laughing.
“I think the tooth might have bit us both!”
“It was probably static electricity.”
“I think it scratched my face.”
He rolls onto his belly and catches my chin with his hand. Looking up into his cloudless sky-blue eyes my heart does a weird flippity-flop. “Nope, no scratch.” His hand traces up my left cheek and into my hair. He strokes my hair.
I don’t move. My scalp tingles as I am flooded with warmth. I close my eyes and let him run his fingers though my hair and through the loose strands that fell out of my braid. He stops. I looked up as he bends a little and his face is nose to nose with mine.
Blushing, I ask, “Want a donut?”
He shakes his head, giving me an eskimo kiss. I grin at him as he backs away, reaching for the discarded orange juice.
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