From the author: Can James, a nerdy highschool kid in O'ahu, impress his crush and solve an island mystery?
Sometimes when you’re lying awake in bed and pretending to be asleep because it’s way too late for a high school student to be up, you can hear ‘um; a series of bass thumps, more felt than heard, the footsteps of a giant. They’re not what people tell you— not a semi compression-braking on the highway, definitely not the warrior ghosts of the Night March (the huaka’i pō make no sound as they pass), not even artillery testing (those exercises mostly happen during the day). I can tell you, but you have to promise to believe me and not share this around.
Okay, to start with, I’m kind of a dork. There’s no shame in that kinda thing any more; the revenge of the nerd days are way over. Everyone here grew up on Kikaida and that kine toku anyway; we all know about Bijinda’s bust lasers (pink, heart-shaped) and Mazinger and Astro Boy. They’re practically household words. So that means I’m an expert on what I saw, yeah? This story isn’t about that kind of Internet dick-measuring, anyway, who’s what kind of nerd or whatever. This story’s about how I met my girlfriend.
The first time I saw her—well, okay, noticed her—was across the lunch table. I was sitting in the shade, she was sitting in the sun. We had the same lunch— timeslot, not food— everybody had the same cafeteria food. It was chili and cornbread, but not in a good way. I elbowed my friend Kimo and asked him who was that girl. Kimo knew everybody. He squirted the packet of mayo he’d just opened all over the table instead of into his chili like he’d been aiming for and then elbowed me back hard. I handed over my napkins sheepishly.
He squinted across the concrete tables while he wiped mayo off his tray. “Who, Erika? She’s from Big Island. She’s my girlfriend’s cousin.”
“No shit?” Just then, the eagle charm at the end of her necklace glinted in the noon sun. I got up and Kimo swiped my mayo packets, too. I ignored it; I was on a mission.
“What, you gonna ask her out?”
The eagle had made up my mind. I marched over. Like twelve girls with perfect frizzless hair and hella makeup stared back at me and my resolve pretty much died in my throat. “Hey, is it cool if I… hi. Sit here?”
“What, James, you got something to talk about other than League of Legends?” That was Kimo’s girlfriend, and it was good enough for me.
“Yeah I do!” I said, offended. I sat down, not so close to Erika that it was creepy or anything.
Erika was looking at me, her fork paused mid-air. She was way cute even up close— no offense, but some girls aren’t—round face, lips pursed thoughtfully in my direction. She was wearing a spaghetti strap top, and I followed the strap down the curve of her shoulder to the bra—I yanked my gaze back up to her face and stammered. “So… um… Kamen Rider, you a fan?”
Behind Erika, Kimo’s girl mouthed Ka-men Ri-da slowly.
“The eagle?” I prompted. The whole table full of girls was staring at me. They’d even stopped eating, and two or three of them had these smug girl-smirks on. I kind of wanted to die, or at least crawl back under my table and wait for the lunch bell to ring. Instead, stupid words spilled out of my mouth. “It’s uh, the SHOCKER symbol, from Kamen Rider… First?”
“This?” Erika held up the charm, looked from me to her hand. Kimo’s girl covered her mouth, which did basically nothing to muffle her laughter. Erika shrugged graciously. “I dunno, sorry. My dad gave me it?”
“Oh,” I said. “That’s cool.” Stay cool. Pretend you’re not into the shit her old man was into. That charm was gonna go straight into a drawer when she got home, and never out again, I knew it. “So, hey, you know Kimo, right?” I waved back towards him. His face was full of mayo chili. “I’m James, I’m like, his best friend.”
She leaned around me to check, then back. “Yeah, I guess I know Kimo. I’m Erika.”
“Uh… you paddle board? Stand up?”
She thought about it. “Not like… a lot.”
“You wanna come with me and Kimo and a couple of the other guys on Wednesday? We go every week, leave at noon during study period.”
“So what, like, Hickam?”
“Nah, we’re heading down Kaneohe.”
“Shoots, sure,” she said.
There was a hoot from the table. “Hooo, Erika, you go girl!” Big change from all that tittering earlier, eh? But it made my face burn just as bad.
“Cool, I’ll meet you in the parking lot, Wednesday, yeah?”
She nodded, little smile lighting up her face, and I retreated back to Kimo’s table in the shade.
“You actually asked her out?”
“Yeah,” I breathed. My hands were shaking. Kimo shook his head and returned to his chili.
So that Wednesday we all piled in the back of the truck and went down Kaneohe side to paddle down to the sandbar off He’eia. It’d been a pretty cool winter— don’t laugh— and the surf had been high, which was great for the lolo surfers and not so great for us less extreme stand-up paddle boarders, otherwise we woulda been up North Shore. We parked at beach access on the Marine base and started to walk down to the sand when I heard the thumps again. I grabbed Kimo’s shoulder. “Oh man, you hear that?”
“It’s the artillery, brah.”
I listened close, but all I heard now was the surf and the clap-clap rustle of fan palm leaves in the breeze.
“Aren’t they filming Godzilla?”
“Shut up, man.” I turned around and almost ran into Erika. She’d changed into a pair of really tiny hibiscus swim trunks and I had to pull my gaze up and then up again quickly. Thankfully she didn’t seem to notice.
“Ey, James, what’s up? You look like you saw a ghost.”
“You hear that thump?” I asked her.
Her eyes got wide. “Man, I heard that the first night I got here! I was like, the hell is that?”
I glanced left and right. Big wet clouds were rolling in, and we’d get soaked if we went into the surf or not. Kimo and his girl had run off to make out in the naupaka bushes on the other side of the beach. I dropped my voice to one low whisper. “You wanna go check it out?”
She glanced left and right too, then dropped her voice. “Shoots,” she said.
We’d gotten about three miles off base, across the freeway, and over a chain-link fence into a live ammunition zone alongside the quarry road before the elation wore off. I realized this was a real stupid thing to do whether Erika was with me or not. I was pretty sure the military didn’t shoot people on sight anymore but we’d hopped the live ammo zone fence and I’d heard they still had land mines for one reason or another. I mean, the military, right? They kinda just had land mines around, didn’t they?
I didn’t mention any of this to Erika, but I did start doing a weird half-trot hoping that I’d hear the land mine click before lifting my foot and then exploding.
She held her hand out to signal that I should stop. “I dunno if they have land mines,” she whispered. “Gotta be careful.”
We helped each other across the scrub, increasingly paranoid, until the ground was so rocky that they’d have to drill a hole to stick an explosive into there. I checked my phone for the time. My phone was dead. I groaned and shoved it back into my pocket.
“Mine’s good,” Erika said, but I barely heard her because there was a noise so loud I barely registered it as the thump until it had passed. I ducked and so did she. “That’s it!” She pointed. “I saw it!”
“Saw what?” I didn’t see nothing. I followed her finger with my gaze up to the sheer cliff face above us. I craned my neck, but Erika leg’um up the mountain into a bunch of scrawny haole koa trees right before the rock got just about vertical. She climbed up there and then she vanished into the scrub with a little yell, just gone, outta sight.
“Hey!” I called after her.
When I caught up I saw it wasn’t a little bit haole koa, it was a big ol’ pile of california grass covering one gaping puka in the lava rock. I peered into the hole and saw a thin light way down in the cave. Erika’s cell. I patted my useless one in my pocket, and seriously considered just ditching her and walking back off down the highway to the beach before some menehune or whatever lurked in mountain holes got me. But man, she’d trusted me enough to hop in a truck that morning. I crouched to see how well I fit in the hole. Pretty well. Even my shoulders were skinny.
“Come on!” Erika called. I took a deep breath, and crawled in. The pāhoehoe dug rough, but not sharp, into my hands so I scooted forward fast instead of careful. I almost ran my head into her butt, and she shined the cell light in my face and then laughed, I guess at how red my face was. I apologized and she laughed more; “you can’t see back there at all, huh?”
“No way,” I said. The crawl wasn’t too long, which was good for our knees, coz even with that little crawl they got scraped bloody. Take my advice, man, don’t spelunk in board shorts. We squeezed out the other side, in the shelter of a copse of koaia, but not into the other side in Maunawili like I expected. The sky was getting dark, and it was raining, big walls of rain passing through every few minutes with the trades. The clouds cast mottled shadows over the bare stone walls, but the alcove kept us dry. Erika shaded her eyes to squint into the dusk.
We’d found a little valley carved into the actual mountain, like a knife had cut down the sides and lifted one slice of mountain-cake out and away into the sky. Netting and new plants sheltered the valley from the air. Built into one side, just like the old WWII bunkers, was a towering concrete launch pad, and on the launch-pad stood a machine big as an apartment building and probably as heavy as one. It was painted mottled grey and green, pixelated camouflage. Long antennae like Lü Bu’s helmet swept back from the machine’s crested head, red mud splatted all up the bulky legs. It looked like a person, if a person looked like a tank.
You wouldn’t think they could hide something that size on an island.
But they do.
Erika and I stared down at it, from our vantage on the cut-up mountain. I was too dumbfounded to even start to put words together, but Erika wasn’t.
“Holy shit,” she said. “It’s a fuckin Gundam.”
We’ve been going out ever since.
This story originally appeared in The Sockdolager.