MAYBE IT was the tropical air that beckoned, because compared to winter in Wisconsin, it was almost shocking in its sweetness. Thick and heavy with moisture, the air smelled faintly fecund, even indoors. That was probably his imagination. His mind had conjured so many different variations on how this moment would go, it was hard to remember which outcome he was hoping for.
His best case would be if his mother came alone. If she did, they’d have time to talk before he met his new family-in-law. How awkward was it that he’d never met his stepfather? That he hadn’t attended his mother’s second wedding and couldn’t pick out the stepsiblings even now living in her house from a line-up of strangers?
He waited what seemed like forever before pulling three—count ’em—large black bags from the carousel, embarrassed anew by how much crap he carried with him. He’d have to get one of those carts, but every item he owned was in those bags. His father’s things and some sports trophies—mementos he hadn’t deemed immediately necessary—were being shipped. The rest he’d given away. Sold. Tossed. He’d already forgotten the things he’d left behind.
He couldn’t wait for his new life. He wanted new things—or rather, he wanted fewer things. Mikhail Naimy wrote in The Book of Mirdad, “Less possessing, less possessed.” Now Theo wanted only things he chose for himself, and not things he took because they were efficient and practical. No more secondhand, hand-me-down, thrift shop just-for-nows. He’d learned.
Now was so important that it deserved nothing but the very, very best.
He wanted fewer things and more people in his life. More nature and beauty. More freedom. He wanted only things he needed. Things he loved. Theo yearned for order the way a starving man wanted bread. Having shed his job, his home, and most of his things—even his continent—like a skin, he felt his possibilities were endless.
“Theophilus Hsu.” A voice from behind him made him halt and turn. At the sight that greeted him, his heart sank.
“Kekoa Palapiti. Wow. Nice to see you. God. What a coincidence—” A horrible thought occurred to him. “Wait—”
“Your mother sent me to pick you up.” And just like that, paradise got lost. “She was worried she wouldn’t be up to lifting your baggage.”
Kekoa Lani Palapiti—next-door neighbor, childhood friend, and secret lifelong thirst trap made that sound like “psychological” baggage. As if he thought Theo had a lot of that particular thing.
Theo shrugged. Christ. “I can lift my own luggage. She could have called. I’d have taken a cab.”
“So next time tell her you got cash to throw away. Save me a trip.”
Theo turned away and swiped his card in the cart machine. “Next time.”
Theo knew his mother well enough to know she’d forced this meeting for the sake of expedience. Without it, who knew how long it would have taken him to get the nerve to talk to Koa. Still, it felt forced and ridiculous, and now they were both only going along because she wanted it and they loved her.
Koa helped him shoulder his bags onto the cart. His scent filled Theo’s nostrils with the smell of rain on taro leaves.
“Follow me.” Koa turned and started walking.
Theo had no choice but to grab the cart and follow.
On the way to the parking garage, he focused on Koa’s thick, broad shoulders, his narrow hips. His boy had grown up as fine as promised. Mom’s photographs didn’t do him justice, but then a photograph couldn’t convey the swagger of a born badass like Koa. He hadn’t lost that arrogance. If anything, he wore it like armor now.
“So, you didn’t like Big Lake?” he asked.
There was no easy answer for that. “Bear Lake was where I lived specifically, and… no. Not really. I liked some parts.”
Since Koa seemed to ask for form’s sake, Theo didn’t actually have to oblige him with an answer. Nevertheless, he spoke truthfully. “It was pretty.” He’d enjoyed driving in the darkness along roads where the trees looked like ice-covered ghosts. “People are as nice as they say.”
“You’ll be joining the HPD?”
“Yep.” He’d applied to and been accepted by the Honolulu Police Department. It wasn’t a lateral move, but he’d move up quickly if he showed initiative. He didn’t care. New life, new dreams. He might not even stay on the force if he found something that he wanted to do more. He might go back to school….
Theo blinked and found they’d stopped at a pedestrian crossing. The sound of his old nickname slid over his spine, dazing him momentarily. Obviously Koa had asked a question and now he waited for an answer. “I’m sorry, I was lost in space or something.”
“I said, I was sorry about your dad. I meant to send a card, but you know how it is….”
“Likewise,” Theo offered, since Koa’s parents had both passed fairly recently, a few months apart. “I was really sorry to hear about your folks.”
Koa shrugged again.
Theo asked, “You still living in the Sugar Shack?”
“Where else?” A sly smile found Koa’s lips at the reminder. Whether it was the shared memory or evidence Theo still had some local knowledge, Koa thawed visibly on hearing their nickname for the odd wreck of a house the Palapitis had called home.
Theo let his thoughts out. “I’ma miss your mom, brah. Even more than the candy.”
They paused for a moment of silence for the woman whose homemade chocolates, caramels, fudge, and nut brittles were so completely off-the-charts delicious, her friends had forced her into business.
“Can’t bring Mom back,” Koa said. “Auntie Lala makes the candy now, she’s got Mom’s recipes. Been a while since I cooked sugar.”
“I can imagine.” A detective probably had little time to cook. “So. Work. Ma says you got your shield now? Must be good, huh?”
“What’s good?” Koa gave an eye roll. “You know how it is. There are bad guys everywhere, dirty money flows, but the economy sucks, and assholes think Hawai‘i is their private playground to shit on.”
The muscles in Koa’s jaw flexed. Mnh. You could open a coconut with a jaw like Koa’s.
“I see your new hobby is optimism. That’s so nice.”
Theo figured he’d see Koa again, but he wasn’t prepared for the jolt of desire that shot through him every time he got a fresh look at how well he’d turned out. He had tats and piercings and a sweet scruffy soul patch. A warm, if mostly hidden, grin.
Koa rubbed at his chin. “Sorry. Had a bad night. Caught a body.”
“And my mother still tapped you to haul me in? She is shameless.”
“What do you mean?” Koa frowned at him.
“She’s been bugging me about getting together with old friends. You know what?” He motioned between them. “I think this is a playdate.”
“I think she knew her car would flip over with all your crap.” He motioned for Theo to stay on the curb. “Wait here, I’ll come around and pick you up.”
“I can walk.”
“Don’t be an ass.” He slipped his Oakleys on. Same kind Theo wore, different color. Figured—they always had the same taste. “Wait here.”
Koa loped across the street and into a parking garage with such easy grace. He’d grown up sleek and fast and powerful. A detective with—if Theo’s mother’s few phone conversations were to be believed—a consistent, statistically high solve rate. His mother was fixated on making sure they got reacquainted, but he hadn’t realized how determined she was. He’d expected her to give him a day or two.
He and Koa were childhood friends. Blood brothers. Theo had been on the cusp of adolescence and ready to confess that, for him, the feelings went much deeper. He’d even started writing stories about two boys having adventures and sharing them with Koa as a way to let off that prepubescent steam, when his dad decided it wasn’t enough to just divorce his mom—the two of them had to leave the islands and start fresh somewhere else. Just the men.
He and Koa were strangers now. But he’d still call Kekoa Palapiti his first love.
Theo slipped his shades on and waited until Koa pulled up to the curb in a massive black SUV with tinted windows. Magnetic door signs read Ohana Sugar Magic and featured Auntie Lala’s smiling face. Together they threw his bags into the back. Koa let the SUV idle while Theo ditched the cart.
“I can’t believe you paid money for a cart.” Koa laughed at him when he returned and got in. “That’s, like… the uncoolest thing I think I’ve ever seen. Three suitcases that roll and you shell out for a cart. Buy a bungee cord.”
“You’re one to talk. Whose big bad SUV has his auntie Lala’s face on the doors? That’s some fierce shit, bro.”
“It is when Lala’s driving it with candy in the back.”
Theo let him have his fun. “Mom tells me there’s no Mrs. Palapiti.”
“My mother was Mrs. Palapiti. Until she passed.” He threw an inquisitive glance Theo’s way. “She’d give you a ration for bailing on your mom’s wedding. But I get why you didn’t go.”
“Do you?” Theo’s dad had been killed the week before the wedding. Nothing anyone could have done for him. Even so, Theo hadn’t been able to make himself go to his mother’s wedding while his dad was in the morgue—his body still evidence of a crime. By the time they’d laid him to rest, his mother was back from her honeymoon in Bali and it didn’t matter as much anymore. After that, he just kept putting off meeting his mother’s new family for one valid reason after another.
“Your mother understood,” Koa told him. “She doesn’t expect a person to grieve a certain way.”
Theo knew that. He wanted to point out that he knew his mother too, but he only asked, “What keeps you busy these days?”
“Work. Training. I dance because your mom would kill me if I stopped, but I don’t really have time now. Just charity shit when I can.”
“Mom says dance keeps her young. Something must.” At nearly sixty, his mother still looked to be in her midthirties. He hoped it was genetic. She loved hula and his dad had hated it. He said if Theo could learn to dance, he could learn to fight, and enrolled him in martial arts as soon as he could walk.
“It keeps me in shape.” Koa slid a glance Theo’s way. “You’re looking good. What keeps you in shape?”
“Subzero temperatures and Midwestern food.”
“Isn’t the food pretty calorie dense up there?”
“Not if you don’t like it.”
“You always were a picky eater.” Koa chuckled. “I guess you don’t surf much either.”
“You can surf the Lakes, you know.” Theo gave him the look he deserved for being an asshole. People did surf in the Great Lakes. But they were airheads who came from Norway or something. Their ancestors had probably mated with reindeer and polar bears. On their behalf, he pointed out, “The waves are best in winter.”
Koa glanced his way. “Pics or it didn’t happen.”
“I never did it,” Theo admitted. “I’m saying it’s theoretically possible.”
Silence stretched out between them again. It was a long ride, and as Koa drove, Theo flew his hand out the window and marked the buildings he remembered. So much had changed. He’d changed.
When they pulled into Theo’s mother’s driveway, Koa turned to him. “I hope you don’t mind, I don’t have time to come in. Say hi to your mom.”
“Okay.” Disappointment warred with relief in Theo’s heart. Relief came out a winner. The last thing he needed was disinterested bystanders. “Pop the locks, I’ll just get my things from the back.”
He stepped down, went around, and hauled his things out. From the outside pocket of the lightest one, he pulled a signed copy of Plummet to Soar. He’d put it there to give to his mother because he’d assumed she’d pick him up. He had other gifts for her, so it didn’t matter.
“Hey, brother.” He smiled awkwardly and waved for Koa to roll down the window. “Present for you.”
“Mahalo. Really?” Surprised, he took it and gave it a quick perusal. “Hey, it’s autographed to you. You sure?”
Theo nodded. “That book changed a lot of things for me. I hope you enjoy it.”
Koa’s dark eyes—when he lifted his gaze—held some earnest question Theo couldn’t begin to answer. They widened. “I don’t suppose you ever figured out what happened at the end of that thing you were writing…?”
“You remember that shit?” He said the words like Sheesh, who remembers? As if he hadn’t just been thinking that very thing. Obviously now he understood what those ridiculous stories were, but at the time?
Looking back, Theo blushed with shame.
Koa gave his lower lip a quick nibble. Theo’s dick sat up and got ready to beg. Down, boy. “I think when last I read, our plucky heroes were in a Malay prison.” Koa glanced at him. “Sentenced for a crime they didn’t commit.”
“Tunneling their way to freedom.” Theo nodded. “One of those boys always got himself jammed up, and the other saved the day.”
“Well, you write what you know.” Koa was laughing at him.
Theo didn’t take lead and he wasn’t much of a follower. Sidekick was more his style. But in those stupid stories, he always, always saved the day. Maybe with Koa he’d wanted to try taking the lead….
Koa asked, “Wasn’t one of them about to be caned?”
“Yeah?” Theo admitted hoarsely. At the time, news stories of corporal punishment—as applied to dumb Westerners in places like Malaysia and Taiwan—had fired his imagination, for a lot of reasons. Some not so wholesome.
Koa snorted. “You dug writing that dark shit. The beatings. The extra, extra tight male bonding. Admit it.”
“Hell yeah.” Motherfucker. You went there. I cannot believe you went there the second you saw him again. “I never finished writing any of those. But there’s always time, you know?”
Koa glanced over again. This time, unmistakably, he checked Theo out. “Maybe you should.”