This is an excerpt from The Devil We Know, a novel set in Hawaii.
My thanks to Eleven Eleven for publishing this at the beginning of 2014.
Ted Koga rode his black Kawasaki motorcycle into the wooden, two-car garage on Sierra Drive. It was late Sunday afternoon, and Lester Ogata, his co-worker and friend, was working on his Toyota Camry.
Ted had felt his cell phone buzzing in the breast pocket of his jacket while coming up the hill. He took the phone out and flipped it open, but didn’t recognize the number. He never responded unless he knew the number. He put the phone away.
The car hood was up, and Les was cussing and shaking his head. “Suckin’ guys!”
“Hey, Les. Trouble with the Camry?”
“Dis bugga need new plugs and I just wen replace ’em last year!”
“You need one motorcycle,” Ted teased.
“Me? I too fat for ride one motorcycle! I fall off, I goin’ make one giant pothole!” They laughed.
Les was a good worker, and though twelve years younger than Ted, he never competed with him. Ted had a temper, and the younger guys would sometimes ride him, trying to show him up or provoke him into getting angry. The two men got along well, though Les was easily discouraged and tended to take the easy way out.
“Check you later,” Ted said.
“Sure ting, brah.”
Ted walked down the narrow concrete steps, broken in a few places. The home had been built in the sixties, and Les had tried to keep it up as his parents aged. But his father had died the year before, and the burden of grief—his mother’s and his own—had made it all too much for him. Les had talked to Ted about finding someone to stay in the ground floor of the home in return for maintaining the property and helping with repairs and care of his seventy-five-year-old mother, and Ted had jumped at the chance. Grateful to have a place to stay while he worked out a divorce with Elsie, he did more than he had to. He kept the Japanese grass watered and mowed, the large mango and guava trees trimmed, the yard spotless, and the tools sharp and rust-free. Regarding repairs as special challenges to his manhood, he prided himself on coming up with solutions to the problems that plagued the aging house. Les would fume and cuss and Ted would chide his friend, then show him what to do.
Ted had gotten off from his second job a few hours before and stopped at the supermarket on the way home. He unlocked the door and walked to the kitchen table, slipping the army-surplus backpack onto the table. He removed his silver helmet, black jacket and gloves, and unzipped the backpack, taking out two bags of groceries. Then he sat down and looked at his phone again. Whoever had called had left a message.
“Dad, I’m in trouble. I need your help. I’m at a gas station by a school…Kawananakoa. Please…help me…”
Ted jumped up, grabbed his helmet, jacket, and gloves, and rushed out, slamming the door and running up the steps. “Les, you know where Kawananakoa School is?”
“Yeah, da intermediate school by da kine…Liliha Bakery. You know, Nuuanu side. Eh, someting wrong, Ted? You look mad.”
“I need to go help my daughter. I’ll be back soon.” Ted tried to keep his voice under control.
“She in trouble?”
“Cannot tell, but no worry. I got it covered.”
Ted got on the bike, strapping his helmet on and pulling down the visor. He drove down Waialae Avenue, taking care not to speed, though adrenalin was coursing through his body down to the foot pegs. He turned right by the public storage place, staying in the right-hand lane, then headed west on H1.
The off-ramp for Vineyard Boulevard appeared several minutes later, and he took the exit. Policemen sometimes stationed themselves at the bottom of the hill, so he slowed to thirty. He drove straight down Vineyard, then turned up Nuuanu. There was a 7-Eleven a few blocks down the road. He slowed as he passed, just in case Gwen was there. Not seeing her, he continued, driving past the school. Across the street from it was a Chevron station. He saw someone sitting, hunched over, at the edge of the station. Branches from a large tree hung over her.
“Gwen…Gwen!” he said, bringing the bike to a stop alongside her.
She didn’t look up. He kneeled in front of her, took his gloves off, and put his hand under her chin to raise her head. Her skin was cold to the touch, and her eyes were half-closed. He gently lifted the lids. Her eyes were glazed over. Her face and clothes were dirty, and she smelled of urine.
He stood up, got out his phone, and called information, asking for the number of a taxi company. “Yeah, can you send a cab right away to the Chevron station across from Kawananakoa Intermediate on Nuuanu? Yeah, thanks.”
He slipped the phone back in his pocket and kneeled again. “Gwen…Gwen…I’ve called a taxi. I’m taking you home with me.” She didn’t respond.
Shortly afterward, a white Chrysler minivan pulled into the station, and Ted waved at it. The cab approached him and Gwen, then stopped. He walked over to the driver’s side and said, “I want you to take this young woman to Sierra Drive in Kaimuki.” The man got out slowly and stood over Gwen.
He seemed worried. “I don’t know. Maybe she should go to the hospital? Kuakini right over there,” he said, pointing with his left hand.
“No!” Ted said, surprising himself by raising his voice. “I mean no, please do as I asked. Let’s get her into your car.”
“She smells bad, and she’s dirty.”
“Yeah. Here,” Ted said, handing the driver his jacket, “put this on your seat.”
“You sure?” the driver asked, looking at the expensive military-grade jacket. Ted nodded. The driver walked back to the cab.
Ted bent down and put his hands under Gwen’s arms, lifting her up. Then he put one arm around her waist and half-walked, half-carried her to the cab. The driver slid the door open, and Ted lifted her onto the seat.
“I’ll meet you guys there. Wait for me if you get there first. Got that?”
The driver looked even more worried. Ted finally realized why.
“It’s OK,” he said. “I’m her dad.”
The cab drove away and Ted got back on his motorcycle. He turned the bike around, entered Pauoa Street, and made a right to get onto Pali Highway. Twenty minutes later, he pulled into the Sierra Drive garage. Les was gone, and the cab hadn’t arrived. He ran down the concrete steps, unlocked the door, and propped it open. Pulling his folding mattress out, he threw it on the floor and grabbed a sheet and blanket. Then he went to the bathroom, pushed the curtain aside, and ran the water to fill the tub. He heard the cab pull up and park next to the garage.
He ran back up, paid the driver, and lifted Gwen out of the cab. He was starting to walk away when the driver said, “Eh, your jacket.” “Oh yeah, thanks,” Ted replied as the man laid it across Gwen.
Walking carefully as he carried her, Ted turned sideways to avoid hitting the tall plants that grew alongside the steps. He brought her into the house, rested her on the floor, then took his shoes off. Putting the sheet and blanket on the folding mattress, he glanced at her, but she hadn’t moved. He carried her into the bathroom and set her down, laying his jacket on the side. When he started to remove her clothes, he discovered that she was wearing more than one layer: underneath the long-sleeved shirt were two T-shirts, and underneath the jeans was a pair of capris, but she had no underwear. The clothes were old and soiled, and he threw them in a corner. She looked like she’d lost twenty pounds since she lived at home, and she had a black, barbed-wire tattoo around her waist. Her middle name, Hanako, was tattooed on the front of her right shoulder. Track lines went down each of her limbs. He lifted her and put her in the bathtub, squeezing his shampoo bottle into the running water. Then he grabbed a towel, rolled it up, and put it under her head. All the while, her eyes were closed. He knelt by the tub and leaned back on his heels, letting out a deep breath.
What a beautiful girl she had been, and smart too, he remembered as he studied her careworn face. Hapa-haole, she had light-brown hair and eyes, long lashes, and a model’s high cheekbones and pretty mouth. He’d been so proud of her as she made As in school, but her mother’s influence soon messed up his dreams for her success. Elsie taught her how to dress, wear makeup, and behave around boys. Gwen had them following her around as soon as she hit her teens. But a self-destructive streak ran through her too, and she had totaled three cars by the time she was twenty-one. She had nearly failed to graduate from high school, too distracted by the attention of boys and the efforts of jealous girls to sabotage her. Ted had given up trying to be a good influence on her, though he would respond when she tried to talk about her future. He thought about the last time he had seen her.
It had been storming one evening the year before, and though the rain had subsided, the road over the Pali was still slick. Ted took a curve too quickly or at the wrong angle, and the bike suddenly darted out from under him. Sparks flew as the left foot peg scraped the asphalt and the bike skidded across the road. It went over the grassy embankment and crashed into the guardrail. Ted tumbled and rolled, landing on the grass.
Seconds later, a car came around the bend, its headlights shining on him and the bike. The car pulled over onto the shoulder, and the doors opened. He could hear two people, a man and a woman, trying to talk to each other above the wind. He recognized the woman’s voice.
The man came up to him and helped him sit up. “Hey, you OK?”
“I…yeah, I think so.”
“Dad…? Is that you?”
“Yes, Gwen.” Ted lifted his arm and reached out to her.
She sat back on her haunches, just out of his reach.
“You sure you’re OK?” the man repeated, trying to lift off Ted’s helmet. “You want us to get help?”
Ted resisted the man’s efforts, waving his hands away. “Yeah, I’m fine. I’ll be OK, thanks.”
The car’s headlights shone on the three of them. Gwen looks so thin, Ted thought. Her cheekbones are poking through her face, and her hair is dirty.
“You need help with your bike?” the man asked.
“No-no, I’m OK. Thanks for stopping. Really appreciate it…Thank you, Gwen.”
“OK, Dad,” she said. “He’s OK,” she said to the man.
The two got up and walked to the car. Ted reached across his chest to see where the fall might have torn his motorcycle jacket. The elbow of the jacket was ripped open, his skin exposed. When he got home, he would clean the wound and mend the jacket. It had to meet military specifications, and he couldn’t afford another $200 for a new one.
As the car passed by, Gwen looked at him through the passenger window. She seemed sad or disappointed or unwell. He couldn’t tell which.
He walked over to the bike and tried to right it, but it was slippery. Mud and grass stuck to it, and he wiped off what he could with his gloves. He got back on and made a mental note to slow down when he came to that curve again. He started the engine, feeling no pain, but he had lain the bike down before and knew it would come.
Ted moved strands of hair off Gwen’s face and reflected on how life had shaped those bones and muscles into something hard and cold. Something that courted what was bad in people.
He stood, gazing at himself in the mirror: graying hair; eyes filled with resignation. He walked into the living room, lay down on the couch to rest, and was asleep in a few minutes.
A while later, Gwen opened her eyes. She had trouble figuring out where she was and how she’d gotten there, but she knew her father was somewhere nearby. She felt the rolled towel behind her head and grabbed it, bringing it in front of her face. It was a bath towel, and she put it on the floor. She slowly bathed and tried to wash her hair. Then she picked up the towel, stood, and put it around herself. She peeked into the living room and saw Ted lying on the couch. She stepped back and walked into the bedroom. Going through his clothes, she tried to find something she could wear. She found a brown T-shirt and navy-blue shorts. They were so big she had to stuff the shirt in the shorts and roll the waist down. Tentatively, she walked into the living room and lay down on the folding mattress, pulling the blanket over her.
She was somewhere safe, she knew. Turning on her side to face her father, she rested her cheek on her palm and smelled the clean sheet and blanket. And then she closed her eyes and smiled the smile of a little girl.