THE ROADDecember 8, 1941
WITH EVERY MILE CLOSER TO VOLCANO, THE FOG thickened, until they were driving through a forest of white gauze with the occasional branch showing through. Lana considered turning the truck around no less than forty-six times. Going back to Hilo would have been the prudent thing to do, but this was not a time for prudence. Of that she was sure. She slowed the Chevy to a crawl and checked the rearview mirror. The cage with the geese was now invisible, and she could barely make out the dog’s big black spots.
Maybe the fog would be to their advantage.
“I don’t like it here at all,” said Coco, who was smashed up next to Lana, scrawny arms folded in protest. The child had to almost yell to be heard above the chug of the motor.
Lana grabbed a blanket from the floor. “Put this over you. It should help.”
Coco shook her head. “I’m not cold. I want to go home. Can you please take us back?”
Goose bumps had formed up and down her limbs, but she was so stubborn that she had refused to put on a jacket. True, Hilo was insufferably hot, but where they were headed—four thousand feet up the mountain—the air was cold and damp and flimsy.
It had been over ten years since Lana had set foot at Kı¯lauea. Never would she have guessed to be returning under these circumstances.
Marie chimed in. “We can’t go back now, sis. And anyway, there’s no one to go back to at the moment.”
Poor Coco trembled. Lana wished she could hug the girl and tell her everything was going to be okay. But that would be a lie. Things were liable to get a whole lot worse before they got any better.
“Sorry, honey. I wish things were different, but right now you two are my priority. Once we get to the house, we can make a plan,” Lana said.
“But you don’t even know where it is,” Coco whined.
“I have a good idea.”
More like a vague notion.
“What if we don’t find it by dark? Are they going to shoot us?” Coco said.
Marie put her arm around Coco and pulled her in. “Turn off that little overactive imagination of yours. No one is going to shoot us,” she said, but threw a questioning glance Lana’s way.
“We’ll be fine,” Lana said, wishing she believed that.
The girls were not the real problem here. Of greater concern was what they had hidden in the back of the truck. Curfew was six o’clock, but people had been ordered to stay off the roads unless their travel was essential to the war. Lana hadn’t told the girls that. Driving up here was a huge risk, but she had invented a story she hoped and prayed would let them get through if anyone stopped them. The thought of a checkpoint caused her palms to break out in sweat, despite the icy air blowing in through the cracks in the floorboard.
On a good day, the road from Hilo to Volcano would take about an hour and a half. Today was not a good day. Every so often they hit a rut the size of a whiskey barrel that bounced her head straight into the roof. The continuous drizzle of the rain forest had undermined all attempts at smooth roads here. At times the ride was reminiscent of the plane ride from Honolulu. Exactly two days ago, but felt more like a lifetime.
Lana’s main worry was what they would encounter once in the vicinity of the national park entrance. With the Kı¯lauea military camp nearby, there were bound to be soldiers and roadblocks in the area. She had so many questions for her father and felt a mixed ache of sadness and resentment that he was not here to answer them. How were you so sure the Japanese were coming? Why the volcano, of all places? How are we going to survive up here? Why didn’t you call me sooner?
Coco seemed to settle down, leaning her nut-brown ringlets against her sister’s shoulder and closing her eyes. There was something comforting in the roar of the engine and the jostle of the truck. With the whiteout it was hard to tell where they were, but by all estimates they should be arriving soon.
Lana was dreaming of a cup of hot coffee when Coco sat upright and said, “I have to go tinkle.”
“Tinkle?” Lana asked.
Marie said, “She means she has to go to the bathroom.”
They drove until they found a grassy shoulder, and Lana pulled the truck aside, though they could have stopped in the middle of the road. They had met only one other vehicle the whole way, a police car that fortunately had passed by.
The rain had let up, and they all climbed out. It was like walking through a cloud, and the air smelled metallic and faintly lemony from the eucalyptus that lined the road. Lana went to check on Sailor. The dog stood up and whined, yanking on the rope around her neck, straining to be pet. Poor thing was drenched and shaking. Lana had wanted to leave her behind with a neighbor, but Coco had put up such a fuss, throwing herself onto her bed and wailing and punching the pillow, that Lana relented. Caring for the girls would be hard enough, but a hundred-and-twenty-pound dog?
“Just a bathroom stop. Is everyone okay back here?” she asked in a hushed voice. Two low grunts came from under the tarp. “We should be there soon. Remember, be still and don’t make a sound if we stop again.”
As if on cue, one of the hidden passengers started a coughing fit, shaking the whole tarp. She wondered how wise it was to subject him to this long and chilly ride, and if it might be the death of him. But the alternative was worse.
“Deep breaths…you can do it,” Lana said.
Coco showed up and hopped onto the back tire. “I think we should put Sailor inside with us. She looks miserable.”
“Whose lap do you propose she sits on?” Lana said.
Sailor was as tall as a small horse, but half as wide.
“I can sit in the back of the truck and she can come up here, then,” Coco said in all seriousness.
“Not in those clothes you won’t. We don’t need you catching pneumonia on us.”
They started off again, and ten seconds down the road, Sailor started howling at the top of her lungs. Lana felt herself on the verge of unraveling. The last thing they needed was one extra ounce of attention. The whole idea of coming up here was preposterous when she thought about it. At the time it had seemed like a good idea, but now she wondered at her sanity.
“What is wrong with that dog?” Lana said, annoyed.
Coco turned around, and Lana felt her hot breath against her arm. In the smallest of voices, she said, “Sailor is scared.”
Lana felt her heart crack. “Oh, honey, we’re all a bit scared.
It’s perfectly normal under the circumstances. But I promise you this—I will do everything in my power to keep you out of harm’s way.”
“But you hardly know us,” Coco said.
“My father knew you, and you knew him, right?” Lana said. “And remember, if anyone asks, we tell them our story.”
They had rehearsed it many times already, but with kids one could never be sure. Not that Lana had much experience with kids. With none of her own and no nieces or nephews in the islands, she felt the lack palpably, smack in the center of her chest. There had been a time when she saw children in her future, but that dream had come and gone and left her sitting on the curb with a jarful of tears.
Her mind immediately went to Buck. Strange how your future with a person could veer so far off course from how you’d originally pictured it. How the one person you swore you would have and hold could end up wreaking havoc on your heart instead. She blinked the thought away.
As they neared Volcano, the fog remained like a curtain, but the air around them brightened. Lana knew from all her time up here as a young girl that the trees got smaller as the elevation rose, and the terrain changed from towering eucalyptus and fields of yellow-and-white ginger to a more cindery terrain covered with red-blossomed ‘ohi‘a trees, and prehistoriclooking ha¯pu’u ferns and the crawling uluhe. At one time in her life, this had been one of her happiest places. Coco reached for the letter on the dashboard and began reading it for the fourth time. “Coco Hitchcock. It sounds funny.” The paper was already getting worn.
Marie swiped it out of her hands. “You’re going to ruin that. Give it to me.”
Where Coco was whip thin and dark and spirited—a nice way of putting it—Marie was blonde and full-bodied and sweet as coconut taffy. But Lana could tell even Marie’s patience was wearing thin.
“Mrs. Hitchcock said we need to memorize our new names or we’ll be shot.”
Lana said as calmly as she could, “I never said anything of the sort. And, Coco, you have to get used to calling me Aunt Lana for now. Both of you do.”
“And stop talking about getting shot,” Marie added, rolling her eyes.
If they could all just hold it together a little bit longer.
There was sweat pooling between her breasts and behind her kneecaps. Lying was not her strong suit, and she was hoping that, by some strange miracle, they could sail on through without anyone stopping them. She rolled her window down a couple of inches for a burst of fresh air. “We’re just about here. So if we get stopped, let me do the talking. Speak only if someone asks you a direct question, okay?”
Neither girl said anything; they both just nodded. Lana could almost see the fear condensing on the windshield. And pretty soon little Coco started sniffling. Lana would have said something to comfort her, but her mind was void of words. Next the sniffles turned into heaving sobs big enough to break the poor girl in half. Marie rubbed her hand up and down Coco’s back in a warm, smooth circle.
“You can cry when we get there, but no tears now,” she said.
Tears and snot were smeared across Coco’s face in one big shiny layer. “But they might kill Mama and Papa.” Her face was pinched and twisted into such anguish that Lana had to fight back a sob of her own.
Excerpted from Red Sky Over Hawaii by Sara Ackerman, Copyright © 2020 by Sara Sckerman. Published by MIRA Books.