Inhale

by J.J. Richardson

Copyright 2022

My precious Lily married me only after I promised to take her to Tanneuni on our honeymoon.  Returning to that island north of Fiji had been her dream ever since her father took her there when she was twelve years old.  How she’d been so enthusiastic about people and life for as long as I’d known her and yet think only of that island, I never understood until the day we arrived on Tanneuni.

 

Walking down the steps of the commuter plane, we carried only our backpacks because she wanted to travel light.  She had told me the island was small enough that we could see everything on bicycles, so we rented bikes as we had planned.

 

We rode north along the nearly empty oceanside road between tall, green palm trees and white-sand beaches.  It was an untouched world.  We passed coral outcroppings and black cliffs that dropped into the churning blue and white sea.  An occasional paved or dirt road turned inland, and here or there a car or small truck passed us in either direction.  Our destination was the small town of Nadeloi on the western side of the island where we had made our hotel reservation.

 

I wanted to get a closer look at the small wooden homes and buildings that huddled off against the mountains, but Lily rode ahead of me and wouldn’t stop.  It seemed her only interest was getting to Nadeloi.  I’d never seen her act like this before.

 

“Keep up with me,” she yelled back without turning around, her blond hair following her.

 

The distance between us kept increasing as the morning wore on.  My knee began to hurt from my fall at work.  I thought it had healed, but she kept cycling faster and I had an increasingly difficult time keeping up with her.

 

The land unaffected by the modern world provided no sound except for the birds and sea waves.  The ocean and the green mountains to the west were striking.  I wanted to stop and appreciate them, but I had to catch up with Lily.  It troubled me why she wouldn’t slow down.

 

Before arriving in Tanneuni, she had always been patient with me and generous with her time with her math students.  She would make them home-baked cookies when they had practiced their lessons and even gave them short piano performances, just for them.

 

I thought she would get tired on that rented bicycle ahead of me.  But then it happened.  I lost sight of her.

 

My hand began to cramp as I tried to keep my knee steady.  Something passed between the cars far ahead of me.  It was a motorcyclist heading westward toward the mountains.

 

That was when I noticed a pass through the mountains to the western side of the island.  A shortcut to Nadeloi!  Lily must have taken it.  Why did she leave me?

 

I turned onto the next road inland to the west as I rubbed my leg.  I couldn’t believe she’d do such a thing to me, especially on our honeymoon.  I rode on dirt roads between the island’s small wooden houses, built with curious interwoven wooden joints.  The humble homes appeared sturdy enough even though they were built atop rugged thatched trusses to keep them off the ground.

 

I wish Lily could have seen them with me.  I tried my best to believe that nothing bad had happened to her.

 

Children playing and chasing each other stopped and watched me as I peddled past them.  I saw a shopworker at a small store with wooden-planked walls that sold fruits and vegetables.

 

“Good morning,” I said to the shopworker as I got off my bike.  She looked like one of the Melanesian people Lily had shown me in photos with her dark skin and curly hair.  She set down the papayas she was unpacking and stood up straight, seemingly touched that I had come to visit her shop.

 

“Which road takes me to the pass over the mountains?” I asked.

 

Her smile left her.

 

“The road to Nadeloi,” I said.  “How do I get to it?

 

She turned her back to me and returned to her work.  I considered asking her again when she said, “You don’t want to go there.”

 

“I don’t?”

 

She shook her head as if I had disappointed her terribly.  The Melanesian children down the street still stood and stared at me.  I didn’t want to offend her.  Maybe she was tired of rude tourists coming around asking questions.

 

“No one comes back from Nadeloi,” she said to me, raising her hand and pointing to her head, “not the way they were.”

 

“My wife is on her way ahead of me,” I said.  “Have you seen anyone else come by?”

 

She shook her head again, scowling.  “I am sorry for her.”

 

“Where’s the road through the mountains?” I asked.

 

“It is closed,” she said.

 

“Why?”  I didn’t wish to argue with her, but I had to find Lily, and this woman knew more about the island than I did.  “Why is it closed?” I asked the woman.

 

“Because no one goes that way,” she said.

 

The woman seemed determined on the matter.

 

“Okay,” I said.  “Thank you for speaking with me.”

 

I rode back to the ocean road from where I had come and resumed my course, wondering if everyone on the island felt that way about Nadeloi.  I would have asked other adults, but I didn’t see any.

 

The buildings became farther apart until there were none, and I found myself alone between the mountains and the ocean.  Where was Lily?  She and I had always worked out our differences.

 

I made my way along the road to the west side of the island.

 

About the time I began to fear I was lost I saw two white buildings on the right and a pier jutting from the shoreline ahead of me.  A ferry was docked at the pier.  On the other side of the road, tucked against the green mountains was a group of oriental buildings with colorful walls and tiled roofs.  A bus coming from the ornate buildings crossed the road ahead of me on its way to the dock.

 

I pedaled up the inclined road until I came to a parking lot and bike rack facing the buildings.  All of the bicycles on the island looked the same, so I couldn’t tell which of them was Lily’s.  I wanted to find our hotel because the staff at the front desk would have known if Lily had checked in.

 

I left my bike with the others and walked between the buildings.  Lily could not have found a more exotic place for us.  The air smelled sweet, and somehow, I felt relaxed.  My knee had stopped hurting, and even my worries about Lily began to fade.

 

My crew back home would have liked to hear about Nadeloi and its ornate buildings that weren’t just structures but were works of art surrounded by meticulous landscaping and statues of people and animals.  I would have brought my camera, but Lily told me they weren’t allowed in Nadeloi.

 

An elderly Asian worker dressed in black stood behind his counter.  I asked him, “Where is the Yoi Otoko Hotel?”

 

He left to speak with a female worker who was also dressed in black.  They spoke in a language I didn’t understand.  He returned and then gestured to his right with his hand.

 

I went as directed past a red tile-roofed building to a dark wood single-story hotel.  An intricately carved sign in front of it read, “Hotel Yoi Otoko.”

 

“Welcome,” the lady at the front desk said as I entered the foyer.

 

Bright red and yellow wooden framing between flowering plants decorated the room’s walls.  Water from a fountain in the middle of the room rolled over rounded stones.

 

“I’m Kyle Robinson,” I told the woman at the front desk.  “My wife and I have a room reserved for two nights.  Did she check in ahead of me?”  I showed the woman my identification.

 

“Let me see,” she said, looking at her monitor.  “Yes, she has, Mr. Robinson.  She made the required payment.  Your room number is 1020.”  The woman smiled and gave me an electronic key pass, saying, “That room is one of my favorites.”  She motioned with her hand.

 

I glanced in the suggested direction, but then asked her, “What does Nadeloi mean?”

 

“It is the iTaukei name for a plant that grows in this area.  It lives nowhere else in the world.  I believe your wife went into our dining room.”

 

“Thank you,” I said.

 

I passed through the sculpted doorway and into their restaurant.  Guests seated at polished wooden tables ate their meals.  None of them were Lily, but on a table next to the windows was her backpack.  Used dishes from her meal were still on the table.

 

I sat at the table and looked through her things, trying not to get too upset with her.  I had never known Lily to be so thoughtless.  Yet, for some reason, I felt comforted, which puzzled me as much as her behavior did.

 

A smiling Asian woman dressed in black approached me.  I saw no native Melanesians in the town, which seemed odd to me.

 

“Welcome,” she said.  “May I get you something to drink?”

 

“I’m looking for my wife who ate here,” I said.  “Do you remember her?  These are her things.”

 

The woman motioned toward the doors at the back of the dining room.

 

Through the windows, I saw a grassy courtyard.  Positioned in the middle of the courtyard were six glass rooms.

 

She withdrew her pad of paper, tore off the top piece, and placed it on the table.

 

I read the woman’s notations.  “Was this her order?”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“Two hundred and twenty—dollars?”  I glanced up at her.  “For shrimp scampi?”

 

“It is very nice here in Nadeloi,” the woman said.

 

“Did she not pay for it?” I asked, reading the numbers again.

 

“No, sir.”

 

My Lily would never have done this.  How could I have so terribly misunderstood her?  I glanced up at the woman again as she stood there patiently looking back at me.  I retrieved from my wallet a credit card.

 

She held out her hand as if to say stop.  “Cash only.”

 

“Cash?” I asked.  “No one has that much cash.  I certainly don’t.”

 

It was then when I remembered Lily telling me that most merchants on Tanneuni accepted only cash.  I thought she meant the native shops around the island, not the businesses within Nadeloi.

 

“She didn’t charge it to our room?”

 

“No, sir,” she said, shaking her head.  “Cash only.”

 

I grunted and rested my elbows on the tabletop, still holding the credit card.  I should have been grateful that my knee no longer hurt.  “Did she act all right to you?  Was she distraught about anything?”

 

“She was happy.  A friendly woman,” she said, smiling.  “Excuse me, sir.  I will return.”  The woman returned to the kitchen.

 

I examined Lily’s things again until the woman came back with a stern-looking man wearing a black suit.  Was he Chinese or Japanese?  She spoke to him in their language.

 

“Good afternoon,” the man said.  “What is your name?”

 

“Kyle Robinson,” I answered.

 

“Please, come with me, Mr. Robinson,” he said.

 

“Why?”

 

With my backpack over my shoulders and Lily’s backpack in my arms, I followed him out to the courtyard and to the next building over.  He opened a door labeled Office of Island and ushered me into a room with desks, phones, and employees dressed in black who were managing paperwork.

 

“Wait here,” he said.  He entered an office at the back and returned with a woman with dark hair.  She did not appear happy to see me.  He said something to her I didn’t understand and returned to his restaurant.

 

“Please,” the woman said, “come with me, Mr. Robinson.”

 

I followed her into her office, and she closed the door behind me.

 

“Have a seat, Mr. Robinson.”  She sat behind her desk, which bore a considerable amount of paperwork.  Her office walls had pictures of ocean scenes and photos of Nadeloi’s buildings.

 

“I am Officer Tanaka.  We are proud of our village.  We take care of it and respect it.”

 

“I understand,” I said.  “It’s very pretty.”

 

“We request that our guests respect it, also.  Your wife must pay for her meal.  Otherwise, she is a thief.”

 

“Of course,” I said.  “I’ll find her, and we’ll pay.  I promise.  She’s probably in our hotel room.  I’ll go get her.  We’re on our honeymoon.”

 

Officer Tanaka smiled.  “Congratulations.”

 

“What’s this about not accepting credit cards?” I asked.

 

“Our customers enjoy their privacy in Nadeloi,” she said.  “Did you not read our brochures?  It is made very clear.”

 

I was embarrassed to recall that Lily had studied them more than I had.

 

“Maintaining Nadeloi is expensive.  We do not have slaves.”

 

“On my way to Nadeloi I saw a bus heading from Nadeloi to the dock on the shore,” I said.

 

Officer Tanaka looked back at me, tilting her head.  “Sometimes our customers need—help—getting back to the mainland,” she said.  “It is a free service.”

 

She searched for something in the piles on her desk and then stood up.  “Will you excuse me?”

 

Officer Tanaka left the room, closing her office door behind her.  It was strange for her to leave me in her office alone.  Surely, I wasn’t her first problem customer.

 

I wanted to find Lily and ask her why she was acting so strangely.  I had trusted Lily’s good nature and let her arrange our journey to the island.  It was to be her surprise for me.  But how awful she had treated me!  I didn’t want to discover that she wasn’t all that I thought she was.

 

On Officer Tanaka’s desk, I saw Lily’s handbag partially covered with paperwork.  In it, I found her passport and wallet among other belongings, none of which she would have given up willingly.  Most of the cash we had brought from home was gone.  I put her handbag in my backpack.  The Melanesian woman at the vegetable shop had warned me.  Why weren’t any Melanesians working in Nadeloi?

 

Officer Tanaka returned and sat at her desk.

 

“There is a pretty smell throughout this town,” I asked her.  “What is it?”

 

“It is from a plant that grows only here,” she said.  “Do you like it?”

 

“It smells nice.”

 

“It calms us,” Officer Tanaka said.  “Its energy is all around us.”  She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply through her nose.  “It grows just off the shore, feeding off of ground coral and dried seaweed.”

 

Was I in trouble or not?   “Let me find my wife so we can pay.”

 

She opened her eyes.  “Return her to the Yoi Otoko’s restaurant and have her pay for her meal.  If she doesn’t, we will arrest her.  You may go.”

 

I left her office.  An office worker glanced up at me.  She smiled and then returned to her work.

 

Back in the courtyard, I saw that the sidewalk ran along the backs of buildings that encircled the central grassy area.  Guests walked about the shops, bars, and eateries.  The buildings were decorated with flowers and wood carvings of fish and wildlife.  I began to feel at ease again.  But I didn’t want peace.  I wanted Lily.

 

There were beggars along the walkways sitting against the buildings’ walls.  They didn’t seem dirty or homeless.

 

“Money?” they asked me one at a time as I passed them, their voices weak and needy, their palms held out.

 

I returned to the Hotel Yoi Otoko.  Our room was spacious and decorated with oriental plush furnishings with flowers embroidered into the bedspread and couches.  The generous bathroom included a glass shower.

 

But Lily was not there.  No note from her, and the light on the room phone didn’t blink.  The bed was undisturbed, and the bathroom was unused.

 

On each side of the bed were small, white machines with long, flexible tubes and nosepieces with straps.  They looked like machines that helped people breathe at night.  Lily must have gotten us a special room.

 

I transferred the remaining cash from Lily’s wallet to mine and left our backpacks on the bed.  There was no sense in carrying them with me.  It didn’t seem right for me to have to wait for Lily to arrive, and I thought I should have been more upset with her and raging.  But something was happening to me that I did not understand.

 

Outside the hotel, I wandered between clean, colorful buildings while becoming increasingly worried about Lily’s whereabouts.  No one else around me appeared to be troubled.  The town was arranged in a circle, with each building facing inward toward the grassy courtyard with the glass rooms, the central feature of the town.  There were no children in Nadeloi.  Why did Lily’s father bring her to such a place?

 

I could see into the glass rooms.  They weren’t numbered and did not seem to be assigned to anyone.  Each had flowering plants, an oversized red-floral chair, and an end table.  I entered one of the glass rooms and closed its glass door behind me.  Beside the chair was another one of those small white breathing machines.  A label next to a mechanical slot on the top of the machine said, Ten Dollars ($10).

 

The sweet smell in the room was stronger than what I had smelled throughout the town.  It relaxed me, which was what I needed, and I somehow began to believe that everything would be all right.

 

Lily must have sat in one of these rooms; the lady in the restaurant had nearly said so.  Sitting there, I was only doing what she had done.  I withdrew from my wallet a ten-dollar bill and sat in the chair.

 

It was my only chance to understand what happened to her.  Officer Tanaka would have told me if something terrible had happened to Lily, so why should I have worried?

 

I inserted the bill into the slot.  The machine’s fan turned on and a hiss came from the nosepiece at the end of the flexible hose.  I examined the soft, plastic piece in my hand before putting it against my nose.

 

I inhaled.

 

My body fit the chair perfectly.  I realized then that I couldn’t remember which of my knees had been hurting, which somehow reassured me.

 

I began to tremble, I thought, because I had not eaten anything that day.  Sweating, I pulled away the nosepiece and leaned forward to grab the room’s door handle.  But changing my position abruptly made me dizzy.  The air in the room began to smell rancid and moldy, an odor that scraped my nose and throat.  Maybe it was because my sense of smell had improved.  My legs and arms had become weak, or perhaps I didn’t want to move.  I considered the possibility that I was stuck in the glass room.  The nosepiece continued to hiss as it lay on my lap.  I wanted it to help me relax, but what I wanted more was to find Lily.

 

Using all my remaining energy, I leaned against the glass wall.  The seagulls and the people in the surrounding buildings had become loud, although I wasn’t sure what was happening around me because my vision had become blurry, and I had become thirsty.  Whatever that gas was, it was the calming odor I had been smelling ever since I arrived at Nadeloi.

 

The town’s buildings were across the grass.  I feared I would not reach them before falling to the ground.  Asian employees dressed in black walked among the tourists.  They were powerful and terrifying, but never entered the glass rooms.  Where did these people live, and what was their life like in the tiny town at night, assuming the stores ever closed?

 

By some means, I made it across the grass.  I didn’t care if my dining room server saw me again.  I felt my room key pass in my pocket as I walked with uneven steps.

 

Breathing deeply made me feel indestructible.  Or was I defenseless?  I couldn’t discern which.  Why had I entered the hotel hallway?  I rested against the outside of our closed room door, the cold bronze number 1020 against my cheek.  Maybe it was the wrong door, but my key pass worked it open.  The room was still untouched.  The white machines beside the bed had no slots to accept money.  I would bring Lily back to our room and we would enjoy them together.

 

I thought I knew who Lily was.  But that no longer mattered because she had become a different person.  Or I had changed.  My memory of her faded because it hurt me to remember anything including her.  I sat on the bed and leaned forward onto my elbows.

 

A woman came to my memory.  I struggled to imagine her face because I had met her so long ago.  She was the shopworker I had met who warned me about Nadeloi.  What a simple life for her not to have to need anything.

 

I remember how Lily used to compliment me on how sensible I was.  But nothing was sensible now.  Had Lily married me only because I brought her to Nadeloi?  She didn’t need me anymore.  My arms and legs tingled, and my feet were numb, which made it hard for me to stand and walk.  But I had to find her and I had to know for sure.

 

The hallway walls were smooth and cool as I slid along them and pushed myself out through the hotel’s front doors.  The sun was close to the ocean, large and red.

A pair of officers wearing black approached one of the beggars and asked him to stand.  Neither the officers nor the beggars noticed me.  Perhaps they took the beggars to the bus that drove people to the ferry.

 

A group of workers standing between buildings looked out at the ocean.  Lily stood with them.  Was I lighter or heavier?  Lily wore black and her hair was shorter and black.  Did she still want me?  Why was she with them?

 

My legs lost their strength, so I leaned against the wood-planked wall of the Haiou restaurant.  My fingers felt swollen as I rubbed them together and the air in my lungs was thick.  I wanted the machine in the glass room to calm me again, and that need made me angry because I wanted it more than Lily.

 

The employees spoke their language to each other as Lily stood by.  I had done what she expected of me by taking the gas, yet she still abandoned me.  Everyone likes Lily.  I was her subservient follower and her assistant, and my thoughts were foolish.

 

Lily did not look in need of anything and did not seem to recognize me.  Surely, I must have meant more to her than a ride to Tanneuni.  I could not think of any reason I should disturb her group, but I approached her anyway because I still deserved to be with her.

 

She was not wearing her wedding ring, which made me want to return to our room.  I was just as needy as she was.  I could remember on the way to Tanneuni that morning when Lily and I needed each other.

 

When the others stopped speaking, I said to her, “Lily.”

 

On the other side of the parking lot, everything started to turn a blurry red.  A tall, fiery wall seemed to roll over the ocean road toward us, consuming everything in its path.  Is this what the workers were waiting for?  They didn’t appear afraid or anxious.

 

“Help me,” I asked her.

 

She stared at the ocean as if she couldn’t respond or didn’t want to.  I had confused her, or I had misspoken.

 

“What’s out there?” I asked her.  I put my arm around her waist and walked her toward the parking lot.

 

“Where are you taking me?” she asked, looking down and scowling, taking small steps.

 

The workers with her didn’t stop us.  I don’t know why.

 

“They’re hurting Nadeloi,” I said.  “Look.”  I faced her toward the red wall ahead of us.  “They’ve come to burn it down,” I said.

 

My mind had left me.  Lily’s eyes and cheeks and mouth frowned.  She tried to turn back to Nadeloi.  “See the beach,” I said.

 

“I don’t want to,” she said, her voice almost inaudible.

 

My eyes blurred from the heat.  Lily didn’t resist me, despite her pleadings.  Maybe she couldn’t because she had become a child.  Maybe I had become a child, too.

 

The red was not from a fire but from the sunset over the ocean.  The sun went below the water and darkened to black.

 

There was no one out there to stop us, not even Officer Tanaka.  No walls or outposts.  The drug must have been the town’s barrier, overseer, and guardian.

 

Lily’s walk became progressively stiff as our distance from Nadeloi increased.

 

“Where are we going?” she asked.  “I’m cold.”

 

We followed the yellow line down the dark ocean road.  I couldn’t keep anything straight in my head.  Just flashes and emotions.  No up or down or in or out, but only the black road with its yellow line.

 

“Why are you dressed like them?” I asked Lily.  “Where’s your ring?”

 

“They told me I could wear only the approved clothing,” she answered.  “They said it would be a great honor for me because of my father.”

 

“Your father?”  I tried to think, remembering that her father, who had taken her to the island, had passed away years ago.

 

“Are we dead?” she asked.

 

“We’re not dead,” I said.  “We got away.”

 

She bowed her head and scowled as if she didn’t understand.

 

“You never paid for your meal,” I said.

 

She glanced up, startled.  “Really?”

 

“But they have all our money now,” I said.  “I think that will cover it.”

 

“My father took me back to the ferry when I was twelve,” she said.  “He told me that someday I would understand.  My father said that Tanneuni had changed his life and that it would change mine too, someday.”

 

“What a terrible thing to say to a child,” I said.  Every part of me was heavy and cold in the dark.

 

“After my father’s first visit here, he invested our money in Nadeloi,” Lily said.  “People never stopped coming here.  He brought me to Nadeloi to show me his success.”

 

“Nadeloi is an evil place,” I said.  “How many lives have been ruined?”

 

“They named our hotel after him,” Lily said.

 

I tried to think.  I had forgotten its name, but it came back to me.  “Your father’s name was Jack Goodman, wasn’t it?”

 

“Yoi Okoto in English means, ‘good man.’”

 

My legs gave way, and I sank to the road onto my knees, which sent a sharp pain up and down my right leg.

 

Lily steadied me until we lay together on the road in the dark.  I wished I could return to the glass room.

 

“Look what has become of us,” I said.  “Or were we always like this?”

 

Lily looked back toward Nadeloi, which I could no longer see.  I felt the rough pavement against my cheek and tried to remember what existed beyond the yellow line.

 

“Why did you bring us here?” I asked.

 

“To be with him,” Lily said.

 

“Your father wasn’t here today,” I said.  “Why didn’t you warn me?  You’re not healthy, Lily.”

 

She rolled onto her back and gazed up at the stars, frowning.

 

Who was she?  She couldn’t have been a bad person.  It was her memory of that drug that drove her back to Tanneuni.  She was needy, like me.  But was she needy for me?  I wondered how we could ever be ourselves again.

 

“We’re supposed to want each other,” I said.

 

“I do want you, Kyle,” she said.  “I’m sorry for bringing us here.”

 

I could not think of anything or anywhere but the dark road beneath us.  I abandoned hope of ever moving again.

 

A faint image came to my mind.  I didn’t let it go because it was my last thought and I had to tell Lily about it before it left me.  Maybe she would remember it for me after I had forgotten it.

 

“There’s a woman,” I managed to say.  “I met her on the way here.  She’ll be happy to see you if we can get to her.  She works at a shop that sells fruits and vegetables.  She’ll help us.”

 

I heard Lily move.  She got up on one elbow.  “Are you sure?”

 

“I feel I am sure,” I said.

 

She lay on her back beside me and asked, “Will she like me?”

 

“Everyone likes you, Lily.”