The water soothed me. Chest deep, it held me upright. It had been eleven days since I’d run for my life. After meeting me at the Kailua airport, my friend gave me the grand tour of her condo, tossed me the keys, and told me to call if I needed anything. Everyone in her family was sick with the Omega II variant, and she had permission to travel to California to care for them. Now that hospitals were barely functioning, caregiver travel variances were easy to come by. I had a legal excuse for traveling. For months my husband had been slowly poisoning me. My attorney had finagled a sanctuary pass. The husband was in prison, but his cronies were gunning for me.
Every morning I walked in the water. It was shallow a mile out, and since the big shift, waves existed only in nostalgic conversations—like salmon and Venus flytraps. People spoke poetically of these things and others—stadium events, dressing nice for work, the perfect amount of rain. The Earth needed a miracle, and I did too. Walking in the ocean every morning felt like one. I couldn’t walk on the water, but walking in it was just as good.
I didn’t know what to think when I looked up and saw the turreted roof of a hotel that hadn’t been there before. It was dusk, the neon sign flickering on. Hot, it said, the E and the L burned out, barely visible. In the waning light, the expanse of water between me and the beach was widening. As I swam for shore, two orcas passed beneath me and turned back out to sea as I stepped out of the water near a cluster of lounge chairs. Beside me, a bedraggled bear cub pulled itself out of the water. It occurred to me that I might be hallucinating. The poison had affected my mind, and although it had been weeks since I’d had a confirmed hallucination, it was the only explanation I could make sense of. “Is that a bear?” I asked a couple who were brushing the sand from their legs.
“The place is crawling with them,” said the woman.
“They’re pygmy bears,” said the man.
“Pygmy or not, whoever thought of introducing bears to New Zealand was an idiot,” the woman said.
“No doubt,” I said. New Zealand? My ears were buzzing, and the back of my head ached. The couple fastened their sandals and headed toward the hotel. I took a seat as a small group of bears climbed on a play structure probably meant for the children of hotel guests. Walkie-talkies squawked behind me, and a bevy of golf carts sped toward the playground. Each cart held a pair of polo-shirted workers. Bear Petrol, the back of the shirts inexplicably read in blocky white letters. The petrol/patrol scrambled off the carts, carrying large super-soakers as they ran at the bears, squirting them and yelling.
It’s a wonder I heard the buzzing. A few chairs away, a jacket lay with a phone vibrating in its pocket. Interview with hotel management, the screen flashed. The jacket was a navy blue blazer, 100% cashmere. I slipped one arm into a sleeve, then the other. It fit me perfectly, the buttons fastening with the proper amount of tension, the shoulder seams tracing the curve of my shoulders with precision. Draped on another chair was a green and yellow paisley sarong. In this odd ensemble, I aimed myself at the lobby doors.
“I have an interview at the management office,” I told the desk clerk. Mentally, I scrolled through my resume, ready to fake anything.
“Go through the archway and have a seat,” she said.
My backside had barely grazed the cushion of a buttery chair when a young man with his hair in a topknot poked his head through the door. “Ben Thomas?” he asked.
“Bennie,” I said, spelling it out for emphasis. My real name was Melissa, but I became Bennie without missing a beat.
“Bennie. Of course,” he said, as if he was the one who was mistaken. As he held the door for me, I noted that he was also wearing a blazer and a sarong. I coveted his gladiator sandals.
“Welcome,” said the woman behind the desk, gesturing toward the chair opposite her. She was silver-haired and serious. “Do you have any memory of your boat ride?”
“Boat ride?” I asked.
“Good,” she said. “We like it when the drugs do their job.”
The last remnants of red lacerated the sky. I pictured my assumptions dropping into the ocean and took a slow, deep breath. “Are the bears real?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “A nuisance as a result of a misguided experiment, but they’re real. They scavenged a lot of dead marine mammals, but now what?” Now what, indeed, I thought.
“Your escorts were animatronics,” she said. “But we do have a resident pod of real ones we hope will eat the bears that we chase into the water.”
“Why was I rescued?” I asked. I wanted to go on to say that so many people needed help, but a wave of emotion washed the words down my throat.
“Hawaii is not a safe place for women right now. And certainly not for you.”
She poured water from a carafe into a gleaming glass and then pushed it and a small dish mounded with colored pills toward me. “Take a purple one,” she said. “You’ll start work tomorrow night. It’s too hot to concentrate during the day so that’s when we sleep.” I pinched up one of the purple ovals and swallowed it.
“Can you tell me what’s going on in Hawaii?”
“After we extradite your husband, I’ll let you interrogate him,” she said.
“I had no idea who my husband was,” I said.
“That’s how it always is,” she said.