Chapter 1: Stevie 1 STEVIE
Stepping off the plane in September, Africa explodes onto us like shouting, like light. After seventeen hours of travel and three stops in places I’ve barely heard of, I feel like I’ve entirely switched planets. But we’re not at our final destination yet. Tanzania is still a long bus and train ride away.
It was the cheapest route we could find to go from Maine to Kenya. Each time we landed, all the overhead compartments flew open and everyone’s bags fell out. And the weather got hotter and hotter at each stopover. In Abu Dhabi, we were herded out of the plane and given mint tea and dates to eat by cafeteria staff, although for us it was three in the morning. And in Aden, Yemen, I was slapped on the knees in the passport lineup by an old lady in a burka because I was wearing shorts.
“That was an oversight,” Jacob said. “Are you okay, Stevie? All this planning we’ve done, and we forgot to research the dress code for Middle Eastern transit lounges.”
“It’s fine,” I replied, although my legs felt shaky. I couldn’t believe I’d just offended the woman so badly.
“We’ll get the hang of it,” Jacob said. “It’s all part of the adventure.”
Getting slapped by old ladies isn’t my kind of adventure, but I didn’t say anything as we joined hands and walked across the hot runway asphalt to the plane that would take us to Nairobi.
Jacob’s taken a job as a diver off the coast of Tanzania. He’d been offered the post a year ago but had turned it down because back then we were safely settled into our routine in craggy, stormy Anchorite Bay. That was before everything changed and the ground got ripped out from under us.
Six weeks ago, I was running my grandmother’s stony old pub, Jacob and I were living in the one-bedroom apartment above it, and Jacob was working with his dad as a commercial diver. They own a hull cleaning company together: Jones Boys’ Boats. They scrub barnacles, mostly, and on an exciting day, mollusks. It wasn’t a glamorous life, but it was one we knew inside and out.
Then, my grandmother Nattie died, and everything went with her. She’d always promised me her share of the pub, as well as the apartment, but she spoke of it so often and so matter-of-factly that she never did write it down. When she died intestate, as the lawyer kept calling it, it meant that on top of the tailspin of loss, suddenly I had no job and no apartment. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve processed it all. I’ve been trying, but the more things I dig through, the more memories I seem to unlock. Jacob said a change of scene would be good for us, so rather than fight it out with Nattie’s business partners in a small-town scrum, or pick like buzzards through the belongings she’d left behind, he got back in touch with the Tanzanian dive company. The job is for three months. We need a break, Stevie. Think sunshine, warm water, and coconuts. We’ll go and shake off all the darkness, exhale for a minute, come back new. It sounded so great when he said it.
Once we’re through Kenyan immigration and the border guard has licked a stamp and stuck it to a page in our passports, Jacob turns to me.
“Let’s get a cab,” he says, tucking all our documentation into a tightly zipped side pocket of his backpack. “We’ll head straight to the hostel. Take a shower. Settle in.”
“Okay,” I say, looking around at the hubbub of the Arrivals hall.
Already it’s clear that at twenty-four, we’re older than the average backpacker, and yet everyone else is moving through the airport as if they have a map of the layout in their heads. Jacob and I haven’t traveled beyond the States—not because we didn’t want to explore, just that we never had the money—and yet here we are in Africa. It’s not a dipping-your-toe-in kind of decision. It’s not like we tried a road trip to Canada first. No, we went straight to level ten on the traveling scale and in moments of total privacy, I’m aware of a shrill hum of panic in my head.
But Jacob and I deserve an interlude, an opportunity to calm down. I mean, if we grow apart, what else do I have? And change is like a holiday, Nattie used to say, though she was always hell-bent on keeping me still, slowing me down, settling me. Anchorite Bay and Jacob Jones. What more do you need, child? Why go haring off elsewhere? She spent a lifetime trying to erase the genetic blueprint of my mother in me—a woman who’d excelled at being spontaneous—although that’s not what Nattie had called it. So if I had a roil in my blood as a teenager, an early rumble in the deepest parts of me, that life was bigger than the town in which I lived, I’ve buried it. I’ve buried a lot of things.
But we’re here, and we’re together, and Jacob’s pumped. In the lineup for cabs outside the airport he pushes a dark strand of hair away from his brow. He has a beautiful face, oak-brown eyes, with just enough tragedy behind them. In high school, he’d have gotten a million dates if he’d gone to a few more parties.
“If anyone offers,” he whispers, breath warm against my ear, “let’s not share a ride into the city. I saw a movie about that once and they track where you go and then come back later to get you.”
“Who does?” I ask.
“I don’t know.” He shrugs. “Bad guys.”
I look around at the throng of other Westerners waiting alongside us. Beaded necklaces. Velcro-strapped sandals. Happy tattoos. “Jacob, there aren’t any bad guys here. You watch too many scary movies.”
Even so, I make sure the cab door is shut before I tell the driver the name of our hostel.
We take off into the city, braking sharply for lights, cutting corners inches away from neighboring vehicles. The cab driver has CDs hanging from the roof of his car as decoration, and as he changes lanes, they swing and bang against the side of his head. On his radio is sunny guitar music, and the city is all car horns, women carrying wood on their heads down the sides of the road, and men in nylon pants selling corn and boiled eggs.
When we get to the hostel, we exit the car and the cab driver presses the tinny buzzer at the entrance for us. Jacob pays him from a security pouch he has strapped around his middle, counting out bills against his thigh before handing them over. Beside us, there’s a click of a lock releasing, and we push open the metal-barred door and step into a damp stairwell.
“Okay, then,” Jacob says, shouldering his pack. He googled the hostel, but neither of us really knows what to expect. We’d have booked a hotel, but until Jacob’s job starts in four days’ time, we’re on a tight budget.
“Here we are,” I say, my smile a little watery as my mind flashes Nattie’s face, the reliable fury of the Anchorite Bay sea, the smell of coffee in our kitchen above the pub. We’ve literally been jettisoned.
But I need to be brave, so I take a breath and we climb the stairs, passing a couple of sunburned boys in Ralph Lauren shirts who for some reason step to the side for me, nudging each other, pushing out their chests. Jacob gives them a knowing nod.
“Is it me,” he says once we’re beyond them, “or do all the teenagers look rich?”
I murmur agreement because he’s right: everyone in the main area of the hostel seems fresh out of Western private schools. They wear the collars of their polo shirts up, woven bracelets on their wrists, Keds. They also sound alarmingly confident about every aspect of being in a developing country. Behind the reception desk, a boy who looks twelve is cataloging his African expertise.
“Oh, God, yeah, in Zim,” he says in an Australian accent, tossing an unfamiliar fruit from hand to hand, “you’ll be lucky if the buses even show up. There’s no schedule. D-I-A, boys, D-I-A. You could spend your whole gap year waiting.” All the other twelve-year-olds laugh. “Hel-lo,” he says, suddenly noticing me. “You’re very blond and blue-eyed. I’m Elijah. What’s your name?”
“What’s D-I-A?” Jacob cuts in, holding out his hand for a room key.
“D-I-A? Dis Is Africa! Haven’t you heard that saying yet? Wow, you really are newbies.”
“We just got here,” I say, glancing at Jacob, whose lips look dry. “One thing at a time. Do you need us to sign in?”
“Right here.” Elijah points at a ledger in front of him. “Hold on a sec, I’ll fetch you a pen.” He sets down the strange oval fruit and begins to search in various desk drawers. “And I’ll need to give you both security bracelets to prove you’re staying here. There’s been a recent… upswing in safety checks.”
“Why?” I ask.
To my right, a guy passes me a Sharpie. He holds on to it for half a second longer than he needs to, it feels like, so that I almost have to tug it from his grip, but I take it, muttering a vague thank-you, signing the guest book. Nattie would be shaking her head. Six weeks I’ve been gone and you’re standing where?! Maybe we should just load up our credit card and check into a brand-name hotel. But when I look over at Jacob, he’s taking the key from the desk.
We bump our way back through the main area, past abandoned stacks of Uno cards and a globe. In the corner by the bookshelf, a girl is reading a well-thumbed copy of The Beach. I’ve read that book—my grandmother passed her adoration of British writers on to me—and I still love the last sentence. I want to tell the girl so, but worry I’ll ruin the ending. As we walk by, she stares hard at the page and doesn’t look up.
Our room, when we find it, is a square box with four beds in it, all tucked in and unused. There are bars on the outside of the window, but I push one of the panes open as far as it will go. Hot air seeps in, sour and dusty.
“What do you think that reception guy meant about added security?” I ask Jacob.
“Probably nothing.” He sets down his pack against the wall, nudging it with his knee until it promises to stay upright. “I don’t think that guy knows a lot about a lot.”
“But do you think something bad happened in this hostel?”
“No, or I’d have read about it online.” He moves behind me at the window, wrapping his arms around me. “I wouldn’t worry about it. And besides, we’re only staying two nights before we head south.”
“Right,” I say. “What’s the worst that could happen?” Do not think about death, Stevie. Do not think about it.
Together, we crane forward to look out onto the street. Below us is a medley of busy people, some pulling wooden carts, others flapping leaflets at passing backpackers. Dogs run in the street.
“It’s so different,” I say, keeping my voice level. “It’s going to be good for us.”
“Wait ’til we get to Rafiki Island. It’ll be heaven there.”
The job Jacob has set up is through GoEco, a dive operation for ecotourists who want to help protect the reef from dynamite fishing. It’s on an island ten miles south of Zanzibar. His old friend, Mike Duran, is running the camp. They trained together when they took their commercial diving course. Duran is older, midthirties, and ex-military, apparently. Jacob says he’s no-nonsense, but I’ve never met the guy. The way Jacob describes him, he sounds like he’s more function than feelings, which is fine with me. I don’t want any more people asking if I’m doing okay. It sets me off more than anything else. Several times lately I’ve cried in the Anchorite Bay grocery store because someone in the lineup has smiled tragically at me. That was another reason Rafiki Island sounded good: no one would know my history there. The dive camp looked like a total paradise in the photos Duran had sent, too: off the beaten track with miles of empty white sand and a wooden boat bobbing alone in a shiny bay. Don’t think, just keep moving, I told myself again and again the past month. This island will be gentle. In Swahili, Rafiki means “friend.”
“GoEco is a well-known outfit,” Jacob told me as we sat in bed together in his parents’ spare room. “The camp will be a ready-made community. It’s paid work. And I can’t do this anymore.”
Had he meant his parents’ house, the daily barnacle scrubbing, or the people and things we’d lost? It was a miserable sum of parts, and I was barely coping myself—lapsing into silences that stretched into days, crying at night in the bathtub. Even Jacob couldn’t reach me. So go to Africa? Sure. Anything.
From somewhere nearby comes a wailing, Islamic cry over a crackly loudspeaker. I lean back against Jacob’s chest. He’s so tall and lean, built for running, swimming, climbing—nothing that ever won him a team.
“That’s a call to prayer,” he says, kissing me on top of the head. “We must be near a mosque.”
“Everything’s brand new,” I say, trying to hide any doubts.
“Good.” He kisses me again and then moves away toward one of the beds, sitting down on the thin mattress to the creak of old springs. “We’ve made a good move, Stevie. We’re grand-slamming.” He bounces a few times on the rickety bed, his eyebrows comical. “But just so you know, a ton of hostels have bed bugs. I read it on Tripadvisor. So, we should roll out our sleeping bags just in case.”
Don’t think, Stevie, just keep moving. It’s all part of the adventure.
It’s close to 3 a.m. when I wake up. I drank so much water on the plane to avoid dehydration that my bladder is like a space hopper and I can no longer lie on it. Jacob is sleeping restlessly in his bed: all night I’ve heard him tossing and turning on the rusty springs. I get up and open the door to our room a little, wondering if anyone else is still up. But the whole main area of the hostel is silent. The only light is an amber glow from a bug zapper that seems to be switched on in the communal kitchen.
The bathroom is at the end of a cracked-cement corridor and I tiptoe that way, my eyes just able to make out the shapes of the sagging armchairs as I pass by them. Should I be wearing shoes? I steady myself with a hand on the wall as I go, but then recoil as something skitters under my fingers.
The bathroom has a light switch at the entrance, and I swipe at it with relief. There’s a flash of movement near the enamel of the sinks, which I think might be cockroaches, but I try not to dwell on it, and instead pick my way across the cold tiles to one of the two stalls on the far side of the room. Someone’s left a wet bath towel on the floor.
I choose the stall to the left because it’s the only one with a toilet seat—a fact that, once I’ve sat down, makes me wonder if it would have been smarter just to hover. Above my head are thick cobwebs in funnels. I try not to imagine spiders dropping.
I’m done and just standing up when I hear the footsteps outside in the corridor. They’re coming closer, slowing now as they hit the clip of the bathroom tiling. Whoever it is takes two or three more steps and then stops. I can see the slivered crescent of a dark shoe under the gap in my stall door.
“Hello?” I say, my finger reaching out for the lock in front of me, holding it there in place.
But there’s silence on the other side of the door. A steady, deliberate silence.
It’s the sound of someone trying not to make a sound.
I stand with my ears fizzing, my eyes fixating on the shoe and then the edge of the stall above me, half expecting someone to come barreling over the top.
Then I hear movement again, a few scuffed steps, and all the lights in the bathroom turn off.
I’m plunged into darkness, the only sound now the intermittent drip of the tap and the awful certainty that whoever’s in the room is making their way back toward me. Did the wood of the stall door just press inward? Is the lock moving? I stand, one hand clamped over my mouth, the other on the lock, while only inches away from my head, there’s a low catch of sound, soft and velvety. Somebody inside the bathroom is laughing.