This novel is also available on ebook for a short introductory period on Amazon at $2.99
Publisher Christine Mason
This novel is also available on ebook for a short introductory period on Amazon at $2.99
An ancient mystery, an astounding discovery, a medicine man with magical powers—a girl, her brother, and an intriguing island boy on a perilous trek through the jungle . . .Thirteen-year-old Sidney Jacobsen thought that when she flew to a remote Pacific island to live with her family for a year, she would be living in a beautiful native-style home in a tropical paradise. She also wanted to solve one of the greatest mysteries of all time—who built the ancient, enormous stone city of Nan Madol on the island, over a thousand years ago? Giants? Powerful creatures from another planet?
Dazzle and Drizzle
Sidney hated flying, especially when it was a bumpy ride like this one, and especially over the ocean. She took a deep breath before peering out of the airplane window. Through the storm clouds that were rapidly moving past, she could just make out the clear Pacific Ocean, as turquoise as a California swimming pool. Silvery clouds floated above the horizon. But where in the heck were they supposed to land? She couldn’t see an island anywhere in the endless stretch of glittering sea below.
Feeling even shakier, she tried to distract herself by turning back to her book about the mysterious stone city of Nan Madol, which she was eager to visit on the island. The huge city was supposedly built by a race of giants over a thousand years ago, a feat impossible for ordinary humans.
She was immersed in her book, then nearly jumped out of her seat when the pilot’s voice blasted over the loudspeaker: “We are now flying over Micronesia. You can see some of the islands below, and we’ll be landing on Pohnpei very soon.”
Nervously peeking out the window again and surveying the vast expanse of ocean, Sidney finally spotted a few microscopic brown specks beneath the clouds. “Those little dots are islands?” she gasped. The biggest speck was the size of a baby’s toenail.
She nudged her eleven-year old brother, who was dozing next to her. “Wake up, Peter.”
He grunted and squirmed in his seat, his Giants baseball cap at a funny angle on his head. Across the aisle, Dad yawned—his typical loud, groaning yawn. He shook his head of curly blond hair and smiled at Sidney. How could Dad and Peter be napping when they were all soaring through the sky in this noisy jet, with Mom left thousands of miles behind in California?
“This is it, kids, the big adventure,” Dad said, for the hundredth time.
Living on a primitive island for a year would be an adventure, all right, but at the moment all Sid wanted was to be on firm ground.
“If you’ll look directly below,” the pilot said, “you can make out the central island of Pohnpei in the Eastern Caroline Islands.”
Pete leaned over Sidney to gaze through the window. “Hey, where’s the airport?”
Feeling worse by the minute, Sid again forced herself to peer out the window. “Yeah, and how could there be room for a whole stone city down there?” Nan Madol was supposed to be so enormous, with dozens of buildings made of huge stone logs—an entire city of stone built on islets off the coast of Pohnpei.
“That’s all you care about—Nan Madol,” Peter sneered. “You’re just obsessed about the giants.”
“You don’t know anything about Nan Madol. No one knows if giants built it.”
“Yeah, it could be aliens from outer space,” he said, laughing.
It was useless talking to Pete about Nan Madol. She should never have told him about the humiliating day at school when she’d given her oral report on the ancient stone city. She cringed, remembering how the kids had laughed when she said the ruins were supposed to be inhabited by the ghosts of the giants who built Nan Madol. Then, when she announced she was going to Pohnpei in July to investigate the myths about the giants, the laughs had turned into howls. Her oral report obviously had done nothing to change her reputation as the nerdy seventh-grade weirdo.
All of a sudden the plane started bucking, and dense purple clouds sped past the window. The seatbelt sign flashed on and Sid tightened her belt. She grabbed the armrests, trying to keep her whole body from lurching around with the plane’s jerky motions. Now it was impossible to ignore the fact that they were basically trapped in a flying auditorium bumping its way through the stormy sky. Landings were bad enough, but she hadn’t expected a crash landing—that is, if the pilot could even find the miniature island where they were supposed to land.
The pilot’s urgent voice came over the loudspeaker again: “Please take your seats. We’re going to be flying through the cloud layer, and there will be some turbulence. Tropical storms can come up suddenly in the Pacific.”
Sid wished the pilot hadn’t sounded so serious—didn’t they train pilots to sound relaxed and comforting? Her stomach clenched into a hard, painful lump as she grasped the armrests more tightly. The flight attendants stumbled hastily toward the rear of the plane with worried looks on their faces.
“Why didn’t we wait for Mom to come with us?” Sid said under her breath. She tried to imagine her calm mother sitting right next to her, reassuring her that they would make a safe landing. Sid told herself she shouldn’t be such a baby—at thirteen, she wasn’t supposed to need her mother so much.
Sidney missed her already, even though her mother had said she would join them soon. Sid didn’t like the way Mom’s job as a doctor always came first. This time it was an emergency at her clinic. Dad, the anthropologist, was the one who had wanted to go to Pohnpei, so that he could study the people and their culture. He knew nothing about the Pohnpeians, since he’d mainly studied the Aborigines of Australia. He kept repeating how exciting and new this adventure was going to be.
Sidney didn’t fully believe that her mother would be catching a plane to Pohnpei within the next few days as she had promised. Mom was always late for everything and sometimes didn’t even show up at all for things like Sid’s soccer games. Mom was super-busy most of the time and took on way more than anyone could possibly handle, but she also came home every night with tales of her exciting day at work. Sidney always looked forward to hearing about the different patients and their fascinating diseases.
When she glanced now at her brother, he was sitting stiffly upright, staring toward the window. “The plane is sure shaking a lot,” he said, sounding a little nervous.
“We’re almost there,” Dad said, his jaw tensed as they were tossed around in their seats.
The pilot came on the loudspeaker again in a commanding tone: “Flight attendants, prepare for landing.”
Sidney took more gulps of air to calm herself. The plane made a wide, nauseating arc and dipped even more sharply toward the ocean. Gray clouds enveloped the plane and raindrops splashed against the window. A row of trees suddenly appeared, lining a runway that looked more like a dirt road.
A very short dirt road.
She closed her eyes, bracing to land. Instead, a few moments later the plane veered up into the air and the pilot said, “Sorry, but we needed that pass to scare the pigs and chickens off the runway. We’re going to try again in a few minutes.”
“Try again?” Sidney choked. “Pigs and chickens?” She glared at Dad, who faked a smile. Her heart was beating rapidly, like Peter hammering away at his snare drums.
“I’m going to throw up,” her brother announced, covering his mouth with his hand.
Sidney leaned away from him. “Do not even think about it,” she said, spacing out her words for emphasis. She never knew if Peter was kidding, and all she needed was for him to vomit all over her. She quickly located a barf bag and shoved it at him.
“Ha, ha.” He grinned widely at her, but he looked a bit pale.
What was the matter with him? How could he joke at a time like this? The jet climbed for several agonizing minutes and then leveled off. Obviously it was insane to try to land on that tiny island in a rainstorm. Why didn’t the pilot just turn around and search for a nice, big island with a regular airport? Like Hawaii, for instance. But that was too many hours away.
After the plane circled around, it began its descent and soon was jerking its way crazily through the clouds. Sidney squeezed her eyes shut for the next few moments, taking quick gasps of breath until she felt the hard jolt of the plane bumping on the ground. She opened her eyes as it bounced along the runway. Finally it started to brake with a long screech, its tires grinding against the ground. The plane barely slowed down, continuing to hurtle toward the edge of the water where the runway ended. At the very last minute the plane made a sharp U-turn, its wings tipping dangerously, then rolled past towering palm trees that looked like soldiers standing at attention along the runway.
The plane came to a jolting halt in the middle of the runway, but Sid couldn’t see anything that looked like airport buildings, only an open-air, thatched-roof pavilion surrounded by trees. Sid let out a long breath, grateful that they hadn’t plunged into the sea.
Pretty soon they’d be settling into their lovely grass hut, taking language classes, then starting at the island school—where Sid didn’t know anyone, come to think of it. No matter how you looked at it, things were definitely going to be different from her life in Santa Marisa.
Unbelievably, drastically different.
2. The Curse of the Nanmarki
The moment the pilot turned off the seatbelt sign, Pete grabbed his backpack and headed for the exit, pushing past all of the other passengers. By the time Sidney stepped out of the plane and called out to him, he was already halfway across the airfield, bounding toward the thatched-roof structure. So like Peter. He didn’t even turn around.
As she climbed down the steps with Dad behind her, Sid still felt shaky from the rough landing. A light rain fell on her face and bare arms, and she caught several fragrances blending into a super-intense tropical aroma. Palm trees waved in the wind beyond the pavilion, and steel-gray clouds hung overhead. There was something exotic and mysterious in the warm, muggy atmosphere that somehow made her feel calmer. She was glad she’d worn a sleeveless dress for her arrival on the island.
It dawned on her that she was about to meet a whole new group of people who knew nothing about her. The prospect of meeting some of them now, after their long, scary flight, made her a bit nervous. But then it might be a good thing that these strangers didn’t yet see her as a nerdy, awkward thirteen-year-old girl. At school she’d been known as the History Freak with Frizzy Hair. And to make it worse, after her oral report on Nan Madol, the kids had started calling her Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, and Ms. Giant Hunter. For all the Pohnpeians knew, she could be a teen rock star checking out the island as a place to film her next MTV clip.
The important thing was to act confident, she decided, even though she didn’t exactly feel that way.
At least she had her own secret project to work on while she was on Pohnpei. As she walked toward the pavilion, she thought about her plan—she was going to find out how the huge stone structures of Nan Madol were actually built. She planned to spend a lot of time exploring the ruins, so she could write a book about it. It might even make her famous. Mainly, though she was just interested in the ruins and wanted to see them for herself. Peter was right, she was obsessed about Nan Madol. Most people would probably tell her it was insane to think that she could solve one of the great mysteries of all time. But if she was successful, she’d no longer be the laughing stock when she went back to junior high. Hopefully.
Islanders with black hair and golden-brown skin mingled under the pavilion. Many of them wore white leis over their colorful clothes. They were smiling and patiently waiting for arriving passengers, instead of rushing around like people usually did in airports.
“Where can I get a Coke?” Peter asked as soon as Sidney and Dad caught up with him under the pavilion. Peter’s wavy brown hair was plastered against his sweaty forehead.
“Next, you’ll be wanting an electronics store that sells all the new games,” Dad said, chuckling.
“There’s got to be a Coke machine somewhere,” Peter whined.
“Don’t count on it,” Sidney said. “I could use some water, though.”
“I’m sure we can find something to drink in a little while,” Dad said.
For a second Sidney actually felt sorry for her brother. He clearly hadn’t been paying attention when Dad had explained that they’d be living on a primitive island with no supermarkets or malls, which probably meant no Coke machines. Dad kept saying they would have to make do with the bare necessities so that they could live like the Pohnpeians.
A short, handsome Micronesian man wearing a red-and-purple flowered shirt strolled up to them.
“Ka-sa-leh-li-a,” he said, bowing his head and dragging out the syllables of the greeting for several seconds. “I am Lodup Benjamin, from the International Corps Office. You must be the Jacobsens.”
Dad bowed his head, too, and shook Lodup’s hand. “Right, I’m Tom. And these are my children, Sidney and Peter.”
Lodup stepped forward, smiling, and placed a crown of small cowry shells on each of their heads. A fourth crown dangled from his hand. “These are to welcome you to our island,” he said, and then glanced around uncertainly.
Sidney had never been crowned before—it made her feel like royalty. Maybe this was a good sign. As they were thanking Lodup for the crowns, a man with pale-blue eyes and milky-white skin ambled up to them. He searched around just as Lodup had, looking puzzled.
“This is Cole Gilbert,” Lodup said. “He is our director. He has found a house for you in the outer village.”
They all shook hands with Cole.
“And Dr. Jacobsen?” Cole said, staring at Dad. “She must be looking for your luggage?”
Dad cleared his throat. “Didn’t you get her letter?”
Lodup and Cole shook their heads.
“Evelyn sent a letter a week ago. We thought you would have received it by now.”
Lodup’s face looked serious. “The last cargo plane broke down in Honolulu. So no letters.”
“I’m sorry,” Dad said, “but Evelyn’s been delayed. There was an emergency at her clinic. She’ll be here soon, but we thought we should fly on ahead and get settled in.”
“What sort of emergency?” Cole sounded skeptical.
“The clinic director had a stroke, and my wife is the only doctor who could take over.” Dad threw out his hands in a display of helplessness. “It was unavoidable.”
“The volunteer doctor we have now is leaving in a few days,” Cole said, “and there are severe cases of tuberculosis and hepatitis at the hospital. The island can’t afford a salaried doctor. This is completely unexpected . . .” He just stood there, frowning more deeply now with his hands on his hips, as if he thought Dad could somehow pull Mom out of a hat.
“I’ll definitely contact her and let her know,” Dad said.
Cole gave an exasperated sigh, his frown accentuated by a bushy brown mustache that curved around his mouth. “I guess we’ll just have to deal with that later. I expected your wife to be here for the training, Tom.”
“She’ll be here in a few days,” Sidney said, hoping it was true.
Cole raised his eyebrows and turned his gaze toward her and Peter, as if they’d become a sticky problem he didn’t quite know how to resolve.
During the painful silence that followed, Sidney focused on the beads of sweat perched on Cole’s forehead and chin. Then, without a word, he turned abruptly and walked toward the baggage area. The Jacobsens found their suitcases and trunk, then the three of them walked through the rain, following Cole and Lodup to an old van parked in the mud. After they’d loaded their luggage into the back, Dad squeezed in next to Pete and Sid in the middle seat. Lodup got in on the driver side, and Cole climbed in on the passenger side. Sidney felt much too warm with Pete and Dad pressed against her in the hot, humid air.
Once Lodup had started up the engine, Pete whispered to Sid, “They don’t want us here, they just want Mom.”
Peter had an annoying habit of stating the obvious. Sidney gazed out the open window as they bumped along the dirt road past fields of tall grass and hundreds of palm trees. It was so hot that even the rain blowing through the window seemed to melt into her skin. Her stomach was growling after hours on the plane without much food. She was a big girl—“athletic,” her mother said—and was used to eating regular amounts of food at regular times. Not the tiny portions they served you on those little plastic trays on the plane.
Dad’s brow was furrowed, his lips pressed together; he wasn’t his usual, overly enthusiastic self at all. Maybe he wasn’t so thrilled about the kind of “welcome” they’d received. The Corps had only allowed him to come along as a “non-matrix spouse”—someone who wasn’t actually needed as a volunteer and just came along to keep the more important volunteer company.
After ten minutes or so of bumping along in the van, the road widened into a muddy street lined with tin-roof shacks.
“This is the main street of Palikir,” Lodup told them proudly. “You can get supplies here, and there are several restaurants, too.”
“Restaurants?” Sidney mumbled, gazing up and down the street. “Where?” She canvassed the shacks on either side of the one-block strip. It looked like a ghost town in a Western movie. There was nothing in sight that could possibly be a restaurant. Several of the huts had open fronts displaying shelves stacked with cans and packages. Pohnpeian women stood behind the counters. At least that meant there was food available, Sidney thought.
The van turned the corner, and Lodup suddenly braked to avoid hitting an old Pohnpeian man wearing a huge headdress of shells and feathers. The tall, wrinkly man wore a white shirt and black trousers and was leaning on a large stick in the middle of the road. Lodup bowed his head as he began driving cautiously around him. Sidney saw that the stick was actually a sturdy wooden spear, as tall as the man.
As they passed him, the old man suddenly raised his spear at them with an angry frown and shouted some kind of chant. After they passed him, Sidney turned around and saw that he was gazing after them. He pointed his spear directly at them as he continued to chant loudly and furiously. Maybe he was just demented, Sid thought, but her heart was pounding fast.
Dad stared at the man until he was out of sight. “Who was that?” he asked.
“The Nanmarki,” Lodup said in a respectful tone. “He is the King of the Nan Madol District.”
“King?” Peter said loudly.
“Yes,” Sidney whispered, jabbing him with her elbow, wishing he’d keep his ignorance to himself. “They have actual kings here. Remember, I told you about that.” She’d read about it in her book about Pohnpei. But this was the real thing, a live king. She couldn’t imagine why the king was behaving so strangely, though.
“We hardly ever see the Nanmarki here in Palikir,” Lodup said.
“Does he live near the stone ruins?” Sidney asked.
“Yes, he lives next to Nan Madol.” Lodup sounded surprised that she knew anything about the sacred place.
“Why was the king acting so mad?” she asked. She was anxious to find out more so she could take notes in her journal for her secret project. And she wished now that she’d had time to whip out her camera and take a picture of the Nanmarki.
“He does not like foreigners because they often do not respect our customs,” Lodup said.
“The Nanmarki may be in town because of Andy Trenton,” Cole said to Lodup in a low voice. “Trenton shouldn’t have gone off on his own like that without telling me where he was going. I’ll just bet he went to Nan Madol and got the Nanmarki upset.”
Interesting, Sidney thought. This Trenton guy was obviously an explorer like herself, and possibly someone who was also fascinated with Nan Madol.
Cole turned around and looked at the three of them. “No one is allowed to go to Nan Madol without a guide from the Nanmarki’s village,” he said sternly. “The ruins are considered sacred.”
Dad nodded his head. Sidney hoped it wouldn’t be too hard to arrange a guide to take them there.
No one spoke as they bumped along on the gutted road for a few minutes. Sidney couldn’t get the image of the angry Nanmarki out of her mind. She’d read that the king was also some kind of shaman or witch doctor with magical powers. It was kind of creepy, but also thrilling, the way the crazy old man had pointed his spear at them. Maybe he’d put a hex on them.
Lodup stopped the van in front of a shack built of sagging boards, which turned out to be the International Corps Office. For one terrible moment, Sidney had thought it was their new house. She almost laughed with relief when Cole jumped out and jogged toward the front door, calling out, “Be here at ten tomorrow to start language training.”
They drove through the outskirts of Palikir past grass huts with children playing outside and pigs and dogs scampering around. The thatched-roof huts stood on wooden stilts, with dirt clearings surrounding them. Dad had said they’d probably be staying in a house like that, although of course theirs would be quite a bit larger.
After they’d splashed along the muddy road for a few minutes, Lodup stopped next to a tin shack that looked like an old storage shed. Weathered, brown paint was peeling off the surface of the walls.
“Why are we stopping here?” Sidney asked.
Lodup jumped out and began loading their baggage onto the road.
“Oh, no,” Peter groaned, looking at Dad accusingly.
“Is this some kind of joke?” Sidney asked, barely able to choke out the words.
Dad gazed at the shack, too. He seemed to be as stupefied as they were. They all climbed out of the van and stood in the road gawking. Sidney couldn’t believe it. They were supposed to stay here?
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Christine's novels include Boundaries: A Love Story, set in Cape Cod, northern Maine, and the West Coast; Weighing the Truth, a character-driven legal thriller; and a children's novel, The Mystery of the Ancient Stone City, an adventure story set in Micronesia. All of her books are available in ebook and print editions.