They disembarked from the island after the sun had set. Neela tried to study the stars while clinging to Cheveyo’s back, but the speed in which they traveled made it quite difficult. She had hoped to see something beyond what she could remember of the night sky, but she found it unchanged. As they got closer to the shore, Cheveyo dropped his speed considerably and transitioned into human form. He hated to take away the suction that gave Neela sight but knew that her world wasn’t ready to accept his true form.
“Please forgive me.”
“Please don’t feel sorry for me. I really am okay. I get frustrated sometimes, but if I never saw another thing ever again, I’d still be okay.”
“It is difficult for me to imagine life without sight, but I do understand that you have mastered it.”
“I guess so.”
She kissed him good night and walked away from him, toward her cottage.
“Will I get to be with you tomorrow?” he called out.
When she was farther away from him, the moonlight showered over her pearlescent skin. As he admired her luster, he realized that his suction had left visible welts all over her leg, much worse than those he had left on her arm.
“Neela, wait!” he shouted frantically.
She smiled before she turned around, certain that his plea meant that he wasn’t satisfied with just one kiss good night. She stood still and enthusiastically awaited his touch. Suddenly, she felt his hands inspecting her leg—not exactly the touch she’d hoped for or anticipated.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“You will have scars.”
“It’s okay, I don’t mind.”
“It is most definitely not okay. I did not want to hurt you.”
“It is not fine. If you go home this way, your grandfather will never let me be with you again.”
“He can’t tell me who to be with.”
“Maybe not, but he can make things difficult for us.”
“What should we do?”
“I am not sure.”
“Maybe there’s a medicine or something that would help it to heal.”
“I do not know of any effective human remedy.”
“There has to be something.”
“There is a medicine we use to heal our wounds that are too severe to heal themselves, but I am not certain it would work on a human.”
“What is it?”
“It is a sort of healing balm.”
“It might be worth a try.”
“We do not use it very often, because we heal quickly, so it may take a few days to find everything I need to make it.”
“I’ll do my best to hide my leg until you get back.”
“Will you forgive me for staying farther away than I would like?”
“Only if you come back as soon as possible.”
He wrapped his arms around her and held her tightly. She felt his desperation to fix the situation in his grasp. She couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if they couldn’t heal her wounds and feared that it might force Cheveyo to disappear for good. She tried to mask her worry, for his sake; he was already distraught enough for both of them.
“How will I know when you’re back?” Neela asked.
“I will come to your bedroom window after the sun sets on the day of my return.”
He kissed her goodbye for now and watched her walk back to the cottage. When she was safely inside, he transitioned quickly and dove deep into the sea to summon the Boogolli.
When he reached the seafloor, he immediately lit up from within. Light radiated from the top of his head to the tip of each appendage, creating a beacon that called out to the Boogolli. They materialized rapidly and skipped all ceremony.
“You know where to find what you seek,” the Boogolli explained.
“I know where to find everything and how to make it, but will it work on a human?” Cheveyo snapped back.
“It will heal Neela.”
“Thank you,” he replied, with appreciation and mild disbelief that he had, for once, received a straight answer.
With the Boogolli’s assurance of success, Cheveyo swam away with great speed and renewed confidence. He was on a mission to find the rare ingredients that would heal his love and continue to keep his true form hidden from the surface world.
* * *
Neela was on a mission of her own. She was eager to find any pair of pants that existed within her vast sea of dresses. She had such a disdain for pants that had grown over the years and ensured her search would yield very few, if any, results. Eventually, she realized that she would have to resort to the use of pajama pants. She emptied her pajama drawer onto the floor and then stacked the few pairs that she could find near her bed. That way they would be readily available each morning that she was forced to endure them. She put her first pair on and hopped into bed.
She had only been away from Cheveyo for one hour but could already feel an emptiness without him. She was thankful that she was aware of the reason for his departure this time, but still worried. When she knew that he was resting in the ocean just off the shore, the separation was much more bearable. Thinking of him swimming alone in open waters for an undetermined amount of time left her uneasy. Although she knew him to be capable, she stayed up most of the night, concerned for his safety… And, truth be told, she was also really agitated by the pants.
The night was rough, but the next morning was a success. She walked on the beach, saying hello to at least one recognizable voice that passed by, and ate breakfast with her grandfather without any questions or concerns surrounding her pants. No one seemed to notice the significant change in wardrobe. It gave Neela confidence that she might be able to skirt by at work as well. She typically wore loose dresses under her fairytale costumes that exposed her legs from knee to toe or draped down to the floor. She thought that having pants poke out from the bottom of any of her costumes would be quite noticeable. Despite the confidence, she took extra measures. She planned to arrive right when her shift started and leave promptly when it ended to minimize being seen by others.
After only one day of missing each other at the front desk, Delila became suspicious of Neela’s change in routine. She decided to wait for Neela at the childcare center the next morning to investigate. Sure enough, there she was, sneaking in through a side door just minutes before she was scheduled to clock in.
“Stone-cold busted!” Delila fired off.
“Aaahhh, you scared me.”
“Uh-huh, and why is that?”
“I have to clock in, I’ll have to talk to you later.”
“Girl, you got a few minutes, stop playin’.”
“You’re right, what’s up?”
“First, I’m pretty sure you dodged me yesterday. Then you say I’m right, without any argument. And now you say ‘what’s up’?… Oh no. No, no. What’s up with you, my friend?”
“Then why are you talking like that and dressed like I don’t even know what?”
“It was a little chilly this morning. You didn’t feel that?”
“No, and neither did anyone else that woke up on a tropical island in the middle of summer.”
“I don’t know, I guess I just thought I would try something other than my dresses.”
“Is this because I made fun of them so much?”
“Well, kind of,” Neela falsely admitted. She hated to make her friend feel bad about her comments, which she knew were all in good fun, but she needed a believable excuse that wouldn’t lead to an exposure of the truth.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t’ve said anything. Wear whatever you want.”
“You don’t think they make me look like a little girl anymore?”
“Sometimes, depending on the dress, but any of your dresses is better than this current look.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“I shouldn’t’ve said anything.”
“Come on, what is it?”
“I love you, but you got on plaid pants with a floral top. Everything is wrong with it.”
“I can’t see that, obviously.”
“I know, but everyone else can. Let me help you pick out some outfits.”
“No, I’m good.”
“No, you’re really not I’ve got to get to the front desk, but I’ll come over after work and help you.”
Delila refused to accept no for an answer and left quickly to avoid any further debate on the matter. Neela was wrecked with anxiety. She knew it was just a matter of time before she would have to explain the appearance of her leg to Delila.
She spent all day dreading the end of her shift. She tried to come up with justifications for not allowing Delila to come home with her. She couldn’t let her one step inside that house, or she would be there all night and surely notice something.
She was stunned that she spent every day of her life telling stories but couldn’t come up with one plausible tale when it would benefit her the most. Before she was ready, the work day was over. She clocked out and walked to the front desk reluctantly.
“I thought you were going to make a run for it,” Delila said in jest.
“No, I figured you would just catch me.”
They laughed at the truth that existed within both of their playful statements.
“Are you ready to get beautified, Delila-style?”
In an instant, Neela realized what would distract her shopaholic friend.
“I’m sure I don’t really have anything good at home, you wanna go to the mall?”
“Heck yes, I want to go to the mall! I’ve been begging you for years.”
“I guess you wore me down.”
Delila ordered a car service, and the two were on their way. She spent the first few minutes of their ride stressing Neela’s need for a cell phone. This was a reoccurring argument and one that had valid points on both sides. Delila was right that there were apps that might make certain things easier. Neela was right that she shouldn’t have to conform to the norm, regardless of the convenience it would bring. They had to agree to disagree again in order to move forward.
And move forward quickly they did.
“Finally! This is going to be so much fun. It’ll be just like those makeover shows,” Delila said excitedly.
“What?” Neela inquired with immediate regret.
Delila spent the next thirty minutes of their car ride summarizing all of her favorite episodes from all of her favorite makeover shows. Neela could barely take the content of the conversation, but it helped to keep Delila distracted from her leg, so she was committed to enduring it.
The mall was Neela’s own personal version of hell. She hated new confined and crowded places, because it meant relying heavily on someone else. Delila didn’t seem to notice Neela’s discomfort as she counted their steps aloud.
Listening to her count gave Neela a bad feeling. She worried that Delila expected her to memorize the steps for later use. She tried to manage her stress by telling herself that if she could just make it through this one trip without exposing her leg, she would never need to return, and no one would ever know of Cheveyo’s true form. With his secret concealed, there would be no reason for him to ever leave again. She missed him terribly but was determined to stay positive and have faith that he would return soon, heal her leg, and eliminate any need for future trips to the mall.
* * *
After a few hours of trying on endless pairs of pants, Neela was on the brink of a meltdown.
“This is the last dressing room; I can’t take it anymore,” Neela said as she entered a stall and latched the lock behind her.
“You’re not having fun?” Delila questioned from a large plush ottoman just outside the stall.
“I’m sorry. But you look really cute in everything you tried on!”
“I’ll take your word for it, but I’m exhausted.”
“Okay, then don’t try anything else on, let’s just go.”
“What about all this in here?”
“I’ll help you put it all on the rack to go back.”
“Okay. You know I always have fun with you, I just really don’t like the mall.”
Neela did a quick check of her pant leg to make sure she was covered down to her shoes and then unlocked the latch for Delila. They gathered all of the items from the dressing room and carried them to the return rack.
They hung each item on the rack and couldn’t help but overhear a conversation between two other young women. The pair seemed to be ending their trip abruptly as well. The content of their conversation was so unnerving, Delila just had to insert herself.
“Did you say that a girl was abducted from here last night?” Delila asked.
“Yeah, that’s what we just heard, so we’re getting out of here before it gets dark,” one of the girls answered nervously.
“Do you know who it was?” Delila asked.
“No, they just said she was about our age, no name or anything, sorry,” the girl said as she quickly exited the dressing room with her friend.
Neela was already made anxious by her surroundings. The news of an abduction in the area sent her into a panic.
Delila reached out to hold Neela’s hand. “I can tell you’re about to freak out. It’s all right, I got you. I’m going to order a car right now through an extremely convenient app on my abundantly helpful cell phone—”
“Sorry, I couldn’t help it! Anyway, I will get you out of here ASAP.”
“Thank you.” Neela tried to take deep breaths and squeeze Delila’s hand to reduce her stress.
“No problem. We’re going to go home together right now,” Delila promised her frazzled friend.
Over the years, they both had taken turns as each other’s defrazzler. They both had a tendency to react strongly to certain elements of certain things that made them uncomfortable. For Neela, it was anything that involved a crowd. For Delila, it was anything that involved heights. A few years before this mall incident, Neela had to talk Delila down from giving the operator of a Ferris wheel a solid cursing out. In her opinion, he had left her on the top for far too long while he was getting everyone else off the ride. That night, Delila was the one freaking out, and Neela was the one losing feeling in her hand from her friend’s tight grasp. Of course, I hope I haven’t misled you to believe that the girls are unstable. They’re not unstable or irrational, just high-spirited at times and thankfully very aware of each other’s triggers.
So much so that Delila knew not to walk Neela outside until their car was just about there. She waited for notification on her phone and then walked Neela as quickly as possible to the designated pickup area. She waited patiently while Neela continued to squeeze her hand and ask repeatedly for the ETA on the driver. Their outdoor wait time was four minutes. It took Neela twice that amount of time to calm down once they were in the car.
“Are you feeling better now?” Delila asked.
“A little bit. What do you think about that abduction, though?”
“I haven’t heard anything about it. They’re probably just messin’ with us.”
The driver interjected, “No, that’s true. A girl was snatched up from the mall last night, and there was another one a few days before that. You girls need to be careful out there.”
“Holy crap, really?” Delila said in disbelief.
“Yes. I heard it on the radio,” the driver confirmed.
They sat in silence created by their disbelief and fear for the remainder of the ride to Neela’s house. When they arrived, Delila explained her plan to work day shifts only, if possible, and asked Neela to walk to work with her. Neela agreed to meet halfway between their respective houses every morning before work and walk together back to the same location after work. They also agreed to stay out of the dance hall for the time being. After a strategy was established, they said good night, and Delila headed home with the driver.
The next morning the girls met in their agreed-on location. They were quiet at first, a product of a bit of an earlier rise for Delila and lingering frustration for Neela after her safety lecture of a breakfast with Henry. Apparently, Henry had also heard of the abductions. Neela did everything she could to talk him out of accompanying her to work.
To make things worse for Neela, it was another day of pants. Not comfortable pajama pants, but cute pants that came with all the discomfort that “cute” can bring. Neela pulled at, tugged, and tried to stretch them, but nothing she did made them any more comfortable during her walk to work. Delila could see her friend’s frustration but thought it best not to say anything, since she recognized them as her top pick from their shopping trip the day before.
“As much as I loathe saying this, it might be nice to have a man walk with us,” Delila said.
“I know, I was thinking the same thing, but I didn’t want to say anything. I mean, we’re capable, right?”
“Of course. We are more than capable,” Delila affirmed.
“Well, my grandpa offered, but—”
“No way, I’m not strollin’ into work with Henry, no offense.”
“Who else could we ask?” Delila wondered aloud.
“I would ask Cheveyo, but he’s away for a few days.”
“Wait a minute, did you say ‘a few days’?”
“Yeah, he should be back soon.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“You said, ‘Cheveyo is away for a few days’… You’re not getting delusional on me, now, are you?”
“No, how is that delusional?”
“Because he’s been MIA for a good minute.”
“Missing in action.”
“No, I mean, what are you talking about?”
Neela had become confused from all of her recent lies and couldn’t remember who knew what about Cheveyo anymore. It wasn’t like her to lie, and she was proving herself not to be very good at it.
“Last time we talked about him, you said that he never showed up where you were supposed to meet.”
“Oh, well, he came back the other day.”
“I don’t know.”
“And everything is just okay with you guys now?”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You have been so upset about Hatari, I didn’t want to make things worse.”
“I’m okay. So what happened to make him leave again so quickly?”
“I don’t know, he just had to go.”
“And you’re okay with this?”
Delila could tell that she was beginning to agitate her friend, so she somewhat begrudgingly backed away from this line of questioning. She decided it was best for their friendship if she kept her suspicions to herself for the time being.
Delila tried to shift gears. “Maybe Diego could walk with us.”
“He doesn’t go in until after we get off.”
“Oh, that’s right, but maybe I’ll ask him anyway,” Delila said.
They made it to work safely and went about their individual duties. Delila tried her best to block out curious thoughts surrounding Cheveyo’s many disappearances, and they both tried not to think about the abductions.
It was much more difficult to stop thinking of the abductions now that it was all anyone talked about. The girls usually didn’t share the same lunch hour, but they made special arrangements to meet back up in the middle of the day and invited Mari to join them.
“Thank you for the invitation, ladies,” Mari said graciously.
“No, thank you for meeting us,” Neela responded.
“Is everything all right?” Mari asked.
Neela struggled. “Well…”
“We wanted to ask you what you think about the abductions,” Delila blurted out.
“No, first and foremost, we wanted to have lunch with you… and, yes, secondary to that, we wanted to ask your opinion about the abductions,” Neela clarified.
“Oh, that’s what has you both so anxious?”
“What do you think happened to them?” Neela asked.
“I don’t know, but I hope they’re brought home safely.”
“I cannot believe something like that could happened here,” Delila said.
“You girls need to be careful. This isn’t the first time young girls have mysteriously vanished from the island,” Mari cautioned.
“WHAT?” Delila said, stunned.
“It’s true,” Mari confirmed.
“When did this happen?” Delila asked.
“It was a long time ago. I think I had just married, so it must have been more than forty, forty-five years ago now.”
“I thought this island was safe.” Delila’s voice cracked a bit.
“I think it is safe in comparison to other places,” Mari said.
“Not if girls just randomly go missing,” Delila retorted.
“This happens far more frequently all over the world, my dear,” Mari explained.
“I had no idea,” Neela said, stunned as well. She thought perhaps the rest of the world wasn’t somewhere she really wanted to explore after all.
“Now you know, but you can’t live your life in fear. Just be extra cautious when you go out,” Mari advised.
“We will,” Neela responded
Mari stood up from the table. “I hate to cut things short, dolls, but I have a few extra classes today, so I have to run. Please stick together if you go out.”
Delila and Neela tried to collect their thoughts and finish their lunches. The news that there had been a history of abductions on the island had shaken them both to their core. They didn’t want to accept that these things happen at all, much less on their island. They didn’t feel like returning to work, but their break was nearly over, and neither was the type to get in trouble. They didn’t say much as they gathered their belongings and walked together to clock back in. When they were back on the clock, they returned to their respective work areas with plans to meet in the lobby after their shifts. At the end of the day, they met in the agreed-on location.
“Should we just order that car thing again?” Neela asked.
“That’s too expensive to do every day, plus we don’t need to. Diego agreed to walk us home. He should be here any minute.”
“Oh, thank God,” Neela said, relieved.
“Not that we need a man to take care of us.”
“Of course not,” Neela agreed.
“Heeeellloooo, ladies,” Diego offered his standard greeting.
“Hey, Diego, thanks for walking us home,” Neela said enthusiastically.
“No prob. I’m always happy to help.”
They walked out of the lobby and down the front drive of the resort in silence. Neela had continued to believe that Diego had feelings for Delila and felt sorry for him that she didn’t seem to return his affection. She decided to use this opportunity to sway her friend in Diego’s direction, or at least help her consider him as a viable option.
“Do you have a girlfriend, Diego?”
“Do you date much?”
“I do.” Diego chuckled as he realized what Neela was trying to do.
“What kind of girls do you date?”
“Neela!” Delila scolded.
“What?” Neela said with a fabricated naivete to her voice.
“Leave Diego alone!”
“No, it’s okay, we have to talk about something on the walk home, right?” Diego asserted.
“So, what kind of girls do you like?” Neela asked again.
“I like them a lot like Delila.”
Both girls were taken aback by his daring declaration. Diego, too, seemed a little shocked at his boldness. His eyes roamed over Delila’s face, searching for a reaction. To his surprise, he saw a very pleasant smile there, beginning to expand.
Diego began to smile back and plan his next move, when he was suddenly struck from behind. He fell to the ground, confused from the powerful blow to his head. Simultaneously, the girls were snatched away from him and tossed into a van. The abduction was carried out seamlessly.
“NEELA!” Delila screamed out through the abductor’s hand, which struggled to cover her mouth.
“I’m here,” Neela uttered from somewhere within the van.
“Shut up, both of you, shut up!” one of the captors demanded firmly.
The penetrating fear evoked by the intensity of the command compelled the girls to comply. Delila could initially see men with masks over their faces but was left without anything to help identify them after they took the extra precaution of blindfolding the girls. They bound their wrists together with rope and threatened to bind their ankles together if they attempted to move.
The threats were continuous as they drove away at high speeds. They stopped a few miles down the road and demanded the girls get out of the vehicle. They had already stripped Delila of her purse, but they patted the girls down to ensure there were no other personal belongings that remained. On Neela they found a small change purse that she used for a wallet in one of the pockets of her uncomfortable pants. On Delila they found her cell phone in a side pocket of her uniform skirt.
After they stripped the girls of their belongings, they ordered them to walk toward another vehicle parked just a few feet in front of them. They promised the girls that they would hurt everyone they ever cared about if they made any noise during the pat down or the transfer. To their captors, Neela seemed no different than Delila in her difficulty navigating between vehicles while blindfolded. Her fumbling seemed typical to the assailants, and with her cane lost in the initial scuffle, there was nothing to indicate a visual impairment.
It was twenty minutes in the second vehicle before they reached another handoff point. The voices seemed to change at each stop, with only the most vocal of the perpetrators remaining constant. They were marched from the second vehicle onto what felt and sounded like a metal platform of sorts. They walked at an incline until they received instruction to stop.
Delila struggled to fight the dizziness you feel right before you pass out. She couldn’t be sure, but she felt that the height they had reached was far beyond her comfort zone. She stood as still as any trembling person could, terrified that even her involuntary shaking would get her into some form of trouble.
Neela stood a few steps away, just as shaky as her anxious friend. They tried to maintain their composure. They felt a slight rocking motion underneath their feet. It was a familiar movement to the girls that could only mean one thing. The third mode of transportation was some form of watercraft. They sidestepped slowly toward each other and leaned up against one another for comfort while their captors discussed plans to travel to what sounded like a fourth location. They tried desperately to listen to the plans but were just out of reach to make out the specifics. They whispered to one another.
“I’m scared, Neela.”
“DIDN’T I SAY SHUT UP?” The only constant voice screamed his reproach into their faces.
“Now, move!” he commanded as he pushed a hand forcefully into each of their backs.
He stayed close behind them as he barked further instructions. The girls followed his orders, walking forward down a metal stairwell, through a long, narrow hallway, down a steep ladder, and into a small, damp space at the end of another hallway. Neela could hear some commotion with what she thought to be a metallic echo as they stepped down into the low-lying area, as instructed. The man pushed them farther into the space and stepped back through the doorway.
“Get comfortable, ladies,” he said through a laugh as he slammed the heavy metal door shut behind the girls.
The mechanical sound of a wheel lock turning brought a sense of both imprisonment and freedom. It meant they may have some time alone, free from the constant aggressive commands, but alone with what—or who—was unknown. The source of the echoing commotion had yet to reveal itself.