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       The Girl at the Center of the World, p.1

           Austin Aslan
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The Girl at the Center of the World

  Also by Austin Aslan

  The Islands at the End of the World

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Text copyright © 2015 by Austin Aslan

  Cover art copyright © 2015 by Shutterstock and Tom Sanderson

  Map illustration copyright © 2014 by Joe LeMonier

  All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

  Wendy Lamb Books and the colophon are trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

  The excerpt from the song “Mele Ho`okipa” is used by permission of its author, Dr. Holoua Stender. Copyright © 2005.

  “E Na Lima Hana/The Working Hands” by David Haas and Joe Camacho Copyright © 1997 by GIA Publications, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

  Visit us on the Web!

  Educators and librarians, for a variety of teaching tools, visit us at

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Aslan, Austin.

  The girl at the center of the world / Austin Aslan. — First edition.

  pages cm

  ISBN 978-0-385-74404-1 (trade) —ISBN 978-0-375-99146-2 (lib. bdg.) — ISBN 978-0-385-37422-4 (ebook) — ISBN 978-0-385-74405-8 (pbk.) [1. Science fiction. 2. Survival—Fiction. 3. Extraterrestrial beings—Fiction. 4. Family life—Hawaii—Fiction. 5. Epilepsy—Fiction. 6. Hawaii—Fiction.] I. Title.

  PZ7.A83744Gir 2014



  eBook ISBN 9780385374224

  Cover design by Tom Sanderson

  eBook adapted from printed book design by Trish Parcell

  Random House Children’s Books supports the First Amendment and celebrates the right to read.





  Also by Austin Aslan

  Title Page





  Part 1

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Part 2

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26


  About the Author

  To my daughter, Ariel.

  You inspired Leilani, and you inspire me. You’ll always be my Flower of Heaven and the center of my world.


  I am Leilani, the Flower of Heaven, and I drift among the stars.

  I orbit Earth from the mind of my Emerald Orchid, watching a hazy blue halo of daylight creep across the eastern coast of a dark continent. North America. Maybe it’s called something else now.

  My body is down there on the surface, as lost as anyone, suffering, starving, choking on constant fear—but up here my view of the globe offers me the illusion of peace.

  The rustle of the distant surf, the rush of blood behind my ears: gone. In the silence there is only the beauty of the planet: a sapphire pearl in a diamond-studded abyss.

  Breathless, I watch my world turn.

  A Hawaiian musician strumming his ukulele carries through my memory. I hear him sing: I see skies of blue…clouds of white…

  I push the tune away, but it’s too late. The haunting notes have brought me racing back to three months ago, to the tinny music playing on the counter of the Maui kitchen where Dad was nearly killed, where rain lashed against the aluminum roof, where dogs snarled, clicking muddy claws on the floor. The pistol in the steady hand of the sheriff of Hana. His outstretched arm, ropy blue veins emerging from a clay-brown fist. Burnt gunpowder. Coppery sweat. Dad’s eyes, certain of death, holding back fear.

  My heart rate spikes. I can hear the blood behind my ears. I reject the images, find my footing above the turning world. Exhale. Up here I can feel peaceful. I will not allow that evil man to haunt me here.

  The Orchid is my one escape. The alien in orbit above our world. Not a ship—a simpleminded creature, like something from the ocean depths washed ashore. Her ribbons and folds of emerald luminosity, resembling the aurora borealis, are knotted into the shape of a green flower against the stars.

  A silent pop of white flashes off the coast of New York. A ball of water crowned with radioactive mist swells along morning’s edge. The atomic poison of this explosion mixes with the fallout of other nuclear disasters that blanket the globe. But my Orchid draws up the venom, neutralizes it.

  Disheartened, I look west, deep into the darkness. Toward home. Islands lost in the sea.

  We Hawaiians are so very alone.

  On the dark side of the globe, the Big Island of Hawai`i is easy to find. I spy my beacon: a telltale plume of fluorescent orange steam rising from the mile-wide caldera of Kilauea volcano—the Earth’s inner core breathing into space.

  I slide home. Soon I will land in my bed. But I’ll still be adrift on islands lost at sea, the ground I sink toward darker and colder than the heavens I leave behind.


  I open my eyes. I’m lying in the dark. It’s humid tonight, the air still. The coqui frogs are mostly quiet. Millions rule the jungle around our home, a few miles from Hilo, but it’s too hot for them. One or two sound from beyond the screen of my open window.

  Coqui? Coqui?

  I turn my pillow over, soothing my cheek and temple against the cold side. My stomach growls, and now there’s no question—I’m home. Moments ago I was floating in orbit above the world! But my connection with the Emerald Orchid is distant, my door to her primitive animal consciousness barely ajar.

  I’m back in my own mind and body, and I’m hungry.

  We’re not starving. There’s enough food to go around. And it’s supposed to get better as our farming gets up to speed. Most of what we’re planting is vitamin and calcium rich—`uala, sweet potatoes; `ulu, breadfruit; uhi, yams; and kalo, taro. I’m so sick of taro, which is usually mashed up and eaten as poi, the great life force of all Hawaiian foods. But none of it seems to help the hunger.

  Here on Hawai`i, the Big Island, we’ve had time to adjust to a new normal. It’s been three months since Dad and I made it home from the island of O`ahu. Four since the Emerald Orchid came to roost in orbit above our atmosphere, destroying electronics around the globe as she labored and gave birth to another of her kind.

  When the Orchid arrived, at the end of April, I was on O`ahu with Dad. Power went out worldwide. Satellites were zapped. No communication with the outside world. There were no flights, and the ships with the food and gas stopped coming. Things never got better. It took Dad and me a month to make it down the island chain. And we almost didn’t make it—

  Stop. I push the nightmares back.

  We’re getting by, Mom, Dad, Kai, Grandpa, and I. We’re banding together with our neighbors, sharing jobs, pooling resources. At least we have land and a small river down the ravine. And w
e’re naturally protected on our isolated hillside, surrounded by tall ridges, with only one way in and out, several miles off the highway.

  Our garden, breadfruit trees, and organic-chicken coop were hobbies before the blackout—things my parents did for fun in their spare time. What a strange phrase: spare time. Once our crops are in full rotation, and we have enough chickens, and we’ve gotten a couple goats and a few other animals, our family and our neighborhood may get by comfortably. But we’re not there yet.

  “Lei, you awake?” my brother, Kai, whispers from the floor. He sleeps in here whenever our guest worker stays in Kai’s room.

  “Yeah, what’s up?”

  “It’s hot. Make it windy.”

  “Oh, I control the weather now?”

  “Just do it.”

  “Sure, Kai.” I match his teasing tone.

  “Thanks,” he says.

  I’m connected to the Emerald Orchid because of my epilepsy. I started having seizures when I was thirteen. Had them all the way through our struggle to get home, when I discovered our link. My seizures helped me sense the Orchid’s thoughts, urges. An astronomer named Buzz—a mountain guru living at the observatories atop Mauna Kea—helped me talk to the Orchid. The creature was going to leave, but I persuaded her to stay. She can’t go. Her arrival caused a chain reaction of nuclear meltdowns around the world. Without electricity to cool them, power stations blew. But the Orchid feeds on radiation, absorbing it and protecting us. If she had left, we might have gotten our power back, but we would have inherited a global nuclear wasteland.

  My plan is to make her stay until she devours every meltdown—when all the leaking nuclear radiation is absorbed, she can go. But when will that be? How long can the world hang on without power?

  Kai sighs. “You gonna practice with Uncle Hank’s Magnum tomorrow?”

  “No.” Kai knows I hate guns. The weapons protect our food. But they also make us a target.

  “What about the bow?”

  “Same difference.”

  “No, it’s not.”

  “Is to me.”

  A single frog asks the night for advice. Coqui? Otherwise: silence. Kai is already still. Such a little man. Too skinny, too strong. He’s eight and insists on working as hard as anyone. He’s distanced himself from so many things he used to love. Tore down his UH volleyball posters, threw away his gymnastics competition uniform.

  I wipe matted hair away from my forehead and stare out my window at the faint green of the night sky.

  My seizures were really bad for several weeks after I got home from O`ahu—the medicine that once helped me was used up. But slowly the seizures stopped. Somehow the connection I share with the Orchid has channeled and calmed the storm in my head. Now, instead of vicious attacks, I blank out at will and see things from her perspective. Camera Two. I don’t use my eyes, though; my brain just interprets what she senses in ways that I can process.

  The Orchid will leave our solar system the second I drop my guard, taking her daughter with her. As with a helium balloon held by a string, the tension is always there. It’s not hard for me to grip the line, easy as flying a kite. I can literally do it in my sleep. But she will rise and fade back into the sea of stars the moment I loosen my grasp.

  And I worry: will my epilepsy return when she’s gone?

  We are Leilani. We are Flowers of Heaven.

  I hear the Orchid now: We will stay here until we are strong and safe and all the sweetness is gone. Then return to the depths.

  Home? I ask. What is your home like? I’ve asked this before. I’m so curious to know. I only sense confusion from her, though—a vague questioning.

  Home is where you belong. What’s it like where you belong?

  Depths. Vastness. We are many there.

  I give up. I think of her as a honu, a sea turtle, acting on instinct. I could be asking a fish what it’s like to swim in the sea. Some things I’ll just never know.

  * * *

  Our rooster, Sweet William, wakes me well before dawn. The cardinals and the Java sparrows and the mynas start to chatter. I shuffle downstairs and sit at the table. Mom and Dad and Grandpa are already busy. Mom hums an old Hawaiian tune and absently dances the hula as she works. Her movements are subtle, rhythmic, like seaweed swaying in the rising tide.

  Mom is pure Hawaiian; Dad is haole, a white guy, from New Mexico. So Kai and I are hapa. Half and half. My parents met on O`ahu while in grad school. They both studied ecology. They married, found work on the mainland, and had me and Kai. We settled back here almost three and a half years ago, when they accepted two tropical biology professorships at the University of Hawai`i at Hilo. Mom is as gorgeous as any hula dancer on any poster, and she knows it. Dad is also good-looking—in a scruffy, surfer-who-never-grew-up sort of way.

  The kettle on our propane stove shouts. Mom offers me coffee. I perk up. “Wow. Sure. What’s the occasion?” Usually we’ll boil water over an actual wood fire outside. Someone must have hauled in a good amount of propane yesterday.

  “Fresh from Kona.” She pours boiling water into our French press. “Paul brought a couple bags home. And two gallons of propane.” I give a silent toast to our neighbor up the road. It’s been weeks since I last smelled coffee; the odor alone wakes me up.

  “Howzit on Kona side?” Kona’s on the opposite side of our island, where the resorts and coffee growers are.

  “Bad. The pyres at the hospital are burning day and night. Refugees arriving in droves, but there’s nothing for them. The town is in ruins. Worse off than Hilo.”

  My eyes widen. Postcard-perfect Kona worse than Hilo? Kona was tourist central: resorts, restaurants, beaches, and activities. Predictable weather, calm waters. Not like rainy Hilo. Makes sense that the refugees from other islands would be dumped there—safer for the boats to land, and so much more familiar to city dwellers than wild, backward Hilo, still reeling from the tsunami four months ago.

  I shudder and change the subject. “What’s our game plan today?”

  Mom places before me a glass of water, three slices of passion fruit, some `uala wedges, a coffee cup, and the press. Her eyes glow in mock excitement. “Barbecue on Coconut Island, beach volleyball tourney, snorkeling.”

  “Actually”—Dad clears his throat and grins like a car salesman—“I was thinking more along the lines of finishing the fence along plot D and moving in a bit more compost. We could start planting there by week’s end. Sound fun?”

  I lean my head back and stare at the ceiling.

  I don’t know where the hunger ends and the other aches begin. I’ve been lifting and hauling rocks, building dams and fishponds, terracing farm plots and fencing them to keep the pigs out. Weeding. Cutting rain channels out of the old lava flows that lead into the greenhouses. Dismantling old sheds, carting the materials across the rocky slope to repair a large barn. Constructing a corral for the horse we acquired by trading some of our neighbor Uncle Hank’s rifles.

  My eyes catch the world map taped to the wall above the breakfast bar. Perfect distraction. I grab a pushpin from the tray and poke it through the crackly paper just off the coast of New York. I stand back to survey my work.

  Numerous pins on every continent. Many clustered. New England, for example, is getting crowded. Each one represents a belly-up nuclear plant.

  “Saw another explosion last night?” Dad asks.

  I nod. “Big one. Off New York.” I can’t shake the image of that ballooning ball of water rising out of the ocean. That creeping disc of cloud smothering the coast, like batter slowly poured onto a griddle. “It was offshore.”

  “Nuclear sub?” Grandpa ponders. He’s a navy vet. “Accident? Malfunction? Or an attack?”

  “People in the region must be so scared,” says Mom. “I hope they realize the Star Flowers clear away the fallout.”

  I’ve told Buzz the astronomer exactly what I see: huge plumes of black and brown smoke, fanning out with the winds, always in places with nuclear facilities. I don
t see every meltdown, but with this map and his statistical methods we estimate that there have been two hundred catastrophes in the last four months—almost two per day. There may still be as many as two hundred more plants waiting to blow their lids. Many newer plants were built to handle power outages for a limited time. How can we know which ones are left?

  Our only strategy has been to wait for the meltdowns to run their course. But for how long? Every day I keep the Orchid here, people suffer and die in other ways.

  A sizzle—familiar but forgotten—reaches my ears like a siren song from across the kitchen. The maddening smell of cooking meat. I jerk toward the stove.

  Mom has opened a precious can of Spam onto a skillet. “Mom! What are you doing?”

  “It’s for you and Kai.”


  “It’s all right. The two of you need a boost.”

  “Don’t argue,” says Grandpa.

  Kai cascades down the stairs and leaps to the table. “Spam for breakfast! All right, Lei! Hap—”

  “Quiet!” Dad barks.

  “Oh, yeah. My bad.”

  “Save that look for your wedding day, dude,” I say. “It’s just a can of Spam. And we’re sharing it.”

  “Ah, man,” he jokes. “Lay off. I’ll have a bunch of wedding days. This might be the last Spam left.”

  Kai eats his first bite with a look of pure bliss. Mindful of the others, I try to be more reserved. Mom uses the grease in the skillet to fry up two eggs. We can’t wait for our first batch of chicks to grow big enough to start making more eggs every day.

  Our hired hand comes downstairs.

  Keali`i is Hawaiian, mixed with some Filipino and Japanese, I think. He has the legs of a cross-country runner and the hands of a brick mason. He comes and goes; his parents died in the first tsunami wave, and Mom kind of adopted him. He used to work for her, keeping her university experiments along the coast clean and secure. He’s akamai—super smart. He’s about my age, but he dropped out of high school, so I never knew him.

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