The Debtor by Kase Johnstun

Jeni loved to swim out against the blue current of Kealekekua Bay and crawl on the water’s surface with the spinner dolphins. She would turn onto her back and float as they bobbed through the water just feet away from her. They would eventually jump out and spin until they splashed back down into the swells off the coast of the Big Island. She used to love to wave back toward the tiny dock where her husband helped tourists load their rented kayaks into the sea. He would always wave back, a wave that said we finally made it here, we finally moved to Hawaii, and I have given my wife what she had always wanted, the chance to be one with the ocean.

She used to love to swim out to the spinner dolphins until Jed rolled the truck two years ago and took away both of her legs and a part of her left arm. He'd drunk too much at a Kona pub and floored his Jeep around the quick, short turns of the skinny road that led from Kona to their little village at the ocean’s edge. He'd said he was fine, that he could drive, but after the truck left the road and rolled the first time, Jeni stopped believing him. When she awoke, trapped under the entire weight of the truck, she really stopped believing him. Now she spends her days high on her pain meds and dreaming about the dolphins in the bay only steps from her back door.

Down at the dock, on a day like the rest since Jeni lost her limbs, Jed pulled a long, dual-person kayak from the water after helping two young, barely clad girls out of vessel. They raved, on and on, about the spinner dolphins they had seen in the middle of the bay, flailing their arms to illustrate the way they'd spun around the kayak. Jed only nodded and smiled, and thought of his wife in bed. And he thought of her every time someone came back from Captain Cook’s monument and talked about the dolphins. Every day he wished the dolphins wouldn’t be there, and he savored the days he didn’t have to hear about them—though he knew the dolphins kept his kayak and snorkel-rental business afloat. He hated those fucking dolphins, he dreamed about taking a sniper rifle to the top of the cliffs that hung over the bay, and shooting one each day until he killed them all.

“You’re welcome,” he would say to every tourist who tipped extra because they got to see the spinners. The tip would burn in his hand before he dropped it into his pocket and placed the paddles in the back of his truck. Jed also dreamed of a day the dolphins would disappear and his business would dry up, and he could just drink himself to death. And everyone would understand: with a dried up business, a horribly inflated Hawaiian mortgage, a crippled wife. It would be obvious that it was the guilt in his stomach for destroying his wife that had such a mammoth-sized thirst. But as long as the dolphins kept showing up business would boom. And as long as business boomed, he owed it to Jeni to provide her food, medication, assistance to the toilet three or four times a day. No one would understand if he started the heavy drinking while he still had these obligations. All Jed could do was say “You’re welcome,” and pray for global warming to happen more quickly than projected, to make the dolphins relocate to Alaska or some place like that.

Jed pulled the last remaining rentals out of the writhing blue ocean that lopped up against the ugly concrete dock. One by one he carried them to the trailer of his old blue and rusty brown pickup truck. And right before piling one atop the other, he meticulously sprayed the ocean water off them, to make sure the salt didn’t eat at them overnight. He used to take even better care of the kayaks, but now does what he can to put off having to go home to clean the house, make dinner, scrub down his wife.

His mind jumped back, to the long muscular legs and arms diving straight into the water and leanly gliding through the pool, her torso twisting to create a tiny, beautiful wake. She always touched the wall before the other competitors, and left only a speckle of water on the concrete edge when she humbly got out and congratulated everyone on their race, before heading to him for a celebratory hug.

He stacked the last kayak, centering it between the two stacks to keep the weight of the trailer balanced, and just as he began to tie the rope around them, he felt the earth shake beneath him, shake enough to bring the top kayak down toward his blond, curly head. He put his arms up in time to block the two-hundred-pound falling piece of plastic, and it crashed onto his forearm and sent pain all the way through his body; he fell to the ground and bounced with the remaining jolts of an earthquake. The concrete slab used to bring in the kayakers fell into the ocean and was ushered out to sea by a massive disappearing tide.

Stupid tourists looked around at each other, as if it were all part of the Hawaiian experience; walked slowly to their cars to head to their hotels, slowly packing up their wet gear, leisurely sitting in their cars before starting their ignitions, and gingerly showing friends and family pictures on their phones as the sea departed, so far out into the ocean that a tiny boat docked on a buoy half a mile out sat on the empty ocean floor.

“Get to high ground!” Jed’s competitor, Kuuipu, yelled at everyone in the lot. “Get to high ground everyone!” Kuuipu pointed directly to the Tsunami Evacuation Route sign above his head. Tourists no longer shared photos in their cars but started them up, peeled out backwards to the road, and got stuck in a bottleneck of traffic—a scared and reluctant woman sat in her car at the front of the line. Locals ran to the tourists’ cars and without asking jumped in the back seats, of the rented Jeeps and Corvettes, yelled at the tourists to get a fucking move on it.

Jed quickly unhooked the trailer and with his one arm swung it as far as he could away from his truck, giving him enough room to pull backward and flip his truck around. He knew of a different road to get to Kona, the road he'd driven down the night he rolled his truck. And then he thought of Jeni, lying in their bed in their tiny shack of a home. Within seconds, he flipped his truck around and began to climb over the barriers of the tiny parking lot toward his home. I have to grab her from her bed, carry her to the truck, and strap her down for safety, he thought to himself. He had to do all of this before the plateau of ocean returned.

Just as he cleared the barriers and turned his wheel toward home, he heard screams from the other side of the giant concrete platform, which came howling out from where the waves had crashed against the slab just moments before. There were no more waves, but an empty sea bed, and two young girls, huddled against the rocks that lined the concrete loading dock. Jed flipped his truck round and drove to the screams and floored it to the edge. He looked down at the two young girls. When the earth began to shake and the tide receded they had jumped off their sit-on-top's, toward the rocks beneath the concrete, so they wouldn’t be swept out with the tide into the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Jed grabbed a long paddle from back of his truck and extended it to the bloodied girls on the rock. He kept his eyes on the horizon, knowing that soon enough, maybe exactly then, a wall of ocean water would come to eliminate the small coastal Hawaiian town that he and Jeni had made their home. As soon as each girl grabbed the paddle, he pulled them quickly up onto the concrete slab, carried them into the front seat of his truck, and, wishfully, assured them that he would get them out of the way of the impending tsunami. Kuuipu yelled at Jed again, telling him to get the fuck to higher ground, Kuuipu speeding over a neighbor’s yard and past the clusterfuck of tourists’ cars waiting to get up the road to Kona.



Jeni lay waiting in her bed, awakened by the falling of paintings and vases, awakened by the shift of the ground. She called out for Jed. She prayed he had made it home from the dock, prayed that he had already walked through the door with his case of Longboard Ale, prayed he hadn’t had more than two beers, and prayed that he sat on the lanai when the island rumbled from the shift of the ocean floor. She threw off the blankets with her arm, swung her lower body toward the side of the bed and sat up. She yelled for Jed again, but he did not answer. She yelled for him a third time, then wiped her sweating face with the corner of the sheet. She did not cry.

With the two tourist girls in the front seat, Jed drove over the barriers of the tiny parking lot; by then the line of tourists had moved up the road, emptying out the bottleneck of cars. All Jed could do then was pray that he had enough time to get Jeni and get to high ground. Again he floored his half rusted, half blue truck on a road parallel to the ocean shoreline. The two girls sat next to him, bloodied and crying, telling him he had to hurry and that they’d seen the Sri Lanka shit and it scared the shit out of them.

“I can’t leave my wife,” he told them. He had hurt her enough.

He sped along the road that had now become dirt and bounced over the bumps in the unpaved road which made the girls shriek. As he drove, he glanced continuously at the shore from the right hand side of the truck. The sea shore grew larger and larger by the second, but at least the tide hadn’t returned. He drove past the tsunami evacuation sign, heading in the opposite direction. The girls screamed that they were going the wrong way, but he could not leave his wife.

Since the accident, time had been split up into two periods: pre-forgiveness and post-forgiveness. Jed preferred pre-forgiveness, because during this period Jeni yelled at him, cried to him, and hated him. He knew exactly how she felt, and every day he knew at one point he just had to take the yelling, to hold her when she cried, and accept that she hated him for what he'd done—he really only experienced one emotion now, and that was guilt. He knew what guilt was, and knew how to be guilty. He lived in self hatred and this helped him carry her every day, sleep on the hospital floor, endure the yelling, and accept the hatred, because he deserved it. During the pre-forgiveness period, he still loved his wife.

Jed turned the corner into his driveway, kicking up dirt, starting to believe they would not make it to high ground in time. It had been too long since the earthquake. The sea would return any minute to pummel everything along the coastline, and kill anyone that sat, lay, stood, drove, or screamed beneath a gigantic wave of unstoppable ocean. He pulled as close to his house as he could, jumped out of his car, and ran toward the front door. The young girls yelled from the car for him to hurry or they would take the truck and leave him and his disabled fucking wife there.

Jeni had managed to pull herself up into her newly acquired prosthetic legs, and to sit on the bed, and she buckled the straps. She stood and walked to the lanai that extended out of their tiny bedroom out toward the coast. Looking out across the ocean shore, she saw the rich volcanic soil of shallow ocean floor for more than a mile out into the sea. Her eyes widened as quickly as the sea receded, and she yelled Jed’s name again.

He heard Jeni’s voice call from the house, and the late tsunami siren; both tore through his ears, both signaling his life's near end. It was rare that the officials had enough time to even sound the tsunami horns, so he knew the returning ocean might hit him before he could get Jeni out of the house. The horn created shrieks in the cab of his truck as the blaring sirens made death more realistic to the two girls. He placed his hand on the door handle and heard Jeni scream again, but this time he heard her post-forgiveness screams, in his head—I forgave you for crippling me you son of a bitch, and you can’t even get me goddamn cup of coffee in the morning—I forgave you for trying to kill me and giving me no real reason to live, but I can’t forgive you for passing out on the couch drunk when you know I need help to take a piss in the middle of the night—I forgave you for cutting off my legs and taking my one love in live, now stop moping around the house and acting like you’re the victim!

He heard Jeni scream again from the bedroom lanai. He released the door handle, turned and ran back to his truck. The young girls hugged him as he swung the truck around and headed up the tsunami evacuation road. He sped round every tiny corner, weaved up the mile-long road to high ground, drove as fast as he could without tipping and rolling the truck off the road and down the side of the cliffs. They would not suffer the same fate as Jeni had two years ago; he was sober.

At the top of the cliffs, Jed pulled his truck into one of the roadside pullouts. He jumped out of the cab to watch the massive, white wall of water rush toward the island as if the infamous Cliffs of Dover had gone out to sea and now glided toward the Big Island. He looked down and spotted his tiny shack of a house at the edge of the coast. He waved goodbye to his house, his business, and Jeni, and as he lowered his hand, he saw a small figure exit the house. Jeni had made it out of the house and pulled herself toward the road. The giant wave swallowed her and she became one with the ocean.


Kase Johnstun is an award winning essayist whose work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Prime Number, the Chronicle Review, and many other places. He is currently wrapping a creative nonfiction manuscript (McFarland, 2014) about the medical history and affected lives of the birth defect craniosynostosis, which he was born with in 1975. But his most cherished writing is still currently unpublished and was his first. It is a song written in 1984 called "I want you to come get my love." It has yet to make commercial success as those are the only lyrics. He tweets @KaseJohnstun.