Chapter One –
"Tag, You're It"
School wouldn't start for another three weeks, and spending the rest of the summer on a tropical island wasn't exactly how Ben thought he would be spending his vacation. He was a scrawny, ghostly-pale kid from Portland, and the heat was oppressive, the sun baking through his skin; he thought maybe he could almost hear it sizzling. His father hadn't packed any sunscreen, of course, but Horace Goodspeed had been nice enough to see to that, giving Ben a bottle of the pasty white stuff and telling him to "come on over to the Arrow" if he needed more.
The Arrow, so far as Ben could tell, was kind of a big supply closet, with all the stuff anyone on the island could need or want. He had gone there with his Dad and Horace to pick stuff out for their new house, and Ben had carefully chosen between the pre-packaged foods and the soap and shampoo and paper towels, just as he had at the grocery store for years now. His Dad couldn't be bothered to pick out anything but a couple of cases of beer, and Ben had looked upon this with withering disappointment and disgust – he hadn't thought there would be any beer on the island. He had thought the Dharma Initiative was supposed to be like the Peace Corps or something, and Ben didn't think the Peace Corps condoned the consumption of alcohol on active duty. But his father seemed to have a nose for finding that stuff, and when Ben thought about it he wasn't too surprised. The first thing his Dad probably asked Horace when he got offered the job was if it was OK to drink on the island. Ben guessed he probably wouldn't have left Portland if Horace said no.
The Arrow had some other stuff, too, cool stuff like paperback books and vinyl records and even a few comics, and Ben had picked out what he thought he could go through in a couple of weeks. He would have loaded up his arms with that stuff, but he didn't want to be greedy. There were other kids on the island, after all. He vowed to bring everything right back when he was done with it, too.
They got showed around to some of the other stations – a few places, like the Swan and the Pearl and the Tempest, were off-limits, and they couldn't go to the Looking Glass since it was underwater and they'd have to scuba-dive to go down there. But they got to see the Staff, which was like a big Army hospital, and they got to see the Orchid, which had all kinds of plants and stuff. Horace said they studied other stuff at the Orchid besides botany, and someday maybe he would taken Ben inside and show him, if he promised to do real well in school, and Ben said that he always did real well in school, and that made Horace laugh and ruffle his hair.
They took a ferry over to a smaller island, too, where there was a big zoo and aquarium, and Horace told them all about how they studied the different animals. Ben's father didn't seem amused by any of it, even asked Horace if they could cut it short, but Ben thought it was amazing, all of it; he'd never imagined ever getting to be a part of something so different and special and cool. He wondered what the kids back home would think of him now, wearing his brand new Dharma polo shirt and shorts, being shown all kinds of top-secret experiments that will change the world someday. He wondered if they would still make fun of him, if the bigger boys would push him back and forth between them and play Monkey in the Middle with his backpack, if the girls would whisper about him and point and laugh, if they would still stick their foot out in the cafeteria to make him trip and fall and spill his lunch all over the floor.
He guessed that probably they would. Because they were too stupid to realize what an important place the island is. He guessed only really special people could understand. Quiet, smart, peaceful people who had been pushed around their whole lives. People like Ben, and Horace, and maybe people like Annie, too.
He had been thinking a lot about Annie ever since yesterday, when he met her in the welcome center and she gave him that chocolate bar in the bright purple foil. She had been so nice to him, nicer than any of the other girls back home. In fact, she was the first girl to ever talk to him without making a face like maybe he had something green coming out of his nose, and she was definitely the first girl to ever give him a present. After she had given him the candy, his father had started yelling at Opal, the girl who had told him he was going to be a workman, and Ben was sure that Annie was going to walk away and pretend she had never said anything to him, because that's what people usually did when his Dad started throwing a temper tantrum, but Annie didn't. She only glanced at his Dad once before she turned right back around and gave Ben an apologetic smile, and when his father grabbed his uniform and yelled at Ben to come on, Annie put her hand on his wrist to keep him from going, and she said that she lived in the little blue house on the lane that curled around in a circle, and there was an apple tree with a tire swing out front so he couldn't miss it, and would he like to come over and play tomorrow?
Ben hadn't said anything at the time, because his father was coming back after him with his nostrils flaring, and that meant he was probably going to get hit if he didn't leave right away, and besides, he didn't know what to say to her anyway. No one had ever asked him if he wanted to play before. He was the last one picked for kickball, and no one ever wanted to be his science partner, and he spent all his afternoons in Portland alone, sketching in his art pad or reading or looking out the window at the light rain that seemed to fall all the time, no matter what, and thinking about what it might feel like to finally have a friend.
When Horace showed them to their new house that night after dinner at the mess hall, Ben looked all around him to try and pick out the little blue house with the apple tree out front, and he was growing more and more nervous, wondering why he couldn't find it, when Horace finally stopped in front of a mustard-yellow bungalow with a coral-colored roof and announced it belonged to Roger and Ben. And right next to it was another one painted robin's-egg-blue, and a big tire swing hung from a thick, gnarled branch of an apple tree in the middle of the perfectly manicured front lawn.
Ben had grinned from ear to ear, wanting to run up to the front door and knock on it right then and ask if Annie could come out to play until it got dark, but his father was yelling at him to help him inside with their supplies and pick out a goddamned room, and so Ben resolved to knock on her door first thing in the morning instead.
But what he realized, when he went to a small room cordoned off with a big window looking out on the backyard, is that he probably wouldn't have to knock on the door after all. Because the window across the lawn from his had Care Bear curtains, and he lay in bed that night thinking happily that his new friend Annie was falling asleep only ten feet away from him, and it erased all his anxiety about living in a new place on the other side of the world, and it let him rest easily for the first time since he was very small.
They got used to knocking on each other's windows early in the morning, sometimes even before it got light out, during that odd hour between five and six when everything is that pretty blue-violet color of twilight, and the stars are still out but the sun is just starting to peek over the horizon, and night and day is all mixed-up and in-between. They would hold hands and run down to the beach and watch the sun come up, or sometimes they would just walk around to the swing set in Ben's backyard, sitting side-by-side and swaying back and forth on the wooden slats, talking about what life was like for Ben back in Portland, or what it felt like for Annie to grow up on the island. She had lived here all her life, for as long as she could remember. Her parents were Gerald and Karen DeGroot, and they founded the Dharma Initiative on the island, and she was the first kid to come and live here – she had been only two when they made the move.
She said that she never really had any friends, either, but Ben had seen the way she was with the other kids. They liked her; they laughed and joked with her and sometimes they played games together, but Annie said that it was different from the time she spent with Ben. She said that she'd rather sit all day with Ben and do nothing and say nothing at all instead of playing with any of the other kids. She said that he was special, and when she said that, Ben turned beet-red and clammed up, unable to say anything back. Annie just swung a little higher and smiled, and then when she hit the pinnacle of her arc she leaped right off the swing and landed on her feet on the grass like a graceful cat, and Ben watched her, his mouth open slightly in awe until she ran over to him and tapped him hard on the shoulder and said, very quietly, "Tag – you're it, Benny." And then he was up and running after her, chasing her, and he didn't stop once in all the years they spent together.