“If anyone saved me, it was the science fiction people.” – Harlan Ellison
I grew up on the island of Maui, Hawaii during the 1990’s and loved sci-fi, fantasy and comics. Movies like Jurassic Park, Star Wars and Back to the Future had a profound impact on my psyche. People thought these movies were cool, but talking about them was not cool. And I talked about them a LOT. The only place where I could find like-minded fans was at at the local library. It was there, at age 10, that I befriended a married couple named Jon and Tracy, and over the next seven years, they became the family that I needed.
Tracy was a pleasant, spectacled, librarian who had read just about every book ever written. She recommended novels that would forever influence me, like Starship Troopers, Ender’s Game and the Foundation Trilogy. Jon ran a computer company called Q&A. He was a long haired, bearded fellow, who always sported a short-sleeved aloha shirt, jeans, sandals and a silver Casio calculator watch. He also had the incredible power to remain eternally optimistic.
Early on, I recognized that Jon had another gift – the rare ability to err on the side of doing the right thing without hesitation. Jon’s friends would tease him because he really believed in the lessons he read in Superman comics, and fancied himself a hero. But to me, a kid, Jon was my hero.
When I turned 12, Jon and Tracy invited me to join their gaming group. The gang or “ohana” as Jon called them, was comprised of smart, off-the-wall creatives, who’d indulge in role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. They created their own adventures with mind-bending ideas and unforgettable characters. Early on, I observed that the gang was populated with bright, educated people, who were wicked funny and disconcerted with Hawaii and modern society. They were lost geniuses who never cared about being discovered.
Brett was a funny fellow and a fine chef who gave me life and dating advice in between swigs of Miller Light, “Go for a woman smarter than you.” There was Nikkon, a brooding visionary. Perry, a cigar-smoking Jewish fellow from New York, who owned the only comic shop on the island. Mark was a mad genius, and a fine writer. Ben had a sharp wit. LD was a disc Jockey; Kella, a computer wiz; and Greg was a librarian, darkly sarcastic, though quite kind. There was also Thomas, an adventurous phone salesman who should’ve became a hiking guide. He would take me and some of the local kids on grand tours across the tropical mountains, and came up with killer gaming scenarios worthy of the pulps.
At an age where I didn’t have anyone to relate to, I related to these folks. Growing up, my parents bitterly fought, and my father was unhappy. He’d complain to neighbors about how he would’ve had a fortune if he hadn’t married my mother, and warned people to avoid having kids. I put his words at the back of my mind, figuring that mom and dad would work it out. I focused on school, rationalizing that it was natural for parents to fight. But then my father decided that he wanted a divorce.
And it was a Hiroshima-Nagasaki divorce.
My family had a house without a mortgage in a nice neighborhood and entered courtroom battles for assets. My mother barely spoke English, and making matters worse, never taught me to speak Korean. (We still have a difficult time understanding each other.) My father lied to the authorities, claiming that my mom attacked him, putting her in jail. He then decided to move to Thailand for the rest of his days, leaving my mom to hold the bag. From that moment on, she struggled to survive in order to raise my brother and I, and was rarely home because she was too busy working, trying to keep us afloat.
We went from living in a beautiful, upper-middle-class home, to scrounging from apartment to apartment. We moved over ten times.
I’ll never forget seeing my father for the last time before he moved. I was clutching a TV in my arms as we walked from the parking lot into our small new apartment. My mom, a Korean beautician, was working both at her store and at home, laboring over clients’ nails in our living room to make extra money. While we were moving boxes from my father’s car, our old neighbor kept pleading, “C’mon, Larry. The mortgage is paid off. Just let the kids live in the house.”
My father gritted his teeth, looked forward, and said nothing. When we were done, he placed a hand on my shoulder and told me, a fourteen-year-old, “You’re the man of the house. Take care of your mother. Take care of your brother. The best lesson in life is that you must depend on yourself, and I’m giving you that lesson now.” He hugged my brother, pretended to cry and then got into a car and drove off.
My brother and I watched the tail lights of his car disappear into the distance in a state of utter devastation. We began to cry as we walked back into the house, and just stood there in the living room, sobbing. Mom heard us and began to weep, while filing her customer’s nails. The woman got up and quietly spoke, “Everything will be all right.” She placed money on the table and left.
All three of us stood there in tears. And an anger built up into my brother that he never got over “Stop crying!” he screamed as tears bled down his face. “You look so stupid! You’re supposed to be strong!”
I didn’t know what to do. I grabbed the cordless ran to my room and dialed – a voice came on – “Jon, in.”
I didn’t say anything – my emotions were so overloaded that my voice was just a quiver of breaths. “Hello? … Josh?”
I hung up.
The phone started ringing and ringing – and I picked up and just ran my mouth – “Jon, I don’t what to do! He’s gone! My dad’s gone! I don’t know what to do! I don’t know what we’re going to do! My mom barely speaks English!“
“I’m coming over.”
I waited in my room unable to comprehend the magnitude of what just went down. Jon was my friend and mentor, and the closest thing I had to a father even when my father was around. He owned a computer store and ran the gaming group I was in. He was smart, and I knew he’d have answers. We sat in his Blue Neon, and I told him everything that had happened. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. I need to take care of my family. I don’t know if my mom is going to be able to make it on her own.“
“Dude,” he cut me off. “You’re fourteen! You’re so young. Everything will be all right.”
A few months passed and I entered a dark depression. My grades plummeted. I’d attend class but couldn’t pay any damn attention. Teachers were concerned. They’d call me into counseling meetings and I’d just smile and say everything was fine. Well, except on Wednesdays, when I’d voluntarily go to a counselor and pretend to open up so that I could avoid P.E. When I got my report cards, I’d quickly throw them away, ashamed.
Age 15 remains the toughest year of my life. It was 2001, the year 9/11 happened. My friends had all transferred to a different school on another part of the island, and my mom was now dating a jolly, though false, fellow named Ed, who talked her into moving to Kauai. She was going to take me and my brother, but Jon and Tracy felt that it was a bad idea to pull me out of school, so they invited me, but not my brother, to live with them.
They told me that if I was going to live there, I needed to make an effort in school. “If you need help, we’ll help you. Otherwise, you are going to flunk out, and your mom will take you back. Do you want that?”
Through their tutoring, I steadily managed to get my GPA back on track.
It wasn’t long before mom and Ed’s relationship fell apart. My mom called Jon and said she was returning to Maui and wanted me back.
My friend Matt and I started a mini-gaming group of our own with some local kids. And I found that I enjoyed making up adventures far more than playing in them. I bought a Dungeon Master’s guide and wrote all sorts of wondrous stories and began to have an inkling that this writing thing might be for me.
I graduated high school, just barely. Now there remained the question of what to do with my life. Jon and the gang encouraged me to follow my passions, and what I wanted since I was five years old, was to move to New York City. My estranged father, who’d been out of the picture had once told me to call my uncle, his half-brother, who lived in Brooklyn and ask if I could live with him.
It felt weird, cold-calling a relative. After he picked up, I blurted “Hi, my name’s Josh and I’m your nephew. I know you don’t know me, but my father, who is a man of assumption –”
My uncle burst into laughter and spoke with a thick Brooklyn accent. “Yeah, that’s one way to describe my brotha…”
I asked if I could live with him, and told him that if he said no, I would understand. After all, he didn’t know me.
My uncle didn’t even pause, “Do you think I’d let my nephew live on the street? You are welcome here. I’ve got an attic. We’ll call you ‘Harry Potter’.”
After we hung up, I was confused and elated. Part of me wanted to stay with the gang. They’d become my ohana, but at the same time, I wanted to see more of the world. The gang encouraged me to take a chance on myself, so I did. My mom bought me a one-way ticket to JFK, and before I knew it, I was saying a sad goodbye to her at the airport as I boarded a plane to begin a new chapter of my life. It was the right choice – eventually, I’d get into college, obtain a degree, and a series of good jobs, too. It wasn’t all smooth sailing, there was a pitfall or twenty, but things still worked out.
Looking back, I know that I owe all these people, and many others so much, that it’d be impossible to repay them. The gang had accepted me, looked out for me, and taught me about moral decency, the value of education and my imagination.
People often say that you can’t choose your family, and I suppose there’s truth to that, but I also believe that family isn’t just about blood. Family can be built and nurtured and all it costs is real presence.
My years in Hawaii weren’t the first time I’d been saved by family, ohana, or mishpacha. One day, I hope to create a family of my own, and do it right…to heal the rift that separation caused all those years ago. Along the way, I hope to pay it forward and save someone out there, just like I was saved.
Joshua Sky, originally from Maui, Hawaii, is a multi-award-winning writer who has scribed for Marvel, Motherboard, Tor Publishing and SFWA. He began his career at Marvel Entertainment and has also worked for The Walt Disney Company, Fox Television and Netflix. He is represented by Abrams Artist Agency. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook.