“Would you like a free DNA test? It could change your future,” a man asks while handing me a pamphlet as I walk past a shopping mall on the second day of my vacation in Maui. He points at a QR code. "Just register here."
I want to grab him and shout some violent threat, and ask if he knows my sister, but he says “have a good day” and walks off before I get the chance.
This is because my sister Courtney sent me different versions of that same ad for years after she dropped out of university and disappeared from my life. Then two weeks ago, I received a message; "I'm in Maui, can you come visit? I have permission to meet others now. Sometimes I'm confused about what I'm doing here and would love to talk to my brother." I canceled my trip to Boston to meet my ex-girlfriend Ashley, and booked the expensive flight here. I've waited days now to see her.
Back that night at the hotel bar having a beer, I feel people watching me. I know common feeling right? So perhaps I’m being paranoid. But I do want to talk to someone, anyone, and send Ashley a message, "How are things in Boston?" I see a "..." for a a few seconds and then it disappears.
I reread the last update Courtney sent me from last week:
“My group knows you are coming. We will prepare a feast for your arrival on newcomer Wednesday. Sorry I can’t meet you until then, beloved brother.”
Courtney had been our family's star student and this doesn't sound like her at all. Everyone wondered what happened to her after she dropped out of medical school without consulting anyone months after the start of the pandemic, and just dropped off the face of the planet without a trace except "I'm fine, don't worry" updates at regular intervals, which to be honest, made us worry even more in some ways.
Laying on the hotel room bed I study the mold that outlines the borders of the faded wallpaper. It’s eerily quiet here alone. The stillness was the hardest part after Courtney disappeared. After spending years listening to her daily stories, her loves, her hates, her crises; without her things are deathly still. At our parent's home when I laugh at the TV I still hear an echo of her laughter along with me.
The next morning, I program the rental car's GPS to take me to an isolated property up in the hills on the rainy side of Maui island, an address I received from Courtney. Google Maps shows “Reynolds Organic Farm”. On Kaupakalua Lane, I take a right turn and pull up to a country-chic farmhouse surrounded by papaya tree groves. It's completely secluded.
She must have been waiting as Courtney comes out from the house as soon as I pull in.
It’s been years, I’m ecstatic to see her after so long.
“Sis..” We hug. I don’t know what to say except the obvious. “It's been so long.”
“What are you doing here, when are you coming home? What about your medical degree?” I ask.
“So many questions!” She shrugs. “Sorry I know its a big change but I was never interested in becoming a doctor.”
I look at her doubtfully.
She gives me a reassuring smile and says, “I’m helping people in a new, better way now.”
“What about, Mom, Dad… me?”
“We can talk more about all that tomorrow.” She motions toward the house. “First, I’d like to introduce you to Daniel and the group I work with. Let me know what you think about them afterwards?”
We enter a rambling Hawaiian style plantation style house.
"And how's Ashley doing?" she asks as we walk in.
I shrug. "I don't really know."
"Oh, sorry to hear that."
An older man with a vaguely academic demeanor introduces himself.
“I’m Daniel, CEO of the Life Curation Group.”
"Nice to meet you," I introduce myself, then say a few things about growing up with Courtney in Milwaukee. Then he starts to introduce me to the people now walking into the main hall. The guy who gave me the DNA pamphlet a few days earlier walks in and says hello but doesn’t recognize me.
Fifteen minute later, I’m sitting down for lunch with twenty people, and Courtney, the person I really want to talk to, is on the other side of the table. They serve me something that tastes very much like canned ravioli for lunch. The man next to me eats noisily and then crunches an apple. The other woman chortles at inside jokes someone tells her. This isn’t how I imagined meeting my sister, not at all, actually.
A woman who sits next to Daniel moves over next to me, introduces herself, her name is Amanda. Her wavy red hair highlights her alert eyes. She starts to ask me about myself. Compared to the others, her charm and wit is effusive. When she asks, I tell her about my passion for 1600s history. She’s surprisingly knowledgeable. She complements my insights and says I have a special talent for retelling stories of the past to make them relatable. She mentions how I can unlock my true potential with a DNA test, learn what my strengths and weaknesses are, how to focus my energy if I really want to be influential in the world someday. After a while she goes back to her other seat and I'm left with my two less interesting companions.
Toward the end of the meal, Daniel asks everyone to be quiet and looks at me.
“I can see some things about our meal were... unfamiliar...to our guest. Our food, how loud we ate, how some of us laugh.” I hear a giggle.
“It was fine,” I shake my head apologetically.
“It's because of the emptiness of the outside world. That’s why he is restless and irritable, like so many people these days.”
Twenty pairs of eyes are now studying me.
“I’m not irritable,” I say back, slightly too loudly.
“Courtney says you have been restless since you were young,” he says, "Let’s all have a moment of stillness. Let’s pray for the well-being of our guest.”
Everyone bows their heads in silence. The silence goes on for longer than I expected, perhaps ten minutes. I feel compelled to stay quiet with twenty people praying for me.
Daniel looks up at last and smiles and says, “We have all wished you well.”
“Thank you.” I don’t know what else to say, reciprocity perhaps prevents me from being angry at this weird intrusion of my personal boundaries. Mom and Dad barely ask me how I'm doing, so all this attention is new.
Daniel says, “I’d like to show you something, come with me.”
Everyone restarts their conversations while Daniel takes me down a hallway into a room full of books and then closes the door.
“So, do you really want to know what we do and why Courtney is here?”
I nod. My body trembling slightly to find out what this odd group is all about.
“Your sister took our DNA test.” He pauses. “She’s carrying the CA 19-9 marker.”
“What does that mean?”
“Life is but a fleeting mistress for us all.” He looks somber. “Courtney is going to die of pancreatic cancer within 18 months, A childhood defect in her DNA has manifested. It’s medically incurable.”
I feel my face flush. “That's a lie,” I blurt out.
“When you can go back to your hotel you can look it up.”
“I’ll do that.”
“We like you here. After you take all this in, you should come stay with us for a few days, with your sister. No one is trapped here, you can leave anytime.” He looks at me in a fatherly manner. “We are sampling DNA all over the island. We are maximizing the happiness of those with limited time on the planet. If Courtney was back home, she would be studying and working endlessly for a future that will never happen. Here she can be happy and free.”
“Let me think about it,” I say slightly dismissively.
I go back to the dining room and tell Courtney I think I’m leaving and ask when I can meet her again.
“Can you give a lift to town now?” she asks.
“Yes, let’s go.” I’m eager to get away from this house.
We have an awkward drive back to town. I want to ask if she knows about her DNA problem, or cancer. I find it very hard to think about the other topics she brings up. When we get back, she asks me to drop her off at the shopping mall.
“I do recruiting on Wednesdays. Hope I can find someone today,” she says and looks at me. I haven’t seen her this buoyant about something since she was young.
“Good luck?” I say.
“And, I’m not setting you up or anything, but Amanda said she would like to talk to you more sometime,” Courtney says, ”There’s not many people like you on this island.”
I’m flattered, but I say, “I’m here to meet you, Courtney.”
“No problem,” Courtney blinks. “How about lunch in town tomorrow, Outback steakhouse, me and you?”
“We have a deal, see you there.”
I go back to the hotel, and in my quiet hours alone, I digest everything that’s happened. Have I been too judgmental? I too have been following our parent's nudges since primary school, to join medical school and then do residency, and then pop out exhausted ten years later with a name on the office door like they have.
Was this my choice or theirs?
Over the next few days, Courtney and I have lunch together in town. She even comes over to the hotel and we watch TV and laugh, just like the old days. One day, Amanda comes with her. She asks me if I would like take their DNA test and then spend the day learning to surf with her. “What do you have to lose?” she asks.
I think it all over and decide, with classes still being held remotely, there is indeed nothing much to lose by extending my flight home for a week.
I’m watching the Pacific trade winds pummel the banyan trees lining the shore. I think about their strength in standing their ground and pushing back against the onslaught of nature. I’ve learned so much over the last three months. All my presumptions were wrong. Life Curation is helping people, Daniel has shown me how modern society with its exploitative social hierarchies traps people into meaningless existences. His group has guided people to find the freedom to help others maximize their potential. Helping others is the path to happiness.
I'm still standing in front of the shopping center, scanning the faces of tourists for people I haven’t seen yet. I spot and approach a young man about my age coming out of the Thai Buffet. I match his body language and give him a pamphlet and ask him if he would like a free DNA test. He says no thank you, but thanks anyway. Maybe he’ll come back. Rejection doesn’t stop me, because I never feel happier than when I find someone about to die.