The turtle is the biggest dead animal I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen plenty of birds – a smashed robin at curbside, a wren worn to its skeleton in our garden – but they were nothing like this. Shell smashed, each square outlined by orange flesh. I think of pumpkins, destroyed, on Mischief Night.
“Who’s gonna clean it up?” someone asks.
“The Russos,” Barbara says. “Or the Tungs. Since it’s in front of their houses.”
The Russo boy is only in kindergarten so he isn’t at the bus stop with us older kids, but we are, the Tungs, my brother and I. We’re there, yet the kids speak of us as if we aren’t.
“What do you think killed it?” a boy asks.
“A van,” someone offers.
“A big rig!”
Another boys scoffs, “A big rig wouldn’t even fit down this street.”
“The Tungs or Russos should clean it up,” Barbara says again, definitively, as though she has final say.
Neither of us answers. We both hate and fear Barbara, and never talk to her.
Our street is small and quiet. You can roller skate up and down, up and down, and never worry about cars. Now we stand right in the middle and stare at the turtle till the bus comes.
“There’s a big dead turtle in front of our house,” I tell Noah.
It’s Saturday, and we’re at Noah’s house. We play together every week when our parents get together for mah-jongg, but we don’t go to the same school. I wish we did. “How big?” Noah asks without looking up. He’s putting together an elaborate race track for his Matchbox cars.
“Really big,” I say.
“This big!” says my brother, spreading his arms wide.
“And it’s orange,” I say.
Now Noah looks up. “Orange? Turtles are green.”
“Some parts are orange.” I pause, then add: “I saw a fly eat it.” This isn’t true but it could be.
Now he looks intrigued. Usually it’s at Noah’s house that we find something new. Atari, an expensive board game, the newest Star Wars action figure. Now it’s at ours.
“I want to see,” he says, then jumps up and runs into the next room. “Mom! Can we go to Angela and Greg’s house?”
“We can go tomorrow,” his mother says over the roaring of the mah-jongg tiles.
“No, now! ”
“Ai ya, don’t fuss.”
He comes back pouting. “We can go tomorrow. Let’s play capture the flag.”
Noah’s backyard is vast. Ours is cut off by a wood, which makes our yard seem small, but we like walking in the wood, pretending we’re in Narnia or Teribithia, emerging with our shoes covered in burrs.
In front of Noah’s house is a a highway. Cars drive fast, and in both directions. No one needs to tell us not to go there.
Whenever we go out to play, Noah’s neighbors emerge to join us. Billy is my brother’s age, and is both the tallest and dumbest of everyone. He looks normal but talks slowly, and has a hard time understanding the rules of new games. He cries when Noah yells at him.
Billy’s yard is divided from Noah’s by a chainlink fence. Beyond the fence, we can see his yard scattered with toys, broken bicycles, moldy-looking lawn chairs. Billy’s beautiful but dirty white husky, Sasha, follows us barking as we run up and down Noah’s yard.
“Careful,” Billy says whenever any of us gets too close. “She bites.”
Richard and Robert are brothers and Chinese like us, but their parents don’t play mah-jongg. They don’t let Richard and Robert watch TV during the week, only on weekends, and they don’t let Robert, who is hyperactive, have sugar. I think Richard must not have sugar either, he’s so skinny. He wears glasses and not only has to get straight A’s, he has to get 100%’s on all his tests, or else he gets into trouble.
Robert is less smart. He’s only six, but I can already tell. He looks and sounds like a monkey, chattering in a high-pitched voice I can barely understand. His nostrils are often plugged with green-gray snot.
We play all afternoon, stopping only to dash into our houses and scarf down dinner. We play until long after dark.
After dark we catch lightning bugs. Noah and I are both good at this. We pluck the floating lights easily from mid-air. My brother and Billy are medium-good, though my brother once almost swallows one as he’s running. Robert squashes the bugs dead, but still glowing, between his grimy fingers.
Richard is best. He stands still and holds out his skinny arms, and one by one, the fireflies land on him. His hands and shoulders, even his head. They blink like Christmas lights.
“Richard!” a voice shouts across the lawn. Their back door opens, an adult shadow in a square of light. “Robert! Come home now!”
Richard shakes himself and the fireflies drift away. “Bye,” he says.
“Bye, bye, bye!” chugs Robert, running in circles before he follows his brother home.
“We should go inside too,” Noah says. We start up the grass, Billy close behind us. Noah stops.
“Go home, Billy,” Noah says.
“Go home, Billy!” Noah says again. We rush inside and close the door behind us.
The bright lights and noise are a shock. I rub my eyes as Noah and my brother sit at the kitchen table and start eating potato chips. Cupping my face to the window, I see that Billy is still there. Lightning bugs twinkle around him, but none of them land.
Noah never gets to see the turtle. He’s forgotten he has soccer practice on Sundays, and by Monday, all that’s left is a greasy spot. Cars drive over it as though nothing happened, but we kids avoid it for a long time. For a long time, we remember.
I used to be friends with the girls at the bus stop. Barbara, Michelle, and April. They’re a year younger than I am, but I liked to play with them. We rode our bikes or explored the wood. Once Michelle and I found an old chicken coop. Another time Barbara and I found a pumpkin field and, not knowing the field actually belonged to someone, helped ourselves. We told other kids about it, who also helped themselves and would eventually get chased away by the farmer.
“He had a rifle,” said a boy on the bus. He looked right at me as he said it, as though it were my fault, and for a moment I felt a thrill, as though I were famous.
Last year, Barbara and the others suddenly decided they didn’t like me anymore. They call me and my brother chink and ching-chong. Barbara especially, whose blond hair is always greasy and who has several dirty-faced little brothers who run wild through the neighborhood.
One day at school my brother tells Barbara to fuck off. He’s going to the bathroom when he sees her. As they pass, he looks right at her and says, “Fuck you fuck you fuck you.” She stiffens and says nothing.
But nothing changes after this. At the bus stop, Barbara and the others are the same.
Weeks pass. The days are the same, but not.
Noah tries to teach me chess. Each piece moves differently, and I can’t remember which does what, only that the pawn moves one space. Noah gets frustrated with me and gives up.
In the wood behind our house, we find a huge cocoon of gypsy moth caterpillars. We poke at it with a stick till it breaks open and caterpillar after caterpillar tumble out on long silk strings.
Noah gets cable TV. I see my first music video (“Freeze Frame” by The J. Geils Band) and my first movie with nudity (Looker, with Susan Dey). We watch Clash of the Titans again and again.
At our house, we discover our swing set is full of wasps. Somehow they have burrowed into the hollow metal tubes and laid their eggs. While we’re playing, they come buzzing out.
At our house, Noah falls. We’re walking on top of the edge of the couch, pretending we’re in the circus. Noah slips, tumbles, and cracks his head on the coffee table. He screams and all the adults come running. His parents hover over him while my mother yells at me.
“How could you let that happen?” she screams. “Why were you doing that? What were you thinking?”
It wasn’t my idea, climbing on the couch like that. In fact it was Noah’s, but this is my mother’s house, and so somehow it’s her fault, which means it’s my fault too.
At Noah’s house, Robert gets hit by a car. He and Billy are playing together when their ball rolls into the highway. None of us are there. We’re still in school, or doing homework, or with friends. None of us are there to look out for Robert, the youngest. To yell, “Robert, stop!” and grab him by the scruff of the neck. Perhaps Billy said, weakly, “We’re not supposed to cross the street,” but no one listens to Billy and so he’s not surprised when Robert doesn’t either.
My mother tells me this one Saturday morning. We’re both in our pajamas. She has a mug of coffee near her face.
“Robert’s dead,” she says.
“Oh,” I say.
I think of the turtle, but I can’t imagine Robert like that. I can’t imagine Robert being dead. My father’s mother died the year before. Lauren Marcus’ father died that winter. She’s the only kid in class, that I know of, with a dead parent. She was gone for a long time. When she came back, she didn’t talk to anyone, just sat at her desk with her face against her palm, making doodles. Lauren’s father will never come back, and neither will my grandmother, and neither will Robert.
This is all it means to me, being dead. You don’t come back.
The news of Robert’s death is so big, it travels outside our world, beyond the ears of Chinese people.
“Did you hear about that kid who got killed on the highway?” someone on the bus says.
I’m surprised to hear this, the way I was surprised when the boy looked at me when he talked about the pumpkins and the farmer with the rifle. I’m always surprised when I discover I and my world are not invisible.
We still play with Noah. Billy still comes over. He doesn’t seem any different. No one says it was his fault. How can it be? Everyone knows how he is.
We don’t see Richard. He must be busy, we think. Soon he’ll be in junior high, and he won’t have time to play at all.
We see his parents once. We’re pulling into Noah’s driveway when they emerge from their own car. It’s a gray day, and the wind blows as they hurry into the house.
“There they are,” my father murmurs.
They look right at us: Please don’t see us seeing you. They shut the door behind them. We never see them again.
One night at mah-jongg, Noah’s mother and my mother have a fight. My mother has won yet again. She wins easily but never brags. Noah’s mother, fed up with losing, throws her chips at my mother from across the table.
“Take your damned chips,” she says.
The silence is palpable. Someone attempts a joke. “You’ll put someone’s eye out with those!” My mother and Noah’s mother don’t speak for the rest of the game, and for many years afterward. We don’t see Noah again for a long time.
I wish I could say Barbara and I had a confrontation. But we never do. The most that happens is that one day, she comes to our door. When I answer it, she looks nervous.
“I’m selling magazine subscriptions,” she explains.
My eyes narrow. I’m in high school now. I have a large circle of beautiful friends. We walk down the hall, side by side, an impassable wall of hair spray and Jovan musk. Barbara’s still in junior high. She’s gotten fat.
“But you don’t have to buy one,” she says quickly. “I’ll just put down that I talked to you.” She scribbles on her clipboard, then runs off.
It’s in high school that I see Richard again, in the hallways, between classes. He’s an only slightly bigger version of his same skinny, bespectacled self. I should see Noah too, but now he goes to private school. The next time we see him will be many years later, after we’ve grown up.
I see Richard once face-to-face. My friends and I go to see the school play, Grease, and Richard is collecting tickets. I’m surprised to see him wearing a drama club T-shirt.
“Tickets please!” he says busily.
Will he recognize me? I wonder as we approach him. People don’t usually, even with my being one of only half a dozen Asian kids in the whole school.
“Tickets please!” Richard says again. Barely looking at me, he takes mine and rips it smartly in half. Handing the stub back to me, he moves onto the next person. “Tickets please!”
Without another word, my friends and I leave him. We disappear into the darkness of the theater. Over my shoulder I see Richard framed in the doorway, his T-shirt bright with light.