An excerpt from
The day you see your mother’s uncle crush a strange man’s windpipe behind the train tracks might be the day you regret being a spy. You might wish you weren’t hiding behind the Pour Inn that day, seeing the young Asian man in the black suit crumple to the grass like an empty potato chip bag. You might really, really wish you didn’t witness your mother’s uncle bend and take something from the strange man’s jacket pocket, then put two fingers to his neck. You might deeply regret noticing that his sinewy old hands—the hands you never imagined doing anything more violent than hacking up a roast duck—know exactly where to look for the man’s pulse.
And then, even worse, beyond the train tracks, in the frame of the little glass commuter booth with the bench in it, you see him. The boy that you have suspected, but have not really been able to believe, is following you.
And if you are me, Euphemia Fan, super spy, and currently the only Chinese-American teenage girl in Brackybogue, Long Island, you try to stay very still because your whole body is shaking.
As my mother’s uncle crouches over his victim, eight or ten seconds pass, each lasting three hours. I squeeze every muscle tight, wondering if I’m trembling as violently as I feel like I am. My mother’s uncle—my Jiu Jiu—stands up and glances around. Jiu Jiu, who makes me shredded cashew beef and mapo tofu, who grabs my arm, takes a hard look at my palm, and yells, “You think too much! Not healthy!” For a moment, he might be looking straight at me, but I can’t be sure because the next second he’s gone. He walks quickly around the corner to Main Street, and then I hear the sound of a car starting. As far as I know, Jiu Jiu doesn’t have a car. Every Monday night he takes the bus from the city and walks three-quarters of a mile from the station to our house.
Does he have an accomplice? Is it an unrelated car? The police maybe? You might hope the police would be more on top of the murder situation in this town than a sixteen-year-old girl. Then again, this is Brackybogue.
By the time I’m able to move, the boy from the commuter kiosk is gone. I’ve seen him several times, though he doesn’t go to Brackybogue High School. He’s lean and has dark hair and light eyes. I’ve never gotten close enough to see their color, but I think they’re blue. They seem to be watching me when I see him around town.
I tell myself I’m paranoid.
Then again, I did just see my mother’s uncle murder a guy who looked like a member of a Fujianese gang.
But what if the man’s not dead? What if Jiu Jiu was checking to make sure he was alive? Maybe it was just a disagreement. Maybe in China that’s how friends just kind of, you know, tussle. Kung fu style and all.
I should call an ambulance, but I can’t do it from my cell. They’ll trace it. I grab my bike, which is leaning against the wall of the bar, and follow Jiu Jiu toward Main Street.
A minute later, I’m around the corner at the pay phone in front of the deli. The street is completely empty, the way it always is on weekday afternoons after school. It’s four o’clock, but the shops on this street, even the deli, are a little too fancy and touristy for the few kids that live here year-round, and the tourists are all gone. In October it gets very, very quiet here, which is why I got into spying. When I was seven, I found out that I could take my bike and go all over the North Fork and no one would bother me or stop me. They would actually purposely not notice me because I’m short and Chinese and they don’t want me to feel weird.
It was spying that got me into this pickle.
I punch 911.
There’s some static, then the line connects and I hear an operator’s voice. It seems very far away, like she’s on the other end of a tunnel talking through a roll of toilet paper. She asks for my name.
I respond, “There’s a man by the railroad tracks in Brackybogue, I think he might be dead—”
“What is your name?”
“They should send someone right away. In case, um… he’s—”
This isn’t going the way I expected. The operator seems way more interested in my name than in the dead guy. I hang up.
I take off on my bike. In a minute I’m out in the middle of the fields, on the road that leads to the north highway. It’s very flat and you can see farmhouses dotted here and there along the road and plenty of blue sky. The North Fork is narrow—so narrow that at a certain point you can see the ocean on one side and the Long Island Sound and even Connecticut on the other, all at the same time. Sometimes I bike out to Orient Point to look at the ocean and think about Greenland, over yonder. You’d never know, living here, that you’re on the edge of the whole world.
Brackybogue is America’s most normal small town, with a tiny strip of quaint shops, a Fourth of July parade every year featuring dwarf ponies and antique cars and stuff, and a million cute festivals that lure tourists. My high school has two hundred kids—none of them are totally evil—and in the summer I get to swim in the bay every day. The North Fork, which people call the “Poor Man’s Hamptons,” isn’t snooty or fancy, just really pretty and quiet. My parents came out here for the first time on a day trip, and Mama said she couldn’t believe how much light and space there was so close to a major city. She said in Beijing, where she grew up, the buses were so crowded your nose was always stuck in somebody’s armpit and you could smell what other people had for lunch and the air was full of yellow dust. It’s true: Brackybogue is probably a great place to grow up. I know that I’m lucky to live here.
But I’m grown now, and it’s been feeling a mite cozy here since I was seven.
Brackybogue is about four miles wide and there are all these fields and little organic farms between the north and south roads. I need more cover. I take a small dirt road that goes right into a vineyard. It’s private property, but no one will say anything. It’s one of the big, commercial places so a lot of tourists are always wandering around the paths after they’ve tasted a few too many varietals.
I bike until I’m deep inside the vineyard. The short vines, which look more like little trees, don’t give me much cover, but I stop panicking. I throw my bike down and sit on the path to think.
I can’t say I’ve ever felt close to my mother’s uncle. He can barely speak English, and I didn’t really speak any Chinese until recently. He’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, though, showing up at our house as regularly as the phases of the moon. Every Monday—his day off from the restaurant where he works in Queens—he cooks us a big Chinese meal, sits in front of the TV in a wifebeater and shorts (no matter the weather), and picks his teeth with his extra long pinkie nail.
He’s also all that I have left of my mother, who died six years ago. A clue to her life before she came here. Baba is the best dad in the world, but he works long hours at a pharmaceutical company in Nassau and comes home late most nights. He hardly ever talks about China, and neither of my parents ever taught us any Chinese. The only clue to all the mysteries of my mother’s life, her early life in China, her family, is Jiu Jiu.
Who is… an assassin?
Okay, he can be kind of annoying. There’s the palm reading thing, and the yelling. Whenever we’re sick he makes my sister and me drink the foulest tea you can imagine: it tastes like tree bark boiled in fish skin. He cooks really well, but very ethnic and a lot. On Mondays he cooks five or six dishes, at least half of which have some random animal part in them—I’m talking about a goat eyeball, pigs’ feet, fish lips, cow lungs… I’m not making this up. He gets totally bent out of shape when I won’t eat, yelling that I’m too yin or too yang or something.
Maybe I never did like Jiu Jiu, but murder goes way beyond my idea of his crimes. And oh my God, his pork dumplings are really excellent.
I think of my sister, Lillian, who’s in college in New York City. I want to call her right now so bad, but she hates me. Then again, at least she’ll know about whom I’m talking. I don’t have close friends at school, and if I did I sure as shootin’ wouldn’t invite them over on a Monday night.
I pull my phone out of my backpack and dial my sister’s number. By the sixth ring, I know she’s not going to answer. I don’t feel like leaving a message—what would I say? Um, I know you don’t want to talk to me, but call me back? Jiu Jiu murdered a dude? Lillian already thinks I’m a delusional weirdo. I’ve told her about some of the things I’ve seen around this town on my reconnaissance missions—like about the big guy down the street with the vicious Rottweilers—but Lillian just rolls her eyes and says, “The sooner you get out of there the better, Pheemi. You’re a paranoid delusional.”
At the other end of the path, someone is coming toward me. Jiu Jiu, I think, and my heart stops dead. He’s coming to kill me too. I get up, wondering if I should take off on my bike again, but the path only goes deeper into the vineyard and I’ll be trapped. From here I could sprint through the field and maybe make it to the farmhouse back on the road. Then the figure is resolving itself enough that I can see it’s also on a bike. He’s a lot thinner than Jiu Jiu and has hair. Dark hair, light eyes. The boy from the train station kiosk.
He sees me and stands up on the bike, pedaling harder. I pick up my bike and get on it, a process that suddenly takes about five hours and feels really awkward. My heart is beating so fast I feel like I’m going to throw up. It takes me another seventeen hours to get the pedals moving on the dirt road with all the little stones on it. Slick, Euphemia.
Finally I’m going, but I hear his voice not very far behind me.
“Hey!” he says. “Stop!”
Oh God, he’s Jiu Jiu’s accomplice.
I can hear his gears creaking. I turn to look, and he’s right there behind me.
“Euphemia,” he says. “Stop. I need to talk to you.”
I stop. “How do you know my name?”
He stands behind me, his legs straddling the bike. “Oh, wow, let’s see. Hey, you know that Chinese girl? The only one on the North Fork? What’s her name?”
I’m at a big disadvantage here. I don’t know anything about him. He doesn’t even look like he’s from around here. His face is long, with fine features—like the hero of some English white parasol movie. He’s lean, without that thick, jock-y look of the boys that live around here. He doesn’t have any color in his face, like he’s never been to the beach, and he doesn’t have the local accent either. I was wrong about his eyes, though. They’re green.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
He hesitates with this slight look of pain. “Tyler,” he says, like he’s admitting something.
Then we both just stand there for a second.
“That was your uncle,” he says. “Wasn’t it?”
“I’m aware of that,” I snap. (Although technically he’s my great uncle.)
“I wish I hadn’t seen that,” he says.
I snort in a not-funny way. “And you’re not even related to the guy.”
“Are you okay?” he asks.
Am I okay? I look down at my handlebars. I feel like the bottom just fell out of the universe. Like I’m hallucinating. A cold feeling in my stomach tells me what I just saw is only the beginning. Things are about to get very bad. When Mama died there was a constant sucking feeling in my heart, like a parasitic alien was wrapped around it, and then there came a moment when I thought, Oh, this must be sorrow.
It always seems to happen to me like that; I feel the feeling for the first time, and then a while later I think of a name for it. Dread, I think. This must be dread. Part fear, part instinct.
I say, “Not really.”
“Do you think the other guy is dead?” he asks.
I look up with a glimmer of hope. “Do you think he’s not?”
“No,” I answer despairingly.
“He looked… deadish,” Tyler agrees.
With both stand there without talking for a few seconds.
He says, “I saw you make a phone call…”
“911,” I say.
“How do you know that?”
“That’s what I would do. You don’t know anything about him doing… anything like that before?”
“No! He’s just a chef!”
“He says he’s just a chef.”
“Well, what do you think?”
“I think he’s not a chef.”
“How do you know so much?”
“I’ve been, well… following you.”
So, it’s true. This is a really, really weird day. “And why are you following me?”
He shifts on his bike. “I know you go around town, watching people, figuring them out, because that’s what I do too.”
“Oh… has anyone else noticed me?”
“In this town?” Now he does grin. “People notice you. You’re not invisible. They don’t know what you’re up to, though. That’s just me.”
His face changes. “There’s something I think you don’t know, though. I’m just… you could be in danger, and you should be aware of it.”
“Oh, yeah, really?” This wouldn’t have anything to do with the whole murder thing we just witnessed, would it? There’s a distinct possibility that I might be laughing insanely like someone in an old movie about body snatchers right before the body snatchers take me away in a straightjacket.
“Your uncle is only part of it…” he says.
Jiu Jiu severing someone’s windpipe behind the train station is just part of something way worse.
“I only noticed your uncle because I was watching your… dad.” His voice lowers, as if he feels bad saying this. I put my feet back on the pedals. Jiu Jiu is one thing, but Tyler can’t say anything bad about Baba.
“I’m sorry,” he says quickly.
I start pedaling hard. Again I go through the process of looking like an idiot while it takes me ten minutes to get the bike moving on the dirt path.
“Wait!” I hear him call after me. “Let me explain!”
Now I know what I need to do: go home and talk to Baba before I do anything else. I go straight through the vineyard to the other side, listening for the sound of Tyler’s bike behind me, but it seems like he isn’t following me. I emerge onto the 25, the main road on the south side, and turn back toward Brackybogue. I have to trust my father because I always have, and he’s never let me down. He might be a little strict about some things, and he’s not a big talker, but he’s the gentlest, kindest guy. Since Mama died and my sister Lillian defected to the Big City, we just have each other. He may be a little strict sometimes, but he never raises his voice to us. The most he ever does is give me this look and say something like, I’m disappointed, Euphemia. Usually I feel so bad at that point that he doesn’t need to utter another word.
As I’m cutting through the small streets I’m thinking about all the times he came home late from work, exhausted, and stayed up helping me with my homework, never losing his patience. I know if we were stranded on a desert island with one teaspoon of water, he would put it to my lips before he’d ever think of taking it for himself. If Jiu Jiu really is some kind of gangster, assassin, or crazed psychopath, I need to talk to Baba about it.
And I’m not going to listen to some really cute guy talk trash about my father. I’m a little more loyal than that.
There was something about Tyler’s black corduroy pants that I found weirdly hot. They fit him really well and were kind of broken in naturally, not like he bought them that way from the J. Crew outlet in Riverhead. We don’t even have a real mall here on the North Fork—the entire peninsula rolls outlet-style. Not that I care about fashion, I’m just painting you a picture.
One of the things Baba is strict about is that he doesn’t want me dating white boys. Considering the only Chinese boy around here is Irwin Hu, a freshman who looks like he’s eight, that’s the same thing as not dating. So far I’ve been okay with that because small town guys are incapable of talking about anything but the Yankees, and their whole experience of the outside world is based on the time their grandparents took them to the city to visit M&M’s World and see The Lion King.
Our street, Oyster Road, is the main artery of Brackybogue, which means a car passes our house every half hour. The road leads straight to the bay beach and is lined with a bunch of old houses built by sea captains, as well as some newer houses like ours. The ones that belong to newer residents are perfectly maintained and have flowers everywhere and perfect lawns, and the houses that belong to old ladies who’ve been here all their lives are run-down, shuttered, and have monster rhododendrons climbing all over them. Don’t ask me why, but something about the sandy soil makes rhododendrons go crazy.
There are no other kids on our street, which is one of the weird things about living here year-round. The other permanent residents are mostly retirees, and then there are a bunch of people from Nassau or the city who only use their houses in the summer. Everyone is named Sandy, Pat, or Bob.
Then there’s the guy with the Rottweilers two doors down. The dogs always run to the end of their chains when you walk by, and they bark like they want to rip out your thorax and use it for a chew toy. Their owner is a huge muscly guy who always waves like, Hey, I’m super friendly, but he doesn’t do anything to make his dogs less scary—at least he could shorten their chains. I started bribing the dogs with Jiu Jiu’s offal, sneaking it out of the house in a napkin. Pretty soon they were as tame as bunny rabbits—I call them Tweedledum and Tweedledee—and they let me look in the windows of the house. Now I know why the big guy has them : so no one can sneak up on him while he’s in the middle of watching a Beyoncé video and copying her moves. Though the sight of an Arnold Schwarzenegger look-alike skipping around in a unitard belting out the lyrics to “Single Ladies” is much better entertainment than anything on TV.
I open the picket gate and walk my bike around to the back of the house. Across the street I can see Pat, the woman in the gingerbread Victorian house, peek out from behind her lace curtains. She’s a retired teacher and pretty bored. She’s restored her house so perfectly that it even has lamps out front that look like gas lamps, and it’s painted two shades of mauve. She has a Victorian Christmas party every year so I’ve been inside, and it looks like some creepy museum of frilly, tufted stuff. I also snuck upstairs and found a big stack of bodice-buster romance novels hidden under the pink canopy bed, so I guess she just wants to be living in one of them.
Normally I would wave to show her I know she’s watching, but I’m in too much of a hurry. I drop my bike and go in through the sliding glass doors from the deck. Behind our house is a Cape Cod-style cottage that belongs to weekend people from New York, and beyond that is the bay. Baba says we’re a “water view” home, which means if I stand on my toes in my room I can catch a gleam of blue somewhere in the distance. The truth is, being right on the water would make Baba nervous, though he always claims it has something to do with flooding in the basement. I don’t know if you know this, and it sounds like a stereotype (but it’s totally true): Chinese people don’t hang out at the beach that much.
It’s five o’clock. Baba’s probably not home yet. But as I walk past his office, I hear voices. The living room is split-level with a rail going all around the upper
floor’s hallway. I freeze in the middle and listen, but I can’t make out anything. As quietly as possible, I go to the door and put my ear to the wood. Baba’s office is always locked. He works for a company that develops new medicines and there are some important papers in there that competitor companies would love to get their hands on. Lillian and I know that this one room—Baba’s place to think and work—is off limits. Even Aiyi, the housekeeper, is only allowed to clean in there twice a year.
The voices are speaking in Chinese. My parents never taught us Chinese, but I always wanted to learn it. Whenever I brought it up to Baba in past years, he would start making fun of the way I talk, “Like, this, like, that. Omigod. Seriously. Learn better English first!” Or else he would say, “Learn something useful, like Spanish.”
Last year, I convinced Principal Turner to start offering Mandarin at Brackybogue High. I pointed out that we’re a backwater to New York City, which has one of the largest populations of Chinese people outside China, and culturally we are falling behind. That got her. (People here are always comparing themselves to the city, all the time. How can they help it? Every summer we’re flooded with New Yorkers, not the evil-celebrity Hamptons kind of New Yorkers, but you can still tell the difference. They don’t drop their r’s and their wardrobe isn’t from the outlet mall.) The principal went for it and hired Irwin Fu’s mother to teach us Mandarin and I’ve been taking it since.
My sister, who’s an artist, taught me how to forge documents using white gouache paint, and whenever I get my report card I just white out the “Chinese” and write in “Spanish.” I’m not exactly sure why I want to keep this a secret from Baba. I’ve just always had the feeling he has a reason for not wanting me to learn his language, something he can’t or won’t tell me.
So I can understand a little of what the voices in Baba’s office are saying, but only words here and there. They’re speaking a mile a minute and one voice is yelling. The other, Baba’s voice, is more subdued and upset. Because Chinese is tonal, the anger in the other voice doesn’t come from rising at a certain point in the sentence, but by speedily stabbing each word out at high volume. I’ve never heard Jiu Jiu sound this crazy before, but I’m pretty sure the yelling voice is his. “Buxing!” I hear. No good!
Then the volume of the voice rises, sounding shrill and violent. Oh my God, oh my God. What if he’s about to chop Baba’s windpipe in half like a lotus root?
I grit my teeth and knock loudly on the door.
The voices fall silent. A second passes, then two.
I hear someone approach the door. Baba opens it.
“Euphemia,” he says. His round face looks so tired his eye pouches have eye pouches.
“I need to talk to you,” I say, trying to tell him with my eyes that this is not just about a request for movie money. I glance at Jiu Jiu, who is standing up in front of the desk. His expression doesn’t tell me anything; he always looks slightly annoyed even now when he’s apparently furious.
Baba turns and looks at him as if to say, “What now?” But there’s a shell-shocked look in his eyes, like he can’t focus. I feel like I haven’t been noticing what’s been going on with him lately at all.
Then Baba shifts a little, and I see that Jiu Jiu is holding a pair of garden shears in his right hand, as if he just snatched them up from the deck on his way in. I never thought before about what a powerful man he is, his arms ropy from all that chopping and hacking at the restaurant. If he really does work at a restaurant.
He waves the other hand and says, “No problem, no problem. I go.” As if he’s the most accommodating guy in the world, just a humble food service worker. He puts the shears in his pocket.
As he brushes past Baba, I hear him say something in Chinese so simple that I can actually understand the whole sentence. “Ta shi ig wenti.”
She’s a problem.
I stand frozen, waiting for the sound of the front door.
I hear the sound of a car starting, just like at the train station.
Baba goes to his desk, sits down and sighs, holding his chin. I don’t know what to say to him. I feel like I’ve messed something up. She’s a problem. Did I even understand him right? Ta could mean either he or she. It was the way Jiu Jiu said it, though, looking away from my face and muttering.
“Does Jiu Jiu have a car?” I say.
Baba looks up. “Sit down, Euphemia.”
I sit down in the old oak chair Mama got at a yard sale. Mama loved yard sales, and she said they didn’t have anything like that in China—they didn’t have stuff. She loved all the stuff and how cheap it was.
It occurs to me that some of the few things I can remember Mama ever telling me about China were its lack of yard sales, the yellow dust, and the smell of people’s lunches on the bus. I feel really sad. If I’d known she was going to die, I would have asked more questions. I can’t get anything out of Baba.
“Euphemia,” Baba says again. “We may have to move back to China.”
He is silent for another long while, exhausted, thinking. I feel like I’m falling, falling through the bottom of the chair, through the basement and the ground underneath and into the center of the Earth. Nothing is real anymore, nothing makes any sense, anything can happen.
“I know you didn’t expect this,” he finally says. “I didn’t either. I thought you and Lillian would just become Americans. But we may have no choice.”
“I can’t explain right now. I need to prepare… I have to go away on business for a day or two. I need to leave right now.” He says this as though it’s all occurring to him while he’s speaking. He stands up and starts gathering some papers on his desk that have Chinese characters all over them. “Aiyi will take care of you.”
“But it’s Monday,” I say. Monday is our housekeeper’s day off, supposedly because Jiu Jiu comes to cook for us that day and we don’t need her. The truth is Jiu Jiu and Aiyi can’t stand to be around each other.
Maybe that means that Aiyi is smarter than the rest of us.
“I know,” Baba says. “I will ask Aiyi to come right now. She can take off later in the week. This is important.” He starts putting papers into his briefcase.
“Did you get fired?”
His eyes pop up to mine, and I see something nearly like a smile, like he would be smiling if he were capable of it right now. “No, I did not get fired. It’s more complicated. I have to prepare things now. We’ll talk when I get back. Okay?”
I want to trust him. “Okay, Baba.”
“Go upstairs and do your homework.”
I leave him and go upstairs. I wanted to tell him that I saw Jiu Jiu murder someone, but the words just wouldn’t come out. Baba looked so tired an anxious, and then it was too late, the conversation was over.
Then I think, he knows Jiu Jiu much better than I do. Maybe he knows everything.
Then I think, maybe Jiu Jiu is not my mother’s uncle.