Twelve-year-old Ella Mae Higbee is a sensible girl. She eats her vegetables and wants to be just like Sergeant Friday, her favorite character on Dragnet. So when her auntie Mildred starts spouting nonsense about a scientist who can bring her cousin back to life from blood on his dog tags, Ella Mae is skeptical—until he steps out of a bio-pod right before her eyes.
But the boy is not her cousin—he’s Japanese. And in California in the wake of World War II, the Japanese are still feared and despised. When her aunt refuses to take responsibility, Ella Mae and her Mama take him home instead. Determined to do what’s right by her new friend, Ella Mae teaches Takuma English and defends him from the reverend’s talk of H-E-double-toothpicks. But when his memories start to resurface, Ella Mae learns some shocking truths about her own family and more importantly, what it means to love.
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Mama said it was plum foolish not to wash the blood off Robby’s dog tags. “It’s like your auntie thinks that blood will keep your cousin with her, and we both know that’s plum foolish.” She shook a finger in my face. “And don’t you let anyone tell you any differently. Especially Auntie Mildred.”
But that was exactly what Auntie Mildred told me. “It’s not plum foolishness, it’s science.” She gave her broom a flick. “I saw this piece just yesterday about a scientist up north. Did you know he can regrow folks from practically nothing?”
But when I got back to the house and reported this news to Mama, she didn’t take it seriously. “It was hardly a piece. Auntie Mildred cut that clipping out of yesterday’s want ads. If you have a dead man’s lock of hair—or a few drops of his blood—some fool doctor wants it for his research.” She made a show of sighing. “That ain’t science, it’s bunk, and if your auntie can’t see that, I’m afraid she’s gonna end up with a fistful of regrets and a bellyful of heartache.”
I could have kept this up, scurrying back and forth between them like a telegram service, but those two already had enough to fight about, seeing as they were sisters. In fact, when Mama answered the telephone on that sunny Saturday, I figured it was Auntie Mildred calling to resume their never-ending argument about the best way to clean soap scum.
But I was only half right.
“Settle down, Mildred,” Mama said. “I can barely understand you.”
Auntie Mildred had a habit of shouting into telephones, so I could usually eavesdrop without expending too much effort, but for once, she didn’t shout. Her words came out so fast that I could barely catch the gist, and what I caught didn’t make sense. Something about Robby and a doctor’s appointment, but I couldn’t have said how those two things were related. By the time Mama said “All right, we’re on our way,” I still had no idea what the fuss was about.
“On our way where?” I asked.
Mama hung up the receiver. “That’s none of your concern,” she replied as she grabbed her gloves.
I folded my arms across my chest. “Then why do I have to come?”
“Because the last time I left you home, you pulled three shelves out of the wall—”
“Well, maybe if you hadn’t hidden the snickerdoodles,” I said, “I would’ve been able to reach ’em.”
“—and because,” Mama went on as if I hadn’t cut in, “I don’t want to drive with your auntie by myself. Pasadena’s an hour from here.”
I scrunched up my nose. “What’s in Pasadena?”
“The California Institute of Technology.”
“The California what?”
“Exactly,” Mama said as she steered me out the door.
We walked swiftly to the Clausens’ house to pick up Auntie Mildred, Mama’s sensible black pumps pounding out a sturdy rhythm on the sunbaked road. Auntie Mildred didn’t drive (despite Grandpa Willy’s best efforts), but we had to take her car, since the boys had taken ours to go fishing at the pier. I’d wanted to go, too, but Daddy hadn’t let me. Apparently, I was too old for manly things like fishing. This morning, I’d been madder than an unmilked dairy cow, but now I thanked my lucky stars. This trip to Pasadena sounded loads more interesting.
“Where’s Gracie?” I asked as we climbed into the Clausens’ Chrysler. It was actually Uncle George’s Chrysler (since he was the only one who drove it), but Auntie Mildred was the one who’d insisted on this model. It was round and teal, a car-shaped dollop of toothpaste.
“Not coming,” she said as she pulled on her gloves. Those gloves were so white that they could have been featured on a Rinso commercial whereas Mama’s gloves were off-white at best. Mama said that was because Auntie Mildred didn’t know how to get her hands dirty.
Mama’s golden hair danced in the wind as we thundered up the street. None of the other ladies at our church knew how to drive, but then, Mama wasn’t like any of the other ladies. She’d been raised by Grandpa Willy, who believed in teaching girls how to operate heavy machinery in case they ended up marrying men with no arms and no legs.
It was like Grandpa Willy knew that World War II was coming. He just hadn’t realized it would come for his grandsons instead.
• • •
The hardworking sun hung an hour lower in the sky when we arrived in Pasadena. Auntie Mildred’s knee bounced up and down as she gave Mama directions, but when we finally pulled into the parking lot labeled INGOLSTADT LABORATORIES, she only sat there staring.
Mama threw the gearshift into park. “Well, there’s no sense dillydallyin’.”
Auntie Mildred looked as wilted as Mr. Whitman’s week-old lettuce as she climbed out of the car. I wasn’t sure why—it was still cool enough that my legs hadn’t stuck to the custom upholstery—but maybe her wilting had less to do with the heat. She gaped at the building, and it gaped back at her. The door was a tightly sealed mouth, and the windows were eyes.
“Pull yourself together,” Mama hissed as she dragged her sister to her feet. “If what’s inside that building is really what you think it is, will he want to see his mama for the first time in seven years lookin’ like the Ghost of Christmas Past?”
“You’re right, Anna,” she said, tossing her hair over her shoulder. “I need to be strong. For Robby.”
“Why for Robby?” I asked. Auntie Mildred didn’t make sense on most days, but today, she made even less. Robby was dead and buried, and God and everyone knew it.
But she didn’t see fit to grace me with an answer, just let Mama lead her into the lab. They looked like Siamese twins as they half stumbled, half jogged across the crowded parking lot and through the front door. I actually had to sprint to catch up at one point. Wherever we were going, they wanted to get there on the double.
The lobby reminded me of the Alaska Territory (which Miss Fightmaster had covered in her last geography lesson). First, it was enormous. Second, it was cold. And third, except for a reception desk and a three-story portrait mounted on a distant wall, it was completely empty. I didn’t recognize the man staring down from the portrait, but he had to be important, since his mug was taking up as much space as our living room.
Mama’s booming footsteps made the secretary look up from the paper clips she’d been sorting. “Welcome!” she said brightly as she adjusted her glasses. “Do you have an appointment?”
Auntie Mildred tried to reply, but she just hemmed and hawed. Guess she’d already used up all her words in the car on the way here.
“Yes, ma’am,” Mama said, giving me Auntie Mildred’s purse. “Ella Mae, would you please find their card?”
Grudgingly, I took the purse. I thought I’d come on this adventure to keep Mama company, not to dig through Auntie Mildred’s handkerchiefs and Betty Crocker coupons. I was about to say so, too, when the secretary intervened.
“Oh, don’t bother,” she said. “We never give out our cards. If you dropped it on the sidewalk, anyone might pick it up, and then where would we be?” She pulled out her appointment book. “I’ll just look you up.”
Auntie Mildred’s mouth moved, but no sound came out.
I pretended not to notice. No need to draw even more attention to my embarrassing kin. “Her name is Mildred Clausen.”
The secretary flipped through her appointment book. “Ah, yes, Mildred Clausen, two fifteen with Dr. Franks.” She eyed us over her glasses. “Now I just need to see ID.”
Auntie Mildred took her purse back, pulled a water bill out of the pocket, and handed it across the desk.
“Thank you, Mrs. Clausen.” She set her sights on Mama. “And what about you?”
Mama made no effort to reach for her purse, though I wasn’t sure why. It seemed like a reasonable request—Sergeant Friday always asked to see ID on Dragnet—but then, Mama was less familiar with due process than I was. She always made a point of darning socks or doing dishes while me and Daddy watched the show together.
The secretary clasped her hands over her appointment book. “I apologize for the inconvenience, but the work we do here at Ingolstadt is of a very sensitive nature.” It sounded like something she’d said at least a hundred times.
Mama held out for another moment, then reluctantly dug out her wallet and slapped her driver’s license on the desk.
The secretary made a show of reading every word. “Thank you, Mrs. Higbee.”
Mama stuffed it into her wallet. “What about my daughter? Are you afraid my Ella Mae’s not who she says she is?”
The secretary forced a smile. “Of course not, Mrs. Higbee.” She motioned toward a silver door at the far end of the lobby. “You can go in now.”
Mama didn’t smile back as she hurried us away, black pumps thumping impatiently across the shiny tiles. A large man in a black suit was waiting by the door, and I felt my pulse quicken. If the man thought he could stop us, he was in for a surprise. Once Mama made her mind up, she didn’t often change it. But he didn’t try to slow us down. When the silver door slid open, he waved us right through.
On the other side of the door, we found another lobby, slightly smaller, and another secretary, this one blond-haired (though her hair didn’t look quite as natural as Mama’s). I assumed she’d dyed it with one of those boxes of Clairol.
“Mrs. Clausen?” she asked.
Auntie Mildred nodded.
“I’m afraid I have to ask to see your ID again.”
Mama threw her arms up. “Who do you think you are, the FBI?”
The secretary smiled ruefully. “And yours, too, Mrs. Higbee.”
After this secretary determined that Mama and Auntie Mildred hadn’t somehow switched identities in the last twenty-three seconds, she motioned toward another door at the far end of this lobby. It was guarded by a slightly larger man in a slightly blacker suit.
We repeated this process another six times, until we were so lost we’d probably need a compass to find our way back out. The lobbies kept getting smaller, as if the walls themselves were closing in around us, and the secretaries kept getting softer, as if they were afraid to breathe. The last one didn’t say anything, just glanced at our IDs and led us into a labyrinth of narrow, twisty halls. She left us in a small white room with a large screen and a red door.
I’d been anxious to see what the men were guarding, and now that we were here, it was hard to make myself sit still. At least we only had to wait a few minutes before the door slid open, revealing a man in a white lab coat. His mustache reminded me of Adolf Hitler’s.
“Mrs. Clausen!” he said, extending his hand to Auntie Mildred. How he knew which one she was, I had no idea. “My name is Dr. Franks.”
Auntie Mildred hesitated, then gently shook his hand.
Dr. Franks set his sights on Mama. “And you are . . . ?”
“Anna Higbee.” She jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “But then, I’m surprised your interrogators didn’t tell you.”
Dr. Franks forced a nervous chuckle. “Yes, they are quite thorough. But the work we do here at Ingolstadt is of a very sensitive—”
“Nature,” Mama finished. “They already mentioned that.”
“I’m sure they did,” he said, then bent down to look at me. He didn’t have to bend far. “And what’s your name, little missy?”
“Ella Mae,” I said, catching a whiff of his cologne. He smelled like moldy pickles, which probably explained why his ring finger was bare.
Dr. Franks straightened back up. “Regrettably,” he said to no one in particular, “I don’t think our experiment is exactly appropriate for someone of Ella’s age—”
“Ella Mae,” I cut in.
Mama stuck out her chin. “If it ain’t appropriate for my daughter, it ain’t appropriate for us, either.”
Dr. Franks didn’t argue. “In that case,” he replied, gesturing toward the screen (which turned out to be a window), “I invite you to witness the rebirth of subject oh-one-eight, otherwise known as Robert Clausen.”
So that was it, the big secret? Dr. Franks really thought he could bring folks back to life? The last time I checked, only God could do that. I wanted to ask Mama what she thought of this tripe, but she just stood there staring, like she’d known all along.
The rectangular room on the other side of the window wasn’t any bigger than this one. The only thing inside it was a giant red horse pill. A dark line ran down its middle, and on one side of the line, a screen winked on and off, like it was warming up.
The room certainly looked official, but it would take more than a few props to get me to change my mind. “If that’s really Robby, how’d he get in there?”
Dr. Franks tilted his head. “Are you familiar with the birds and bees, Miss Higbee?”
“Who ain’t familiar with birds and bees?” I replied at the same time Mama said “I beg your pardon!”
Luckily, Dr. Franks paid her no heed. “You see, Miss Higbee,” he said, “every human life begins as a single fertilized egg. That egg contains forty-six chromosomes, which tell the embryo how it should grow. Once we had an egg, which we procured from a donor, all we had to do was strip it of its chromosomes—delete its identity, if you will—and reinsert the chromosomes we collected from your sample.”
“What sample?” I asked.
Mama made a face. “He’s talkin’ about Robby’s blood.”
“Precisely,” he said as he nodded toward the horse pill. “Then we placed the egg in that pod and waited for it to grow.”
I didn’t see what eggs or chromosomes had to do with birds or bees, but since Mama seemed to know, I decided I’d ask her later. I couldn’t play detective if I looked uninformed. “So you’re sayin’ he’ll be a baby when he comes out of that thing?”
Dr. Franks snorted. “Of course not. What use would a boy have for a baby’s body? My pods are equipped with a gel that aids the growth and development of the fertilized egg. In this way, I accomplish in a matter of months what it takes Mother Nature many years to achieve.”
This might have sounded impressive, but I wasn’t fooled. He’d probably made up half those words. But instead of engaging him in a big-words debate, I set my sights on the television. It said 29, then 28, then 27, counting down.
“What’s gonna happen when it gets to zero?” I asked.
Dr. Franks smiled like the Cheshire cat. “Why, Robert Clausen will be reborn.”
I still didn’t believe a word of this nonsense, but Auntie Mildred fell for it hook, line, and sinker. The sheer force of his words seemed to knock her off balance, and she lunged for the window (or maybe the horse pill itself). Only her bony hands, which were clasped tightly in front of her, kept her from smashing into the glass.
“Careful,” Mama said. “You know, maybe you shouldn’t—”
“Hush,” Auntie Mildred cut in. For once, she sounded like the strong one.
Mama clamped her lips shut, but the television kept going:
“The subject may need some time,” Dr. Franks said suddenly. “He probably won’t remember everything all at once. I don’t mean to alarm you, but the other subjects have struggled—which is to say that they haven’t adapted as quickly as we’d like.”
“Mildred,” Mama whispered. “Are you absolutely certain that this is what you want?”
A single tear spilled down her cheek. “Yes, Anna, I’m sure.”
The line glowed, something hissed, and the horse pill split in half. Steam poured through the opening as a dim outline emerged.
I cupped my hands around my eyes and pressed my nose to the glass. As the shape took a wobbly step out of the horse pill, it resolved into a man. A man that might be Robby.
My heart sank to my toes. What if it really was Robby? What if he’d come back to life and the first face he saw was mine? It should have been Theo’s or even Gracie’s. Someone from his real family, not me.
Before I could retreat, the man bobbled and fell. Auntie Mildred gasped—she probably wanted to help him—but before she or Dr. Franks could rush to his aid, the man managed to drag himself back to his feet. When he looked up, our eyes met, and I saw three things all at once:
First, he was a man—or at least a boy—with arms and everything.
Second, he was naked.
And third, he wasn’t Robby. He was Japanese.
Mama attempted to cover my eyes, but it was a halfhearted move, more thought than action. When I knocked her hand away, she didn’t try to resist.
We stared at the man, and he stared back at us. I couldn’t tell how old he was—I’d always been terrible at guessing ages at the county fair—but he looked as old as Robby when he left for the war. The fact that he was naked—and covered in slime—didn’t seem to concern him. I couldn’t help but be impressed.
Dr. Franks gasped. “What on earth . . . ?”
“Is this a joke?” Mama asked.
“Of course not,” he replied, slithering backward a step.
The panic in his voice—and the look on Mama’s face—made my hands start to sweat. I hadn’t expected Robby to come out of that pod, but I certainly hadn’t expected a Japanese man to, either.
“Would you care to explain where he came from?” she asked.
“How should I know?” he replied. “That was supposed to be Robert Clausen, not some baby-faced Jap!”
Auntie Mildred was too busy staring at a spot on the wall to do much more than blink, but I swallowed, hard. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor when I was just a baby, but I knew why people hated them. Why they still called them names. The war they’d dragged us into had taken my cousin, Robby; my brother, Daniel; and at least one son or daughter from every family in St. Jude. Forgiving wasn’t easy when you lost someone you loved.
Dr. Franks, who’d been backpedaling since the Japanese man had emerged, crashed into the door. “I don’t understand.” He grabbed a nearby clipboard. “The DNA’s never wrong.”
“What’s DNA?” Mama asked.
“It’s an abbreviation,” he said as he fluttered through several pages. “It stands for deoxyribonucleic acid.” He smacked the clipboard. “And it’s never, ever wrong!”
“Then there must be some mistake.” Mama pried the clipboard from his hands. “You cockamamie scientists must have more of these capsule things. Robby’s probably in one of them.”
His head bobbed up and down. “Well, yes, I suppose he could be. I need to check with Imogene.” And with that, he seized the clipboard and scurried out of the room.
The soft snick of the door sliding shut on his heels was enough to snap Auntie Mildred out of her trance. She covered her face with her hands, and though she didn’t make a sound, her bony shoulders shook from the violence of her sobs. I tried to feel what she was feeling, but the tremors wouldn’t come. We’d buried Robby a long time ago. This loss felt small compared to that one.
While Mama tried to comfort Auntie Mildred, I sneaked another peek at the Japanese man. I’d been so certain that no one would come out of that horse pill, so now that someone had, I wanted to make sure he was real. His hair was black and caked with slime, which made it stick out every which way, but since it looked like a bird’s nest, I decided I liked it. His eyes were dark brown and shaped like sideways teardrops.
I slid along the window until I was even with him. I’d seen his arms and legs, but maybe he had four thumbs or flippers instead of feet. There was only one way to find out. After drawing a deep breath, I pressed my hand to the glass.
He must have known what I wanted, because he took a shaky step toward me. His legs caved underneath him, but once he regained his balance, he pressed his hand to the glass, his left against my right. His hand was bigger than mine, but it was a hand, with four tapered fingers and one crooked thumb. Our palms didn’t touch, but as slime outlined our hands, I thought I could feel the heat radiating off his skin.
Worry and excitement warred inside me, battling for my attention. But before one could win, Mama barked, “What are you doin’? Take your hand down from there, and turn around this instant. If your daddy only knew what you were lookin’ at . . .”
Grudgingly, I dropped my hand, but I stayed where I was. The Japanese man was a mystery I intended to solve.
• • •
For all of his so-called intelligence, Dr. Franks had no idea where the Japanese man had come from. As far as their records indicated (and their records were very accurate, he assured us), they’d injected the donated egg with Auntie Mildred’s sample. He only had one explanation for why it hadn’t grown into my cousin: the DNA—the blood—on my cousin’s dog tags must not have belonged to him.
Mama made a face. “That ain’t an explanation,” she said.
“Well, it’s the best one I’ve got. The science is still quite new. That’s why we call it a test.”
Mama didn’t try to reason with Dr. Franks, just grabbed her sister’s arm. “Let’s go,” she mumbled.
Dr. Franks lowered his clipboard. “But aren’t you going to take him?” He motioned toward the window.
“Take him where?” Mama asked.
Dr. Franks blinked. “Home, of course.”
Auntie Mildred’s eyes fluttered, which was what they always did when she started to swoon. We had to do something, and fast. Mama smacked her cheek while I kicked her in the shins. The kicking was usually Gracie’s job, but I’d seen her do it plenty of times.
Auntie Mildred straightened back up. “Thank you,” she peeped.
“My pleasure,” I said.
Mama returned her attention to Dr. Franks. “Did you really think we would just take him home?”
“Well, yes,” he replied. “Ingolstadt’s not equipped to house our subjects on a long-term basis. This is a laboratory, not the Biltmore.”
I wished it were the Biltmore. Then it would have had room service—not to mention a pool—instead of these tiny rooms and the lingering aroma of Dr. Franks’s cologne.
Mama tried a new tack. “What about your research?”
“Oh, well, you’ll bring him back every week for the next couple of months.”
Mama snorted. “Not likely.”
Dr. Franks sputtered. “But Mrs. Clausen signed a contract! She agreed to take custody.”
“No,” Mama said, “she agreed to take Robby.”
Mama rushed us away without a backward glance. I dragged my feet, wanting to catch one last glimpse of the Japanese man, but Mama’s grip was as tight as Uncle George’s bear traps. Dr. Franks pursued us, but Mama ignored his fervent pleas, her mouth set in a grim line.
We took several wrong turns, but Mama never wavered. When we finally emerged into the lobby with the three-story portrait, it was by the sheer force of her will. The secretary refused to meet our eyes as we skittered out the mouth door, which zoomed shut on our heels like it was spitting us out.
It wasn’t until the afternoon sun started to thaw out my arms that I realized how cold I was, and suddenly, I felt a little sorry for the Japanese man. Would he ever know the feeling of sunshine on prickly goose bumps, or of fresh air in cooped-up lungs?
Auntie Mildred shook her head as we climbed into the car. “I can’t take him. I won’t. I told them I’d take Robby, not this . . . this imposter.”
Mama jerked the gearshift into reverse. “Didn’t I say that ad was trouble?”
“I just wanted Robby back.” Auntie Mildred’s shoulders slumped. “Dr. Franks said they’d discovered the secret of life.”
Mama’s nose wrinkled. “He ain’t God Himself.”
“He sounded smart,” she went on. “He knew stuff we didn’t.”
“Lots of folks know stuff we don’t, but that doesn’t make ’em smart.”
Mama and Auntie Mildred didn’t say another word for the rest of the ride, though I would have welcomed the entertainment. The drive was as dull as Mama’s silver, nothing but rolling hills and clumps of sage for as far as the eye could see. Or maybe it wasn’t the drive that was really the problem. My thoughts were tangled knots that I couldn’t untie, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to. The others seemed to think that the Japanese man was a criminal, but how could you decide if a man was good or bad just by looking at his face?
I was still trying to decide when we turned off the old highway, but before I could ask, Auntie Mildred finally cracked.
“I’ve been thinking,” she said. “There’s only one way that blood could have ended up on those dog tags.”
Auntie Mildred gave us a chance to work it out on our own, but me and Mama were less thinkers, more doers. We didn’t work anything out before her patience ran dry.
“There must have been some sort of scuffle.” Auntie Mildred hissed the words as she leaned across the seat. “Then he must have killed my son.”
I might not have had the brains to come up with the answer on my own, but I could spot the truth when someone pointed me in its direction. Worry rumbled in my stomach like a pack of restless squirrels. If the Japanese man had killed Robby, would he kill us, too? I glanced at Mama to see if she’d had the same thought, but her face in the rearview was a blank mask.
“That’s quite an accusation,” she said.
Auntie Mildred sniffed. “It’ll turn out to be true. You just wait and see.”
Daddy didn’t get home that night until it was almost time for dinner. As soon as he walked through the door, he hung his hat on the coatrack and retrieved his dinner jacket. He always wore it to eat, just like he never left home without a hat on his head. I figured that was why they called it a dinner jacket.
“Evening, Anna,” he said as he strolled into the kitchen.
She looked up from the ham she’d been dragging out of the oven. “I’m sorry we’re late. It’s been one of those days.”
“Tell me about it,” he said, relieving her of the ham. He set it on the table with an audible thunk. “But really, I don’t mind.”
Mama kissed him soundly. “I appreciate your assistance.”
Daddy grinned. “My pleasure.”
I pretended to hurl into the mashed potatoes, but neither of them seemed to notice.
Eventually, Mama returned her attention to the ham. “Did you have a nice time at the pier?”
“Not really,” he said. “For some reason I can’t quite fathom, the fish prefer George’s line.” He sneaked a piece of ham. “Did you have a nice time baking cookies?”
“Actually,” I replied, “we didn’t have time to make cookies. Auntie Mildred called after lunch, and we had to—”
“Ella Mae,” Mama said, “how are those potatoes lookin’?”
I inspected my handiwork. I could have made a stink that she hadn’t let me finish, but I’d long since figured out that mamas played by different rules. “I’d say they’re lookin’ mashed.”
Mama untied her apron. “Then I’d say it’s time to eat.”
I set the potatoes down next to the ham, then squeezed into my seat. Daniel’s was more accessible, but no one sat in Daniel’s chair. If we had dinner guests, Mama made us eat outside. Other folks might have minded, but it made sense to me. I wanted Daniel to come home and take his seat at the table almost as much as she did.
Daddy held out his hands. His prayers were short and sweet, but that was just the way I liked them. I figured Jesus liked them that way, too, since He had to listen to so many.
After he finished the prayer, Mama dished up the potatoes. They only looked slightly lumpy. “I assume you ate the fish for lunch?”
Daddy nodded. “You know George.”
Uncle George had been an Eagle Scout since they were first invented, so he didn’t believe in frying fish in pans. Instead of bringing his catch home, he roasted it right there on the beach, where it would taste like sand and surf. Since Auntie Mildred only cooked what Betty Crocker told her to, this arrangement worked out well.
Mama took a sip of sweet tea. “I guess buying that electric range was a waste of money.”
“It does match their Chrysler,” Daddy said.
“And their toaster,” I replied.
“They make teal toasters?” Daddy asked.
Mama scooped up some green beans. “They make teal everything.”
“Including houses,” I said.
Mama shook her head. “No, that’s completely different.” She scooped up some more green beans (though I knew for a fact that she only ate green beans because they were good for you). “Our house is sky blue, not teal.”
Our house was certainly something. It used to be white, but on the one-year anniversary of my brother’s death, Mama had decided that white was too drab. It had taken her a few weeks to pick out a new color, but once she’d settled on blue, it had only taken us a few days to paint it. Slow to judge, quick to act—that was how Mama lived.
Daddy raised his glass. “Well, thank goodness I married the sensible Simpson.”
Mama clinked her glass to his. “You can put that on my tombstone.”
He speared a slice of ham. “Everything’s delicious, sweetheart. You two must have spent the whole day in the kitchen.”
“Actually,” I said, “we didn’t get back until—”
I broke off when something—or someone—kicked me in the shins.
Mama smiled sweetly. “Pass the butter, will you, sweetness?”
Scowling, I passed the butter. I would have made more of a fuss, but I didn’t fancy getting kicked again.
Daddy speared another slice of ham. “Where did you go?” he asked.
When Mama didn’t answer right away, I took advantage of her silence: “We drove up to Pasadena to meet a man named Dr. Franks. He grows folks in these red horse pills, and one of them should have been Robby, but he was Japanese instead.”
I’d tucked my legs under my chair about halfway through this speech, but I needn’t have bothered. Mama’s attention was on Daddy, who arched an eyebrow at her. When Mama shook her head, Daddy burst into guffaws.
“What’s so funny?” I demanded. I really didn’t like being the only person in the family under the age of forty-five. It made it hard to get the jokes.
“You are,” Daddy said.
I knotted my arms across my waist. “I was tryin’ to be serious.”
“We know,” Mama replied as she nudged me with her foot.
The emphasis she put on that one word said more than ten or twenty could have, but Daddy didn’t seem to notice.
“Maybe we ought to take a break from Sergeant Friday,” he said, winking. “I didn’t realize you had such a vivid imagination.”
He and Mama went on laughing like a pair of drunken sailors, but I didn’t join in. No matter what people said, most folks laughed at you, not with you. I drained my milk in one swallow, then slammed the glass down on the table (since that was what the cowboys in all of Daddy’s Westerns did).
“May I be excused?”
At least that got their attention. “Aren’t you hungry?” Daddy asked.
Irritably, I shook my head. “Seeing men come back to life kind of takes away your appetite.”
Daddy’s forehead wrinkled, but before he had a chance to ask me what I meant, Mama said, “I’m sorry you’re not feelin’ well. Maybe you should go upstairs.”
She meant that I should go upstairs before I spilled the beans, but I’d already spilled them, and Daddy still hadn’t believed me. We’d been partners in crime since Daniel had left for the war, so this brush-off was especially painful. I set my plate down in the sink, then headed upstairs to my room.
I stormed past Daniel’s door, which was closed like always, the doorjambs standing guard like a pair of silent soldiers. Mama kept his room exactly as he’d left it, as if he might come home someday and pick up the pieces of his life. I couldn’t say I blamed her. Daniel was the only thing she’d brought all the way from Alabama after the Depression and the Dust Bowl had forced them to head west. She’d always called Daniel her home’s blood and me her little miracle, but maybe if she’d called Daniel the same thing, he wouldn’t have stepped on that land mine.