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Authors: Graham Salisbury

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BOOK: Under the Blood-Red Sun
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“Yeah,” Mose said, nodding. “And the army got howitzers and bazookas and more guns like that too.”

“Shhh,” Rico said. “Forget the stupit army. They just Boy Scouts.”

“And what about the pursuit fighters?” I added. “They’d shoot any German ships before they could even get close to us.”

Billy thought for a minute, holding the ball in the knuckle-ball grip. “I don’t think Keet is worried about the war.”

“Why not?” Rico asked.

Billy shrugged. “He likes that kind of stuff.”

“What stuff?”

“Guns. Shooting things.”

I wanted to add that if he liked it so much he should join the army. That would solve a lot of problems. But I kept my mouth shut. Papa might hear about it.

The Emperor

After school
, Mose and Rico walked with me and Billy to the bus stop.

“Hey,” Billy said, “thanks again for the ball.”

“You earned it,” Mose said. I think he was pleased that the ball had meant so much to Billy.

Rico flicked his eyebrows like that Groucho guy in the movies, then he and Mose continued on down the road to where they lived.

Tough Boy Gary Ferris, who was third baseman on the Rats, caught up and joined them. Tough Boy was built like a garbage can. He was short and had big muscles, and was held in high esteem by Rico, because he was the younger brother of Tina, who lived in Rico’s dreams as his future girlfriend. The three of them walked away like they were on a rocking boat, bumping into each other with their shoulders.

I followed Billy onto the bus, the last two in line. We squeezed our way to the back. Everyone knew our seat, so nobody was sitting there. Billy stared out the window and tossed his new baseball from one hand to the other.

I started reading my science homework, but my mind kept wandering back to my same old daydream of how it would feel to beat up Keet Wilson. Sometimes I wanted that so bad, just to punch him once, or even just to shove him, if that’s all I could get away with before he smashed me into the dirt. Sometimes it was almost impossible to just swallow trouble the way Papa demanded.
If you make trouble and lose face
, he told me so many times that I heard it in my sleep,
you shame yourself. If you shame yourself, you shame all of us. Be above it, Tomi … that’s the only way
.

Criminy. He must have been made out of steel.

We got off near the grocery store at the bottom of the valley and hiked up to where we lived, on a narrow road with big white houses hidden back in the trees. When we passed Keet’s house, Billy and I both glanced up the long, curved driveway. You could see the porch and the glass windows on the first floor, but the top half was hidden in the jungle of trees between the road and the house. Somewhere in there, Mama was mopping the floors or making somebody’s bed.

Before we got to Billy’s house we headed into the trees, following the dirt path that stumbled through the weeds and jungle to my house in the far corner of the Wilson estate. Keet called it a shack. But Papa said if our house was a shack, then where he grew up back in Japan was a chicken coop.

When Lucky saw us coming, she dragged herself up
and trotted down to meet us, walking stiff-legged and crooked, her belly poking out to the sides. Her tail stood straight up, like a flagpole. She was supposed to be called Rocky, but no one in my family could say that word.
Locky
was the best they could do. So I changed it to Lucky. Anyway, Billy told me she was mostly beagle. But she could have been mostly lizard and it wouldn’t have made any difference to me. Papa found her down by his boat and she was the best present he’d ever given me.

“Boy, she getting kind of fat,” I said.

I stopped and bent down to pet her, then looked around the yard. Quiet. Kimi and Grampa were probably up by his chickens.

Lucky leaned against Billy’s leg, then scratched her belly, her hind leg flying. Billy reached down and rubbed her neck. Lucky yawned, her eyes stretching to slits.

Billy waited out in the yard with Lucky while I went up the stairs and into the house. In all the years I’d known him, he’d never asked if he could come inside. I guess I could understand that—Mama didn’t encourage it. And I guess I didn’t either. Mama was a very private person.

But for me it was different. I was kind of embarrassed, mostly about my room. Billy’s room was three times bigger, at least. And when I was at his house, his mother never made me feel anything but welcome. She was a nurse at Queen’s Hospital and wasn’t always home, but when she was, she always asked about Mama and Papa. And even Grampa, sometimes. Then she’d help us find a snack and send us up to Billy’s room where we’d sit around and look at magazines.

At my house we didn’t even have
one
magazine. All I
had in my room was Grampa’s tatami mat on the floor and four orange crates me and Grampa shared. We stacked them up and put our clothes in them. And I had a metal bed that was only a mattress on a wire mesh attached to the frame by rusty metal coils that squeaked. It was the only bed in the house. Everyone else slept on the floor, like in Japan.

Under my bed, wrapped in a silky
furoshiki
scarf and a burlap bag, was Grampa’s treasure—the family
katana
, or samurai sword. He even had an oil cloth neatly folded in a box in the burlap bag, to keep the blade sharp and clean. The
katana
had been in our family for over three hundred years. Grampa wasn’t sure, but he thought someone had been killed by it a long time ago.

If I ever became worthy, Grampa said, he would pass it down to me. He spent many hours telling me about how important it was, trying to prepare me for the day he would hand it to me to be its keeper and protector. It was our most prized possession, he said, the symbol of generations of honorable living in our family. Thinking about all that responsibility made me nervous, and Grampa could probably see that. I wanted to show it to Billy so much, I almost had to tie my hands behind my back. But it was sacred, and I couldn’t treat it like just some toy.

Grampa told me that in the olden days if you dropped it or mishandled it you would have gotten your head chopped off. Those things were made to the highest perfection. They had their own spirits, almost. And even though my devotion to the family wasn’t good enough for Grampa, I knew how important that
katana
was. It wasn’t just a sharp blade that he hid under my bed. It was the
heart of our history. Grampa honored it and protected it. So did Papa. And so would I.

I threw my science book on the bed and changed into an old shirt.

Billy suddenly rapped on the front door, which was only a rusty screen. It rattled like it was about to fall off. “Tomi,” he called. “Come out here.”

I hurried out.

“What?” I said.

“I got a surprise for you. I don’t think Lucky got fat.… She’s going to have puppies.”

“What?”

“Really, come feel her sides.”

Lucky stared up at us, looking guilty and innocent at the same time, blinking her eyes and wagging her whole rear end. Her sides felt as solid as a hundred-pound tuna. “Shee, must be from Rufus. That’s the only boy dog around here.” Rufus was Keet’s German shepherd.

“Maybe, but Rufus is pretty big to be fooling around with a beagle.”

“Who else, then?”

Billy shrugged. “I want one of the pups, okay?”

“You better take them all or else Grampa might drown them.”

“He wouldn’t do that … would he?”

“Who can tell with him? One time, he wanted to put Lucky in a rice bag and take her out to sea because she chased his chickens. Anyway, you can have the first pick.”

Imagine that, Lucky was going to have pups. I would have to act upset about it around Papa and Grampa, but inside I would be purring like a cat.

I gave Lucky a hug and she licked my face.

“Get your mitt,” Billy said. “Let’s go.”

I went back inside to get the glove. When I came out of my room, Billy was waiting at the open screen door, looking around our small front room. It was spotlessly neat. Mama didn’t like any messes.

“What’s all that? Who’s in that picture?” he said, nodding over to our family
butsudan
, a black boxlike thing with doors that opened to a small stage. If you stood up the giant dictionary in the school library, it would be about that big, only much lighter. Anyway, on the stage inside the
butsudan
was a small photograph of my grandmother.

“That’s … kind of like an altar … to remember Grandma by. That’s her in that picture.”

“Why’s she in an altar?”

What could I say?

“Well … she died, and Grampa … Grampa talks to her.”

“Talks to her?”

“He does it all the time. And he lights some incense for her when the sun rises and when it sets. Every day. See, her spirit gives him guidance, and protection. That’s what Mama says. The
butsudan
is a place you can go to, when you need some help, when you have a problem.”

“The same as going to church?”

“I guess so. Anyway, it’s very important. Especially for Grampa.”

“You believe in that?”

“Yeah, sort of.… I guess.… I don’t know.”

Billy studied it a moment, then looked up at the picture
of Emperor Hirohito on the wall above it. The emperor was like the king of Japan, standing in the photograph as stiff as a glass doll. He wore wooden shoes with high bottoms, and a heavy-looking robe. And a hat with a foot-long feather thing standing straight up on top. Funny-looking. But back in the olden days, where that stuff came from, it was very elegant. At least, Grampa said it was.

“That’s the emperor of Japan,” I said.

“What’s that thing on his head?”

“Who knows? Crazy, yeah?”

“Looks like a rooster.”

I grabbed a couple of apples from the fruit bowl by the couch and tossed one to Billy. “Go get your glove.… I’ll meet you at diamond grass in ten minutes. I better go look for Grampa and tell him where to find me. And bring that new ball.”

Billy jumped off the porch and jogged through the trees toward his house. Lucky came up the steps and peeked in the door, her ears cocked. “How we going tell Papa about all those pups, you crazy dog?”

I shook my head and turned back to the emperor. I’d seen him so often, I’d almost forgotten he was there.

•  •  •

We met at the field where the pigeon lofts were. Diamond grass, Billy called it, a field between his house and mine, a green, grassy place where we went to practice baseball and get away from the world. Being there was like being on a small boat where the world shrinks down
to a few feet of wood and everything works just the way you want it to. I guess you could say it was our refuge. Billy came up with that name because the whole place looked like diamonds in the morning when the grass was sparkling with dewdrops and the sun was shining on it.

Billy jogged out from between the trees and threw me the ball, a high pop-fly. I caught it with my bare hand.

“Hoo, a baseball legend,” Billy said.

“You right about that,
haole
boy.”

We tossed the ball back and forth a few minutes to warm up. I tried to copy the way he threw, relaxed and smooth. But Billy had a special way I just couldn’t seem to match. When he pitched, the ball always hit my glove solid. He was a natural.

Billy was back to his old easy self again, not quiet like on the bus. I figured he must have been worried about the attack on the
Greer
. I kind of was too. I could almost see Hitler gobbling up countries like Mr. Ramos said he was doing.

“Okay,” Billy said, walking over to the mound. It was really just a small pile of dirt that Billy and I wheelbarrowed over from Billy’s garden. And for home plate, we cut out a piece of plywood, then got a sickle to make the grass short between the mound and the plate. It was a pretty good setup.

Billy put the ball in his glove and raked his hair back with his fingers. “Curveball today … that’s all I’m going to throw.… So, what’s the sign?”

“Two fingers.”

“Okay, let’s go.”

Billy leaned forward and stared at me, the ball behind his back.

I punched my mitt and squatted behind the plate. “Boy, those Kaka’ako guys sure got mad when they saw you could throw those curves.”

“Yep,” Billy said.

Billy’s father said it wasn’t a good idea to start throwing curveballs until you were thirteen or fourteen, because you could hurt your arm permanently. So Billy waited, because he wanted to do things right. This year the
haole
school baseball coach, who’d had his eye on Billy, had finally said he could start trying out the curve. So now Billy had four pitches—fastball, fastball change, curveball, and curveball change. That’s how we beat the Kaka’ako Boys for the first time in the last six games.

Billy let one fly.
Whomp
. Square in my glove. Solid. Stung my hand. I tossed back the ball.

“Okay, let’s get to work,” Billy said.

He was a workhorse. When
he
practiced, I practiced. He wouldn’t even let my
mind
take a break. I crouched down behind the plate and gave the sign—two fingers.

BOOK: Under the Blood-Red Sun
8.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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