Content Warning: the following story contains themes of racism and bigoted language.
Hanging upside down from a low branch, Brody watched the truck reverse into the neighbor’s driveway. On its tarpaulined side, big letters spelt ERIH ROF. Brody saw a green sofa carried on shirtless backs, like a tortoise shell, a stand-up piano pushed on squeaky little wheels and enormous boxes lifted above sweaty foreheads.
After a few minutes he swung himself back up, bark biting into the skin at the back of his knees. Then Mom’s voice came yelling from the house, and he had to climb down from the tree. Inside was even hotter than outside, with smells of burnt oil and soiled diapers. The radio station Mom always had on blared from the speaker on top of the fridge, filling the house with sad songs and weeping guitars. Brody stepped over piles of clothes and scattered toys to get to Mom on the sofa.
“Hold her,” she said, handing him the baby. “I need the toilet.”
He took the baby, wondering again why his older sister had left it with Mom. They really didn’t need a baby in the house with his teenage brother always in trouble and Dad away on his sales trips most of the time.
“What are the new neighbors like?” Mom asked when she got back from the bathroom. She’d been best friends with the Peterson Mom before they moved at the beginning of summer; somewhere far, with mountains and lakes, where it snowed in the winter. Mom’s chats with Mrs. Peterson had always ended with loud laughter, cups of teas, or barbecue dinners shared on either side of the fence.
“Haven’t seen anyone yet,” he shrugged.
“I hope they fit in,” she muttered, taking the baby from him.
Brody walked back out, wondering how or where the new neighbors were supposed to fit. Adults said the weirdest things sometimes.
Over the fence, the truck was gone and a red hatchback was parked in the driveway instead. It didn’t have dents like Mom’s car and looked like it had just been cleaned. Polished, even. A boy about his age ran from the house to help a lady carry more boxes. Brody tried to make out what she was telling him, but he couldn’t. It was like the sounds didn’t string together in a way he could understand.
Yong had told Brody he was an only child the first time they rode their bikes together inside the cul-de-sac. It had seemed to Brody both exceptional and maybe a bit odd. The McDowells, the Riveras, the Fishers, all his friends around here, they all had siblings. There were eight of the Dugan kids, which almost seemed like too many.
Just about everyone was away for the holidays, so for the rest of the summer they played at Yong’s house most of the time. Brody liked it there; the inside of his head felt more still somehow.
Like most people on this side of town, the Chens didn’t have air conditioning; but big wooden fans, like giant wings lazily flapping from the ceiling, blew soft air on his skin whenever he walked in. Ink drawings hung on the lounge walls, of gnarled trees and huge mountains with pointy houses nesting in their folds. When Brody looked at them, he thought of the fairy tale forests from the library books, where monsters could hide, and what if there was a monster behind the mountains, ready to leap into the lounge.
Yong’s room was upstairs, and he didn’t have to share it with anyone. Brody hadn’t let on, but he had been amazed the first time he saw Yong’s computer on the small desk facing his bed, with piles of video games that filled an entire shelf.
Today, like most days, the house was filled with a steamy fragrance coming from the kitchen. Brody and Yong hovered around Mrs. Chen as she moved deftly over the pots bubbling and hissing on the stove, until she fed them each a mouthful from a slotted spoon. Brody kept the bite on his tongue as they ran up the stairs, then swallowed it with his eyes closed.
“Shall we build a Lego tower?” Yong asked, grabbing a wooden toy chest filled with bright-colored bricks.
“Yes!” Brody said, getting to his knees on the carpet.
It had fast become their favorite game; they turned tall walls into fortresses, making up stories that unfurled as the tower rose.
“There was a monster…”
“… a BAD monster that…”
“… looked like a slug!”
“… a GIANT slug…”
“… that… that…”
“… came from the wall!”
“… and crawled down…”
As the words left their lips, Brody could see the slug pulsing out of the room’s wall, a distorted shape with bulbous eyes swaying on top of thin membranes. He could see the thick, glistening trail it left as it slid along the wall, then across the carpet toward them.
“… and attacked the tower!”
“… and then…”
“… crawled inside us and…”
“… ate our hearts!”
They jumped up screaming, slicing the air with Kung Fu moves they had seen in video games, before smashing the tower to pieces and falling to the floor in fits of laughter. Lying on his back, hands resting on his quivering belly, Brody was sure he could still see the slug from the corner of his eye, writhing on the carpet, ready to attack.
When he came home one day, late in the afternoon, Dad’s van was parked in front of the house. Brody stiffened before stepping through the front door; every time Dad was home there were fights and more screaming than usual. His parents were sitting on the sofa, beer in hand, a few empty bottles lined up on the low table in front of them. Mom gave him a funny look.
“Here’s our son, back from the orient,” she said, her voice all wobbly.
“What?” Dad said.
“Hi Dad,” Brody said, frowning. “I was just at the Chen’s house.”
“I see… better start watching out for our pets around here, or they might end up in a stew!” he said, winking. He and Mom howled with laughter, looking at Brody as they took sips from their beers.
Brody didn’t laugh. He could tell there was something else hidden behind what Dad had said, something he didn’t understand. Maybe he would, when he grew up. In any case, they hadn’t had pets since the stripy cat was run over, which had been a shame because it had been cuddling up to Brody every night. The Chens had a pet; a girl rabbit with grey and white fluffy hair that tickled Brody’s hand when he stroked its back.
“When are we going to eat?” he asked.
“Soon,” Mom said with a distant look in her eyes. “Are their beds made of, like, wood with nails sticking out or something?”
“That’s the Indians,” Dad said, waving his hand as if to indicate some place else, further.
Brody stood facing his parents, his head filled with things he couldn’t figure out how to say. He wanted Mom to talk to Mrs. Chen the way she talked to Mrs. Peterson. He wanted his parents to taste Mrs. Chen’s cooking. He wanted to understand why they were laughing. But no words came to him. He just stared at the wall, at the water stains seeping from the ceiling, their darkened edges contorting into shapes like the heart eating slug.
“They make their beds every day,” he said eventually. He wasn’t sure why he did, but at least it was true.
On the first day back at school, Brody and Yong both sat in Miss Tenner’s classroom, although not together. She took attendance in her long southern drawl, marking each name with a blue sharpie. When she got to the Cs, she called John Chen and Yong raised his hand. Brody sneaked a look at Yong sideways, wondering when the switch had happened; his entire life, he had always been called Brody no matter where he went.
At morning recess, Brody ran to the building’s far end where his best friend Hayden, who was in the next grade, and all the boys he hadn’t seen all summer had gathered under the big oak tree.
The group brimmed with excitement, holiday stories blooming from each child like helium balloons. When his turn came, Brody lifted his hands high above his head to show how tall the Lego towers really were. He swung his leg up in the air when he got to the monster attacks, looking for Yong in the circle of glistening eyes as words rushed through his lips. But he couldn’t find him and soon it was time to go back to class.
As he stepped inside, Brody caught a glimpse of a small figure rising from a bench at the back of the courtyard, alone. He felt his stomach turn upside down, like the time he ate too much jello at Christmas, except today he hadn’t.
Later, walking across the noisy lunchroom with Hayden, Brody spotted Yong at a table by the window.
“You don’t want to sit with the alien,” Hayden hissed, squinting his eyes even though the sun hid behind heavy clouds.
“He’s not…” Brody began, but Hayden had already passed Yong’s table and gone to the one with all the boys from recess. Brody followed him and sat down. In his lunchbox, the sandwich Mom packed had gone all soggy. He left half of it and also didn’t eat the apple in case worms were hiding in its core.
Brody walked home from school the next day with a small group of boys, after a storm had battered town all night with wild winds and relentless rain. The smell of damp earth filled their lungs as they kicked at piles of sodden leaves, squealing when their boots landed in muddy puddles.
“Hey, here’s the alien,” Hayden said, pointing at Yong a few feet ahead of them, a blue backpack swinging on his shoulders.
Hayden picked up a spiky husk off the ground and threw it in Yong’s direction. The little boy’s hand went up to his neck, massaging the reddened skin, but he didn’t turn around and kept going. Hayden threw another chestnut husk, then another one. The boys yelled and cheered each time one hit with an empty thump, their voices echoing in Brody’s head like tribal drums.
As he stood motionless on the pavement, he felt rainwater seep through a tiny hole in his boot, soaking his foot with icy water. Looking down, he saw a greyish slug squirming silently on the rubber, its bulbous eye-stalks extended, staring up at him.
The next morning, Brody went to find Yong at recess. He was sitting on the same bench as the day before, a set of Kung Fu playing cards fanned in front of him. Brody sat next to him, not too close, careful not to mess up the cards.
“This one is a bad guy,” Brody said, pointing at a dark figure with a fireball in each outstretched hand.
“True… but at least it’s obvious,” Yong said. “Sometimes it’s harder to tell,” he added, then turned away as if he was about to cry.
Brody stared at the card, picking at a scab on his wrist and hoping his friend wouldn’t say anything else.
“You were with them yesterday,” Yong said quietly.
“Yes, but I didn’t…” Brody started.
“I know,” Yong said. He seemed to hesitate before turning to face Brody. “You did nothing.”
“But these people, they don’t think like us, you know,” Gran’s voice said from deep within the corner armchair. Gran was Mom’s mom and lived in a town far away Brody had never been to. She visited twice a year, the boot of her car filled to the brim with toys and clothes and extra things she said they must be needing.
“That’s it. That’s the thing,” she muttered.
Brody knew Mom and Gran had been chatting about the Chens, but he wondered what the thing was she was talking about. Gran said the weirdest things even more often than other adults. He shuffled on his knees over the prickly carpet, carefully adding a green brick from the new Lego set to the top of his tower. He looked up to see Gran staring absently at the water stains that had extended halfway across the wall after the storm. Mom was tapping her nails on the side of the cup of tea she was holding.
“Then that feral rabbit of theirs digs under the fence and eats my Batavia leaves,” she said, as if it confirmed something.
Gran made a tiny smack sound with her tongue on the roof of her mouth.
“You know,” she said with a nod to the bassinet next to Mom, “they used to drown baby girls in their rivers. It’s a historical fact.”
There was a flipping feeling in Brody’s stomach then, like a hiccup, and with it came the certainty that the thing Mom and Gran were talking about had nothing to do with the Chens at all. That there was no way Yong or his Mom would throw the baby down a river, he was sure of it, and that the rabbit would eat leaves no matter whose family it belonged to.
Back up on his feet, he clicked a red brick into place; the top of the tower almost went up to his chin now. The damp spot on the wall caught his eye and he could see it again, the slug thing, slowly sliding down the wallpaper, creeping across the carpet toward him, and soon…
Crawling up his leg, up on his belly next, and then…
Brody leaned on his back leg with the knee bent, brought one hand to his chest and extended his other arm in front of him like the Kung Fu fighters. He lifted his leg up in an angle, paused, pivoted swiftly before throwing his foot through the tower with a wild roar. It blew into hundreds of rainbow pieces that pelted down on the carpet like hail, piling up on top of the slug until it was buried and silent.
“What on earth has gotten into that boy!” Gran said as she turned toward him, her face creased in wonder.
But Brody was already gone, out the door, past the fence and knocking on the Chen’s front door. He would tell Yong all about fighting the slug, how it got crushed under the tower and that he would never, ever let it come back.