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Excerpt from King of the Armadillos by Wendy Chin-Tanner, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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King of the Armadillos

by Wendy Chin-Tanner

King of the Armadillos by Wendy Chin-Tanner X
King of the Armadillos by Wendy Chin-Tanner
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2023, 336 pages

    Paperback:
    Sep 17, 2024, 336 pages

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ONE

At the ticket booth, Victor watched the nurse count out several bills from a crisp white envelope. Pushing them through a slot, she received in return two tickets with the destination, New Orleans, Louisiana, printed in black ink on yellow card stock. She slid them both, along with the remaining cash, into her pocketbook "for safekeeping," she said, and clicked the brass clasp shut.

It was six days after Victor officially became a leper. He stood, rubbing sleep from his eyes under a smoke-smudged mural of the constellations—a crab, a lion, a scorpion, a bull, and a man with his arm raised, ready to club it. A silent ambulance had whisked him uptown through the dark Manhattan streets from Bellevue to Grand Central Terminal so early that the city was still half asleep.

Already standing ramrod straight, Ba drew himself up a millimeter more. His jaw tightened, and Victor could tell his father was bothered by the nurse implying that he couldn't be trusted with the tickets. What did she think he was going to do—run off with them and go to Louisiana himself?

"Let's go," said Ba. He took the lead through the warren of underground tunnels to the departure platform, walking so fast that Victor could barely keep up.

Ducking his head, he pulled down the bill of his Dodgers cap as people rushed past, hoping they wouldn't be able to tell that something was wrong with him. The nurse boarded an empty passenger car marked "Restricted Area: Authorized Personnel Only." Hanging halfway out the door, she gestured for him to hurry, but Victor stayed rooted to the spot, trying to memorize his father's face, the sharp edges of his cheekbones, the sternness of his jaw, as if looking at him for the last time. The doctors said his condition was curable, but who knew if that was true?

"Don't make trouble. I'll send some money soon," Ba said in Toisanese.

"You don't have to," said Victor. They didn't have much to spare, not with the hospital bills they already had to pay, but Ba waved him off.

"Go," he said, "before the train leaves without you."

Victor looked down at his faded tennis shoes before lifting his eyes to see Ba tap his forefinger against the brim of his best gray trilby. In response, Victor stood at attention, chin up, chest out, shoulders back, and stomach in, just like Ba had taught him, and gave a full military salute, noting the twitch of a smile at the corner of Ba's mouth.

"At ease," said Ba in English.

This was an old routine they'd begun on the journey from China to New York when Victor and his brother, Henry, had pretended they were soldiers and Ba was their commanding officer. It seemed to Victor now that the ritual was as much for Ba's sake as it was for his own, not in spite of the fact but because they were both terrified, and they couldn't afford to feel it.

Victor's eyes began to blur. He bit his lip and held back his tears, knowing how much it would disappoint Ba if he cried. He was sure his father wished he were tough and strong like Henry, like boys were supposed to be. He wished he were like that, too.

Turning to the train, he hesitated, wanting suddenly to fling his arms around his father and cling to him, but as passengers jostled one another on the platform, streaming into nearby cars, he trudged up the steps. The nurse was struggling with their bags at the luggage rack. Behind him, the click of a dead bolt made him jump when a porter locked them in from the outside. The train spluttered and puffed, the whistle sang its high, clear note, and by the time Victor and the nurse had settled on seats across from each other at the window, they were moving. Victor pressed his nose against the glass, straining to see the fast-fading platform in case Ba was still standing there waving. But all that was left of him was the back of a man in a gray suit getting smaller and smaller, walking away.

Excerpted from King of the Armadillos by Wendy Chin-Tanner. Copyright © 2023 by Wendy Chin-Tanner. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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