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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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"I'll go," Victor said.

Ba nodded once, his lips compressed in what looked to Victor like relief.

Now, with his family's words swirling in his head as the train burst into the open air of New Jersey, Victor was beginning to wonder if he'd made a terrible mistake. He gripped the armrest hard, sending a bright surge of pain through his hands. At Carville, his operation and treatment would be free, but he wasn't convinced they would work. Maybe they'd slice him open and he'd lose his hands anyway, or maybe he'd die on the operating table. Even if he lived, he might not get well—and then what kind of life would he have? He'd be locked up in that place until he died. In the half-light of early dawn, Victor watched the telephone poles and tenements whiz by. The sheets flapping on the clotheslines like handkerchiefs waved goodbye.

Pylons and factory chimneys gave way to creeks and streams. The soil approaching the Virginias grew redder and redder with clay. At every stop, passengers got off and on, walking past Victor's window. He noticed the same sequence of expressions move across their faces as soon as they read the "Restricted Area" sign on his door. Their eyebrows would go down, then up, then knit together before they picked up their pace. No one could have prepared him for these reactions before he left the hospital, just like no one in China could have prepared him for the kids in the Bronx who made slant eyes at him. It was one thing to be told that people might hate him for where his family came from, but it was another thing to feel it.

With a swollen forefinger, he tapped on the stainless steel ashtray—Morse code, SOS—releasing the odor of stale smoke into his nose. He sneezed, and the nurse looked up from her book, Murder on the Orient Express.

"Bless you," she said and went right back to reading.

She wasn't much of a talker, or at least she wasn't interested in talking to him. He had a bunch of questions, like whether she'd taken patients to Carville before and if she knew what it was like, but since she didn't ask him much besides how he felt and what he wanted to eat from the dining car, he kept his thoughts to himself. He wished he could walk around, maybe see if the train had an observation car like the one he'd taken from San Francisco to New York when he first got to America. For days, he'd gazed up at the sky, the novelty distracting him from missing Ma as the black steam engine chugged through desert mesas, flat green plains, and circular tunnels cut out of mountains. Ba had pointed out these tunnels were made by Chinese workers almost a hundred years before. Victor tapped on the ashtray again, harder this time, mimicking the rhythm of the wheels on the tracks. The resulting sting in his finger made him stop thinking, at least for a moment, about anything else.

By the time the main lights were lowered, the nurse was asleep, snoring lightly, with her mouth open and her temple trembling against the windowpane. Victor tried reading the Lash LaRue comic Ruth had bought him for the trip, but holding the book hurt. Underneath the single overhead light, the letters in the word balloons kept blurring. He stuffed the comic book in his backpack, turned off the light, and stared out into the twinkling dark, letting himself be lulled by the gentle patterns of the night. With a yawn, he stretched the bony length of his body along the seats and ignored the dull throbbing in his hands.

The train traveled south through the night and into the following day until the conductor hollered, "Last stop, Union Station, New Orleans!" as the wheels screeched to a halt. Victor's stomach lurched. The taste of the roast beef sandwich he'd eaten for lunch rose up his throat. Just then, the porter unbolted the door, sending a flood of adrenaline through his body.

"Quickly, now. Don't be nervous," said the nurse.

"I'm not," Victor muttered, lying.

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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