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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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Of course he was nervous, but he wasn't about to admit that to her. With a shaky hand, he tugged down his cap, gritted his teeth against the pain as he grabbed his backpack and suitcase, and lumbered down the steps. On the outdoor platform, he breathed in the warmth and moisture of the air, the nutty smell of coffee from the station café.

"Shouldn't we go inside?"

"Of course not." The nurse gave him a cockeyed look as if he ought to know better. "Quarantine is strict in Louisiana. Someone's going to meet us here." She dropped her bag on the concrete and Victor did the same.

After a moment, a lanky, dark-skinned man dressed in a chauffeur's uniform came striding toward them with a clipboard.

"Afternoon. You the folks from Bellevue?"

"We certainly are," said the nurse as the man handed her a pen.

Victor bent to grab his own suitcase, but she held up her hand.

"Let the boy take the bags," she said. The chauffeur looked at least thirty.

He cast his eyes down, tucked the clipboard under his arm, and plucked their luggage from the ground with ease. Leading them to a pale green station wagon, he slid the bags in the trunk and opened the passenger-side door painted with the words "United States Public Health Service Hospital, Carville, Louisiana." Victor climbed into the backseat and lowered the window, taking in the scent of fried dough and flowers as they drove past streetcars, pastel-colored houses, and balconies overflowing with plants on their way out of the city.

After the suburbs, they turned onto a smaller road dotted with tin-roofed shacks and rusted pickup trucks. In an open field, a boy with no shoes rode bareback on a scrawny, piebald horse. A gas station attendant leaned against a pump, smoking a cigarette. Staring out at the low, unfamiliar country, Victor thought of his mother and realized that, for the first time in his life, she had no idea where he was.

Shortly before he set sail for America, when she'd found him crying in the garden shed, she'd gathered him in her arms and soothed him with a promise. She would be with him, she'd said, for every mile of the thousands he would travel because she knew where he was going. When he wanted to be with her, all he had to do was picture her at home, and in this way, they could be together, each holding one end of the thread connecting them through their imaginations. Her words had made him feel, if not entirely safe, then loved through the sorrow and seasickness of his journey, and the homesickness that came after. Later, in the letters they wrote to each other, Ma would always ask him to describe his surroundings—the laundry, the apartment, his school, their neighborhood, the city—and though the sharpness of missing her had dulled over time, the ritual still comforted him.

But how could he tell her where he was going now that Henry had forbidden him? It would kill her to know, Henry had said, cornering him at the hospital and making him promise to pretend that he was perfectly fine in New York when he wrote to Ma. Of course he'd kept secrets from her before—the biggest one being Ba's relationship with Ruth—but lying about his illness and where he was seemed different. It didn't feel right, but if he defied Henry and something bad happened to Ma, he'd never forgive himself. So he'd agreed. But now he couldn't shake the thought, childish as it was, that she wouldn't be able to watch over him anymore. She wouldn't be with him at Carville to keep him safe through whatever came next because the thread between them had been cut with lies.

Thinking about this, Victor's whole body seemed to flush. A fresh layer of sweat bathed his skin. Even with the window open, he felt like he wasn't getting enough air. He glanced at the nurse, who'd nodded off, her head drooping like a tulip and bobbing as the car drove over the uneven surface of the dirt road. Bits of gravel pinged the underside of the station wagon, but still, she didn't wake up. He searched his pockets for his inhaler and realized he'd left it in his backpack, buried in the trunk under his suitcase and the nurse's bag. If he could just calm down, maybe he wouldn't need it.

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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