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Twin sisters Hana and Kei grew up in a tiny Hawaiian town in the 1950s and 1960s, so close they shared the same nickname. Raised in dreamlike isolation by their loving but unstable mother, they were fatherless, mixed-race, and utterly inseparable, devoted to one another. But when their cherished threesome with Mama is broken, and then further shattered by a violent, nearly fatal betrayal that neither young woman can forgive, it seems their bond may be severed forever–until, six years later, Kei arrives on Hana’s lonely Manhattan doorstep with a secret that will change everything.
Told in interwoven narratives that glide seamlessly between the gritty streets of New York, the lush and dangerous landscape of Hawaii, and the horrors of the Japanese internment camps and the bombing of Hiroshima, Shadow Child is set against an epic sweep of history. Volcanos, tsunamis, abandonment, racism, and war form the urgent, unforgettable backdrop of this intimate, evocative, and deeply moving story of motherhood, sisterhood, and second chances.
What if you slept, and what if, in your sleep you dreamed? And what if in your dream you went to heaven and there plucked a strange and beautiful flower? And what if, when you awoke, you had the flower in your hand?
—Attributed to Samuel Taylor Coleridge
He was a ripple through the stained glass. A dark and shifting shape in an only slightly brighter lobby. It wasn't far from midnight, on the edge of Harlem, and I had already opened the outer door to my apartment building and was standing in the vestibule when he appeared. Behind me, the street was empty of everything but the occasional used coffee cup and some lazy leaves of newspaper skimming the sidewalk. There was no voice in my head whispering at me to run—not yet—though the flush creeping beneath my collar was familiar.
I was a woman alone, clenching my key between my knuckles. But when the flicker of him reached the heavy iron door handle, I looked away.
If I had chosen to stare him down, I would have had some answers for the cops when they asked me: How tall was he? How heavy? What was he wearing? I pulled back against the tiled walls instead. It was my silent deal: I won't see you and you don't see me. That was when he looked at me.
The double take was for Kei. I knew it, even if I could never prove it. Even if I barely noticed it at the time. In my defense, it had been so long since I had seen my sister that I had forgotten the effect we had on others.
Kei was upstairs, waiting. Come for me, six years too late.
I slipped by the man as he hesitated, rushing through the second door and into the lobby, inflating the air and life between us with each step. I can still feel him watching me, though his footsteps didn't turn to follow mine across the marble floor. Thinking back, I can't hear any sound at all—not even the front door clicking behind him as it closed. He was a memory already, fleeing. When I finally remembered the double take, he was long gone.
Where does this story begin? My mind returns to the lobby for the safety of "before," but the truth is, there was no safety then, nor was that the beginning. If someone had told me, before Kei arrived, that I would let her drag me back through our past, I would have said that person was crazier than I am. But there are answers I need, and the strength to face them. Our stepfather Arnie used to tell us to trace each step back to the beginning if we wanted to know the truth.
Here's what I know: When Kei called and asked to visit, I said I didn't want to see her. When she booked a flight anyway, I knew I had to hold my ground. I had to show her that she didn't control me any longer, that my life here was my own. She had laid claim to our mother, our town, our home in Hawaii. The least she could do was leave me my tiny, gray New York life.
But Kei never listened to anyone, so the only protest I had was not meeting her at the airport. In a city bigger than she could have dreamed of, I let her find her own cab. I left an extra set of keys for her with Hal, my super, and stayed late at Luciano's, the Italian restaurant on the Upper West Side where I work in the back as a bookkeeper. Nick, the owner, had taken me in like a misplaced kitten a couple of years ago, when I started lingering there every afternoon instead of going to the art studio. I still couldn't bear to create when all I wanted was to disappear. I was grateful for the job, for the bustle of the restaurant. It was a perfect way to get lost in plain sight—and wasn't that what New York was supposed to be good for?
That night, once I had lingered so long that I had organized the invoices for the whole month and finished the payroll, I came out from my one-desk office and tucked myself behind a table near the kitchen for my staff meal. Usually, I take it home at six p.m., like clockwork. But that night, after I finished eating, I decided to help bus tables. At first, it was just water refills, but when the calls for "Check, please!" began playing around me like background music, I started running those, too. Some of the waitresses eyed me, though no one asked me what I was still doing there. I hadn't told them about Kei, and could not even begin to imagine how to do so. Instead, I smiled to deflect the occasional spark of concern.
Nine o'clock passed, and so did ten. I can't say now if I was hanging on to the last, untainted minutes of my life without Kei, or if I was simply preparing myself to face her.
I had worked hard to leave my sister behind. I traveled five thousand miles to find a place where no one would stare at my scars. People in New York saw so little of me that they didn't even notice my eyes—that the right one is dark brown and the left tawny, almost hazel. It gave me an ersatz David Bowie look in this big city but had just screamed hapa haole in our little Hawaiian town. Kei and I were two of the few privileged and damned creatures of mixed race in that watery backwater place. Not the cosmopolitan girls with the pale skin, rounded eyes, the dark chocolate hair; they were more beautiful than any one race alone. No, we were clearly a mistake: Japanese on one side, Caucasian on the other. We were the daughters of Miya Swanson, the town's crazy lady who had breakdowns in public and talked to ghosts. Hana the good girl; Kei the rebel. We were opposites but equally haunted, though by what we didn't know.
But there are only so many hours in a day that can be wasted, and it was close to midnight when I finally left the restaurant. I often liked to walk home in the early evening, especially as the days got longer, but I've always been afraid of the dark—more so now than ever—so I took the bus that night, my brain so stuck on Kei that I barely noticed the time. Was she here to beg forgiveness all these years later? What could she possibly have to tell me, now that everyone we had loved was dead? And if I couldn't bear her voice on the phone, how would I stand having her invade my apartment? We had once been inseparable, and now—part of me still hoped that I might not find her when I arrived.
Oh, Kei. If only she had decided not to come.
* * *
It wasn't until I stuck my key into the door of my apartment and heard the top deadbolt snap closed instead of open that I had to admit to myself for certain that Kei was really here. I could picture her then, fumbling with the many keys Hal had handed her and then letting the door slam behind her once she was inside. She wouldn't bother to relock it; the house we grew up in didn't even have a key. Doors were like coats; we needed them some nights and on a couple of chilly days, but most of the time we left them hanging out of sight. In Hawaii, screen doors—those banging, bouncing, fraying things—were all that we needed to keep the flies out and let the breeze in. But we weren't children anymore.
"Kei?" I called, bolting the door behind me. "You left the door open!"
I winced even before the words left my mouth. I should have started with something nicer. I'm home, I should have said, though I could already feel what my place must look like to my sister. Maybe, I'm here?
My apartment could only kindly be called a hole in the wall. It's a railroad with low ceilings and narrow doorways, opening into an eat-in living room and galley kitchen, then running down a shoulder-width hall past a bathroom to a single bedroom beyond. The kitchen has a matched set of three-quarter-sized appliances lined up side by side against the wall with gaps just big enough for cockroaches between them. After a miserable freshmen year with a revolving arsenal of roommates, my college eventually gave me special permission to move off campus, and I had picked this particular apartment for the same reasons I would later take my job. Transience. Anonymity. Mediocrity. Solitude.
Kei was the first person to step inside it in five years, except for my super. I hadn't expected her to think much of it, and clearly she didn't. She had kicked her rubber slippers, kapakahi, into the middle of the living room floor, nowhere near the neat line of my own shoes beside the door. My blue leather beanbag chair, which I had bought after I left college, had been shoved across the floor. She must have been hungry, because she'd also raided my refrigerator, leaving an open bottle of orange juice balanced on the tines of my gas range and some cartons with my leftovers half eaten on the edge of the sink. Kei had even claimed my spare keys as her own. I recognized them on Arnie's old key ring, the one with his rusty, hand-forged can opener, which she had tossed onto my secondhand modular couch.
I hadn't even laid eyes on Kei yet and she was already displacing me. She had always assumed the world was hers for the taking, and I guess in some ways she'd been right.
Did I expect an answer? I heard the clock radio playing John Denver in my bedroom, but it couldn't have been loud enough to block my voice. Was there a chance that Kei was simply asleep on my bed? I wasn't ready to walk in on her, trespassing in my most private space. The truth is, I couldn't bear to see her face. I wanted to freeze time. To roll it back.
But Kei was here, no longer looming and potential. I nudged her slippers into line with my now bare feet and then took the six steps to my stovetop. I shook the orange juice bottle, still partially full, and smelled it reflexively before putting it back into the refrigerator.
When I moved to the sink to throw out the food Kei left and wash the fork, I felt the faucet vibrating. I listened more carefully, over the light whine of the radiator that could not decide, in the wee hours of this late March morning, whether to blast me with heat or to knock, impotently, on and off.
The shower. Of course. That was why she hadn't answered.
The bathroom door was closed, but the bedroom was open. She'd left signs of herself all over my room. My bedspread was rumpled, tugged off toward one corner. Her flowered blouse and a pair of blue bell-bottoms already threaded by a thin gold elastic belt had been flung onto my bed. Kei's duffel bag was open and spilling out more clothes, as if she was looking for something.
I folded Kei's clothes as the disc jockey took over the radio, then placed them back inside her bag. As I picked up one of her blouses, a necklace fell onto the bed. It was a piece of jade half the length of my finger on a green, knotted cord. I was surprised to see it. Arnie hadn't failed to tell me that Kei made a very good living making and selling jewelry, but I'd assumed she was hawking tin plumeria earrings to tourists. This piece, plain as it was and strangely familiar, had character. Where had I seen it?
I don't know how long I stood there, contemplating the pendant. And also my mother's leather case, of course, where she kept her small collection of mementos. That was lying on my bed, half tumbled on its side. Kei had brought it, just as I had known she would. I sank down beside Kei's things, sitting hard on the edge of my mattress. I was as careful as I could be not to disturb Mama's case. I wasn't ready to touch it again.
"I have your inheritance," Kei had told me. Was it several weeks ago when she called? "I need to talk to you."
I hadn't wanted to hear her voice because it was my voice. I couldn't bear to argue with her. Kei could make up a story for anything; she fabricated a world with her fantasies, retold the truth. That was, in fact, the thing about my sister that I feared the most. But need? Kei had passed the cutoff for that long ago. It was my turn to get what I needed. And more than anything, what I needed was a reality I could cling to when things began to slip away.
As for my inheritance, Kei knew better. Although I could think of a long list of things our mother had left us—secrets, ghosts, and insanity, among them—our actual inheritance had been settled when Mama and Arnie died six months ago. It was, in its entirety, barely enough money to "plant them" as Arnie used to say, plus the house. And the one thing I wanted nothing to do with: Mama's leather case.
Mama had named me her executor. It shouldn't have been a surprise. From the moment we were given names, I was always Hana, the good daughter—the perfect daughter, really. It was my definition. Kei was the black sheep, given to impulse and destruction. My sister was charismatic but dangerously jealous, and three times in our lives together, she'd left me painted in blood. And yet no matter what Kei did, Mama kept choosing my sister, protecting her, supporting her, while I was left to find my own way. I'd come to understand too late: The bad girl is the one who sucks up all the air in the room.
By the time Kei called to say she was coming to New York, I already knew that she had gone to the bank and managed to withdraw the leather case from the safe deposit box where I had left it. I had received a confirmation copy of the withdrawal slip. She had signed it with my name. My precise slashes, which she had perfected when we were in our teens, and then mimicked so that whenever I tried to change it, her signature was always almost my own. It was easy to see her bent over the lamp on her bedside table, her fingers shimmying across the page. It shook me, that sudden vision of her, practicing. Blackening both sides of each sheet with my name.
As hard as I had fought to protect myself against her, that forged autograph had scribbled over my new life. My nightmares were the first thing to return. In them, I am lost in utter darkness. A dark so deep I cannot find myself; I cannot even see my hand when I touch my face. These were the nightmares that drove away my college roommates, the dreams I'd fled across the country to escape. They came with middle-of-the-night screams and sleeping with the light on. In the mornings, I used to stumble to a mirror, both longing for and terrified of the face I'd see. Until the mirrors started getting broken, then going missing. Until I started having blackouts, spells disturbingly like Mama's. Sometimes, I would come back to myself to find I'd been sketching eerie portraits in a kind of sleepwalking state.
I couldn't help what I didn't see in those mirrors, any more than I could stop the nightmares. Any more than I could reclaim my memories, which are as utterly empty as most of my dreams. The moment my life hinged on was the same one my sanity had blocked for me. I could see myself standing, happy, at the mouth of the cave, surrounded by people I'd thought were my friends. And then nothing. Nothing, except Kei vanishing, and her boyfriend Eddie's whispers, and me waking up in the hospital, crusted in dried blood.
After that, my only true protection was to purge my life of feeling, and empty my apartment of all reflection. Kei had vanished, and so would I. But everywhere I turned I saw her anyway, and myself.
Exhaustion almost felled me then. Somehow, I'd found the strength to pick up my mother's case and place it, righted, on the nightstand by my bed, but I was so tired, I barely felt the piece of jade I was clutching in my hand. I pulled the hand-sewn quilt I always kept at the foot of my mattress tight around my shoulders. I wanted to curl up under it and take shelter beneath the red plumeria silhouettes on their white background. Instead, I traced the almost invisible trail of stitches that coddled the petals, encroached on the pistils and sketched each spiraling, yin-and-yang leaf in all directions.
This was my only inheritance. The only thing I cared about, and even this Kei had tainted. My mother's stitches. Her final gift to me.
But then I had another thought. I had been right about the shower. Kei hadn't been ignoring me since I walked in. We still had the chance to start over, to begin again. That was what I thought: that there might still be a moment of welcome, a chance to simply be in each other's company. My desire for it surprised me, bittersweet in its impossibility, but still, palpably, there.
I got up and tapped gently on the bathroom door. "Kei?"
I had been home for about fifteen minutes by that time. My sister had always loved long, hot showers, a source of constant fights when my mother was lucid. It wasn't just the cesspool overflowing, or the bright orange fat from Arnie's Portuguese sausages climbing the walls of the kitchen sink while my mother waited to wash the dishes. Every morning, when Kei emerged from the bathroom, the hot water tank was empty. This went on until we were about thirteen, when, one day, my mother decided to clean up from breakfast while Kei was showering and discovered that by turning the cold water on, she could burn Kei—just a little, but enough to remind her that her time was up. Standing outside my New York bathroom, the sudden memory seemed funny—my sister's squawk, the smile on my mother's face that only I could see.
I smiled to myself and knocked again, a louder warning, and opened the door.
The light was off. I turned it on. The warm embrace of Kei's shower didn't rush to greet me; the room was cold.
The shower curtain was closed.
"You good, eh?" I asked Kei. I was doing my best: welcoming her in her own language—the pidgin she'd perfected in high school. I drew the curtain, imagining her face bright and open under the stream of water.
All the signs I missed now fairly scream at me, but I saw none of them. I'd convinced myself she was simply washing shampoo from her hair.
Or maybe I did see the signs. Maybe by then, in the face of Kei's silence, in the room that had been dark, after so much time, I knew what I would see. I knew enough to draw the curtain, and when I did, there was no question.
My sister was lying, naked, on the bottom of the porcelain tub. Forgotten water sprayed onto her pelvis: beading her breasts, running down her belly and thighs. The tub was clear, clean; there was no blood. An inch or two of water had pooled around her, held there by a heel neatly plugging the drain. The rest of that foot flopped on its side, wrenched out of the plane of her body at the ankle, her wide, almost triangular feet looking all the more incongruous for pointing in the wrong direction. Her arms lay gracefully against her hips, palms cupped as though they had once held something too fragile to trust on its own.
I knew that body like it was mine. It was the body that would have been mine, without my scars. A long, purpling bruise pressed into Kei's ribs under her left breast, unnaturally crisp and thin. I thought, unaccountably, of hara-kiri, though it was not a blade cut. The rest of her skin was smooth, golden down to the nested black-and-white triangles over her pubic bone. She looked peaceful, except for the necklace of marks smudged incompletely into the base of her throat, dawning bruises in varying inks of red and blue.
And above her neck, my own face floated in a long, unraveling braid of dark seaweed just out of the water. The same egg-shaped head; my own stubby, unsophisticated nose. With her eyes closed, you could not see they were the exact opposite of my own—her left one brown, her right one tawny—but her full, bow-shaped lips were still mine, her barely sketched chin. Even her nails, which we learned to bite on the same day, let grow on the same day, and, I saw, though we were now living in different worlds, had both begun biting again.
My sister and I were more than identical; we had been cleaved down the middle, and each of us, against all odds, had sprung to life whole.
How many times had Kei wished me dead? In how many ways had she tried to make those wishes come true? For a flash of a moment, I feared that it was my body lying in the cold, rushing water. My spirit hovering to say its final good-byes.
But as I moved, I saw my own hand rising. My skin, white-white, and so cold. I clenched my fists and could feel my bitten nails digging into my palms.
I was alive and standing. It was Kei's shadow life that was over at last.
They would be traveling light. How many times did he have to tell her? He said they had to be able to move quickly, slip onto trains, to keep a tight hand on their luggage. When they got to Los Angeles, Lillie would need to carry her own cases, maybe even long distances. The whole world was at war now, and Donald had heard rumors. Who knew if they would be allowed onto a bus, or whether cabs were really refusing passage to people like them?
The original plan had been to travel east, making the long trip across the country to New York for their honeymoon. But when Donald got his mother's response to his telegram, they had decided to head south to be with his parents, whom Lillie had never met. She could tell he was worried. After that one message, there had been no word.
He had written that he was married.
His mother had replied: Come home.
There was no room for china—too breakable. The indigo blue sugar bowl Lillie's mother had given her was small enough and light, and it would be a nice gift for his own mother, he said, but there was certainly no room for the hand-embroidered quilt. It wasn't a real quilt, she'd protested, just a bedspread with light batting. Her mother had been working on it for months, creating patterns in bead, bullion, and bonnet stitches. The patterns, all in white, swirled off the ramps of paisley cocoons with flowers inside them, no two the same. The paisleys themselves nestled like flipped twins.
—Your trousseau. Her mother had smiled when Lillie exclaimed over the tiny stitches.
It could have fit into any reasonable trunk with room to spare, but they would take no trunks, not now. It was no longer the right time for the young bride to set up her new home. Besides, Donald didn't believe in possessions. He believed in her—that was what he told her—and he promised that as long as they were together he would take care of everything she would ever need. But he also believed in war—everyone was talking about Pearl Harbor and enemy aliens and espionage nets and some "fifth column"—and that made Lillie nervous. She'd felt so safe here in their home that was barely a town, with her parents' protection. What was she doing, letting him drag her into a city where simply having a face like hers made her a threat?
Watching her pack, Lillie's mother couldn't shake her own sadness. She had been preparing for Lillie's wedding for years. She wanted to send her daughter into the world with home around her.
She smoothed the quilt in her lap, still folded, unwilling to lay it back on Lillie's bed.
—We'll be back soon, Mother. And then we'll go on to New York, just as we planned. Donald will finish school and we'll start our own family. I promise I'll send for everything just as soon as we have a home.
She was twenty-two, her mother reminded herself. Old enough to make her own mistakes.
—Why can't he go himself, if he has to move so quickly? Lillie's mother heard the waver in her voice and waited for it to steady. Los Angeles might only be a few hours' ride away, but it felt like another world. "It's not safe there."
There was nothing to say to this. It was hard to know what was really happening there now that America was officially at war with Japan, but the rumors about the curfews and the FBI raids weren't comforting.
But Donald's mother had been ill, and he wanted to be with his parents, to bring his new happiness with Lillie into their lives. They might even pack his parents up and take them East, too, if the city was really as unfriendly to the Japanese as Donald said it was. What a gift that would be from the new bride to her in-laws, Lillie thought: a home, a hand extended, and later, a trousseau. She wasn't losing a mother, she told herself; she was gaining a new one.
She imagined herself in a family full of people who looked like she did.
—It was…Now Lillie's mother's voice did crack. Crying softly, but this time without embarrassment, she said, "The quilt was supposed to bring you luck."
Lillie had slept beneath this quilt for the last two weeks since the wedding, and each night, she fell into a deep sleep in Donald's arms. She would wrap herself in it if she could and wear it on the train. But she didn't want to anger her husband now. Why couldn't her mother understand? Why did she have to make their parting so difficult?
Their temporary parting, Lillie corrected herself. It was the first time since she had been left on the steps of their church as a nameless infant that Lillie would leave her mother's sight for longer than a night of sleep.
Now, she put her arm around her mother. Foster mother, she reminded herself. But she'd never thought much of their differences until she met Donald. Her mother's golden hair was shot with silver now, and her skin was like soft tissue.
—I'm my own good luck charm. Isn't that what you always tell me? I'm the one who brought the luck.
Lillie watched her mother flinch, each taking in the consequences of her words.
- On Sale
- May 8, 2018
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Grand Central Publishing