Third Place Winner of Voyage’s Love & War Contest judged by NYT Bestselling Author Ayana Gray
Three nails stuck out of the ground an inch from Lane’s left big toe. Their heads were a quarter inch wide, and they stood a half inch from the surface of the soil. They almost looked like tiny mushrooms except for the fact that they were in a perfectly straight row.
Lane glanced up to see if anyone was around. Across the dusty road, an old lady walked slowly with her head bent downward and her hands clasped behind her back. Soon, Amache Relocation Camp would be buzzing with activity, but it was still early enough that only a few obachan were up and about.
Nails were scarce and valuable in camp. Six months ago, Lane and her family, along with thousands of Japanese people living on the west coast had been ordered by the federal government to leave their homes and jobs and schools and move to internment camps. They were allowed to take only what they could carry, and few had brought nails. When they realized that the only furniture provided were cots and a coal burning stove, many had begun building makeshift tables, chairs, shelves and dressers. Lumber could be easily stolen from the school and hospital construction sites, but nails and tools were harder to come by as they were locked away in sheds at night. Lane thought she would probably give the nails to her mother who could trade them or use them for a project.
She squatted down to get a closer look. The nails were a few inches from the corner of the nearest barrack—close enough to the building that no one would trip on them, but far enough away that they had caught her eye. She wiggled the head of the nail closest to her. It was firmly driven into the ground. Using her fingers, she scraped away some of the dirt surrounding the nails, pushing dew-damp earth away from the metal and covering the hopeful sprout of a nearby sagebrush plant.
She jerked the nail back and forth and tugged hard. It popped out like a fresh carrot. She pulled out the other two and rubbed the dirt from the thin metal spikes. They shone in the early dawn light. Lane scuffed up the spot where they had been, shaking the soil back into place and dusting off the baby sagebrush. It was here first, after all.
She put the three nails in her pocket, stood up, raised her arms above her head, and inhaled deeply. Exhaling slowly, she lowered her arms to her sides and turned to face the direction of her family’s barracks. As she walked back, people began to emerge. Women beat rag rugs with broom handles. Men smoked cigarettes by the corners of their buildings. Older children led smaller children to the lavatories to wash the backs of their necks and behind their ears. Gaijin guards walked by cracking jokes to each other. The sky had turned from bright gray to pale blue with a blanket of fawn spot clouds stretching from the nearby mountains in the west to the distant ones in the east. Like so many mornings since arriving in Arizona, she woke up that morning with her mind racing with a million fears that could be summed up in a single terrifying unanswerable question: What is going to happen to us? As soon as light began to filter in through the windows of her family’s barrack, she had eased herself out of the bed she shared with her little sister, Ruthie, and tip-toed out the door. Walking gave the worries crowded in her mind space to spread out so that they weren’t constantly crashing into each another.
Discovering the nails caught Lane off guard and pushed her usual concerns aside. They bounced against her leg as she moved along. Enjoying their heft and rhythm, she strode past row upon row of identical one-story buildings covered in black tarpaper. Who was the nail-driver and why had they done this? She imagined the feeling of piercing the earth with a sharp piece of steel. It probably felt almost as satisfying as pulling them out.
When Lane arrived outside her family’s front door, Ma was holding it ajar and nagging Ruthie to get her shoes on so they could go wash up for the day. Ma must have seen Ruthie’s small, eight-year-old body in the bed, alone. Back home this would have meant a scolding, no sweets for a week, maybe even a spanking, but when the FBI took Pa to the enemy alien prison in Texas, it was as though they had slashed the tires of Ma’s disciplinary anger machine.
Ruthie, the baby of the family, was the only one who had been scolded in months. She had a habit of going barefoot outside and was constantly tracking dirt into their barracks. Ma had tolerated the transgression five or six times before she finally gave Ruthie a sharp slap across her bottom. But when Lane and Kenji started sneaking out after curfew, Ma pretended to be asleep as they crept past her bed. Usually, Lane’s morning walks brought her home before anyone else had woken up, but not today. For all Ma knew, she could have been out all night.
“Oh, Elaine, there you are. Can you fill this up?” Ma asked, holding out the cast iron tea kettle in Lane’s direction and keeping her eyes on Ruthie. Lane made no attempt to grab the kettle. She stood still and stared at her mother.
“Aren’t you going to ask me where I’ve been?” Lane used to think that getting caught doing something naughty was the worst possible thing that could happen. She remembered the hot flush of guilt when she snuck a few manju the day before their big neighborhood New Years party. She never thought she would miss Ma’s grip on her arm or the furious look in her eye, but she did now.
“I don’t ask where you and Kenji go at night. I don’t know where you were this morning. I know you come home in one piece every time.” Ma shrugged and threw her hands up. “It’s not as though you can run away.”
“No, but I could get shot by a guard.”
Ma glared at her. Lane stared back. She wanted Ma to get angry because she was angry.
“Enough, Lane. I don’t want to talk about it. Shikata ga nai.”
Ma shook the kettle at her. Lane clenched her jaw and felt her own eyes go from bright and hot to flat and cold. She grasped the handle.
“Good girl.” Ma cast her gaze downward as she wiggled her feet into her geta.
Lane backed away from the stoop and curved her fingers loosely around the nails in her pocket. She had been about to hand them over to her mother. Instead, she gripped the metal as hard she could and said nothing. She didn’t want to give the nails to Ma anymore. They were hers now. Her harvest. A gift planted by a mysterious stranger who had decided that hammering them into the ground was more important than using them for anything else.
Lane took a deep breath in and let out a long sigh through her nose. She turned her attention to her little sister. The tight knot of her fist loosened and the nails shifted against each other.
“Morning, kitten,” Lane said and cuffed Ruthie on the chin. Ruthie offered a groggy grin in response, revealing several gaps where her baby teeth had fallen out. Her hair formed a sculptural, gravity-defying tangle in the back and her eyes fought to stay open. Ma grabbed Ruthie’s wrist and pulled her along. Ruthie’s little feet dragged. A cloud of dust followed them towards the latrine a few buildings away.
Lane waited a full minute before walking in the same direction to the spigot and got in line behind women with rumpled hair in housedresses and robes, all holding buckets and pots and kettles like hers. She watched the women take turns filling their vessels, then arranging their bodies to accommodate the weight of the water. Walking towards her from the opposite direction of their block was the willowy frame of her brother, Kenji. He stopped next to her and threw an arm around her shoulders.
“And when did you get in?” she asked.
Kenji glanced at his bare wrist as though there were a watch there. “About…now.”
“Ohhhh!” she said, full of snark, “You’re…” She was about to say, “You’re gonna get it,” out of habit, but she stopped mid-sentence, remembering her mother’s indifference. “Ohhhh! You’re…Where you been?” Lane finished awkwardly.
Kenji raised his eyebrows at her. “None of your business. What I do with my time is not for your young ears.”
“And you’re thirteen.” Kenji smirked.
Lane was still getting used to being friends with him. Before Gila River, they had just been a brother and a sister who got along. “I worry when we don’t come home together. You and Mas aren’t careful enough—some gaijin is gonna catch you one of these days.”
“Please. You weren’t worried about me, Miss Floating on A Cloud. I know you were just dreaming about your girlfriend.”
Lane’s cheeks burned. She tried her best to skewer Kenji with her eyes. She glanced quickly at the ladies near them in line, but no one appeared to be listening. Girls referred to their friends as “girlfriends” all the time but floating on a cloud while dreaming about them was different. Kenji placed a hand in front of his mouth and mimed a shocked expression. Lane held up the kettle to show that she was armed with something heavy and not afraid to use it.
She filled up the kettle and the two of them walked back to their barracks together. When they arrived, Kimiye was sitting on their stoop. She wore a cotton button-up, knitted cardigan and a knee-length skirt. She was leaning back, resting her elbows on the top step and sitting on the bottom one. Her feet were wide apart, but her knees bent inward, leaning against one another. Lane tried to swallow the lump in her throat. Kenji didn’t miss a beat. He took the kettle from Lane’s hand, walked to the front step, tousled Kimiye’s hair affectionately, strode through the doorway, and closed it behind him.
“Today, I am a morning person,” Kimiye said, grinning widely. A smile bloomed on Lane’s own narrow face. She wanted to take both Kimiye’s hands in hers and draw her into an embrace. Instead, she reached out her right hand and pulled Kimiye up to standing.
“I have something to show you,” Lane said.
Kimiye followed her inside. Kenji had already flopped on his cot behind the jerry-rigged curtain that separated him from Lane, Ruthie and Ma. His silhouette showed little signs of movement and within a few moments, snores drifted through the single room the four of them shared. Lane led Kimiye to her and Ruthie’s bed. The two girls sat cross-legged opposite one another. Lane grabbed her copy of Little Women and laid the book on the blanket between them. On the well-worn cover, she placed the three nails and explained to Kimiye how she had found them.
“What do you think they were trying to do?” Kimiye’s eyes widened as she asked the question. “Maybe they were trying to hold the ground together. Lane, what if the camp splits in half because you took those nails?”
Lane laughed. It felt good. “I think some yokai buried three tacks in the earth and they grew up and became nails. Maybe I’ll be cursed now!” She looked at Kimiye whose heart-shaped face seemed to glow. She felt like they were bent over a tiny magic flame that illuminated them both. A warm feeling spread inside her belly and chest. It reminded her of when she would start a nap in the cool shade of the jacaranda tree at home, but by the time she woke up she was bathed in full sunshine.
“Tell me what you see.”
Kimiye nodded. Lane pulled the three nails out from her pocket and placed them on the book, side by side.
“Three little straight-backed soldiers,” said Kimiye.
She placed them end to end.
“A river. A snake.”
She arranged the nails in a triangle.
“Onigiri. A slice of fresh watermelon.”
Lane’s mouth filled with saliva. She missed her mother’s cooking. She missed hot baths in their ofuro. She missed waking up and seeing tree branches out the window. She even missed Field Days. That’s what her Pa called weekend days during the school year when all the kids had to help with harvesting the peaches, almonds, grapes, and apricots they grew. He would run through the house at the crack of dawn, banging a pot with a bamboo paddle, shouting “Field Day! Field Day!” They were long, tiring days of hard work that left them sore and exhausted. Ma would bring lunch out to them wherever they were and they would all eat together. Sometimes Pa ran to cut a fresh watermelon off the vine growing in their house garden and slice it up with the knife he kept on his belt in a leather sheath. She always felt proud of how the family could devour a whole watermelon in five minutes, leaving a pile of rinds in their wake. The sweet flesh bursting in her mouth was as good as jumping into a cool river. Getting back to work was always a little easier on watermelon Field Days. Lane ran her finger along the length of each nail in front of her.
When she snapped out of her trance, Kimiye was looking at her curiously.
“Where did you go?” she asked.
“Home,” said Lane, “For a minute, anyway.” The last few words caught in her throat and her eyes stung. Feeling exposed, she blushed and stared at her lap. She could sense Kimiye’s concern. She wanted to look up so badly, but she felt like she was carrying a heavy sack of rice on her shoulders, which kept her head pointed down. Gathering her courage, Lane lifted her gaze and took in Kimiye’s knitted brows and the tiny delicate point of her chin.
Kimiye reached for Lane’s hand and turned it over so her palm faced the ceiling. She placed a nail between each of Lane’s fingers. Lane curled her hand into a ball and the spikes stuck out of her fist like a claw. Her eyes spilled over and hot tears made trails down her face. Everything seemed to rise up in her chest—Pa’s arrest, Mike and Arnold coming home with whiskey on their breath, Ma giving up completely. No one was looking out for her. She couldn’t even take a walk at night to get away from it all without hiding from soldiers with guns. And here was this girl, this beautiful girl, seeing her, watching her cry and nodding like she knew, like she understood.
Lane let out a sob through clenched teeth, raised her fist up, and stabbed her claw into her cot, ripping three holes in her bedsheets. Kimiye didn’t flinch. She grasped Lane’s arm firmly and Lane flexed against her strong fingers. It felt good to squeeze her muscles, to be squeezed. Lane had never punched anything before in her life. She felt relieved and a little scared.
“We’re out here alone,” Kimiye said, “but we have each other.”
The tears gathering in the corners of Lane’s mouth found their way inside. The tang of salt hit her tongue. She lifted her free hand and wiped her face. She wished she could shrink herself down and dive into the tiny dark space between Kimiye’s gently parted lips. Instead, she leaned forward. Kimiye moved toward her. When a few measly inches separated their mouths, Ma and Ruthie burst through the door.
“Hi, Okuye-san, nice to see you.” Kimiye said the words immediately, automatically. Lane quickly pocketed the nail and shifted her seat to cover her damaged mattress. Ma offered a nod in Kimiye’s direction and started fussing over the coal burning stove. Ruthie ran over, draped herself over Kimiye’s lap and asked Lane to brush her hair. This was how privacy was in camp—brief and constantly interrupted. Sleeping, bathing, and eating all happened within arm’s reach of at least five people. If someone had asked Lane before the war if she could poop in full view of a crowd of women and girls of all ages doing the same, she would have said never in a million years. Now she did it every day.
Kimiye gave Ruthie’s back a friendly pat and stood up.
“See you at breakfast,” she said to Lane on her way out. Lane felt a little piece of her heart walk out the door with Kimiye.
The nails burned red hot in her pocket and she looked down to make sure they hadn’t singed a hole in her pleated wool skirt. They had unlocked her somehow. Soldiers—people and war and weapons. River, snake—a beast, water rushing from mountains towards oceans. Food—taste, memory, longing. She had never realized how many shapes a person could make with three little lines, how many sensations a person could conjure with a few simple shapes.
Ruthie plopped herself down in front of Lane expectantly. She began teasing out the snarls in her little sister’s hair. The day had barely begun, but she was already thinking about the evening. Her hand worked the brush while her mind wandered back to the print shop. She thought of Kimiye and Kenji and Mas. Would she and Kimiye finally kiss? Or was the moment gone forever?
“Lanie?” Ruthie said.
“Are there really aliens in the camp where Pa is?” They had finally begun receiving letters from Pa. The return address read Crystal City Enemy Alien Camp. Lane chuckled.
“There are aliens everywhere, kitten, they’re just really good at disguising themselves as humans. Sometimes I think I might be an alien.”
Ruthie turned toward Lane with a frightened expression on her face. “You could be an alien and not even know it?”
“I think you could.”