Before. While most of the kids at Jon’s party had scattered off into different directions down the cul-de-sac or into the tall pines of Jon’s backyard, Danny was sitting on the front porch with Jessica Vavra, and she was in the middle of asking him if he wanted a blow job. It was the end of June, two days after 8th grade graduation, and the fireflies were bright enough to leave haloed impressions against the darkness. Danny couldn’t make out Jessica’s long curls or her green eyes, but he had her face memorized, how she bit a nervous side of her lip, a habit he had watched everyday between practicing the choruses and verses of Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire during Ms. Honerkamp’s music class, the only class they had shared this past year.
Danny had moved to the New Jersey suburb of Upper Saddle River at the tail end of seventh grade, fresh from the Chinatown blowing up around Flushing, his voice still stuck with New York. The butterfly knife Mikey gave him still tucked into the front pocket of his red Jansport backpack. He knew all about bullshit talkers and bullshit kids, but Jessica wasn’t bullshit. Jessica smelled like lavender soap and she was on the soccer team. She had pale blonde hair that moved together but then a strand or two could fall away and she would let them hang over the left side of her face. Jessica could kick the crap out of a kickball, she was funny as hell, and she didn’t mind a Chinese kid from Queens.
Danny wanted to say alright, it’s ok to Jessica, who was half against him, her shoulder dipped below his, but what came out was why and instead of the hard-on he knew he should have had under his jeans he felt a sickness reaching out from inside his gut and spreading in bursts around each beat of his heart.
Lauren found them and said what the hell Jess, before running back to the house, leaving the two of them scrambling to pull on jeans and straighten half-tangled shirts.
“Sorry,” Danny said, once they settled down.
“Why are you sorry?”
“I don’t know.”
“You have to go right?” Jess played with the frayed ends of her jean shorts. “Don’t worry about it.” She smiled at Danny, but it didn’t really seem like a smile. They gave each other an awkward hug, and Danny was still surprised by how soft and smooth Jess was in some parts, and all angles in others, but he had to get himself under control. The dizziness in his head.
It was a going to be a long ride to Atlantic City.
“Your Auntie Sylvia got us another one of the big suites,”Danny’s mother said in Cantonese during the drive down the Garden State Parkway. Danny’s father, his head bobbing to the side every few minutes, napped in the passenger side with an empty Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cup clutched in his non-paralyzed hand, the good right one that skipped free from the stroke.
“You should be happy. You can tell your friends that you stayed in a room that cost one thousand dollars a night. Only rich people can stay in our kind of suite—celebrities and maybe presidents. Michael Jackson stayed in one, that’s what your Auntie Sylvia tells me, and we get it for free.”
Danny wasn’t listening; he had Neuromancer open on his lap, though he had already read it twice. He could flip through it whenever he wanted now; he didn’t need to hide the books.
Once, Mikey had grabbed The Silmarillion out of his hands and chucked it into the trash as they were walking down Main Street.
“Don’t fucking read in public man, you’re just beggin’ to get your ass kicked.”
Danny didn’t say a word, not a thing to outwardly show emotion. He knew that would just tip his brother off, raise his defenses. Instead, a minute later, when they were walking again, all calm, Danny wound up his right fist and swung it, dragon punch style, straight up at Mikey’s head, but he was too short to hit Mikey’s face, so instead he landed a solid meat slap against Mikey’s throat.
Mikey bent over and clutched his adam’s apple, choking and gasping, “You little shit, you little shit,” and Danny ran the hell out of there, cutting through a narrow string of Taiwanese grocery stores. A couple blocks down though, a swift yank of his t-shirt stopped him, and Danny did get his ass kicked after all.
“Remember to thank your Auntie. She gave us the Andy Lau tickets too. Almost the front row. Or the front row of the middle raised section, which is better than being on the bottom because you don’t have to look at the back of peoples’ heads.”
Danny stifled a yawn. “Who’s Andy Lau?”
“Really Danny, the only thing Chinese about you are your eyes.”
Watching his father’s slumped body, Danny imagined his dad’s impassive face melting, losing its composition before the car hit the sign of the off-ramp median. Yes that’s probably how it happened.
“Simon’s going to be there too,” his mom said.“It’ll be nice, you two can catch up and play like you used to.”
Danny sat up. Simon Mok? That Simon? But it had been two years since Danny had seen Simon. Back in Queens, he, Mikey, and Simon were thrown together almost every weekend, during their parents’ marathon sessions of mahjong or for Sunday dim sum. Mikey, being the oldest by three-and-a-half years, always ended up bossing the other two around.
“Steal that can of soda for me, Danny,” Mikey would say, and Danny would go into the corner bodega steal the can of soda.
But now Danny lived in Jersey, in the too-quiet woods with animals—animals —that wandered through the backyard. Deer, geese, wild turkeys, foxes, wolves and real eagles. Danny still couldn’t believe all the animals or the silence that made his ears ring at night. Upper Saddle River was what he imagined the Shire to look like, or maybe it was where Leave it to Beaver was filmed. Everyone white. Ents dancing in the backyard, which was where Danny imagined Mikey, buried under the old wooden swingset. Mikey would watch Danny’s legs go by above him. Watch as his bed and clothes and posters of Samantha Fox and Lita Ford are loaded onto a truck to Chinatown. But really Mikey was in Queens, near Crossbay Boulevard, just another plot.
All sorts of Hong Kongers and other Chinese people that Mikey didn’t give a shit about were around to see him lowered into the dirt, just like how Danny watched Mikey go down, a white rose in his pocket matching the one he laid on Mickey’s wax body.
The car turned off on Exit 38, Atlantic City 5 miles, and Danny’s father jerked awake, dropping his empty cup. “Huh? We’re there?” He yawned and smacked his dry lips a couple times.
“Almost,” Danny’s mother said. “Ten minutes. Comb your hair honey. Sylvia is going to meet us in the lobby with a few friends. We’ll have a late meal and play some cards tonight.”
The Taj-Mahal was the same as always: The smell of cigarette smoke, carpet cleaner, and static electricity in the halls and corridors. Danny watched his parents and saw his father leaning onto his mother slightly. To anyone else, they probably just looked like a close couple, but Danny could see his mother’s smile supporting the weight. Her make-up and dress propping them up.
“Fong! Cheung! Over here!” A woman in a black dress waved. Her hair was fluffed into giant curls, forming a crown above her wide pink glasses and red lipstick.
“Sylvia!” Danny’s mother rushed over and the two women held hands. Grasped each others’ fingers tightly.
Danny and his father approached two somber-looking men. One was Mr. Mok, his dad’s former business partner; the other, younger and more stylish, Danny didn’t recognize. Mr. Mok was easy to remember because his face looked as if all of his features were trying to migrate to the center, which left his chin to be dominated by the two large moles that rested below his mouth. He spoke in a loud, grating voice that cut across the busy hallway with ease.
“Hey, little Danny, look at you!” Mr. Mok ruffled Danny’s hair. “You’re as tall as your father now. What are you? Sixteen, seventeen now? Haven’t seen you in almost two years!”
“He’s fourteen, the same as your Simon, Jimmy,” my father said, his voice just above a whisper.
“Is that so? Oh right, of course Cheung,” Mr. Mok grew serious. “So Cheung, have you thought about joining that new project of mine? It’s a sure thing. Prime property on the Kowloon side.”
“I don’t think so Jimmy.” Danny’s dad closed his eyes and massaged his temples with his right hand.
Danny’s mother glided over and twined her arm around her husband’s elbow. “We’re not here to talk business! You men will steal all of the life away from our weekend.“
When she passed Danny, she pressed a rolled-up lump into his hand. “Here, get something to eat.” Danny looked down and saw a clump of bound twenty dollar bills, probably at least four or five hundred, but the amount didn’t matter to him. His mother then gave him a key card to the room. “Be sure to be in bed by eleven dear,” she said, but he knew that it would be at least 3:00 am before anyone came in to check. He shoved the wad of cash into his jeans pocket. He caught his father looking at him before he turned the corner, but Danny could never tell what his father was thinking.
After the adults entered the casino, Danny considered just going up to the hotel room and sleeping, but he wasn’t tired yet. As he started to walk toward the elevators, there was a slight tug against his back pocket. In a flash, Danny whipped around and had his butterfly knife out, ready to chase down the idiot stealing his wallet (which only had five bucks in it anyway, cause Danny kept all the real money stashed in the front pocket. Harder to grab).
“HOLY SHIT! Damn man, you ain’t no joke! Still got it.”
A gangly kid with slicked-back hair and a pimpled face was laughing at him.
Danny put away his knife.“Simon.”
“Shit, I thought you were going to stick me for real. Watch out with that thing in here, the security’ll shoot your ass.”
“Hey, you got tall too. We’re both tall now. Probably be taller than Mikey now.”
Simon put a hand on Danny’s shoulder. “I’m sorry man. I heard from my pops. It’s a fucked up world. I never thought Mikey’ll go like that.”
Danny saw that Simon wasn’t just BSing, he was actually upset. “Thanks.” And because he didn’t know what else to say, added, “What have you been up to?”
“Damn,” Simon looked Danny up and down, “you got all civilized in the ‘burbs.”
Danny’s clothes weren’t that different from what he used to wear, plain white t and jeans, but he didn’t match Simon’s baggy jeans, wife-beater, gold chains, and sideways Yankees cap.
“These days I’m trying not to get my ass kicked out of private school,” Simon continued. “Can you believe that shit? My mom and pops put me in this wack boarding school last year. But I bust out every night. Philly’s not the City, but it’s ‘aight.”
“Yo Danny, we got to hang. Catch up and stuff. It’s been like, two years.”
“I don’t know. I didn’t even want to come to AC.”
“Fuck man, we gotta. For Mikey. It’s what he would’ve wanted,” and the quiver in Simon’s eyes surprised Danny.
“Alright, let’s go.”
“That’s my boy. For Mikey.”
They met up with a couple girls that Simon knew. They both had big hair and tight, low-cut shirts. One was blonde and the other brunette; the brunette was a little prettier, Danny thought, but they had so much make-up on it was hard to tell.
“This is Sherry and Nicky. Sherry and Nicky, this is my boy Dan from New York. We go way back.”
The blonde smiled at Danny.
They hung out for a little bit on the boardwalk. Danny ended up buying everyone pizza at a run-down dirty joint, and afterwards they sat along the beach on a couple of damp, rusted benches. The blonde started to lean on Danny, and he couldn’t get away from the smell of perfume and hairspray. To his left Simon and the brunette were already making out. Even with the blonde up against him, Danny was thinking more about the sound of the waves. He remembered a trip to Atlantic City when he was seven and Mikey ten. They had jumped off a long pier, ten feet high, into the ocean at midnight. When Danny was underneath the water, he had seen that same blinking light, and he had stared at it until Mikey pulled his head out of the water.
“Danny, what the fuck is the matter with you?”
They swam back to the shore.
Danny gasped. “I saw a light.”
His brother peered out into the water. “I don’t see it. Maybe it was a boat?”
Mikey’s voice wavered. “Why do you even do shit like that Danny?”
“But it’s gone now,” Danny wiped at the water and sand on his knees.
Now that same blinking was in the ocean. Danny shrugged off the blonde and got up. She started to say something but Danny didn’t hear her. He walked onto the sand with his sneakers on, until he was close to the edge of the water’s reach. And there it was again. A buoy? Light on. Light off. Light on. Light off. Danny felt someone come up next to him.
“Yo Danny, don’t like Sherry? I get it. She’s got a slammin’ body, but she gets annoying.”
Danny kept on staring at the light. A large wave crashed into the shore and touched the toes of his sneakers.
“Hey, let’s ditch the hos. This ain’t about them anyway.”
Light on. Light off. Light on. Light off.
“Fucking Mikey,” Danny muttered.
“Nothing, let’s go.”
Simon and Danny ran through the boardwalk and the carnival, which was built on the discarded remnants of the former theme park, Steel Pier. The old wooden rollercoaster was still running, and as Danny and Simon were thrown side to side in the rattling seats, they screamed like they used to when they were little, because every turn felt like it could be their last, and the cart could tumble off the track, or the beam supporting the ride could crack into two and that’ll be that.
Sherry and Nicky were long gone. And Danny wasn’t even thinking about Jess, or his mom, or even Mikey, or the blinking light, or how his dad couldn’t speak for weeks with his face half frozen for all those months. The car didn’t get wrecked all that bad, but they had bought another one because they didn’t want to see the stains. Even with all traces of Mikey’s blood gone, they could still see rust everywhere, all over the passenger side dash, the windows, the spaces between the handles, underneath the floor mat, and the new Benz was nicer anyway his mom said, because the black of the old one was so depressing. The blue was much nicer.
By midnight Danny said that he wanted to go back to the hotel, and Simon agreed. “Yeah, Nicky’s gonna meet me in the suite at 2.” By then, most of the carnival had closed; the rides were silent, the game booths dark. A couple of the snack stands were still open, and as usual, the lights of the casinos were going strong. A few hookers and pimps wandered around the doors of the casinos, or maybe they were drug dealers. Danny didn’t really care, since they never bothered him.
The two of them were almost at the door of the Taj Mahal when they heard a voice.
“Hey, you motherfucking chinks!”
Danny and Simon turned around. “What the fuck did you say?” Simon shouted. His eyes opened wide, wild. Danny recognized a fit coming on. If there was anything that could rile up Simon, it was racism. “Just leave it, Simon.”
“Hell no. Oh,” Simon squinted at the shadows approaching, “It ain’t little broke ass Vinnie is it? What, you want me to pay your mom this time? How bout I just give her some crack? You know she likes that.”
There was a gang of kids closing in: white, Hispanic, black, Italian; Danny couldn’t tell, though the lead guy, Vinnie, was older, maybe old for real.
“Simon, this isn’t going to be good.” Danny wasn’t scared; he’d been beaten up enough times to not be scared, but he could tell this wasn’t going to be a normal beatdown. These guys knew Simon, and this felt like some kind of payback, and it didn’t matter one bit that Danny didn’t have a thing to do with it. He was Chinese, and he was with Simon; that was enough.
“I got it man,” Simon whispered. He reached into his pocket. A chill sliced through Danny, a gun? No way. But then he saw it wasn’t a gun, but a short, red tube.
“Shit! Is that a M80?”
“Shhh.” Simon took the cigarette from his mouth and lit the fuse. The gang of kids were running at them at full speed. Danny and Simon backed away. The fuse continued to burn, almost up to the firecracker, the quarter stick of dynamite. When the gang was about fifteen feet away, and Danny could see the curses in their mouths, Simon tossed the M80 in the air.
The firecracker exploded with a deafening boom. A concussion of air hit Danny, and the crowds on the boardwalk scattered as trails of afterimages. Their mouths opened in what must be silent screams.
Simon shouted something at Danny, but all he could hear was a dead dialtone. Simon pulled at Danny’s shirt and they ran away, though Danny fell every step or two because forward was no longer forward.
They ran until the sirens and the lights of the Taj Majal were both in the distance. Until they were actually able to hear enough to know that the sirens were far away. They stopped on a bare street of closed shops, and Simon collapsed to the sidewalk. He breathed heavily, and then let out a whoop that cut into Danny’s muffled ears. “You see that! I got’m.” Danny’s hands dropped to his knees as he gasped. He felt something…a fist pressed against his face. I’m being punched, he thought as he fell. This is me being punched. It was a familiar feeling. Almost nostalgic.
Simon was cursing like it was a reflex, a nonstop stream-of-consciousness fucksshitsmotherfuckerwop. And when Danny was able to open his eyes he saw a figure standing over Simon and kicking away at him like he was a sack of potatoes. Danny struggled to his feet.
“Hey,” he said to the guy. “Hey, Vinnie right?”
The guy turned around. He must’ve been at least in his twenties. Would’ve looked right at home in Queens. “Who the fuck are you?” Vinnie said too loudly.
Danny shook his head, to clear the dizziness. “My brother’s dead you know. He died in an accident almost exactly a year ago, and I’m trying to figure out if I care.”
Vinnie furrowed his brows. “What the fuck you talkin’ about?”
“We live in this town that’s too quiet, because he wanted to get away, but I think he hears Mikey’s voice at night. There’s a river behind our house. It’s a small river. I can almost jump across it. And at night, sometimes you can see a light in the river. My mom can’t see it, but I know my dad can.” Danny continued to walk up to the guy with his knife held out?. Simon groaned on the ground.
“Shut the fuck up kid. I said I don’t give a shit,” the guy took out a gun and pointed it at Danny. It was dark, but Danny could see it was a gun from the way Vinnie was standing, one arm straight out. “Back up, Bruce Lee.”
Danny began to tremble. “I was supposed to be in that car. I was supposed to be picking up my bicycle from Toys R’ Us, but I didn’t feel like it, and Mikey wanted to practice parking in the empty lot there, so he went instead.” Danny lifted the knife—
“Shit kid, you gonna die.”
—and dragged it diagonally across his left palm, opening up a slow welt. The skin went white for a second, and then blood started to seep out, down his wrist, down his arm, dripping to the sidewalk. Danny held out the palm to Vinnie, and put away his knife.
“What the hell is wrong with you? You on drugs?” Vinnie slumped down. “Shit, I’m not in the mood for this babysitting shit, I gotta wake up early tomorrow.” He nudged Simon with a toe. “Tell your buddy to pay up by next week, ok?” Vinnie shook his head and walked away. “Crazy ass chinks.”
Danny helped Simon up to his feet. His hand throbbed but surprisingly it didn’t really hurt that much; he pressed the wound against his white t-shirt. Simon was groggy and a bit bruised, but fine otherwise.
“Vinnie’s right. You’re nuts Danny,” he said.
Mr. Mok was the first one to see them, since he had already returned to his suite. He was in his robe with a cup of tea in his hand. His rubbery face twisted into shock as he took in the bruises on his son’s right cheek and eye, which was beginning to swell shut. He turned and widened his eyes at Danny’s bloody t-shirt. They immediately left for a twenty-four hour clinic. Twenty stitches to close Danny’s cut, cold compresses and pain relievers for Simon’s bruises. Antibiotics for infection. When Danny’s parents arrived, both still in formal dress, Danny told them that he had cut himself on a ride at the carnival, and that Simon had jumped off the same ride and hit his face. Mr. Mok started going off about suing the park owners and managers, but Danny’s parents just held each other. They didn’t cry, but they didn’t let go either.
The next day, Danny’s parents didn’t gamble, they had a breakfast buffet. The Moks had decided to leave early, and Simon with them. In the afternoon, Danny’s mother took him to a bookstore to buy summer reading books for 9th grade: Great Gatsby, Illustrated Man, stuff like that. “Better to start next year’s schoolwork right away,” she told him.
At night, they took their seats at the first row of the mezzanine section, above the ground level. The Andy Lau concert was loud and exciting, full of ballads and rock anthems. At one point Andy Lau ripped off his shirt. Danny sat between his parents. To his left, his father observed the show in his typical stoic manner, though every now and then, he would pat the top of Danny’s bandaged hand, and Danny would feel the vibration enter his blood. To his right, his mother sang along at full volume, her earrings bouncing to the beat. Danny found that he knew the words to every song.