Fiction by Yona Zeldis McDonough
Illustrations by Craig Orback
Charlie came downstairs late that Sunday morning in December. His father was leafing through the newspaper, and his sister, Robin, was feeding Lucky a scrap of bacon. His mother brought to the breakfast table a tall stack of pancakes, wisps of steam floating up from the plate. A bottle of maple syrup and a dish of butter were ready and waiting.
Just then, his dad leaned over to switch on the radio. The announcer’s voice quivered with emotion: “At 7:55 a.m. Hawaii time, a Japanese dive bomber ripped open the sky above the island of Oahu. Immediately following it was a swarm of 360 Japanese warplanes. They descended on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor.”
“Did you hear that?” Charlie’s father abruptly pushed his plate away. “The Japanese have attacked us! This means war!”
“Oh, no!” cried Charlie’s mother. Her face had gone pale.
Charlie had never seen either of his parents look so scared — which, in turn, made him scared. And when he looked over at Robin, he saw tears running down her face. The pancakes grew cold as they listened to the newscaster’s awful words.
Ships sunk. Men killed. Men wounded. Finally, Charlie’s dad switched off the radio and took Robin in his arms.
“Don’t worry, kitten.” He stroked her hair. “We’re safe here.”
But were they? Charlie wasn’t so sure.
No one really had much appetite after that, so Charlie went across the street to find his best friend, Kenzo. He noticed the curtains were closed.
Now, that’s strange. It’s past noon; wouldn’t someone be up?
He knocked on the door. No answer. He went around to the back.
“Hey, Kenzo,” he called through the open window. “You in there?”
Instantly, Kenzo’s head, with its blue-black hair and dark eyes, appeared. “Shhh!” he admonished. “Come around the side and I’ll let you in.”
Charlie was confused. His friend was acting so … peculiarly. Once Charlie was inside, Kenzo explained. “My parents are Japanese,” he said. “People are going to think we sympathize with those pilots who attacked Pearl Harbor. But we don’t!”
“Of course you don’t,” Charlie said. “You’re Americans. Just like us. Everyone knows that.”
“Do they?” Kenzo stared at him fiercely. “Just wait and see.”
Back at home, Charlie learned the Pacific fleet had essentially been wiped out: Five of eight battleships, three destroyers and seven other ships were sunk or badly damaged, and more than 200 aircraft were destroyed. About 2,400 Americans were killed and 1,200 wounded — many while trying to fight off the attack. Japan had fared much better: It lost only 30 planes, five midget submarines and fewer than 100 men.
Charlie felt sick. And angry.
But not at Kenzo. Kenzo’s family had nothing to do with this. His parents had come from Japan more than 10 years ago and settled here in Garden Grove, California. Kenzo and his brother, Gaku, had been born here. His dad owned a fish store and, at least once a week, Charlie’s mom bought fresh fish she broiled or fried for dinner. Mr. Takayama always gave her a little something extra. Mrs. Takayama worked in the store, and she was nice, too.
And Kenzo — well, Kenzo was the best. He had been Charlie’s friend forever. They had played pirates, cowboys, marbles and tag when they were little; these days, they played baseball and football, rode their bikes all over town and went camping in the woods.
Now Kenzo was worried and scared.
Charlie had to help him.
On Monday, Charlie noticed the other kids were keeping their distance from Kenzo. In gym, he wasn’t picked for volleyball, even though he was a good player. At recess, no one invited him to join any of the other games, either. After lunch, Kenzo didn’t come back. When the bell rang for dismissal at 3 o’clock, Charlie went looking for him.
He passed Mr. Takayama’s store. It was empty. No one was buying any fish today.
On Tuesday, Kenzo didn’t show up at school. On his way home, Charlie noticed the fish store was closed up. He remembered there had been an American flag out front. It was gone.
On the window, someone had painted Traitors Go Home in crude red letters.
Charlie went to Kenzo’s house, but Mr. Takayama wouldn’t let him in. “I think you should leave now.”
Charlie must have looked stricken, because Mr. Takayama added — in a kinder tone — “You don’t want anyone to see you here.” He gently closed the door.
At dinner, Charlie told his parents about what was happening.
“People here are really upset over the attack,” said his father. “They don’t trust Kenzo’s family right now.”
“But that’s not fair!” Charlie said. “They’re Americans.”
“I know,” said his dad. But he sounded uncertain.
“We have to make them understand, Dad!” exclaimed Charlie. “We have to!”
That night, Charlie couldn’t sleep. He was thinking of ways to help Kenzo. By morning, he’d made a plan. He only prayed it would work.
After school, Charlie went around town, asking people to tell him something they knew about the Takayamas. It took some prodding, but eventually the stories started coming out.
Mrs. Takayama brought me soup when I broke my ankle. She always plants flowers in the town square.
Mr. Takayama volunteers as an auxiliary fireman, and he helped save my house when it was burning.
Kenzo is the best baseball player on the team. We won the league championship because of him.
Gaku adopts stray kittens and finds homes for them.
Charlie couldn’t get it all down fast enough; his hand hurt from writing. When he finished, he took the list to an editor at the local newspaper, who thought it was a good human-interest story and ran it Saturday.
Soon everyone was talking about the Takayama family. Someone went back to the fish store and hung a big American flag in the window. Someone cleaned the window and replaced it with a sign that read: Neighbors, please come back!
When Charlie saw that, his heart felt as light as a balloon. He ran all the way to Kenzo’s house and begged the family to come with him. Several people followed them, and soon a crowd had formed. When they got to the fish store, Mr. Takayama looked at the flag and the sign.
“God bless America!” he said. “Today, fish is free!” The crowd eagerly lined up.
Kenzo turned to Charlie. “Thank you,” he said. But his look said much more.
Charlie simply replied, “What are friends for?”
For books by author Yona Zeldis McDonough, visit her website.