Clementine Excerpt

Read an excerpt from Clementine and Danny Save the World (And Each Other):

Auntie Lin is waiting for her winning tile. I can tell because she has this way of tensing up and pretending to be relaxed at the same time. Every couple minutes, she starts tapping her finger on the table, only to catch herself and stop again.

Auntie Lin doesn’t have all that many tells. She’s about as serious a player as they come—the kind that doesn’t even sort the tiles in front of her on the off chance her opponents might gain some intel from position alone. She’s the type of player who doesn’t do small talk except between rounds, and she gets grumpy if anything changes the winds of luck. One time, when I was seven, Uncle Howng had me sub in for him while he went to the bathroom. I’m sure he expected to lose that hand. I mean, I was seven. But the mah-jongg gods must have been bored that day, because I won a huge jackpot. Auntie Lin was so pissed that she chased me away from the mah-jongg table any time I got close . Apparently I was “ruining her luck.” I couldn’t get too upset, though, because she still squeezed candy into my palm every day before she left—the nougat wrapped in rice paper that she knew I loved.

All this is to say, I’ve been watching Auntie Lin play for a long time, and I know for a fact that she’s about to win big.

Finally, she cackles, using her ruler to flip her mah-jongg tiles flat on the table. “Hu le,” she crows while the others howl in protest.

“Again?” asks Uncle Tony.

Auntie Lin dusts off her sleeves. The gemstone rings on her fingers glint like her eyes. “If you don’t want a serious game, don’t come to play.”

As they tear everything down and mix the tiles, I rush in with my tray and a new pot of tea, refilling everyone’s cups and clearing a plate of watermelon-seed shells.

“Thank you, Danny!” says Auntie Lin, patting my arm. My eardrums, calloused from years of hanging around old Chinese folks, stand strong against her considerable volume. Auntie Lin always talks as if she’s addressing the entire room. “You’re always so attentive.”

I never really know what to do when Asian elders praise me. The correct response probably involves falling to the floor and listing out all my faults one after the other until I’ve left no doubt in anyone’s mind that I’m the least deserving recipient of praise that has ever groveled on this piece of earth. But then I’d spill the tea, so I just bow my head with an awkward smile.

“Danny Mok is such a nice boy,” Auntie Esther chimes in. Whereas Auntie Lin is loud and brash, the refined, silver-haired Auntie Esther reminds me of a Chinese Julie Andrews. She even has that old-world accent. “Tell me, do have a special lady yet?”

For a moment, I wonder if the real Julie Andrews the term “special lady.” And then I wonder if I can avoid answering the question by pulling my head inside my apron. When I look up, I see all four uncles and aunties blinking curiously at me like a flock of septuagenarian seagulls.

“No,” I mumble, feeling my face flush red. “No girlfriend.”

“No girlfriend?” By the outrage in Auntie Lin’s voice, you’d think I just told her that Szechuan hot pot was superior to Cantonese seafood. “But you’re such a handsome boy!” She pinches my bicep—ouch. “And so strong!”

Okay, time for an exit strategy. “It’s just that I’m so busy, Auntie Lin.” When her eyes narrow skeptically, I add the clincher. “They give us so much homework these days.”

“Ah!” Uncle Tony, who’d been cracking watermelon seeds on his still-good back teeth, raises his finger like Einstein discovering a new formula. “This boy has his head on right. Get your grades up. Get a job. Make lots of money. And then all the girls will come.”

Growing up at Fragrant Leaves has bestowed me with the ability to exit quickly while holding a tray stacked high with dirty dishes. I make full use of that superpower now.


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