The summer after 6th grade, my lizard died. My parents had never owned reptiles before and the vet we took our dog to wouldn’t cremate the lizard. My parents were very busy and we weren’t sure what to do with him, so we left Salami inside his terrarium, his body frozen atop his basking log, the lights and lamps donated or disposed of. After a week, he began to smell and my dad put him in a ziploc bag and placed him in the freezer.
“We’d better bury him, Kaiyo,” my dad said on the morning of the 9th day. He was putting on a tie, drinking coffee, and buttering his toast. “We can dig a hole in the far-left corner of the backyard.”
“But Tucker’ll dig him up,” I said. Tucker hadn’t dug things up in years; he was no longer a puppy and the trainer had broken his digging habit when he was two.
“Aiyah, Kaiyo.” My dad ran his hand over his head. Mom claimed that my brother and I had gotten our dark hair from him, but it was already gone when they met. He sighed deeply. “I—” He breathed in and let the air out through his nose. He did it again. “We’ll talk about this later,” he said. He pointed at the bowl of dry cereal in front of me. “Eat your breakfast. I’ll be home at 6:30.”
“Where’s Mom?” I made a show of pushing the cereal around in my bowl, the fork clanking against its yellow ceramic.
“In bed,” my dad said. “Don’t bother her.”
Dad patted me awkwardly on the head, his eyes already on the door. “Jyane.”
I didn’t have much to do that summer. My teachers had given me homework packets for English and math — which I had every intention of completing over Labor Day weekend, the last few days before school started — and I’d outgrown summer camp. I wasn’t yet old enough to be a camp counselor and my best friend was in Colorado for the summer, staying with her dad. I would’ve spent time with my brother — biked to Walgreens to buy ice cream, wandered through Busse Woods with Tucker, played endless games of Mario Kart — but without him, I didn’t want to do any of those things.
Unsure of what else to do, I grabbed the red Kong ball and Tucker and headed out into the backyard, the screen door slamming behind me.
The muggy air of a Midwestern summer pressed down on me, but it wasn’t the suffocating kind of pressure; it sat like a weighted blanket on my shoulders, heavy but comforting. I kneeled on the built-in bench on the far side of our wooden porch, my body facing the playground my dad had built for us when Hisao and I were little. At five years old I had been incrementally more useful than Hi-chan, his stubborn toddler fingers unable to pick up a hammer or retrieve the right nails. Our father had handed him a stick and put him to work stirring the cement which held the playset firmly in the ground.
The playground looked lonely now, what with the vacant platform and slowly swaying swings, the creak of the latches and the wood groaning against each other. I wanted to play — after all, I really had nothing better to do — but I hadn’t been on the playground in two weeks, and today was not the day.
I settled for throwing the ball instead, Tucker’s golden body a back-and-forth blur as he chased it and brought it back. I sang quietly to myself, aware that all the kids in my neighborhood had the day off of school and could be outside listening. I counted each throw and with every second throw I changed songs. I continued on like this for quite some time, Tucker’s panting retrieval the punctuation to each of my murmured verses. A light breeze blew. The empty space where the black cargo net had been strung stared back at me, a permanent hole in the playground.
On the 24th song, I heard the screen door slam. I turned, and there was my mom, clad in the t-shirt, pajama pants, and hanten she had been wearing for what felt like forever.
“Morning.” I waved and Tucker bounded over toward her, dropping his saliva-slathered Kong ball at her feet.
“Morning.” Mom squinted at the playground and then back at me. She had this new tendency to look past me, as though I existed two inches to the left of myself. I tried to ignore it.
“I’m throwing the ball for Tucker.” I didn’t know what else to say.
“Mmm.” Mom sucked in her upper lip and chewed on it, a habit Hi-chan had copied for as long as I could remember. She leaned forward and absent-mindedly tapped Tucker on the top of his head. “I’m going for a visit. Do you want to come?”
I looked away, back at the empty gap in the playground.
“You don’t want to go?”
I could feel Mom’s eyes shift toward me again. “No. I don’t want to go.”
“Okay.” Mom turned, pulling the screen door open again. “I’ll be home after lunch.”
Mom started into the house but paused in the doorway. “What are you going to do about Salami?”
“I don’t know.” I beckoned for Tucker to bring me the ball and wrestled it from his mouth. “Dad said we should bury him in the yard.”
“Mmm.” She tapped her fingers against the screen. “That sounds like a good idea.”
“But Tucker might dig him up,” I said. I launched the ball as far as I could. It bounced off of a corner of the playground, veering off to the right.
“Tucker will not dig him up,” Mom said.
“But he might,” I said. She didn’t understand. Even the smallest possibility that Salami could be dug up was too much of a possibility for me. “And then he might eat him.”
“He will not eat him, Kaiyo.”
“But he might!” .
We’d gotten Salami four years ago, just a year after we’d gotten Tucker. Tucker would always leave Salami alone when he came out of his terrarium for his daily “exercise”. If anything, Tucker had been afraid of Salami and the comedic image of a labrador retriever cowering on the couch while a bearded dragon dawdled around the living room was burned into my mind. Hi-chan had taken countless photos of their ridiculous interactions on my phone. “He might,” I said again, this time quieter and with less resolve, my gaze shifting back to the missing cargo net.
“I’m not doing this with you.” Mom turned toward the living room, making her way deeper into the house. “We have enough to deal with right now.” Her voice was hoarse.
“It wasn’t your fault that he fell,” she said quietly.
“We all thought it was sturdy,” she added.
“I remember when you guys built it,” she said.
I remembered, too. The sunlight reflecting off my mother’s pale face those mornings while she stood in the doorway with a mug of coffee and a smile.The occasional picture of us she took with Grandpa’s old camera. I remembered those days, too, with the spring air that could get inside your jacket and cool you not quite down to your bones, not quite as deep as the breezeless coolness I felt in the remembering.
I stayed outside for a while. Tired, Tucker lay in the grass beside the swings, a stick propped up between his paws. He chewed quietly while I counted the number of slats in the fence. When I ran out of slats to count, I turned my attention to the sky and began counting clouds. The wind blew the clouds quickly across the sky, making it hard to keep track of which ones I had already counted. Finally, I heard the sound of the minivan turning on in the driveway and then the tired clunking as it pulled away. It was finally quiet.
“Inside, Tucker.” I clicked my tongue and Tucker came, leaving the stick behind in the grass.
I opened the kitchen cabinets, staring blankly inside. The cabinets that were always disorganized — with snacks stacked inside and on top of one another like demented nesting dolls — had been replaced by an alarming neatness. The Hostess cakes stood at attention like small soldiers, Mom’s cupcakes, honey buns, and Twinkies arranged in alphabetical order. Hi-chan’s fruit snacks stared back at me accusingly from the second shelf, snuggled between his second- and third-favorite snacks, osenbei and Pirate’s Booty. Mom had spent most of the last two weeks in her room, but the rare moments that she spent outside of it had been approaching an organization obsession.
I turned from the cabinet, opting instead for an apple and peanut butter. Balancing my plate and glass of water in one hand, I pulled open the freezer to add ice to my water. I reached in, feeling around for ice cubes that were just the right size, when my elbow bumped something. Salami, jostled loose by the jerking of the freezer door and knocked by my arm, began to fall forward. He fell in slow motion and for one agonizing moment my eyes caught his open ones. His body, stiff and brittle and cold, turned horizontal flips in the air, the tip of his nose brushing against the refrigerator door handle. I heard a crashing clang but I wasn’t sure if it was Salami or my snack because I was already charging out of the kitchen and up the stairs.
At the top of the stairs, I paused, my heart slamming against my chest. I could feel my pulse at the tip of every finger. My skin tingled in a way that was almost painful. It wasn’t really Salami, I reminded myself. That thing that was still and hard and cold was not Salami. That thing was just a body, frozen inside of a plastic bag, wasn’t Salami. That dead thing was not Salami.
Then another thought: it wasn’t my fault that he fell.
I knew I would have to go down and clean up the kitchen before Mom came home, but I couldn’t do it yet. I turned from the top of the stairs, catching a glimpse of Hic-chan’s room, its light green walls a flash of color against our drab upstairs landing. The door was not meant to be open. It had been closed for two weeks. Peeking around the door, I saw Tucker lying on the bed, curled up on Hi-chan’s pillow. Loud noises scared Tucker, so it made sense that he would be in here, hiding, after the crash in the kitchen. He looked up, eyes catching mine, and I pushed the door open and stepped into the room.
It was the same room, of course. His twin bed was pushed into the far-left corner of his bedroom, the white headboard squeezed tightly beneath the far wall’s windowsill. The bed was unmade, as it always was, exactly as it had been two weeks ago, his comforter crumpled at the foot such that only a few yellow rockets and green planets could be seen. Three stuffed animals — two rabbits and one koala — were squished between the wall and mattress. Tucker lay at the top of the bed, his body both on top of and curled around the “space pillows” Hi-chan had gotten at the Adler at our last visit. Tucker looked up, then sighed, then laid his head back down.
I looked around at the rest of the room. Across from his bed and beside the door was Hi-chan’s closet, its crooked doors open in a gap-toothed smile. Clothes and toys and miscellaneous mystery items spilled out of it, the things that remained in the closet held back only by those that did not. On the opposite side of the doorway was his desk, a simple wooden one with two built-in drawers. In the middle of the desk was a giant, poorly-erased drawing I’d done of Tucker as a puppy, back when the desk was mine. I’d tried to erase it when our parents bought me a new, bigger desk and gave Hi-chan my old one, but he was so excited to have a desk of his own that he didn’t let me take the time to erase the picture completely.
Wedged between the desk and the far wall, just past the window, was his dresser, a formerly white IKEA one with six drawers stacked vertically atop one another. Our father had bought it when he realized that Hi-chan had the same affinity for drawing on furniture as I did, putting down a tarp and letting Hi-chan paint whatever he wanted on the bureau.
Hisao was no budding artist, but he loved to paint. On the left side of the dresser was a 4th-grader’s attempt at a rocket ship’s liftoff scene, the flames disproportionately large in comparison to the bright red rocket ship painted at the top. On the right was Hi-chan’s rendition of our family, four stick figures of varying sizes with “Dad,” “Mom”, “Kai” and “Me” painted in sloppy black letters above the respective stick figure. At the bottom, taking up more than half of the side, was a painting of Tucker and Salami where both animals were the same size. The fronts of the dresser drawers were still blank; we’d said we would paint them together over the summer.
I glanced out the window, which looked out on the backyard and playset, my eyes immediately drawn again to the missing cargo net. I thought of Salami, on the ground, thawing on the kitchen linoleum.
It wasn’t my fault that he fell.
I beckoned for Tucker to follow me out of Hi-chan’s room, but he whined and pushed his nose under the pillows. It struck me that the kitchen floor was likely an even more dangerous place for Salami than the far-left corner of the backyard. Quickly, I padded down the stairs and back into the kitchen, the combination of fresh-cut apple, peanut butter, and dead lizard an aggressive affront to my nose.
I cleaned around Salami, picking up the pieces of broken plate and glass first. I grabbed a paper towel and picked up the apple slices, simultaneously wiping up the spilled water and peanut butter. Finally, there was nothing left to do but put Salami back into the freezer.
I just needed to put Salami back in the freezer.
He would be safe there. He had been safe there.
The cargo net had been safe, too.
The cargo net had been safe, too.
The cargo net had been safe, too.
It wasn’t my fault that he fell.
Salami had been in the freezer long enough. He wasn’t going to be cremated and he wasn’t going to be buried in the backyard. He had to go somewhere, though. I pulled a dishcloth out of the drawer by the sink and wrapped Salami’s half-frozen body, ziploc bag and all, in its bright floral pattern. I left him on the kitchen table, pulling on my sneakers and stuffing my keys into my pocket. I yanked a drawstring bag off the coat rack, one of those cheap plastic ones you get at school events or fundraisers. It had a couple of sandcastle buckets inside from our last trip to the lake. I dashed up to my room, pulled out my copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and retrieved the dried rose within it, its white petals pressed flat between sheets of wax paper lining pages 204 and 205. It was the rose Hi-chan had caught for me the year before, when we’d gone to Medieval Times. Finally, I texted Mom that I was going to Busse Woods, gently placed Salami in the drawstring bag, and headed out of the house.
Usually, I biked to Busse Woods, but I was afraid that all the jostling of a bike ride would break Salami, so I walked down to the bus stop instead, drawstring bag cradled in my arms. On the bus, no one questioned my awkwardly-shaped parcel. No one asked why a kid was going to the woods with sandcastle buckets peeking out of her bag. It was only me who wondered. I sat in a window seat and watched houses and businesses go by until, 15 minutes later, we arrived at Busse Woods.
I started on the Yellow Paved Spur, turning left at the Red Paved Loop. This was the route Hi-chan and I always took, racing each other on our bicycles or competing to see who could find more animals. It was a little cooler in the woods, the leafy trees blocking out most of the light. Once in a while, a few miles in, we would lay our bikes down at the side of the path and go “off-trail exploring”, as we called it. This was what I did now, except there was no bike to lay down and no little brother. I simply turned and stepped off the path, alone.
The ground was soft from the rain a few days prior and my sneakers stuck in the mud each time I took a step, the suctioning sound an interruption of the quiet forest. Salami had almost completely thawed in the summer heat and I could feel the damp condensation seeping through the drawstring bag.
I stepped carefully, watching for poison ivy as I picked my way through the forest, until finally I could no longer see the path. I set the drawstring bag on the ground beside me, reaching in to extract the sandcastle buckets. I selected the smallest one, about the size of a measuring cup, and began digging away at the earth beneath a longleaf pine. The earth came away easily, softened and loosened by the rain. I sang quietly to myself, making my way through all of Hi-chan’s favorite songs before I was satisfied with the depth and width of my hole.
The finished hole was about as long as my arm and as wide as the drawstring bag. It was deep enough that when I stood in it, the top of the hole was level with my knees. I took my time selecting giant leaves and colorful blossoms, laying them at the bottom of the hole. On top of the fresh foliage I gently lay the pressed rose from my bedroom, rubbing one petal as lightly as I could.
Finally, I reached into my bag and withdrew Salami’s ziploc bag. I set the ziploc bag down on the ground in front of me and opened it, sliding the locking bead all the way to the left. I reached in and while it bothered me to do it, I felt I needed to, so I wrapped the fingers of my right hand around Salami’s small body and pulled him out. With both hands, I gently lowered him into the soft ground and when I was satisfied with the foliage and flowers tucked around him, I picked up the sandcastle bucket and began to replace the earth I had removed.
With each cup of damp dirt, I quietly told Salami something I appreciated about him. I appreciated how he looked up from his log when I turned on his lamps in the morning. I appreciated the sassy side-eye he gave me whenever I walked by without greens or crickets. I appreciated the spoiled way he expected Hi-chan to feed the crickets to him directly, as if he were a child who needed spoon-feeding. I appreciated the respect he had commanded from Tucker. I appreciated the warmth he gave me when I held him, even though I knew that he was a reptile and that warmth was my own. I appreciated the way he used to lick Hi-chan before he picked him up. I appreciated how he had made Hi-chan smile every time he bobbed his head and how he always stayed in Hi-chan’s lap when he knew he’d had a bad day.
I appreciated how he’d sat in my lap for 30 straight minutes the night Hi-chan fell from the top of the cargo net, even though he wasn’t well. We’d known Salami was dying for a while; his skin had taken on a grey hue, his eyes dropped, and he spent almost all of his time on the cooler side of his terrarium instead of under his basking lamp. He’d grown less and less active each year but the last few months had taken a greater toll and he rarely moved. With a dog, we knew, at this point in its life, people would take it to the vet and put it down. “Let it go,” as my mom called it. But the vet didn’t work with reptiles and so we had watched Salami fade a little more each day.
But that day, that day, Salami stayed in my lap. He sat there and let me run my hand from his head to the base of his tail again and again. He made a half-hearted attempt to lick me. He draped his tail down the outside of my thigh and rested his head on my knee. He didn’t remind me that I’d dared Hi-chan to climb the cargo net in 15 seconds or less. Salami let me pet him until my parents came home without Hi-chan and told me to put him away.
Three days later, Salami died.
I cried over the hole, turning the mound of earth to mud with every tear. I wiped my eyes with the backs of my dirty forearms. Salami had been such a good lizard. Hi-chan had been such a good brother. It seemed unfair that such good things could go away and of course, it was.
I smoothed the top of Salami’s grave with my hands, my tears dripping into the earth. I heard my phone buzz and I knew Mom was texting to see if I would be home soon. I knew I had to get up, but I wasn’t ready to go yet, so I lay on the ground beside the grave and counted the leaves in longleaf pine. The leaves, fastened to the trees, made them easy to count, but each time one broke off I wondered if I had counted it, and if so, if it should still be counted now. I decided that it should.
When I reached 50, I decided it was time to go. I packed the sandcastle bucket back in the drawstring bag, sat up, and carressed the mound of soil one last time. I thanked Salami again. I asked him to look out for Hi-chan, like he always had. I promised to remember him forever.
Finally, I stood and began making my way back to the path. The sun was high in the sky and snuck through the gaps in the tree branches, catching different parts of my body as I walked. Then, a beam of light on my right arm; now, a pleasant warmth on the back of my neck. I hoisted the drawstring bag onto my back — lighter and less fragile now — and walked steadily out of the woods as the sun caught my entire left side for just a moment, a fleeting warmth on a soil-coated youth.
Photo by Olia Nayda on Unsplash