The Watchtower, an Excerpt
By Avelina Kiyome Sanchez
Discussed: death, discrimination
Two Japanese American twelve-year-olds in World War II relocation centers, hatch a plan of escape. But something unexpected happens on the day they plan to leave.
“We’re getting out of here.”
Riku looks confident, as if there’s no question he can get past the guard towers and barbed wire fences, then figure out where to go once he’s out.
“But my parents said—”
“I don’t care. Mine probably said the same thing. Some variation of: ‘We must stay loyal to our country, show dignity and honor, to prove we are Americans.’”
I’m surprised by the way Riku mocks his parents.
“Kelly, we don’t have to do anything we don’t want,” he continues in a hushed tone, knowing the stable walls are far from sound-proof. He asked me to meet him here, behind his family’s assigned living space, while everyone’s out getting food. “I am not going to spend another minute waiting for freedom that might never come. They’re taking away our civil rights, you know.”
“You’ve read the constitution, right?”
I didn’t know Riku before the war, but he’s always telling me about how much he loved to read. But since we were only allowed one bag each, he couldn’t bring his books here.
“Uh … no?”
“We’ve been evacuated without any probable cause. No warrant, no evidence, no trial.”
“And … you really think we can escape?” I ask, coming back to the point.
I think about my family. Mother hasn’t been the same since we got here two months ago. Father yells at us constantly. My older sister Anne is mean now and acts like how Mother is supposed to act.
Riku goes on to explain the complicated but surprisingly reasonable plan of escape, involving a diversion, crawling under the barbed wire, and then making it all the way to the train station. Once we’re out we’ll have to hide our Japanese ancestry, pretending we’re Chinese or Korean, and we can live regular lives again.
When I come back to my family’s tiny stall, I enter a typical scene: Mother scrubbing the floor, Father sitting down and smoking his pipe, and Anne mending a torn curtain. The smoke from Father’s pipe fills the single room with a thick fog, and my eyes tear up as I enter.
Anne coughs. “Father, would you mind smoking outside?”
Father looks up from the notebook he’s writing in. “Yes Anne, I would mind,” he snaps.
“Good morning,” I say.
They all look up for a split second before going back to their business.
The sun shines through the open holes that are supposed to be windows, as well as the cracks in between the wood slabs. I wonder which racehorse used to live here.
There’s a small pile of grass and weeds in the corner of the room, which Mother has spent all day pulling out of the ground. We still haven’t been able to find more wood to put over the bare floor. Mother scrubs anyway, even though we all know it’s pointless.
“Hi Mother,” I say, crouching by her side. “Do you need help?”
Ever since the evacuation, she hasn’t spoken much. Today is no different.
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The big day arrives. I barely speak to my family, and I stay outside. I didn’t expect leaving them to feel as terrible as it does, so I’m hoping that if I avoid them today, the need to hold onto them will stop feeling so strong. I’ll find them again when they’re released for real.
Rather than worrying more about everything that could go wrong, I imagine what could go right. I’ll stick with Riku. Maybe I can ask my best friend Lindsay if we can stay in her basement. She’s always been mad about my family having to leave.
Then, once we’re settled, I’ll start school again. I’ll also catch up on my favorite radio shows and Riku will get new books. I’ll get a job so that my family can have some money when they’re out. I’ll use toilets that aren’t lined up in an open room and shared by everyone in the block, and eat food that doesn’t make my stomach turn. I’ll smell the clean air, and when I look to the distance I won’t see barbed wire or watchtowers.
When the sun is high in the sky, we meet by the barbed wire to play hopscotch from squares Riku draws in the dirt. No one is around except for the guards in the towers, whose eyes I can feel watching us—just like always.
Then, out of nowhere, a young man rushes past us, panting hard. Curious, we watch him as he runs to the fence, stops suddenly, then looks at the floor as if he’s found a lost possession. He bends down.
A gunshot sounds, the blast continuing to ring in my eardrums. All of my senses pause as my ears fill with the sound, burning it into my memory. Then I see the man laying face-first on the floor, red pooling out beneath him.
I’m frozen in place, unthinking and unfeeling, just staring. Until I feel a yank on my arm, and find myself being pulled away as Riku and I run for our lives because we might be next.
My family history inspired me to write this piece. My grandfather and his family were forced to leave their home and go to internment camps during World War II. Even though my grandfather was born in the U.S., he was still forced to evacuate because of his Japanese ancestry. I don’t often see writing about this horrible time in history, so I wanted to create historical fiction based on the internment, to spread awareness of that time.
I chose to tell the story of two fictional pre-teens—characters at this in-between age where they are aware of the terrible effects of the internment, but they still have hope in their idealistic plans of escape. In reality, the Japanese Americans did not choose to rebel against what was happening to them because they wanted to show their dignity and loyalty to their country, no matter how much that country mistreated them. This is something the characters learn throughout the duration of the story.
At the end a man gets shot because the guards come to the hasty conclusion that he was trying to escape, even though the man’s true intentions remain unclear. When the kids see that, they realize that what their parents have been telling them, about needing to show dignity and loyalty, is true. In addition to the harsh reality of the conditions of the internment, these values that Japanese American families held was crucial for me to communicate through this story.
Overall, I wanted to show the humanity of these Americans and how the unfair treatment they faced impacted them. These characters are your average American children with hopes, dreams, and good qualities as well as flaws. They just happened to live in a time where they were not seen as their individual selves, but instead as part of a group who were accused of being dangerous because of their race.
Avelina Kiyome Sanchez is a senior in high school from New York City. She is the creator and writer of the audio drama Life Improvement Inc., which you can find on all listening platforms. Avelina also runs the blog 100percentmixed.com, sharing her journey of being a mixed-race teen. You can find one of her articles published in the magazine Mixed Asian Media. Avelina is a Scholastic Art & Writing Awards Silver Key and Honorable Mention recipient for various short stories. Other than writing, Avelina loves acting, singing and math. She’s also a fan of bubble tea, cats and true crime.