Chassis pulled the bus through the booth, and they started heading for an underpass. They went underneath a big road that Rosa could see had a bunch of fences and barbed wire on it. “That’s the outer loop,” said Daddy. “Are you ready?” He looked over at her and ran his fingers through Rosa’s hair. That irritated Rosa, and she shook him off.
They went through three gates that were tucked under the tunnel. Once they got through, Rosa tried to look back, but she couldn’t see behind them because the bus didn’t have a rear window and Mamma wouldn’t let her open theirs.
On the outer side of the loop everything was really green. Rosa was surprised. Nobody lived out here. Nobody. No Churches, no buildings, no houses. Just the road and a bunch of trees and weeds. At first, when they went under bridges, you could sometimes see old towers or something, but after a while it just looked dark and green.
They rode for a while with everybody keeping their seats. Rain started tapping on the windows. The tap became a torrent, the rain pounding against the roof of the bus, the hard wind occasionally rocking the bus. Rosa sat with her cheek in the crook of Mamma’s arm and watched the scenery through the white curtains of water. She thought about lots of things, about nothing. She wished she had an AVE to log on to. She wanted a cigarette bad enough that she didn’t care if Mamma and Daddy finally found out she had started smoking.
The Kwang children had started getting up, making even more noise. Mamma Kwang and Aunt One-Eye tried to keep them in their seats, but Mr. Kwang didn’t do much or say much. He just sat there like his oak-tree self and kept quiet, letting his women do all the work. After a while Mamma and One-Eye got tired of slapping the older one on top of the head, tired of yanking around the littlest by the arm, and they fell back in their seats and let them run.
Nobody seemed to mind. The kids were noisy, but they weren’t bad, mostly just coming up to different people and staring at them.
The Chinese family were too polite to look unhappy when the kids came over. The really pretty young girl played with the middle child and made him giggle. Then when he started squealing she tried to send him away, but he wouldn’t leave.
The tennis-racket-case lady was always smiling. Rosa wanted to know what she was so happy about. She acted like she was proud, like the kids were hers, the way she caught the eye of grandpa Kwang. He smiled too and nodded quickly, showing his yellow, broken teeth, but he didn’t look her in the eye.
The oldest kid and the youngest came to the back of the bus. First they went down to Firoz and checked him out. He didn’t seem to notice them. He hadn’t moved since he sat down. He was still staring out the window like those trees outside were really something interesting. The kids tried to get his attention by playing near him, then by poking him with their fingers and running away fast. He didn’t move, not even to scratch.
Finally, they got bored and came up to Rosa. Mamma and Daddy smiled at them, but they were looking at her.
“I’m Samoae,” said the littlest one.
“Where you from?” the oldest one asked.
“Buckhead,” Rosa said. The tattered doll the littlest one was carrying smelled horrible up close. It reeked a combination of sock sweat and chikin soup. Samoae held it up for Rosa to see. “I’ll tell! I’ll tell!” it said, to keep the child from torturing it.
“Where you from?” Rosa asked him.
“Fairburn,” he said.
Rosa knew about Fairburn. It was rough down there. Lots of old strip-malls falling apart, with people living in them.
“Come play!” Samoae asked her. Rosa didn’t want to be near the doll, but Mamma patted her to go, so she went. They took her up to introduce her to the Grandma and Grandpa, then the Mamma and Daddy, then the one-eyed lady they called Aunt Kin.
The pretty Chinese girl at the front of the bus was still trying to get the middle child to go away, but he wouldn’t go. The other two finally pulled Rosa up to where he was, and she and Samoae and the older one all bounced on the seats, laughing and making lots of noise.
Rosa and her friends settled on the row in front of the Chinese girl’s parents and stared at them for a while. Rosa never would have been allowed to stare if she hadn’t been sitting with the Kwang kids, who were too young to know better. Rosa got a good look at them.
They didn’t look like much now, but she was getting the idea they used to be pretty number, just from the way they sat. They looked uncomfortable, but they tried to pretend they weren’t, as if the spongy seats were some kind of couch they were reclining on and this was a royal bus. Most Chinese, maybe all of them, lived in the City Proper, usually high up. Rosa didn’t know what could have happened to these people to make them leave their home. Their clothes were old and faded, but they would have been expensive if they’d been new.
The man kept his eyes far away. The woman would look back and smile really sweet, then look down. She did this three times. Rosa knew the Chinese people were uncomfortable, but she just couldn’t resist getting a good stare at someone, especially someone interesting. Finally, the Chinese woman tried to make friends.
“What are your names?”
The Kwang kids wouldn’t answer. Rosa waited for a second, and then she said, “Rosa.”
“What does your father do, Rosa?” she asked.
Rosa didn’t want to tell her that her Daddy had been out of work so long. “He works for the neighborhood,” she said.
“What does your mother do?”
“She was a code checker,” Rosa said. “But she lost her job and now we’re going up to DC to find a new one.”
The woman nodded. “That’s what happened to me, too,” she said.
“Really?” Rosa asked.
“I worked for Noke,” she said. “In antivirals.”
Little Samoae had started stroking the hair of the Chinese daughter. “It so black an’ smooth! Like night!” The daughter tried to sit there like she didn’t mind it, and the parents were making like it didn’t bother them either because nobody wanted to hurt Samoae’s feelings.
Rosa wanted to break the ice, distract them. “Noke? Wow! Us too! That’s who Mamma worked for. Did you live in the City Proper?”
“We did,” she said.
“That must have been great,” Rosa said. “We just lived in Buckhead. Do you have a brand?” Rosa knew her mother would go crazy if she found out she’d asked someone about their tattoo, but her mother wasn’t here, and she really wanted to see one.
The woman nodded again.
“Can I see it?” Rosa begged. The Kwangs stood up on the seats, interested. “Can we see it?” echoed Samoa, jumping up and down so hard her voice started to jiggle.