We called it Yopanko. No real reason why, other than the fact that it was a word we could all pronounce equally. There were no S sounds for Georgie's tongue to mash into lisps. No Rs to trigger Kelvin's Elmer Fudd syndrome. And no Ls to make me self-conscious about my hand-me-down accent, the byproduct of my mother's emigration from Nagoya, Japan to Seattle, Washington. Our speech impediments, our insecurities, our home and school troubles—suddenly none of that seemed to matter.
What mattered was that Yopanko was ours, a new language entirely for us. At least, that's what we thought.
We also thought, on that January afternoon when I scored an A+ on my math test and proceeded to moonwalk out of class with my backpack on my head, that Yopanko was a one-time thing, a throwaway joke, a cheap laugh. After all, there were already enough barriers to entry for the cliques in our junior high. We knew that. We'd seen the after-school TV specials. We understood the dangers of being "different" in sixth grade. But by the time Spring Break arrived, Georgie and Kelvin and I still assembled in my backyard every afternoon, squatting and jackknifing and barrel rolling until the sun set.
That was the beauty of Yopanko. We never required words to express ourselves, only movements. If we felt like congratulating one another on a video game high score, we'd bounce on one leg like can-can dancers. If we needed to express disdain for a homework problem, we'd clap using the backs of our hands. And if we wanted to show the kids who teased us what we thought of them, we'd flip them off behind their backs. (We knew not to fix what wasn't broken.)
Every day we invented new moves for our language. We were bonded by it, the way other kids might bond over their love of sports or their mothers attending the same AA meetings. It was a part of our daily lives.
Might be why we never saw that Tuesday in April coming.
When it happened, we were in my backyard, breathing in the stench of budding cherry blossoms. The sun sat low and dreamy on the horizon. Kelvin and I huddled by the fence, waiting for Georgie to show us the Yopanko move he'd concocted. It was a new way, he said, of asking the lunch ladies for another serving of mac and cheese. Well, he said "mac and cheethe," but we knew what he meant.
Georgie was bent over backwards, knuckle-deep in the middle of a crab walk, when a bolt of blinding light arced across the sky. I shielded my eyes with my hands—we'd all agreed to keep that as the international symbol for "Sweet baby Jesus, I can't see," because it was also neither broken nor in need of fixing.
Only when the light faded did Kelvin and I realize we were alone.
Kelvin blinked, doffed his non-prescription glasses, wiped them against his undershirt, donned them. Then blinked again. I can't say I wouldn't have done the same thing if I'd worn glasses.
Hearts racing, we kept shouting Georgie's name, our first English word of the day. Well, Kelvin's version came out more like "Geowgie," but I knew what he meant.
I was quadruple-checking the neighbor's gazebo when another flash of light surged, taking Kelvin with it. One second he was there, and the next my mother's head was poking out our kitchen window, surveying the bare backyard.
"Did your friends go home, Hanzo?" she asked, as always, in Japanese.
The question had an ulterior motive. Even back then, I knew that my mother's divorce and emigration had left us with neither the food nor the means to feed my friends, so she would wait until they scampered back to their own homes before cooking. Once, we ate dinner after midnight because she waited for Georgie's parents to return from a concert and pick him up. I never bothered to tell her why that wasn't such a good idea, with Georgie being a diabetic and all.
As for her question, maybe I told her yes. Maybe I asked if she'd seen the bright light. Maybe I said nothing at all. I can never quite recall. What I can recall is that the moment she shut the kitchen window and retreated inside the house, they came to get me.
It was a funny sensation, being whisked away by the light. The world around me fuzzed. The air thinned. My body felt warm and gooey, my bones loose and jellied, like I'd spent too long soaking in the bathtub. But the weird thing is, I kind of liked that feeling.
So, imagine my disappointment when it ended and I opened my eyes and found myself standing beside Georgie and Kelvin in the middle of an alien spaceship.
All around us green aliens sat at control stations blatantly copied from Star Trek. Antennae jutted out of their big bug heads. Their hands and feet, somehow both slimy and scaly, possessed three digits apiece. To compensate, they had two sets of eyes, one stacked on top of the other like Lego blocks. They reeked of iron and tartar sauce. And we might've been scared if they hadn't looked like a group of grown-ups who'd pooled together their old Halloween costumes to go trick-or-treating one last time.
Besides, we'd seen the after-school TV specials. We understood the dangers of being abducted by aliens.
At the command center above us, one of the aliens swiveled in the captain's chair. He stood and descended the staircase, his enormous gut shaking the ship with each step. Like most people in power, he looked taller from afar. Up close, he was about my height, though he probably didn't have the benefit of puberty to look forward to. I wondered, briefly, if he'd also been bullied before.
"Welcome abord the Starprise Entership!" the captain exclaimed. Grinning with teeth that resembled rotten candy corn, he introduced himself as Sterwolk. Which was just our luck, being captured by the one person in the solar system whose name contained all our trigger letters. Not to mention the flawless English he used while introducing the members of his fleet.
Georgie, Kelvin, and I exchanged a glance. Eyes were rolled. Scoffs were withheld.
"Maybe you've been wondering," Sterwolk continued, "how we're able to speak your native language?"
In fact, I hadn't been wondering, and from the looks on their faces, neither had my friends. We were worried about more pressing issues, like whether Georgie's crabwalk would really net us extra mac and cheese.
Still, it didn't stop Sterwolk from spending ten minutes lecturing us about his advanced intergalactic communications technology. Listening felt too much like homework, so we didn't do it.
"By the way," he finally said, pointing a finger at each of us, "which of you is the leader?"
Instinctively, I looked at Kelvin. He looked at me. So did Georgie. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. After all, I was the one who'd lobbied to keep the middle finger in the Yopanko vernacular. Shrugging, I stepped forward.
"Me," I said, short and simple. That's what the lady from the after-school TV special preached: being as noncommittal as possible, not giving your alien abductors anything to work with. The less you gave them, the more bored they became, until they eventually took you back to your home planet. I figured if that TV special was good enough for kids in the 1950s, it was good enough for us.
But something different happened. The moment I spoke, Sterwolk's expression changed. His eyes—all four of them—clouded with a look resembling disappointment.
"You're speaking," he said. "English."
"Yes." One word. Very noncommittal. I prided myself on that.
A rush of whispering lanced the silence of the Starprise Entership. Crew members muttered and hummed unintelligible words. I supposed it was their native language, but to me it sounded like a bunch of crickets chorusing a moonlight song. I tried exchanging another eye roll with Georgie. That's when I noticed the oversized computer monitor behind him. On its screen rested an image of my starlit backyard.
"Silence!" Sterwolk shouted, commanding everyone's attention. Then he must've blushed, because his pale green skin turned electric blue, and he said, quieter, "I'm sorry for raising my voice. It's just—"
Without warning, he looked at me, raised his three-fingered hand, and dropped all but one digit.
Sterwolk was flipping me off.
I opened my mouth, but he raised his other fingers, interrupting me.
"Yopanko." Sterwolk said the word as though it were a Christmas tree ornament, something capable of breaking under pressure. "We've been studying your language for months now."
He slinked closer until his metallic breath congested my nostrils.
"A language without words," he said. All four of his eyes filled with tears as yellow as a school bus. "It's so pure. So beautiful. So unmarred by the ugliness and prejudice of the other languages we've recorded."
I covered my nose, stepped back. Sterwolk stepped forward.
"In fact, that's why we brought you here today," he said, and smirked his rotten smirk. "To discuss the matter of Yopanko."
"What about it?" I asked. From one word to three. I could practically see the lady from the after-school TV special, shaking her bouffant hair and waving goodbye.
"What we want," said Sterwolk, his voice rising to suffocate the room, "is to disseminate the power of Yopanko throughout the universe. We believe that it could be the key to unlocking intergalactic peace." He paused and said, "For that reason, we'd like you three, as the creators, to be its ambassadors."
Again I looked at Georgie, but he and Kelvin were staring at each other, lost in thought.
None of us said anything.
Snapping his slimy fingers, Sterwolk directed our attention to the computer monitor. The image of my backyard vanished, replaced by a crudely Photoshopped image of the three of us, crowned and medaled. We were standing in front of the White House. Only, in the picture, the White House was more off-white, and the people around us were aliens. Other than that, it was a fairly believable photo.
"Think," Sterwolk said. "How men can build bombs with nothing more than a few words. How wars can break out from idle threats." With each example, the photos changed. There we were, zipping through the galaxy as though it were an obstacle course. There we were, signing peace treaties for planets we'd never heard of. There we were, kissing alien babies like crooked politicians.
"All of these problems," said Sterwolk, as the timeline concluded, "may be resolved with Yopanko. If you're willing."
And if I'm being honest, it didn't sound too bad to me. I thought about it: adrift in space with no curfews or homework, no classmates asking me to say "Lollipop" and "Volleyball," no bread and instant noodles for dinner each night. Not that I knew what aliens ate, but still.
Didn't sound bad at all.
"Would you excuse us for a moment?" I asked, turning to form a huddle with my friends.
Silently, we tried to do the impossible: Yopanko with only our eyes and not our bodies. No one wanted to speak first, but after a few minutes, I whispered, "What do you guys think?"
Kelvin glanced at the ground. "Well, it sounds nice and all," he said.
Georgie nodded. "Especially the part about free healthcare, whatever that meant."
"But?" I asked, and even I could hear the deflation in my tone.
"But," Kelvin said, stretching the word out to infinity, "I don't think my mom and dad would say yes. And I wouldn't want to leave without telling them. They might not get it, you know?"
I looked at Georgie hopefully, but he shook his head. "Yeah, my mom and dad, too. And I'm hungry," he said. "And I left my medicine back at your home, Hanzo."
"Yeah," Kelvin parroted. "That too. His insulin."
I could feel my face fall. Because we spent most of our after-school time at my house, sometimes I forgot what it was like to be Georgie and Kelvin: to have two parents who still loved each other, people who eagerly waited for you to come home, who cooked meals that didn't consist solely of one food pyramid group. Sure, we were bonded by Yopanko and our speech impediments, but there was still so much that separated me from them. A river of so much.
"Okay," I said, feigning a smile. We clapped each other on the back like wannabe jocks. I returned to Sterwolk.
"Well," he said, "did you three come to an agreement?"
"Yes," I said slowly. "But what happens if we say no to your offer?"
If Sterwolk had eyebrows, they would've furrowed. Instead, his antennae wiggled. He put his hand under his chin. Again, the ship filled with the sounds of cricket chirps. It was clear that he and the others hadn't thought that far ahead, hadn't believed we'd ever refuse.
After a few minutes and what sounded like general clicks of agreement, Sterwolk nodded and smiled wide.
"We'll eat you," he said.
My blood iced out right then and there. Behind me, Kelvin screamed "No!" so hard his voice cracked, twice.
But Georgie really went to pieces: crying, kicking, shouting. The whole nine yards. A few of the aliens crew members seemed to yank their antennae downward to drown out the sound.
"Please just let us go," Georgie begged, tears bobsledding down his face. Except he did what he always did when he was flustered or when his blood sugar dipped too low: he forgot about his lisp. Gone was the careful consideration to his language, the sentences painstakingly crafted to avoid the letter S. He was desperate. "Pleathe juth let uth go," he kept saying again and again. "Pleathe, pleathe, pleathe."
At this, Sterwolk and the others howled, a cacophony of screams and screeches that blended into one grating nail-to-chalkboard sound. One alien fainted in a Jell-O puddle. Another pitched forward, bent over the command center, and vomited pink ooze flecked with lug nuts. Sterwolk himself shoved past me to the control panel below the computer monitor. He punched a round, silver button.
In an instant, we were blinded by another flash of light. The gooey-jelly sensation warmed my arms as a serene quiet overtook the ship.
Georgie was gone again.
"That noise, that language your friend was speaking," Sterwolk said after he had composed himself. He withdrew his hand from the button. "So vile. So impure. We can't have that where we're going. Universal peace would never be attainable. Your friend is not coming along."
Kelvin started crying, heavy sobs that rattled in his chest. I might've too, if I hadn't looked above Sterwolk. There, on the monitor, I saw Georgie standing in the backyard, face still slick with snot and tears.
"Georgie's okay," I sighed, pointing for Kelvin's sake. He looked up.
Sterwolk recoiled. "I told you this is a non-violent mission we're asking you to participate in. What would it look like if we killed someone? What kind of message would that send?" This, despite the threat of eating us.
Before I could reply, Kelvin yelled: "Rory's lawn rake rarely rakes really right!" It was a phrase I recognized, one that the school's speech therapist had also asked me and Georgie to say. We pronounced it alright, albeit with hesitation. In Kelvin's grasp, the R sounds wheeled and curved into jagged Ws.
And he might've worn non-prescription glasses, but Kelvin was smart.
On command, Sterwolk and the others yowled. One alien plucked out their antennae altogether. The ship rocked with the noise of it all, up until the point when Sterwolk pounded the button again. Kelvin nodded to me before the light came. Then he disappeared and reappeared beside Georgie in the backyard.
Once again I was alone.
The ship floated. The silence resumed. Sterwolk and the crew all breathed in unison, one united inhalation that seemed to fill my lungs. With air. With choice.
"Forget the others. We only need one ambassador," he said. His finger hovered over the button. His jagged teeth gleamed. "So, Hanzo, what do you say?"
I thought first about my mother. Then I thought about the classmates who teased us when we bungled vocabulary words. I thought about the tongue twisters the speech therapist had been making me practice each week, silly sentences that would cramp my cheeks, stuff like "Little Lenny Lou leopard led leprechauns leaping like lemmings."
Mostly, I thought about Georgie and Kelvin, waiting for me some 50,000 feet below. Georgie and Kelvin on the monitor, gazing up at the cloudy expanse of night. Georgie and Kelvin, more similar to each other than to me.
But that's all I did—think about those things. I knew what I wanted.
With one arm outstretched lobster-claw-style, I performed a little shimmy, brought my feet together, and waddled forward like a penguin. It was a maneuver that I'd done only once, when I couldn't sleep one night. I'd been meaning to unveil it that afternoon, before Georgie's crabwalk landed us on the ship.
I waddled my heart out for Sterwolk and the others. And I kept my mouth shut the whole time.
Sterwolk returned the gesture. And as the ship filled with the din of buttons being pushed and knobs being turned, I had to give him credit: he really must've studied us well, because he even knew that my dance was the symbol for full speed ahead.
The ship sailed higher, through clouds and stars, then pitched forward. I watched my friends shrink on the monitor until they were no bigger than crickets. And though they could never have known, I lifted my hand and waved goodbye, just like any other kid would. It wasn't Yopanko, but I hoped it was a language they would someday understand.