I shouldn’t have come to this party.
I’m not even sure I belong at this party. That’s not on some bougie shit, either. There are just some places where it’s not enough to be me. Either version of me. Big D’s spring break party is one of those places.
I squeeze through sweaty bodies and follow Kenya, her curls bouncing past her shoulders. A haze lingers over the room, smelling like weed, and music rattles the floor. Some rapper calls out for everybody to Nae-Nae, followed by a bunch of “Heys” as people launch into their own versions. Kenya holds up her cup and dances her way through the crowd. Between the headache from the loud-ass music and the nausea from the weed odor, I’ll be amazed if I cross the room without spilling my drink.
We break out the crowd. Big D’s house is packed wall-to-wall. I’ve always heard that everybody and their momma comes to his spring break parties—well, everybody except me—but damn, I didn’t know it would be this many people. Girls wear their hair colored, curled, laid, and slayed. Got me feeling basic as hell with my ponytail. Guys in their freshest kicks and sagging pants grind so close to girls they just about need condoms. My nana likes to say that spring brings love. Spring in Garden Heights doesn’t always bring love, but it promises babies in the winter. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of them are conceived the night of Big D’s party. He always has it on the Friday of spring break because you need Saturday to recover and Sunday to repent.
“Stop following me and go dance, Starr,” Kenya says. “People already say you think you all that.”
“I didn’t know so many mind readers lived in Garden Heights.” Or that people know me as anything other than “Big Mav’s daughter who works in the store.” I sip my drink and spit it back out. I knew there would be more than Hawaiian Punch in it, but this is way stronger than I’m used to. They shouldn’t even call it punch. Just straight-up liquor. I put it on the coffee table and say, “Folks kill me, thinking they know what I think.”
“Hey, I’m just saying. You act like you don’t know nobody ’cause you go to that school.”
I’ve been hearing that for six years, ever since my parents put me in Williamson Prep. “Whatever,” I mumble.
“And it wouldn’t kill you to not dress like . . .” She turns up her nose as she looks from my sneakers to my oversized hoodie. “That. Ain’t that my brother’s hoodie?”
Our brother’s hoodie. Kenya and I share an older brother, Seven. But she and I aren’t related. Her momma is Seven’s momma, and my dad is Seven’s dad. Crazy, I know. “Yeah, it’s his.”
“Figures. You know what else people saying too. Got folks thinking you’re my girlfriend.” “Do I look like I care what people think?”
“No! And that’s the problem!”
“Whatever.” If I’d known following her to this party meant she’d be on some Extreme Makeover: Starr Edition mess, I would’ve stayed home and watched Fresh Prince reruns. My Jordans are comfortable, and damn, they’re new. That’s more than some people can say. The hoodie’s way too big, but
I like it that way. Plus, if I pull it over my nose, I can’t smell the weed.
“Well, I ain’t babysitting you all night, so you better do something,” Kenya says, and scopes the room. Kenya could be a model, if I’m completely honest. She’s got flawless dark-brown skin—I don’t think she ever gets a pimple—slanted brown eyes, and long eyelashes that aren’t store-bought. She’s the perfect height for modeling too, but a little thicker than those toothpicks on the runway. She never wears the same outfit twice. Her daddy, King, makes sure of that.
Kenya is about the only person I hang out with in Garden Heights—it’s hard to make friends when you go to a school that’s forty-five minutes away and you’re a latchkey kid who’s only seen at her family’s store. It’s easy to hang out with Kenya because of our connection to Seven. She’s messy as hell sometimes, though. Always fighting somebody and quick to say her daddy will whoop somebody’s ass. Yeah, it’s true, but I wish she’d stop picking fights so she can use her trump card. Hell, I could use mine too. Everybody knows you don’t mess with my dad, Big Mav, and you definitely don’t mess with his kids. Still, you don’t see me going around starting shit.
Like at Big D’s party, Kenya is giving Denasia Allen some serious stank-eye. I don’t remember much about Denasia, but I remember that she and Kenya haven’t liked each other since fourth grade. Tonight, Denasia’s dancing with some guy halfway across the room and paying no attention to Kenya. But no matter where we move, Kenya spots Denasia and glares at her. And the thing about the stank-eye is at some point you feel it on you, inviting you to kick some ass or have your ass kicked.
“Ooh! I can’t stand her,” Kenya seethes. “The other day, we were in line in the cafeteria, right? And she behind me, talking out the side of her neck. She didn’t use my name, but I know she was talking ’bout me, saying I tried to get with DeVante.”
“For real?” I say what I’m supposed to. “Uh-huh. I don’t want him.”
“I know.” Honestly? I don’t know who DeVante is. “So what did you do?”
“What you think I did? I turned around and asked if she had a problem with me. Ol’ trick, gon’ say, ‘I wasn’t even talking about you,’ knowing she was! You’re so lucky you go to that white-people school and don’t have to deal with hoes like that.”
Ain’t this some shit? Not even five minutes ago, I was stuck-up because I go to Williamson. Now I’m lucky? “Trust me, my school has hoes too. Hoedom is universal.”
“Watch, we gon’ handle her tonight.” Kenya’s stank-eye reaches its highest level of stank. Denasia feels its sting and looks right at Kenya. “Uh-huh,” Kenya confirms, like Denasia hears her. “Watch.”
“Hold up. We? That’s why you begged me to come to this party? So you can have a tag team partner?” She has the nerve to look offended. “It ain’t like you had nothing else to do! Or anybody else to hang out with. I’m doing your ass a favor.”
“Really, Kenya? You do know I have friends, right?”
She rolls her eyes. Hard. Only the whites are visible for a few seconds. “Them li’l bougie girls from your school don’t count.”
“They’re not bougie, and they do count.” I think. Maya and I are cool. Not sure what’s up with me and Hailey lately. “And honestly? If pulling me into a fight is your way of helping my social life, I’m good. Goddamn, it’s always some drama with you.”
“Please, Starr?” She stretches the please extra long. Too long. “This what I’m thinking. We wait until she get away from DeVante, right? And then we . . .”
My phone vibrates against my thigh, and I glance at the screen. Since I’ve ignored his calls, Chris texts me instead.
Can we talk?
I didn’t mean for it to go like that.
Of course he didn’t. He meant for it to go a whole different way yesterday, which is the problem. I slip the phone in my pocket. I’m not sure what I wanna say, but I’d rather deal with him later.
“Kenya!” somebody shouts.
This big, light-skinned girl with bone-straight hair moves through the crowd toward us. A tall boy with a black-and-blond Fro-hawk follows her. They both give Kenya hugs and talk about how cute she looks. I’m not even here.
“Why you ain’t tell me you was coming?” the girl says, and sticks her thumb in her mouth. She’s got an overbite from doing that too. “You could’ve rode with us.”
“Nah, girl. I had to go get Starr,” Kenya says. “We walked here together.” That’s when they notice me, standing not even half a foot from Kenya.
The guy squints as he gives me a quick once-over. He frowns for a hot second, but I notice it. “Ain’t you Big Mav’s daughter who work in the store?”
See? People act like that’s the name on my birth certificate. “Yeah, that’s me.”
“Ohhh!” the girl says. “I knew you looked familiar. We were in third grade together. Ms. Bridges’s class. I sat behind you.”
“Oh.” I know this is the moment I’m supposed to remember her, but I don’t. I guess Kenya was right— I really don’t know anybody. Their faces are familiar, but you don’t get names and life stories when you’re bagging folks’ groceries.
I can lie though. “Yeah, I remember you.”
“Girl, quit lying,” the guy says. “You know you don’t know her ass.”
“‘Why you always lying?’” Kenya and the girl sing together. The guy joins in, and they all bust out laughing.
“Bianca and Chance, be nice,” Kenya says. “This Starr’s first party. Her folks don’t let her go nowhere.”
I cut her a side-eye. “I go to parties, Kenya.”
“Have y’all seen her at any parties ’round here?” Kenya asks them. “Nope!”
“Point made. And before you say it, li’l lame white-kid suburb parties don’t count.” Chance and Bianca snicker. Damn, I wish this hoodie could swallow me up somehow.
“I bet they be doing Molly and shit, don’t they?” Chance asks me. “White kids love popping pills.” “And listening to Taylor Swift,” Bianca adds, talking around her thumb.
Okay, that’s somewhat true, but I’m not telling them that. “Nah, actually their parties are pretty dope,” I say. “One time, this boy had J. Cole perform at his birthday party.”
“Damn. For real?” Chance asks. “Shiiit. Bitch, next time invite me. I’ll party with them white kids.” “Anyway,” Kenya says loudly. “We were talking ’bout running up on Denasia. Bitch over there
dancing with DeVante.”
“Ol’ trick,” Bianca says. “You know she been running her mouth ’bout you, right? I was in Mr. Donald’s class last week when Aaliyah told me—”
Chance rolls his eyes. “Ugh! Mr. Donald.” “You just mad he threw you out,” Kenya says. “Hell yes!”
“Anyway, Aaliyah told me—” Bianca begins.
I get lost again as classmates and teachers that I don’t know are discussed. I can’t say anything. Doesn’t matter though. I’m invisible.
I feel like that a lot around here.
In the middle of them complaining about Denasia and their teachers, Kenya says something about getting another drink, and the three of them walk off without me.
Suddenly I’m Eve in the Garden after she ate the fruit—it’s like I realize I’m naked. I’m by myself at a party I’m not even supposed to be at, where I barely know anybody. And the person I do know just left me hanging.
Kenya begged me to come to this party for weeks. I knew I’d be uncomfortable as hell, but every time I told Kenya no she said I act like I’m “too good for a Garden party.” I got tired of hearing that shit and decided to prove her wrong. Problem is it would’ve taken Black Jesus to convince my parents to let me come. Now Black Jesus will have to save me if they find out I’m here.
People glance over at me with that “who is this chick, standing against the wall by herself like an idiot?” look. I slip my hands into my pockets. As long as I play it cool and keep to myself, I should be fine. The ironic thing is though, at Williamson I don’t have to “play it cool”—I’m cool by default because I’m one of the only black kids there. I have to earn coolness in Garden Heights, and that’s more difficult than buying retro Jordans on release day.
Funny how it works with white kids though. It’s dope to be black until it’s hard to be black. “Starr!” a familiar voice says.
The sea of people parts for him like he’s a brown-skinned Moses. Guys give him daps, and girls crane their necks to look at him. He smiles at me, and his dimples ruin any G persona he has.
Khalil is fine, no other way of putting it. And I used to take baths with him. Not like that, but way back in the day when we would giggle because he had a wee-wee and I had what his grandma called a wee-ha. I swear it wasn’t perverted though.
He hugs me, smelling like soap and baby powder. “What’s up, girl? Ain’t seen you in a minute.” He lets me go. “You don’t text nobody, nothing. Where you been?”
“School and the basketball team keep me busy,” I say. “But I’m always at the store. You’re the one nobody sees anymore.”
His dimples disappear. He wipes his nose like he always does before a lie. “I been busy.” Obviously. The brand-new Jordans, the crisp white tee, the diamonds in his ears. When you grow up
in Garden Heights, you know what “busy” really means.
Fuck. I wish he wasn’t that kinda busy though. I don’t know if I wanna tear up or smack him.
But the way Khalil looks at me with those hazel eyes makes it hard to be upset. I feel like I’m ten again, standing in the basement of Christ Temple Church, having my first kiss with him at Vacation Bible School. Suddenly I remember I’m in a hoodie, looking a straight-up mess . . . and that I actually have a boyfriend. I might not be answering Chris’s calls or texts right now, but he’s still mine and I wanna keep it that way.
“How’s your grandma?” I ask. “And Cameron?”
“They a’ight. Grandma’s sick though.” Khalil sips from his cup. “Doctors say she got cancer or whatever.”
“Damn. Sorry, K.”
“Yeah, she taking chemo. She only worried ’bout getting a wig though.” He gives a weak laugh that doesn’t show his dimples. “She’ll be a’ight.”
It’s a prayer more than a prophecy. “Is your momma helping with Cameron?”
“Good ol’ Starr. Always looking for the best in people. You know she ain’t helping.” “Hey, it was just a question. She came in the store the other day. She looks better.”
“For now,” says Khalil. “She claim she trying to get clean, but it’s the usual. She’ll go clean a few
weeks, decide she wants one more hit, then be back at it. But like I said, I’m good, Cameron’s good, Grandma’s good.” He shrugs. “That’s all that matters.”
“Yeah,” I say, but I remember the nights I spent with Khalil on his porch, waiting for his momma to come home. Whether he likes it or not, she matters to him too.
The music changes, and Drake raps from the speakers. I nod to the beat and rap along under my breath. Everybody on the dance floor yells out the “started from the bottom, now we’re here” part. Some days, we are at the bottom in Garden Heights, but we still share the feeling that damn, it could be worse.
Khalil is watching me. A smile tries to form on his lips, but he shakes his head. “Can’t believe you still love whiny-ass Drake.”
I gape at him. “Leave my husband alone!”
“Your corny husband. ‘Baby, you my everything, you all I ever wanted,’” Khalil sings in a whiny voice. I push him with my shoulder, and he laughs, his drink splashing over the sides of the cup. “You know that’s what he sounds like!”
I flip him off. He puckers his lips and makes a kissing sound. All these months apart, and we’ve fallen back into normal like it’s nothing.
Khalil grabs a napkin from the coffee table and wipes drink off his Jordans—the Three Retros. They came out a few years ago, but I swear those things are so fresh. They cost about three hundred dollars, and that’s if you find somebody on eBay who goes easy. Chris did. I got mine for a steal at one-fifty, but I wear kid sizes. Thanks to my small feet, Chris and I can match our sneakers. Yes, we’re that couple. Shit, we’re fly though. If he can stop doing stupid stuff, we’ll really be good.
“I like the kicks,” I tell Khalil.
“Thanks.” He scrubs the shoes with his napkin. I cringe. With each hard rub, the shoes cry for my help. No lie, every time a sneaker is cleaned improperly, a kitten dies.
“Khalil,” I say, one second away from snatching that napkin. “Either wipe gently back and forth or dab. Don’t scrub. For real.”
He looks up at me, smirking. “Okay, Ms. Sneakerhead.” And thank Black Jesus, he dabs. “Since you made me spill my drink on them, I oughta make you clean them.”
“It’ll cost you sixty dollars.” “Sixty?” he shouts, straightening up.
“Hell, yeah. And it would be eighty if they had icy soles.” Clear bottoms are a bitch to clean. “Cleaning kits aren’t cheap. Besides, you’re obviously making big money if you can buy those.”
Khalil sips his drink like I didn’t say anything, mutters, “Damn, this shit strong,” and sets the cup on the coffee table. “Ay, tell your pops I need to holla at him soon. Some stuff going down that I need to talk to him ’bout.”
“What kinda stuff?” “Grown folks business.”
“Yeah, ’cause you’re so grown.”
“Five months, two weeks, and three days older than you.” He winks. “I ain’t forgot.”
A commotion stirs in the middle of the dance floor. Voices argue louder than the music. Cuss words fly left and right.
My first thought? Kenya walked up on Denasia like she promised. But the voices are deeper than theirs.
Pop! A shot rings out. I duck.
Pop! A second shot. The crowd stampedes toward the door, which leads to more cussing and fighting since it’s impossible for everybody to get out at once.
Khalil grabs my hand. “C’mon.”
There are way too many people and way too much curly hair for me to catch a glimpse of Kenya. “But Kenya—”
“Forget her, let’s go!”
He pulls me through the crowd, shoving people out our way and stepping on shoes. That alone could get us some bullets. I look for Kenya among the panicked faces, but still no sign of her. I don’t try to see who got shot or who did it. You can’t snitch if you don’t know anything.
Cars speed away outside, and people run into the night in any direction where shots aren’t firing off. Khalil leads me to a Chevy Impala parked under a dim streetlight. He pushes me in through the driver’s side, and I climb into the passenger seat. We screech off, leaving chaos in the rearview mirror.
“Always some shit,” he mumbles. “Can’t have a party without somebody getting shot.”
He sounds like my parents. That’s exactly why they don’t let me “go nowhere,” as Kenya puts it. At least not around Garden Heights.
I send Kenya a text, hoping she’s all right. Doubt those bullets were meant for her, but bullets go where they wanna go.
Kenya texts back kinda quick.
I see that bitch tho. Bout to handle her ass. Where u at?
Is this chick for real? We just ran for our lives, and she’s ready to fight? I don’t even answer that dumb shit.
Khalil’s Impala is nice. Not all flashy like some guys’ cars. I didn’t see any rims before I got in, and the front seat has cracks in the leather. But the interior is a tacky lime green, so it’s been customized at some point.
I pick at a crack in the seat. “Who you think got shot?”
Khalil gets his hairbrush out the compartment on the door. “Probably a King Lord,” he says, brushing the sides of his fade. “Some Garden Disciples came in when I got there. Something was bound to pop off.”
I nod. Garden Heights has been a battlefield for the past two months over some stupid territory wars. I was born a “queen” ’cause Daddy used to be a King Lord. But when he left the game, my street royalty status ended. But even if I’d grown up in it, I wouldn’t understand fighting over streets nobody owns.
Khalil drops the brush in the door and cranks up his stereo, blasting an old rap song Daddy has played a million times. I frown. “Why you always listening to that old stuff?”
“Man, get outta here! Tupac was the truth.” “Yeah, twenty years ago.”
“Nah, even now. Like, check this.” He points at me, which means he’s about to go into one of his Khalil philosophical moments. “’Pac said Thug Life stood for ‘The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody.’”
I raise my eyebrows. “What?”
“Listen! The Hate U—the letter U—Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody. T-H-U-G L-I-F-E. Meaning what society give us as youth, it bites them in the ass when we wild out. Get it?”
“See? Told you he was relevant.” He nods to the beat and raps along. But now I’m wondering what he’s doing to “fuck everybody.” As much as I think I know, I hope I’m wrong. I need to hear it from him.
“So why have you really been busy?” I ask. “A few months ago Daddy said you quit the store. I haven’t seen you since.”
He scoots closer to the steering wheel. “Where you want me to take you, your house or the store?” “Khalil—”
“Your house or the store?” “If you’re selling that stuff—”
“Mind your business, Starr! Don’t worry ’bout me. I’m doing what I gotta do.” “Bullshit. You know my dad would help you out.”
He wipes his nose before his lie. “I don’t need help from nobody, okay? And that li’l minimum-wage job your pops gave me didn’t make nothing happen. I got tired of choosing between lights and food.”
“I thought your grandma was working.”
“She was. When she got sick, them clowns at the hospital claimed they’d work with her. Two months later, she wasn’t pulling her load on the job, ’cause when you’re going through chemo, you can’t pull big-ass garbage bins around. They fired her.” He shakes his head. “Funny, huh? The hospital fired her ’cause she was sick.”
It’s silent in the Impala except for Tupac asking who do you believe in? I don’t know.
My phone vibrates again, probably either Chris asking for forgiveness or Kenya asking for backup against Denasia. Instead, my big brother’s all-caps texts appear on the screen. I don’t know why he does that. He probably thinks it intimidates me. Really, it annoys the hell out of me.
WHERE R U?
U AND KENYA BETTER NOT BE @ THAT PARTY.
I HEARD SOMEBODY GOT SHOT.
The only thing worse than protective parents is protective older brothers. Even Black Jesus can’t save me from Seven.
Khalil glances over at me. “Seven, huh?” “How’d you know?”
“’Cause you always look like you wanna punch something when he talks to you. Remember that time at your birthday party when he kept telling you what to wish for?”
“And I popped him in his mouth.”
“Then Natasha got mad at you for telling her ‘boyfriend’ to shut up,” Khalil says, laughing.
I roll my eyes. “She got on my nerves with her crush on Seven. Half the time, I thought she came over just to see him.”
“Nah, it was because you had the Harry Potter movies. What we used to call ourselves? The Hood Trio. Tighter than—”
“The inside of Voldemort’s nose. We were so silly for that.” “I know, right?” he says.
We laugh, but something’s missing from it. Someone’s missing from it. Natasha. Khalil looks at the road. “Crazy it’s been six years, you know?”
A whoop-whoop sound startles us, and blue lights flash in the rearview mirror.
When I was twelve, my parents had two talks with me.
One was the usual birds and bees. Well, I didn’t really get the usual version. My mom, Lisa, is a registered nurse, and she told me what went where, and what didn’t need to go here, there, or any damn where till I’m grown. Back then, I doubted anything was going anywhere anyway. While all the other girls sprouted breasts between sixth and seventh grade, my chest was as flat as my back.
The other talk was about what to do if a cop stopped me.
Momma fussed and told Daddy I was too young for that. He argued that I wasn’t too young to get arrested or shot.
“Starr-Starr, you do whatever they tell you to do,” he said. “Keep your hands visible. Don’t make any sudden moves. Only speak when they speak to you.”
I knew it must’ve been serious. Daddy has the biggest mouth of anybody I know, and if he said to be quiet, I needed to be quiet.
I hope somebody had the talk with Khalil.
He cusses under his breath, turns Tupac down, and maneuvers the Impala to the side of the street. We’re on Carnation where most of the houses are abandoned and half the streetlights are busted. Nobody around but us and the cop.
Khalil turns the ignition off. “Wonder what this fool wants.”
The officer parks and puts his brights on. I blink to keep from being blinded.
I remember something else Daddy said. If you’re with somebody, you better hope they don’t have nothing on them, or both of y’all going down.
“K, you don’t have anything in the car, do you?” I ask. He watches the cop in his side mirror. “Nah.”
The officer approaches the driver’s door and taps the window. Khalil cranks the handle to roll it down. As if we aren’t blinded enough, the officer beams his flashlight in our faces.
“License, registration, and proof of insurance.”
Khalil breaks a rule—he doesn’t do what the cop wants. “What you pull us over for?” “License, registration, and proof of insurance.”
“I said what you pull us over for?” “Khalil,” I plead. “Do what he said.”
Khalil groans and takes his wallet out. The officer follows his movements with the flashlight.
My heart pounds loudly, but Daddy’s instructions echo in my head: Get a good look at the cop’s face. If you can remember his badge number, that’s even better.
With the flashlight following Khalil’s hands, I make out the numbers on the badge—one-fifteen. He’s white, midthirties to early forties, has a brown buzz cut and a thin scar over his top lip.
Khalil hands the officer his papers and license.
One-Fifteen looks over them. “Where are you two coming from tonight?”
“Nunya,” Khalil says, meaning none of your business. “What you pull me over for?” “Your taillight’s broken.”
“So are you gon’ give me a ticket or what?” Khalil asks. “You know what? Get out the car, smart guy.”
“Man, just give me my ticket—”
“Get out the car! Hands up, where I can see them.”
Khalil gets out with his hands up. One-Fifteen yanks him by his arm and pins him against the back door.
I fight to find my voice. “He didn’t mean—”
“Hands on the dashboard!” the officer barks at me. “Don’t move!” I do what he tells me, but my hands are shaking too much to be still.
He pats Khalil down. “Okay, smart mouth, let’s see what we find on you today.” “You ain’t gon’ find nothing,” Khalil says.
One-Fifteen pats him down two more times. He turns up empty.
“Stay here,” he tells Khalil. “And you.” He looks in the window at me. “Don’t move.” I can’t even nod.
The officer walks back to his patrol car.
My parents haven’t raised me to fear the police, just to be smart around them. They told me it’s not smart to move while a cop has his back to you.
Khalil does. He comes to his door. It’s not smart to make a sudden move.
Khalil does. He opens the driver’s door. “You okay, Starr—”
One. Khalil’s body jerks. Blood splatters from his back. He holds on to the door to keep himself upright.
Two. Khalil gasps.
Three. Khalil looks at me, stunned. He falls to the ground.
I’m ten again, watching Natasha drop.
An earsplitting scream emerges from my gut, explodes in my throat, and uses every inch of me to be heard.
Instinct says don’t move, but everything else says check on Khalil. I jump out the Impala and rush around to the other side. Khalil stares at the sky as if he hopes to see God. His mouth is open like he wants to scream. I scream loud enough for the both of us.
“No, no, no,” is all I can say, like I’m a year old and it’s the only word I know. I’m not sure how I end up on the ground next to him. My mom once said that if someone gets shot, try to stop the bleeding, but there’s so much blood. Too much blood.
“No, no, no.”
Khalil doesn’t move. He doesn’t utter a word. He doesn’t even look at me. His body stiffens, and he’s gone. I hope he sees God.
Someone else screams.
I blink through my tears. Officer One-Fifteen yells at me, pointing the same gun he killed my friend with.
I put my hands up.
They leave Khalil’s body in the street like it’s an exhibit. Police cars and ambulances flash all along Carnation Street. People stand off to the side, trying to see what happened.
“Damn, bruh,” some guy says. “They killed him!” The police tell the crowd to leave. Nobody listens.
The paramedics can’t do shit for Khalil, so they put me in the back of an ambulance like I need help. The bright lights spotlight me, and people crane their necks to get a peek.
I don’t feel special. I feel sick.
The cops rummage through Khalil’s car. I try to tell them to stop. Please, cover his body. Please, close his eyes. Please, close his mouth. Get away from his car. Don’t pick up his hairbrush. But the words never come out.
One-Fifteen sits on the sidewalk with his face buried in his hands. Other officers pat his shoulder and tell him it’ll be okay.
They finally put a sheet over Khalil. He can’t breathe under it. I can’t breathe.
I gasp. And gasp. And gasp. “Starr?”
Brown eyes with long eyelashes appear in front of me. They’re like mine.
I couldn’t say much to the cops, but I did manage to give them my parents’ names and phone numbers. “Hey,” Daddy says. “C’mon, let’s go.”
I open my mouth to respond. A sob comes out.
Daddy is moved aside, and Momma wraps her arms around me. She rubs my back and speaks in hushed tones that tell lies. “It’s all right, baby. It’s all right.”
We stay this way for a long time. Eventually, Daddy helps us out the ambulance. He wraps his arm around me like a shield against curious eyes and guides me to his Tahoe down the street.
He drives. A streetlight flashes across his face, revealing how tight his jaw is set. His veins bulge along his bald head.
Momma’s wearing her scrubs, the ones with the rubber ducks on them. She did an extra shift at the emergency room tonight. She wipes her eyes a few times, probably thinking about Khalil or how that could’ve been me lying in the street.
My stomach twists. All of that blood, and it came out of him. Some of it is on my hands, on Seven’s hoodie, on my sneakers. An hour ago we were laughing and catching up. Now his blood . . .
Hot spit pools in my mouth. My stomach twists tighter. I gag. Momma glances at me in the rearview mirror. “Maverick, pull over!”
I throw myself across the backseat and push the door open before the truck comes to a complete stop. It feels like everything in me is coming out, and all I can do is let it.
Momma hops out and runs around to me. She holds my hair out the way and rubs my back. “I’m so sorry, baby,” she says.
When we get home, she helps me undress. Seven’s hoodie and my Jordans disappear into a black trash bag, and I never see them again.
I sit in a tub of steaming water and scrub my hands raw to get Khalil’s blood off. Daddy carries me to bed, and Momma brushes her fingers through my hair until I fall asleep.
Nightmares wake me over and over again. Momma reminds me to breathe, the same way she did before I outgrew asthma. I think she stays in my room the whole night, ’cause every time I wake up, she’s sitting on my bed.
But this time, she’s gone. My eyes strain against the brightness of my neon-blue walls. The clock says it’s five in the morning. My body’s so used to waking up at five, it doesn’t care if it’s Saturday morning or not.
I stare at the glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling, trying to recap the night before. The party flashes in my mind, the fight, One-Fifteen pulling me and Khalil over. The first shot rings in my ears. The second. The third.
I’m lying in bed. Khalil is lying in the county morgue.
That’s where Natasha ended up too. It happened six years ago, but I still remember everything from that day. I was sweeping floors at our grocery store, saving up for my first pair of J’s, when Natasha ran in. She was chunky (her momma told her it was baby fat), dark-skinned, and wore her hair in braids that always looked freshly done. I wanted braids like hers so bad.
“Starr, the hydrant on Elm Street busted!” she said.
That was like saying we had a free water park. I remember looking at Daddy and pleading silently. He said I could go, as long as I promised to be back in an hour.
I don’t think I ever saw the water shoot as high as it did that day. Almost everybody in the neighborhood was there too. Just having fun. I was the only one who noticed the car at first.
A tattooed arm stretched out the back window, holding a Glock. People ran. Not me though. My feet became part of the sidewalk. Natasha was splashing in the water, all happy and stuff. Then—
Pow! Pow! Pow!
I dove into a rosebush. By the time I got up, somebody was yelling, “Call nine-one-one!” At first I thought it was me, ’cause I had blood on my shirt. The thorns on the rosebush got me, that’s all. It was Natasha though. Her blood mixed in with the water, and all you could see was a red river flowing down the street.
She looked scared. We were ten, we didn’t know what happened after you died. Hell, I still don’t know, and she was forced to find out, even if she didn’t wanna find out.
I know she didn’t. Just like Khalil didn’t.
My door creaks open, and Momma peeks in. She tries to smile. “Look who’s up.”
She sinks onto her spot on the bed and touches my forehead, even though I don’t have a fever. She takes care of sick kids so much that it’s her first instinct. “How you feeling, Munch?”
That nickname. My parents claim I was always munching on something from the moment I got off the bottle. I’ve lost my big appetite, but I can’t lose that nickname. “Tired,” I say. My voice has extra bass in it. “I wanna stay in bed.”
“I know, baby, but I don’t want you here by yourself.”
That’s all I wanna be, by myself. She stares at me, but it feels like she’s looking at who I used to be, her little girl with ponytails and a snaggletooth who swore she was a Powerpuff Girl. It’s weird but also kinda like a blanket I wanna get wrapped up in.
“I love you,” she says. “I love you too.”
She stands and holds her hand out. “C’mon. Let’s get you something to eat.”
We walk slowly to the kitchen. Black Jesus hangs from the cross in a painting on the hallway wall, and Malcolm X holds a shotgun in a photograph next to him. Nana still complains about those pictures hanging next to each other.
We live in her old house. She gave it to my parents after my uncle, Carlos, moved her into his humongous house in the suburbs. Uncle Carlos was always uneasy about Nana living by herself in Garden Heights, especially since break-ins and robberies seem to happen more to older folks than anybody. Nana doesn’t think she’s old though. She refused to leave, talking about how it was her home and no thugs were gonna run her out, not even when somebody broke in and stole her television. About a month after that, Uncle Carlos claimed that he and Aunt Pam needed her help with their kids. Since, according to Nana, Aunt Pam “can’t cook worth a damn for those poor babies” she finally agreed to move. Our house hasn’t lost its Nana-ness though, with its permanent odor of potpourri, flowered wallpaper, and hints of pink in almost every room.
Daddy and Seven are talking before we get to the kitchen. They go silent as soon as we walk in. “Morning, baby girl.” Daddy gets up from the table and kisses my forehead. “You sleep okay?” “Yeah,” I lie as he guides me to a seat. Seven just stares.
Momma opens the fridge, the door crowded with takeout menus and fruit-shaped magnets. “All right, Munch,” she says, “you want turkey bacon or regular?”
“Regular.” I’m surprised I have an option. We never have pork. We aren’t Muslims. More like “Christlims.” Momma became a member of Christ Temple Church when she was in Nana’s belly. Daddy believes in Black Jesus but follows the Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Program more than the Ten Commandments. He agrees with the Nation of Islam on some stuff, but he can’t get over the fact that they may have killed Malcolm X.
“Pig in my house,” Daddy grumbles and sits next to me. Seven smirks across from him. Seven and Daddy look like one of those age-progression pictures they show when somebody’s been missing a long time. Throw my little brother, Sekani, in there and you have the same person at eight, seventeen, and thirty-six. They’re dark brown, slender, and have thick eyebrows and long eyelashes that almost look feminine. Seven’s dreads are long enough to give both bald-headed Daddy and short-haired Sekani each a head full of hair.
As for me, it’s as if God mixed my parents’ skin tones in a paint bucket to get my medium-brown complexion. I did inherit Daddy’s eyelashes—and I’m cursed with his eyebrows too. Otherwise I’m mostly my mom, with big brown eyes and a little too much forehead.
Momma passes behind Seven with the bacon and squeezes his shoulder. “Thank you for staying with your brother last night so we could—” Her voice catches, but the reminder of what happened hangs in the air. She clears her throat. “We appreciate it.”
“No problem. I needed to get out the house.” “King spent the night?” Daddy asks.
“More like moved in. Iesha talking about they can be a family—”
“Ay,” Daddy says. “That’s your momma, boy. Don’t be calling her by her name like you grown.” “Somebody in that house needs to be grown,” Momma says. She takes a skillet out and hollers toward
the hall, “Sekani, I’m not telling you again. If you wanna go to Carlos’s for the weekend, you better get up! You’re not gonna have me late for work.” I guess she’s gotta work a day shift to make up for last night.
“Pops, you know what’s gonna happen,” Seven says. “He’ll beat her, she’ll put him out. Then he’ll come back, saying he changed. Only difference is this time, I’m not letting him put his hands on me.”
“You can always move in with us,” says Daddy.
“I know, but I can’t leave Kenya and Lyric. That fool’s crazy enough to hit them too. He don’t care that they’re his daughters.”
“A’ight,” Daddy says. “Don’t say anything to him. If he puts his hands on you, let me handle that.” Seven nods then looks at me. He opens his mouth and keeps it open a while before saying, “I’m sorry
about last night, Starr.”
Somebody finally acknowledges the cloud hanging over the kitchen, which for some reason is like acknowledging me.
“Thanks,” I say, even though it’s weird saying that. I don’t deserve the sympathy. Khalil’s family does. There’s just the sound of bacon crackling and popping in the skillet. It’s like a “Fragile” sticker’s on my forehead, and instead of taking a chance and saying something that might break me, they’d rather say nothing at all.
But the silence is the worst.
“I borrowed your hoodie, Seven,” I mumble. It’s random, but it’s better than nothing. “The blue one. Momma had to throw it away. Khalil’s blood . . .” I swallow. “His blood got on it.”
“Oh . . .”
That’s all anybody says for a minute.
Momma turns around to the skillet. “Don’t make any sense. That baby—” she says thickly. “He was just a baby.”
Daddy shakes his head. “That boy never hurt anybody. He didn’t deserve that shit.” “Why did they shoot him?” Seven asks. “Was he a threat or something?”
“No,” I say quietly.
I stare at the table. I can feel all of them watching me again.
“He didn’t do anything,” I say. “We didn’t do anything. Khalil didn’t even have a gun.”
Daddy releases a slow breath. “Folks around here gon’ lose their minds when they find that out.” “People from the neighborhood are already talking about it on Twitter,” Seven says. “I saw it last
“Did they mention your sister?” Momma asks.
“No. Just RIP Khalil messages, fuck the police, stuff like that. I don’t think they know details.” “What’s gonna happen to me when the details do come out?” I ask.
“What do you mean, baby?” my mom asks.
“Besides the cop, I’m the only person who was there. And you’ve seen stuff like this. It ends up on national news. People get death threats, cops target them, all kinds of stuff.”
“I won’t let anything happen to you,” Daddy says. “None of us will.” He looks at Momma and Seven. “We’re not telling anybody that Starr was there.”
“Should Sekani know?” Seven asks.
“No,” Momma says. “It’s best if he didn’t. We’re just gonna be quiet for now.”
I’ve seen it happen over and over again: a black person gets killed just for being black, and all hell breaks loose. I’ve tweeted RIP hashtags, reblogged pictures on Tumblr, and signed every petition out there. I always said that if I saw it happen to somebody, I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down.
Now I am that person, and I’m too afraid to speak.
I wanna stay home and watch The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, my favorite show ever, hands down. I think I know every episode word for word. Yeah it’s hilarious, but it’s also like seeing parts of my life on screen. I even relate to the theme song. A couple of gang members who were up to no good made trouble in my neighborhood and killed Natasha. My parents got scared, and although they didn’t send me to my aunt and uncle in a rich neighborhood, they sent me to a bougie private school.
I just wish I could be myself at Williamson like Will was himself in Bel-Air.
I kinda wanna stay home so I can return Chris’s calls too. After last night, it feels stupid to be mad at him. Or I could call Hailey and Maya, those girls Kenya claims don’t count as my friends. I guess I can see why she says that. I never invite them over. Why would I? They live in mini-mansions. My house is just mini.
I made the mistake of inviting them to a sleepover in seventh grade. Momma was gonna let us do our nails, stay up all night, and eat as much pizza as we wanted. It was gonna be as awesome as those weekends we had at Hailey’s. The ones we still have sometimes. I invited Kenya too, so I could finally hang out with all three of them at once.
Hailey didn’t come. Her dad didn’t want her spending the night in “the ghetto.” I overheard my parents say that. Maya came but ended up asking her parents to come get her that night. There was a drive-by around the corner, and the gunshots scared her.
That’s when I realized Williamson is one world and Garden Heights is another, and I have to keep them separate.
It doesn’t matter what I’m thinking about doing today though—my parents have their own plans for me. Momma tells me I’m going to the store with Daddy. Before Seven leaves for work, he comes to my room in his Best Buy polo and khakis and hugs me.
“Love you,” he says.
See, that’s why I hate it when somebody dies. People do stuff they wouldn’t usually do. Even Momma hugs me longer and tighter with more sympathy than “just because” in it. Sekani, on the other hand, steals bacon off my plate, looks at my phone, and purposely steps on my foot on his way out. I love him for it.
I bring a bowl of dog food and leftover bacon outside to our pit bull, Brickz. Daddy gave him his name ’cause he’s always been as heavy as some bricks. Soon as he sees me, he jumps and fights to break free from his chain. And when I get close enough, his hyper butt jumps up my legs, nearly taking me down.
“Get!” I say. He crouches onto the grass and stares up at me, whimpering with wide puppy-dog eyes. The Brickz version of an apology.
I know pit bulls can be aggressive, but Brickz is a baby most of the time. A big baby. Now, if somebody tries to break in our house or something, they won’t meet the baby Brickz.
While I feed Brickz and refill his water bowl, Daddy picks bunches of collard greens from his garden. He cuts roses that have blooms as big as my palms. Daddy spends hours out here every night, planting, tilling, and talking. He claims a good garden needs good conversation.
About thirty minutes later, we’re riding in his truck with the windows down. On the radio, Marvin Gaye asks what’s going on. It’s still dark out, though the sun peeks through the clouds, and hardly anybody is outside. This early in the morning it’s easy to hear the rumbling of eighteen-wheelers on the freeway.
Daddy hums to Marvin, but he couldn’t carry a tune if it came in a box. He’s wearing a Lakers jersey and no shirt underneath, revealing tattoos all over his arms. One of my baby photos smiles back at me, permanently etched on his arm with Something to live for, something to die for written beneath it. Seven and Sekani are on his other arm with the same words beneath them. Love letters in the simplest form.
“You wanna talk ’bout last night some more?” he asks. “Nah.”
“A’ight. Whenever you wanna.” Another love letter in the simplest form.
We turn onto Marigold Avenue, where Garden Heights is waking up. Some ladies wearing floral headscarves come out the Laundromat, carrying big baskets of clothes. Mr. Reuben unlocks the chains on his restaurant. His nephew Tim, the cook, leans against the wall and wipes sleep from his eyes. Ms. Yvette yawns as she goes in her beauty shop. The lights are on at Top Shelf Spirits and Wine, but they’re always on.
Daddy parks in front of Carter’s Grocery, our family’s store. Daddy bought it when I was nine after the former owner, Mr. Wyatt, left Garden Heights to go sit on the beach all day, watching pretty women. (Mr. Wyatt’s words, not mine.) Mr. Wyatt was the only person who would hire Daddy when he got out of prison, and he later said Daddy was the only person he trusted to run the store.
Compared to the Walmart on the east side of Garden Heights, our grocery is tiny. White-painted metal bars protect the windows and door. They make the store resemble a jail.
Mr. Lewis from the barbershop next door stands out front, his arms folded over his big belly. He sets his narrowed eyes on Daddy.
Daddy sighs. “Here we go.”
We hop out. Mr. Lewis gives some of the best haircuts in Garden Heights—Sekani’s high-top fade proves it—but Mr. Lewis himself wears an untidy Afro. His stomach blocks his view of his feet, and since his wife passed nobody tells him that his pants are too short and his socks don’t always match. Today one is striped and the other is argyle.
“The store used to open at five fifty-five on the dot,” he says. “Five fifty-five!” It’s 6:05.
Daddy unlocks the front door. “I know, Mr. Lewis, but I told you, I’m not running the store the same way Wyatt did.”
“It sho’ is obvious. First you take down his pictures—who the hell replaces a picture of Dr. King with some nobody—”
“Huey Newton ain’t a nobody.”
“He ain’t Dr. King! Then you hire thugs to work up in here. I heard that Khalil boy got himself killed last night. He was probably selling that stuff.” Mr. Lewis looks from Daddy’s basketball jersey to his tattoos. “Wonder where he get that idea from.”
Daddy’s jaw tightens. “Starr, turn the coffeepot on for Mr. Lewis.”
So he can get the hell outta here, I say to myself, finishing Daddy’s sentence for him.
I flick the switch on the coffeepot at the self-serve table, which Huey Newton watches over from a photograph, his fist raised for black power.
I’m supposed to replace the filter and put new coffee and water in, but for talking about Khalil Mr. Lewis gets coffee made from day-old grounds.
He limps through the aisles and gets a honey bun, an apple, and a pack of hog head cheese. He gives me the honey bun. “Heat it up, girl. And you bet’ not overcook it.”
I leave it in the microwave until the plastic wrapper swells and pops open. Mr. Lewis eats it soon as I take it out.
“That thang hot!” He chews and blows at the same time. “You heated it too long, girl. ’Bout to burn my mouth!”
When Mr. Lewis leaves, Daddy winks at me.
The usual customers come in, like Mrs. Jackson, who insists on buying her greens from Daddy and nobody else. Four red-eyed guys in sagging pants buy almost every bag of chips we have. Daddy tells them it’s too early to be that blazed, and they laugh way too hard. One of them licks his next blunt as they leave. Around eleven, Mrs. Rooks buys some roses and snacks for her bridge club meeting. She has droopy eyes and gold plating on her front teeth. Her wig is gold-colored too.
“Y’all need to get some Lotto tickets up in here, baby,” she says as Daddy rings her up and I bag her stuff. “Tonight it’s at three hundred million!”
Daddy smiles. “For real? What would you do with all that money, Mrs. Rooks?”
“Shiiit. Baby, the question is what I wouldn’t do with all that money. Lord knows, I’d get on the first plane outta here.”
Daddy laughs. “Is that right? Then who gon’ make red velvet cakes for us?”
“Somebody else, ’cause I’d be gone.” She points to the display of cigarettes behind us. “Baby, hand me a pack of them Newports.”
Those are Nana’s favorites too. They used to be Daddy’s favorites before I begged him to quit. I grab a pack and pass it to Mrs. Rooks.
She’s staring at me moments after, patting the pack against her palm, and I wait for it. The sympathy. “Baby, I heard what happened to Rosalie’s grandboy,” she says. “I’m so sorry. Y’all used to be friends, didn’t you?”
The “used to” stings, but I just say to Mrs. Rooks, “Yes, ma’am.”
“Hmm!” She shakes her head. “Lord, have mercy. My heart ’bout broke when I heard. I tried to go over there and see Rosalie last night, but so many people were already at the house. Poor Rosalie. All she going through and now this. Barbara said Rosalie not sure how she gon’ pay to bury him. We talking ’bout raising some money. Think you can help us out, Maverick?”
“Oh, yeah. Let me know what y’all need, and it’s done.”
She flashes those gold teeth in a smile. “Boy, it’s good to see where the Lord done brought you. Your momma would be proud.”
Daddy nods heavily. Grandma’s been gone ten years—long enough that Daddy doesn’t cry every day, but such a short while ago that if someone brings her up, it brings him down.
“And look at this girl,” Mrs. Rooks says, eyeing me. “Every bit of Lisa. Maverick, you better watch out. These li’l boys around here gon’ be trying it.”
“Nah, they better watch out. You know I ain’t having that. She can’t date till she forty.”
My hand drifts to my pocket, thinking of Chris and his texts. Shit, I left my phone at home. Needless to say, Daddy doesn’t know a thing about Chris. We’ve been together over a year now. Seven knows, because he met Chris at school, and Momma figured it out when Chris would always visit me at Uncle Carlos’s house, claiming he was my friend. One day she and Uncle Carlos walked in on us kissing and they pointed out that friends don’t kiss each other like that. I’ve never seen Chris get so red in my life.
She and Seven are okay with me dating Chris, although if it was up to Seven I’d become a nun, but whatever. I can’t get the guts to tell Daddy though. And it’s not just because he doesn’t want me dating yet. The bigger issue is that Chris is white.
At first I thought my mom might say something about it, but she was like, “He could be polka dot, as long as he’s not a criminal and he’s treating you right.” Daddy, on the other hand, rants about how Halle Berry “act like she can’t get with brothers anymore” and how messed up that is. I mean, anytime he finds out a black person is with a white person, suddenly something’s wrong with them. I don’t want him looking at me like that.
Luckily, Momma hasn’t told him. She refuses to get in the middle of that fight. My boyfriend, my responsibility to tell Daddy.
Mrs. Rooks leaves. Seconds later, the bell clangs. Kenya struts into the store. Her kicks are cute— Bazooka Joe Nike Dunks that I haven’t added to my collection. Kenya always wears fly sneakers.
She goes to get her usual from the aisles. “Hey, Starr. Hey, Uncle Maverick.”
“Hey, Kenya,” Daddy answers, even though he’s not her uncle, but her brother’s dad. “You good?” She comes back with a jumbo bag of Hot Cheetos and a Sprite. “Yeah. My momma wanna know if my
brother spent the night with y’all.”
There she goes calling Seven “my brother” like she’s the only one who can claim him. It’s annoying as hell.
“Tell your momma I’ll call her later,” Daddy says.
“Okay.” Kenya pays for her stuff and makes eye contact with me. She jerks her head a little to the side. “I’m gonna sweep the aisles,” I tell Daddy.
Kenya follows me. I grab the broom and go to the produce aisle on the other side of the store. Some grapes have spilled out from those red-eyed guys sampling before buying. I barely start sweeping before Kenya starts talking.
“I heard about Khalil,” she says. “I’m so sorry, Starr. You okay?”
I make myself nod. “I . . . just can’t believe it, you know? It had been a while since I saw him, but . . .” “It hurts.” Kenya says what I can’t.
Fuck, I feel the tears coming. I’m not gonna cry, I’m not gonna cry, I’m not gonna cry. . . .
“I kinda hoped he’d be in here when I walked in,” she says softly. “Like he used to be. Bagging groceries in that ugly apron.”
“The green one,” I mutter.
“Yeah. Talking about how women love a man in uniform.” I stare at the floor. If I cry now, I may never stop.
Kenya pops her Hot Cheetos open and holds the bag toward me. Comfort food. I reach in and get a couple. “Thanks.”
We munch on Cheetos. Khalil’s supposed to be here with us.
“So, um,” I say, and my voice is all rough. “You and Denasia got into it last night?”
“Girl.” She sounds like she’s been waiting to drop this story for hours. “DeVante came over to me, right before it got crazy. He asked for my number.”
“I thought he was Denasia’s boyfriend?”
“DeVante not the type to be tied down. Anyway, Denasia walked over to start something, but the shots went off. We ended up running down the same street, and I clocked her ass. It was so funny! You should’ve seen it!”
I would’ve rather seen that instead of Officer One-Fifteen. Or Khalil staring at the sky. Or all that blood. My stomach twists again.
Kenya waves her hand in front of me. “Hey. You okay?” I blink Khalil and that cop away. “Yeah. I’m good.” “You sure? You real quiet.”
She lets it drop, and I let her tell me about the second round she has planned for Denasia.
Daddy calls me up front. When I get there, he hands me a twenty. “Get me some beef ribs from Reuben’s. And I want—”
“Potato salad and fried okra,” I say. That’s what he always has on Saturdays. He kisses my cheek. “You know your daddy. Get whatever you want, baby.”
Kenya follows me out the store. We wait for a car to pass, the music blasting and the driver reclined so far back that only the tip of his nose seems to nod to the song. We cross the street to Reuben’s.
The smoky aroma hits us on the sidewalk, and a blues song pours outside. Inside, the walls are covered with photographs of civil rights leaders, politicians, and celebrities who have eaten here, like James Brown and pre-heart-bypass Bill Clinton. There’s a picture of Dr. King and a much younger Mr. Reuben.
A bulletproof partition separates the customers from the cashier. I fan myself after a few minutes in line. The air conditioner in the window stopped working months ago, and the smoker heats up the whole building.
When we get to the front of the line, Mr. Reuben greets us with a gap-toothed smile from behind the partition. “Hey, Starr and Kenya. How y’all doing?”
Mr. Reuben is one of the only people around here who actually calls me by my name. He remembers everybody’s names somehow. “Hey, Mr. Reuben,” I say. “My daddy wants his usual.”
He writes it on a pad. “All right. Beefs, tater salad, okra. Y’all want fried BBQ wings and fries? And extra sauce for you, Starr baby?”
He remembers everybody’s usual orders too somehow. “Yes, sir,” we say. “All right. Y’all been staying out of trouble?”
“Yes, sir,” Kenya lies with ease.
“How ’bout some pound cake on the house then? Reward for good behavior.”
We say yeah and thank him. But see, Mr. Reuben could know about Kenya’s fight and would offer her pound cake regardless. He’s nice like that. He gives kids free meals if they bring in their report cards. If it’s a good one, he’ll make a copy and put it on the “All-Star Wall.” If it’s bad, as long as they own up to it and promise to do better, he’ll still give them a meal.
“It’s gon’ take ’bout fifteen minutes,” he says.
That means sit and wait till your number is called. We find a table next to some white guys. You rarely see white people in Garden Heights, but when you do they’re usually at Reuben’s. The men watch the news on the box TV in a corner of the ceiling.
I munch on some of Kenya’s Hot Cheetos. They would taste much better with cheese sauce on them. “Has there been anything on the news about Khalil?”
She pays more attention to her phone. “Yeah, like I watch the news. I think I saw something on Twitter, though.”
I wait. Between a story about a bad car accident on the freeway and a garbage bag of live puppies that was found in a park, there’s a short story about an officer-involved shooting that is being investigated. They don’t even say Khalil’s name. Some bullshit.
We get our food and head back to the store. Right as we cross the street, a gray BMW pulls up beside us, bass thumping inside like the car has a heartbeat. The driver’s side window rolls down, smoke drifts out, and the male, three-hundred-pound version of Kenya smiles at us. “What up, queens?”
Kenya leans in through the window and kisses his cheek. “Hey, Daddy.” “Hey, Starr-Starr,” he says. “Not gon’ say hey to your uncle?”
You ain’t my uncle, I wanna say. You ain’t shit to me. And if you touch my brother again, I’ll— “Hey, King,” I finally mumble.
His smile fades like he hears my thoughts. He puffs on a cigar and blows smoke from the corner of his mouth. Two tears are tattooed under his left eye. Two lives he’s taken. At least.
“I see y’all been to Reuben’s. Here.” He holds out two fat rolls of money. “Make up for whatever y’all spent.”
Kenya takes one easily, but I’m not touching that dirty money. “No thanks.” “Go on, queen.” King winks. “Take some money from your godfather.” “Nah, she good,” Daddy says.
He walks toward us. Daddy leans against the car window so he’s eye level with King and gives him one of those guy handshakes with so many movements you wonder how they remember it.
“Big Mav,” Kenya’s dad says with a grin. “What up, king?”
“Don’t call me that shit.” Daddy doesn’t say it loudly or angrily, but in the same way I would tell somebody not to put onions or mayo on my burger. Daddy once told me that King’s parents named him after the same gang he later joined, and that’s why a name is important. It defines you. King became a King Lord when he took his first breath.
“I was just giving my goddaughter some pocket change,” King says. “I heard what happened to her li’l homie. That’s fucked up.”
“Yeah. You know how it is,” Daddy says. “Po-po shoot first, ask questions later.”
“No doubt. They worse than us sometimes.” King chuckles. “But ay? On some business shit, I got a package coming, need somewhere to keep it. Got too many eyes on Iesha’s house.”
“I already told you that shit ain’t going down here.”
King rubs his beard. “Oh, okay. So folks get out the game, forget where they come from, forget that if it wasn’t for my money, they wouldn’t have their li’l store—”
“And if it wasn’t for me, you’d be locked up. Three years, state pen, remember that shit? I don’t owe you nothing.” Daddy leans onto the window and says, “But if you touch Seven again, I’ll owe you an ass whooping. Remember that, now that you done moved back in with his momma.”
King sucks his teeth. “Kenya, get in the car.” “But Daddy—”
“I said get your ass in the car!”
Kenya mumbles “bye” to me. She goes around to the passenger’s side and hops in. “A’ight, Big Mav. So it’s like that?” King says.
Daddy straightens up. “It’s exactly like that.”
“A’ight then. You just make sure your ass don’t get outta line. Ain’t no telling what I’ll do.” The BMW peels out.
That night, Natasha tries to convince me to follow her to the fire hydrant, and Khalil begs me to go for a ride with him.
I force a smile, my lips trembling, and tell them I can’t hang out. They keep asking, and I keep saying no.
Darkness crawls toward them. I try to warn them, but my voice doesn’t work. The shadow swallows them up in an instant. Now it creeps toward me. I back away, only to find it behind me. . . .
I wake up. My clock glows with the numbers: 11:05.
I suck in deep breaths. Sweat glues my tank top and basketball shorts to my skin. Sirens scream nearby, and Brickz and other dogs bark in response.
Sitting on the side of my bed, I rub my face, as if that’ll wipe the nightmare away. No way I can go back to sleep. Not if it means seeing them again.
My throat is lined with sandpaper and aches for water. When my feet touch the cold floor, goose bumps pop up all over me. Daddy always has the air conditioning on high in the spring and summer, turning the house into a meat locker. The rest of us shiver our butts off, but he enjoys it, saying, “A li’l cold never hurt nobody.” A lie.
I drag myself down the hall. Halfway to the kitchen I hear Momma say, “Why can’t they wait? She just saw one of her best friends die. She doesn’t need to relive that right now.”
I stop. Light from the kitchen stretches into the hallway.
“We have to investigate, Lisa,” says a second voice. Uncle Carlos, Momma’s older brother. “We want the truth as much as anyone.”
“You mean y’all wanna justify what that pig did,” Daddy says. “Investigate my ass.” “Maverick, don’t make this something it’s not,” Uncle Carlos says.
“A sixteen-year-old black boy is dead because a white cop killed him. What else could it be?” “Shhh!” Momma hisses. “Keep it down. Starr had the hardest time falling asleep.”
Uncle Carlos says something, but it’s too low for me to hear. I inch closer. “This isn’t about black or white,” he says.
“Bullshit,” says Daddy. “If this was out in Riverton Hills and his name was Richie, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
“I heard he was a drug dealer,” says Uncle Carlos. “And that makes it okay?” Daddy asks.
“I didn’t say it did, but it could explain Brian’s decision if he felt threatened.”
A “no” lodges in my throat, aching to be yelled out. Khalil wasn’t a threat that night. And what made the cop think he was a drug dealer?
Wait. Brian. That’s One-Fifteen’s name?
“Oh, so you know him,” Daddy mocks. “I ain’t surprised.”
“He’s a colleague, yes and a good guy, believe it or not. I’m sure this is hard on him. Who knows what he was thinking at the time?”
“You said it yourself, he thought Khalil was a drug dealer,” Daddy says. “A thug. Why he assumed that though? What? By looking at Khalil? Explain that, Detective.”
“Why was she even in the car with a drug dealer?” Uncle Carlos asks. “Lisa, I keep telling you, you need to move her and Sekani out of this neighborhood. It’s poisonous.”
“I’ve been thinking about it.”
“And we’re not going anywhere,” Daddy says.
“Maverick, she’s seen two of her friends get killed,” Momma says. “Two! And she’s only sixteen.” “And one was at the hands of a person who was supposed to protect her! What, you think if you live next door to them, they’ll treat you different?”
“Why does it always have to be about race with you?” Uncle Carlos asks. “Other races aren’t killing us nearly as much as we’re killing ourselves.”
“Ne-gro, please. If I kill Tyrone, I’m going to prison. If a cop kills me, he’s getting put on leave. Maybe.”
“You know what? There’s no point having this conversation with you,” Uncle Carlos says. “Will you at least consider letting Starr speak to the detectives handling the case?”
“We should probably get her an attorney first, Carlos,” Momma says. “That’s not necessary right now,” he says.
“And it wasn’t necessary for that cop to pull the trigger,” says Daddy. “You really think we gon’ let them talk to our daughter and twist her words around because she doesn’t have a lawyer?”
“Nobody’s going to twist her words around! I told you, we want the truth to come out too.” “Oh, we know the truth, that’s not what we want,” says Daddy. “We want justice.”
Uncle Carlos sighs. “Lisa, the sooner she talks to the detectives, the better. It will be a simple process. All she has to do is answer some questions. That’s it. No need to spend money to get an attorney just yet.”
“Frankly, Carlos, we don’t want anyone to know Starr was there,” Momma says. “She’s scared. I am too. Who knows what’s gonna happen?”
“I get that, but I assure you she’ll be protected. If you don’t trust the system, can you at least trust me?” “I don’t know,” says Daddy. “Can we?”
“You know what, Maverick? I’ve just about had it with you—” “You can get out my house then.”
“It wouldn’t even be your house if it wasn’t for me and my mom!” “Y’all stop!” Momma says.
I shift my weight, and goddamn if the floor doesn’t creak, which is like sounding an alarm. Momma glances around the kitchen doorway and down the hall, straight at me. “Starr baby, what you doing up?”
Now I have no choice but to go to the kitchen. The three of them are sitting around the table, my parents in their pajamas and Uncle Carlos in some sweats and a hoodie.
“Hey, baby girl,” he says. “We didn’t wake you up, did we?”
“No,” I say, sitting next to Momma. “I was already awake. Nightmares.”
All of them look sympathetic even though I didn’t say it for sympathy. I kinda hate sympathy. “What are you doing here?” I ask Uncle Carlos.
“Sekani has a stomach bug and begged me to bring him home.” “And your uncle was just getting ready to leave,” Daddy adds.
Uncle Carlos’s jaw twitches. His face has gotten rounder since he made detective. He has Momma’s
“high yella” complexion, as Nana calls it, and when he gets mad, his face turns deep red, like it is now. “I’m sorry about Khalil, baby girl,” he says. “I was just telling your parents how the detectives would
like for you to come in and answer a few questions.”
“But you don’t have to do it if you don’t wanna,” Daddy says. “You know what—” Uncle Carlos begins.
“Stop. Please?” says Momma. She looks at me. “Munch, do you wanna talk to the cops?”
I swallow. I wish I could say yes, but I don’t know. On one hand, it’s the cops. It’s not like I’ll be telling just anybody.
On the other hand, it’s the cops. One of them killed Khalil.
But Uncle Carlos is a cop, and he wouldn’t ask me to do something that would hurt me. “Will it help Khalil get justice?” I ask.
Uncle Carlos nods. “It will.” “Will One-Fifteen be there?” “Who?”
“The officer, that’s his badge number,” I say. “I remember it.” “Oh. No, he won’t be there. I promise. It’ll be okay.”
Uncle Carlos’s promises are guarantees, sometimes even more than my parents’. He never uses that word unless he absolutely means it.
“Okay,” I say. “I’ll do it.”
“Thank you.” Uncle Carlos comes over and gives me two kisses to my forehead, the way he’s done since he used to tuck me in. “Lisa, just bring her after school on Monday. It shouldn’t take too long.”
Momma gets up and hugs him. “Thank you.” She walks him down the hall, toward the front door. “Be safe, okay? And text me when you get home.”
“Yes, ma’am. Sounding like our momma,” he teases. “Whatever. You just better text me—”
“Okay, okay. Good night.”
Momma comes back to the kitchen, pulling her robe together. “Munch, your father and I are visiting Ms. Rosalie in the morning instead of going to church. You’re welcome to come if you want.”
“Yeah,” Daddy says. “And ain’t no uncle pressuring you to go.”
Momma cuts him a quick glare, then turns to me. “So, you think you’re up for it, Starr?”
Talking to Ms. Rosalie may be harder than talking to the cops, honestly. But I owe it to Khalil to pay his grandmother a visit. She may not even know I was a witness to the shooting. If she somehow does and wants to know what happened, more than anybody she has the right to ask.
“Yeah. I’ll go.”
“We better find her an attorney before she talks to the detectives,” Daddy says.
“Maverick.” Momma sighs. “If Carlos doesn’t think it’s necessary just yet, I trust his judgment. Plus I’ll be with her the entire time.”
“Good thing somebody trusts his judgment,” says Daddy. “And you really been thinking again ’bout moving? We discussed this already.”
“Maverick, I’m not going there with you tonight.” “How we gon’ change anything around here if we—”
“Mav-rick!” she says through gritted teeth. Whenever Momma breaks a name down like that, you better hope it’s not yours. “I said I’m not going there tonight.” She side-eyes him, waiting for the comeback. There isn’t one. “Try and get some sleep, baby,” she tells me, and kisses my cheek before going to their room.
Daddy goes to the refrigerator. “You want some grapes?” “Yeah. How come you and Uncle Carlos always fighting?”
“’Cause he a buster.” He joins me at the table with a bowl of white grapes. “But for real, he ain’t never liked me. Thought I was a bad influence on your momma. Lisa was wild when I met her though, like all them other Catholic school girls.”
“I bet he was more protective of Momma than Seven is with me, huh?”
“Oh, yeah,” he says. “Carlos acted like he was Lisa’s daddy. When I got locked up, he moved y’all in with him and blocked my calls. Even took her to a divorce attorney.” He grins. “Still couldn’t get rid of me.”
I was three when Daddy went in prison, six when he got out. A lot of my memories include him, but a lot of my firsts don’t. First day of school, the first time I lost a tooth, the first time I rode a bike without training wheels. In those memories, Uncle Carlos’s face is where Daddy’s should’ve been. I think that’s the real reason they’re always fighting.
Daddy drums the mahogany surface of the dining table, making a thump-thump-thump beat. “The nightmares will go away after a while,” he says. “They’re always the worst right after.”
That’s how it was with Natasha. “How many people have you seen die?”
“Enough. Worst one was my cousin Andre.” His finger seems to instinctively trace the tattoo on his forearm—an A with a crown over it. “A drug deal turned into a robbery, and he got shot in the head twice. Right in front of me. A few months before you were born, in fact. That’s why I named you Starr.” He gives me a small smile. “My light during all that darkness.”
Daddy chomps on some grapes. “Don’t be scared ’bout Monday. Tell the cops the truth, and don’t let them put words in your mouth. God gave you a brain. You don’t need theirs. And remember that you didn’t do nothing wrong—the cop did. Don’t let them make you think otherwise.”
Something’s bugging me. I wanted to ask Uncle Carlos, but I couldn’t for some reason. Daddy’s different though. While Uncle Carlos somehow keeps impossible promises, Daddy keeps it real with me. “You think the cops want Khalil to have justice?” I ask.
Thump-thump-thump. Thump . . . thump . . . thump. The truth casts a shadow over the kitchen— people like us in situations like this become hashtags, but they rarely get justice. I think we all wait for that one time though, that one time when it ends right.
Maybe this can be it.
“I don’t know,” Daddy says. “I guess we’ll find out.”
Sunday morning, we pull up to a small yellow house. Bright flowers bloom below the front porch. I used to sit with Khalil on that porch.
My parents and I hop out the truck. Daddy carries a foil-covered pan of lasagna that Momma made. Sekani claims he’s still not feeling good, so he stayed home. Seven’s there with him. I don’t buy this “sick” act though—Sekani always gets some kinda bug right as spring break ends.
Going up Ms. Rosalie’s walkway floods me with memories. I have scars tattooed on my arms and legs from falls on this concrete. One time I was on my scooter, and Khalil pushed me off ’cause I hadn’t given him a turn. When I got up, skin was missing from most of my knee. I never screamed so loud in my life.
We played hopscotch and jumped rope on this walkway too. Khalil never wanted to play at first, talking about how those were girls’ games. He always gave in when me and Natasha said the winner got a Freeze Cup—frozen Kool-Aid in a Styrofoam cup—or a pack of “Nileators,” a.k.a. Now and Laters. Ms. Rosalie was the neighborhood Candy Lady.
I was at her house almost as much as I was at my own. Momma and Ms. Rosalie’s youngest daughter,
Tammy, were best friends growing up. When Momma got pregnant with me, she was in her senior year of high school and Nana put her out the house. Ms. Rosalie took her in until my parents eventually got an apartment of their own. Momma says Ms. Rosalie was one of her biggest supporters and cried at her high school graduation like it was her own daughter walking across the stage.
Three years later, Ms. Rosalie saw Momma and me at Wyatt’s—this was way before it became our store. She asked my mom how college was going. Momma told her that with Daddy in prison, she couldn’t afford daycare and that Nana wouldn’t take care of me ’cause I wasn’t her baby and therefore I wasn’t her problem. So Momma was thinking about dropping out. Ms. Rosalie told her to bring me to her house the next day and that she better not say a word about paying her. She babysat me and later Sekani the whole time Momma was in school.
Momma knocks on the door, rattling the screen. Ms. Tammy answers in a head wrap, T-shirt, and sweatpants. She unhooks the locks, hollering back, “Maverick, Lisa, and Starr are here, Ma.”
The living room looks just like it did when Khalil and I played hide-and-seek in it. There’s still plastic on the sofa and recliner. If you sit on them too long in the summer while wearing shorts, the plastic nearly glues to your legs.
“Hey, Tammy girl,” Momma says, and they hug long and hard. “How you doing?”
“I’m hanging in there.” Ms. Tammy hugs Daddy, then me. “Just hate that this is the reason I had to come home.”
It’s so weird looking at Ms. Tammy. She looks the way Khalil’s momma, Ms. Brenda, would look if Ms. Brenda wasn’t on crack. A lot like Khalil. Same hazel eyes and dimples. One time Khalil said he wished Ms. Tammy was his momma instead so he could live in New York with her. I used to joke and tell him she didn’t have time for him. I wish I never said that.
“Where you want me to put this lasagna, Tam?” Daddy asks her.
“In the refrigerator, if you can find room,” she says, as he heads toward the kitchen. “Momma said folks brought food all day yesterday. They were still bringing it when I got here last night. Seems like the whole neighborhood has stopped by.”
“That’s the Garden for you,” Momma says. “If folks can’t do anything else, they’ll cook.” “You ain’t ever lied.” Ms. Tammy motions to the sofa. “Y’all, have a seat.”
Momma and I sit down, and Daddy comes back and joins us. Ms. Tammy takes the recliner that Ms. Rosalie usually sits in. She gives me a sad smile. “Starr, you know, you sure have grown since the last time I saw you. You and Khalil both grew up so—”
Her voice cracks. Momma reaches over and pats her knee. Ms. Tammy a takes a deep breath and smiles at me again. “It’s good to see you, baby.”
“We know Ms. Rosalie gon’ tell us she fine, Tam,” Daddy says, “but how she really doing?”
“We’re taking one day at a time. The chemo’s working, thankfully. I hope I can convince her to move in with me. That way I can make sure she’s getting her prescriptions.” She sighs through her nose. “I had no idea Momma was struggling like she was. I didn’t even know she’d lost her job. You know how she is. Never wanna ask for help.”
“What about Ms. Brenda?” I ask. I have to. Khalil would’ve.
“I don’t know, Starr. Bren . . . that’s complicated. We haven’t seen her since we got the news. Don’t know where she is. If we do find her though . . . I don’t know what we’ll do.”
“I can help you find a rehab facility near you,” Momma says. “She’s gotta wanna get clean though.” Ms. Tammy nods. “And that’s the problem. But I think . . . I think this will either push her to finally get help or push her over the edge. I hope it’s the former.”
Cameron holds his grandma’s hand as he leads her into the living room like she’s the queen of the
world in a housecoat. She looks thinner, but strong for somebody going through chemo and all of this. A scarf wrapped around her head adds to her majesty—an African queen, and we’re blessed to be in her presence.
The rest of us stand.
Momma hugs Cameron and kisses one of his chubby cheeks. Khalil called him Chipmunk because of them, but he’d check anybody stupid enough to call his little brother fat.
Daddy gives Cameron a palm-slap that ends in a hug. “What’s up, man? You okay?” “Yes, sir.”
A big, wide smile spreads across Ms. Rosalie’s face. She holds her arms out, and I walk into the most heartfelt hug I’ve ever gotten from somebody who’s not related to me. There’s not any sympathy in it either. Just love and strength. I guess she knows I need some of both.
“My baby,” she says. She pulls back and looks at me, tears brimming in her eyes. “Went and grew up on me.”
She hugs my parents too. Ms. Tammy lets her have the recliner. Ms. Rosalie pats the end of the sofa closest to her, so I sit there. She holds my hand and rubs her thumb along the top of it.
“Mmm,” she says. “Mmm!”
It’s like my hand is telling her a story, and she’s responding. She listens to it for a while, then says, “I’m so glad you came over. I’ve been wanting to talk to you.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I say what I’m supposed to.
“You were the very best friend that boy ever had.”
This time I can’t say what I’m supposed to. “Ms. Rosalie, we weren’t as close—”
“I don’t care, baby,” she says. “Khalil never had another friend like you. I know that for a fact.” I swallow. “Yes, ma’am.”
“The police told me you were the one with him when it happened.” So she knows. “Yes, ma’am.”
I’m standing on a track, watching the train barrel toward me, and I tense up and wait for the impact, the moment she asks what happened.
But the train shifts to another track. “Maverick, he wanted to talk to you. He wanted your help.” Daddy straightens up. “For real?”
“Uh-huh. He was selling that stuff.”
Something leaves me. I mean, I kinda figured it, but to know it’s the truth . . .
But I swear I wanna cuss Khalil out. How he could sell the very stuff that took his momma from him? Did he realize that he was taking somebody else’s momma from them?
Did he realize that if he does become a hashtag, some people will only see him as a drug dealer? He was so much more than that.
“But he wanted to stop,” Ms. Rosalie says. “He told me, ‘Grandma, I can’t stay in this. Mr. Maverick said it only leads to two things, the grave or prison, and I ain’t trying to see either.’ He respected you, Maverick. A lot. You were the father he never had.”
I can’t explain it, but something leaves Daddy too. His eyes dim, and he nods. Momma rubs his back. “I tried to talk some sense into him,” Ms. Rosalie says, “but this neighborhood makes young men deaf
to their elders. The money part didn’t help. He was going around here, paying bills, buying sneakers and mess. But I know he remembered the things you told him over the years, Maverick, and that gave me a lotta faith.
“I keep thinking if only he had another day or—” Ms. Rosalie covers her trembling lips. Ms. Tammy starts for her, but she says, “I’m okay, Tam.” She looks at me. “I’m happy he wasn’t alone, but I’m even happier you were with him. That’s all I need to know. Don’t need details, nothing else. Knowing you were with him is good enough.”
Like Daddy, all I can do is nod.
But as I hold Khalil’s grandma’s hand, I see the anguish in her eyes. His little brother can’t smile anymore. So what if people end up thinking he was a thug and never care? We care.
Khalil matters to us, not the stuff he did. Forget everybody else.
Momma leans across me and sets an envelope in Ms. Rosalie’s lap. “We want you to have that.”
Ms. Rosalie opens it, and I catch a glimpse of a whole lot of money inside. “What in the world? Y’all know I can’t take this.”
“Yes, you can,” Daddy says. “We ain’t forgot how you kept Starr and Sekani for us. We weren’t ’bout to let you be empty-handed.”
“And we know y’all are trying to pay for the funeral,” Momma says. “Hopefully that’ll help. Plus, we’re raising money around the neighborhood too. So don’t you worry about a thing.”
Ms. Rosalie wipes a new set of tears from her eyes. “I’m gonna pay y’all back every penny.”
“Did we say you had to pay us back?” Daddy asks. “You focus on getting better, a’ight? And if you give us any money, we giving it right back, God’s my witness.”
There are a lot more tears and hugs. Ms. Rosalie gives me a Freeze Cup for the road, red syrup glistening on the top. She always makes them extra sweet.
As we leave, I remember how Khalil used to run up to the car when I was about to go, the sun shining on the grease lines that separated his cornrows. The glimmer in his eyes would be just as bright. He’d knock on the window, I’d let it down, and he’d say with a snaggletooth grin, “See you later, alligator.”
Back then I’d giggle behind my own snaggleteeth. Now I tear up. Good-byes hurt the most when the other person’s already gone. I imagine him standing at my window, and I smile for his sake. “After a while, crocodile.”
On Monday, the day I’m supposed to talk to the detectives, I’m crying out of nowhere, hunched over my bed as the iron in my hand spits out steam. Momma takes it before I burn the Williamson crest on my polo.
She rubs my shoulder. “Let it out, Munch.”
We have a quiet breakfast at the kitchen table without Seven. He spent the night at his momma’s house. I pick at my waffles. Just thinking about going into that station with all those cops makes me wanna puke. Food would make it worse.
After breakfast, we join hands in the living room like we always do, under the framed poster of the Ten-Point Program, and Daddy leads us in prayer.
“Black Jesus, watch over my babies today,” he says. “Keep them safe, steer them from wrong, and help them recognize snakes from friends. Give them the wisdom they need to be their own people.
“Help Seven with this situation at his momma’s house, and let him know he can always come home. Thank you for Sekani’s miraculous, sudden healing that just so happened to come after he found out they’re having pizza at school today.” I peek out at Sekani, whose eyes and mouth are open wide. I smirk and close my eyes. “Be with Lisa at the clinic as she helps your people. Help my baby girl get through her situation, Lord. Give her peace of mind, and help her speak her truth this afternoon. And lastly, strengthen Ms. Rosalie, Cameron, Tammy, and Brenda as they go through this difficult time. In your precious name I pray, amen.”
“Amen,” the rest of us say.
“Daddy, why you put me on the spot like that with Black Jesus?” Sekani complains.
“He knows the truth,” Daddy says. He wipes crust from the corners of Sekani’s eyes and straightens the collar of his polo. “I’m trying to help you out. Get you some mercy or something, man.”
Daddy pulls me into a hug. “You gon’ be a’ight?” I nod into his chest. “Yeah.”
I could stay like this all day—it’s one of the few places where One-Fifteen doesn’t exist and where I can forget about talking to detectives—but Momma says we need to leave before rush hour.
Now don’t get it wrong, I can drive. I got my license a week after my sixteenth birthday. But I can’t get a car unless I pay for it myself. I told my parents I don’t have time for a job with school and basketball. They said I don’t have time for a car then either. Messed up.
It takes forty-five minutes to get to school on a good day, and an hour on a slow one. Sekani doesn’t have to wear his headphones ’cause Momma doesn’t cuss anybody out on the freeway. She hums with gospel songs on the radio and says, “Give me strength, Lord. Give me strength.”
We get off the freeway into Riverton Hills and pass all these gated neighborhoods. Uncle Carlos lives in one of them. To me, it’s so weird to have a gate around a neighborhood. Seriously, are they trying to keep people out or keep people in? If somebody puts a gate around Garden Heights, it’ll be a little bit of both.
Our school is gated too, and the campus has new, modern buildings with lots of windows and marigolds blooming along the walkways.
Momma gets in the carpool lane for the lower school. “Sekani, you remembered your iPad?” “Yes, ma’am.”
“Lunch card?” “Yes, ma’am.”
“Gym shorts? And you better have gotten the clean ones too.” “Yes, Momma. I’m almost nine. Can’t you give me a little credit?”
She smiles. “All right, big man. Think you can give me some sugar?” Sekani leans over the front seat and kisses her cheek. “Love you.” “Love you too. And don’t forget, Seven’s bringing you home today.”
He runs over to some of his friends and blends in with all the other kids in khakis and polos. We get in the carpool lane for my school.
“All right, Munch,” Momma says. “Seven’s gonna bring you to the clinic after school, then you and I will go to the station. Are you absolutely sure you’re up for it?”
No. But Uncle Carlos promised it’ll be okay. “I’ll do it.”
“Okay. Call me if you don’t think you can make it the whole day at school.”
Hold up. I could’ve stayed home? “Why are you making me come in the first place?”
“’Cause you need to get out the house. Out that neighborhood. I want you to at least try, Starr. This will sound mean, but just because Khalil’s not living doesn’t mean you stop living. You understand, baby?”
“Yeah.” I know she’s right, but it feels wrong.
We get to the front of the carpool line. “Now I don’t have to ask if you brought some funky-ass gym shorts, do I?” she says.
I laugh. “No. Bye, Momma.” “Bye, baby.”
I get out the car. For at least seven hours I don’t have to talk about One-Fifteen. I don’t have to think about Khalil. I just have to be normal Starr at normal Williamson and have a normal day. That means flipping the switch in my brain so I’m Williamson Starr. Williamson Starr doesn’t use slang—if a rapper would say it, she doesn’t say it, even if her white friends do. Slang makes them cool. Slang makes her “hood.” Williamson Starr holds her tongue when people piss her off so nobody will think she’s the “angry black girl.” Williamson Starr is approachable. No stank-eyes, side-eyes, none of that. Williamson Starr is nonconfrontational. Basically, Williamson Starr doesn’t give anyone a reason to call her ghetto.
I can’t stand myself for doing it, but I do it anyway.
I sling my backpack over my shoulder. As usual it matches my J’s, the blue-and-black Elevens like Jordan wore in Space Jam. I worked at the store a month to buy them. I hate dressing like everybody else, but The Fresh Prince taught me something. See, Will always wore his school uniform jacket inside out so he could be different. I can’t wear my uniform inside out, but I can make sure my sneakers are always dope and my backpack always matches them.
I go inside and scan the atrium for Maya, Hailey, or Chris. I don’t see them, but I see that half the kids have tans from spring break. Luckily I was born with one. Someone covers my eyes.
“Maya, I know that’s you.”
She snickers and moves her hands. I’m not tall at all, but Maya has to stand on her tiptoes to cover my eyes. And the chick actually wants to play center on the varsity basketball team. She wears her hair in a high bun because she probably thinks it makes her look taller, but nope.
“What’s up, Ms. I Can’t Text Anyone Back?” she says, and we do our little handshake. It’s not
complicated like Daddy and King’s, but it works for us. “I was starting to wonder if you were abducted by aliens.”
She holds up her phone. The screen has a brand-new crack stretching from corner to corner. Maya’s always dropping it. “You haven’t texted me in two days, Starr,” she says. “Not cool.”
“Oh.” I’ve barely looked at my phone since Khalil got . . . since the incident. “Sorry. I was working at the store. You know how crazy that can get. How was your spring break?”
“Okay, I guess.” She munches on some Sour Patch Kids. “We visited my great-grandparents in Taipei. I ended up taking a bunch of snapbacks and basketball shorts, so all week long I heard, ‘Why do you dress like a boy?’ ‘Why do you play a boy sport?’ Blah, blah, blah. And it was awful when they saw a picture of Ryan. They asked if he was a rapper!”
I laugh and steal some of her candy. Maya’s boyfriend, Ryan, happens to be the only other black kid in eleventh grade, and everybody expects us to be together. Because apparently when it’s two of us, we have to be on some Noah’s Ark type shit and pair up to preserve the blackness of our grade. Lately I’m super aware of BS like that.
We head for the cafeteria. Our table near the vending machines is almost full. There’s Hailey, sitting on top of it, having a heated discussion with curly-haired, dimpled Luke. I think that’s foreplay for them. They’ve liked each other since sixth grade, and if your feelings can survive the awkwardness of middle school you should stop playing around and go out.
Some of the other girls from the team are there too: Jess the co-captain and Britt the center who makes Maya look like an ant. It’s kinda stereotypical that we all sit together, but it worked out that way. I mean, who else will listen to us bitch about swollen knees and understand inside jokes born on the bus after a game?
Chris’s boys from the basketball team are at the table next to ours, egging Hailey and Luke on. Chris isn’t there yet. Unfortunately and fortunately.
Luke sees me and Maya and reaches his arms toward us. “Thank you! Two sensible people who can end this discussion.”
I slide onto the bench beside Jess. She rests her head on my shoulder. “They’ve been at it for fifteen minutes.”
Poor girl. I pat her hair. I have a secret crush on Jess’s pixie cut. My neck’s not long enough for one, but her hair is perfect. Every strand is where it should be. If I were into girls, I would totally date her for her hair, and she would date me for my shoulder.
“What’s it about this time?” I ask. “Pop Tarts,” Britt says.
Hailey turns to us and points at Luke. “This jerk actually said they’re better warmed up in the microwave.”
“Eww,” I say, instead of my usual “Ill,” and Maya goes, “Are you serious?” “I know, right?” says Hailey.
“Jesus Christ!” Luke says. “I only asked for a dollar to buy one from the machine!” “You’re not wasting my money to destroy a perfectly good Pop Tart in a microwave.” “They’re supposed to be heated up!” he argues.
“I actually agree with Luke,” Jess says. “Pop Tarts are ten times better heated up.” I move my shoulder so her head isn’t resting on it. “We can’t be friends anymore.” Her mouth drops open, and she pouts.
“Fine, fine,” I say, and she rests her head on my shoulder with a wide grin. Total weirdo. I don’t know
how she’ll survive without my shoulder when she graduates in a few months. “Anyone who heats up a Pop Tart should be charged,” Hailey says. “And imprisoned,” I say.
“And forced to eat uncooked Pop Tarts until they accept how good they are,” Maya adds. “It is law,” Hailey finishes, smacking the table like that settles it.
“You guys have issues,” Luke says, hopping off the table. He picks at Hailey’s hair. “I think all that dye seeped into your brain.”
She swats at him as he leaves. She’s added blue streaks to her honey-blond hair and cut it shoulder-length. In fifth grade, she trimmed it with some scissors during a math test because she felt like it. That was the moment I knew she didn’t give a shit.
“I like the blue, Hails,” I say. “And the cut.” “Yeah.” Maya grins. “It’s very Joe Jonas of you.”
Hailey whips her head around so fast, her eyes flashing. Maya and I snicker.
So there’s a video deep in the depths of YouTube of the three of us lip-syncing to the Jonas Brothers and pretending to play guitars and drums in Hailey’s bedroom. She decided she was Joe, I was Nick, and Maya was Kevin. I really wanted to be Joe—I secretly loved him the most, but Hailey said she should have him, so I let her.
I let her have her way a lot. Still do. That’s part of being Williamson Starr, I guess. “I so have to find that video,” Jess says.
“Nooo,” Hailey goes, sliding off the tabletop. “It must never be found.” She sits across from us. “Never. Ne-ver. If I remembered that account’s password, I’d delete it.”
“Ooh, what was the account’s name?” Jess asks. “JoBro Lover or something? Wait, no, JoBro Lova. Everybody liked to misspell shit in middle school.”
I smirk and mumble, “Close.” Hailey looks at me. “Starr!” Maya and Britt crack up.
It’s moments like this that I feel normal at Williamson. Despite the guidelines I put on myself, I’ve still found my group, my table.
“Okay then,” Hailey says. “I see how it is, Maya Jonas and Nick’s Starry Girl 2000—”
“So, Hails,” I say before she can finish my old screen name. She grins. “How was your spring break?”
Hailey loses her grin and rolls her eyes. “Oh, it was wonderful. Dad and Stepmother Dearest dragged me and Remy to the house in the Bahamas for ‘family bonding.’”
And bam. That normal feeling? Gone. I suddenly remember how different I am from most of the kids here. Nobody would have to drag me or my brothers to the Bahamas—we’d swim there if we could. For us, a family vacation is staying at a local hotel with a swimming pool for a weekend.
“Sounds like my parents,” says Britt. “Took us to fucking Harry Potter World for the third year in a row. I’m sick of Butter Beer and corny family photos with wands.”
Holy shit. Who the fuck complains about going to Harry Potter World? Or Butter Beer? Or wands?
I hope none of them ask about my spring break. They went to Taipei, the Bahamas, Harry Potter World. I stayed in the hood and saw a cop kill my friend.
“I guess the Bahamas wasn’t so bad,” Hailey says. “They wanted us to do family stuff, but we ended up doing our own thing the entire time.”
“You mean you texted me the entire time,” Maya says. “It was still my own thing.”
“All day, every day,” Maya adds. “Ignoring the time difference.” “Whatever, Shorty. You know you liked talking to me.”
“Oh,” I say. “That’s cool.”
Really though, it’s not. Hailey never texted me during spring break. She barely texts me at all lately. Maybe once a week now, and it used to be every day. Something’s changed between us, and neither one of us acknowledges it. We’re normal when we’re at Williamson, like now. Beyond here though, we’re no longer best friends, just . . . I don’t know.
Plus she unfollowed my Tumblr.
She has no clue that I know. I once posted a picture of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old black boy who was murdered for whistling at a white woman in 1955. His mutilated body didn’t look human. Hailey texted me immediately after, freaking out. I thought it was because she couldn’t believe someone would do that to a kid. No. She couldn’t believe I would reblog such an awful picture.
Not long after that, she stopped liking and reblogging my other posts. I looked through my followers list. Aww, Hails was no longer following me. With me living forty-five minutes away, Tumblr is supposed to be sacred ground where our friendship is cemented. Unfollowing me is the same as saying “I don’t like you anymore.”
Maybe I’m being sensitive. Or maybe things have changed, maybe I’ve changed. For now I guess we’ll keep pretending everything is fine.
The first bell rings. On Mondays AP English is first for me, Hailey, and Maya. On the way they get into this big discussion-turned-argument about NCAA brackets and the Final Four. Hailey was born a Notre Dame fan. Maya hates them almost unhealthily. I stay out that discussion. The NBA is more my thing anyway.
We turn down the hall, and Chris is standing in the doorway of our class, his hands stuffed in pockets and a pair of headphones draped around his neck. He looks straight at me and stretches his arm across the doorway.
Hailey glances from him to me. Back and forth, back and forth. “Did something happen with you guys?”
My pursed lips probably give me away. “Yeah. Sort of.”
“That douche,” Hailey says, reminding me why we’re friends—she doesn’t need details. If someone hurts me in any way, they’re automatically on her shit list. It started in fifth grade, two years before Maya came along. We were those “crybaby” kids who bust out crying at the smallest shit. Me because of Natasha, and Hailey because she lost her mom to cancer. We rode the waves of grief together.
That’s why this weirdness between us doesn’t make sense. “What do you want to do, Starr?” she asks. I don’t know. Before Khalil, I planned to cold-shoulder Chris with a sting more powerful than a nineties R&B breakup song. But after Khalil I’m more like a Taylor Swift song. (No shade, I fucks with Tay-Tay, but she doesn’t serve like nineties R&B on the angry-girlfriend scale.) I’m not happy with Chris, yet I miss him. I miss us. I need him so much that I’m willing to forget what he did. That’s scary as fuck
too. Someone I’ve only been with for a year means that much to me? But Chris . . . he’s different.
You know what? I’ll Beyoncé him. Not as powerful as a nineties R&B breakup song, but stronger than a Taylor Swift. Yeah. That’ll work. I tell Hailey and Maya, “I’ll handle him.”
They move so I’m between them like they’re my bodyguards, and we go to the door together. Chris bows to us. “Ladies.”
“Move!” Maya orders. Funny considering how much Chris towers over her.
He looks at me with those baby blues. He got a tan over break. I used to tell him he was so pale he looked like a marshmallow. He hated that I compared him to food. I told him that’s what he got for calling me caramel. It shut him up.
Dammit though. He’s wearing the Space Jam Elevens too. I forgot we decided to wear them the first day back. They look good on him. Jordans are my weakness. Can’t help it.
“I just wanna talk to my girl,” he claims.
“I don’t know who that is,” I say, Beyoncé’ing him like a pro.
He sighs through his nose. “Please, Starr? Can we at least talk about it?”
I’m back to Taylor Swift because the please does it. I nod at Hailey and Maya.
“You hurt her, and I’ll kill you,” Hailey warns, and she and Maya go in to class without me.
Chris and I move away from the door. I lean against a locker and fold my arms. “I’m listening,” I say. A bass-heavy instrumental plays in his headphones. Probably one of his beats. “I’m sorry for what
happened. I should’ve talked to you first.”
I cock my head. “We did talk about it. A week before. Remember?”
“I know, I know. And I heard you. I just wanted to be prepared in case—” “You could push the right buttons and convince me to change my mind?”
“No!” His hands go up in surrender. “Starr, you know I wouldn’t—that’s not—I’m sorry, okay? I took it too far.”
Understatement. The day before Big D’s party, Chris and I were in Chris’s ridiculously large room. The third floor of his parents’ mansion is a suite for him, a perk of being the last born to empty-nesters. I try to forget that he has an entire floor as big as my house and hired help that looks like me.
Fooling around isn’t new for us, and when Chris slipped his hand in my shorts, I didn’t think anything of it. Then he got me going, and I really wasn’t thinking. At all. For real, my thought process went out the door. And right as I was at that moment, he stopped, reached into his pocket, and pulled out a condom. He raised his eyebrows at me, silently asking for an invitation to go all the way.
All I could think about was those girls I see walking around Garden Heights, babies propped on their hips. Condom or no condom, shit happens.
I went off on Chris. He knew I wasn’t ready for that, we already talked about it, and yet he had a condom? He said he wanted to be responsible, but if I said I’m not ready, I’m not ready.
I left his house pissed and horny, the absolute worst way to leave.
My mom may have been right though. She once said that after you go there with a guy, it activates all these feelings, and you wanna do it all the time. Chris and I went far enough that I notice every single detail about his body now. His cute nostrils that flare when he sighs. His soft brown hair that my fingers love to explore. His gentle lips, and his tongue that wets them every so often. The five freckles on his neck that are in the perfect spots for kissing.
More than that, I remember the guy who spends almost every night on the phone with me talking about nothing and everything. The one who loves to make me smile. Yeah, he pisses me off sometimes, and I’m sure I piss him off, but we mean something. We actually mean a lot.
Fuckity fuck, fuck, fuck. I’m crumbling. “Chris . . .”
He goes for a low blow and beatboxes an all-too-familiar, “Boomp . . . boomp, boomp, boomp.” I point at him. “Don’t you dare!”
“‘Now, this is a story all about how, my life got flipped—turned upside down. And I’d like to take a minute, just sit right there, I’ll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel-Air.’”
He beat-boxes the instrumental and pops his chest and booty to the rhythm. People pass by us, laughing. A guy whistles suggestively. Someone shouts, “Shake that ass, Bryant!”
My smile grows before I can stop it.
The Fresh Prince isn’t just my show, it’s our show. Sophomore year he followed my Tumblr, and I
followed him back. We knew of each other from school, but we didn’t know each other. One Saturday, I reblogged a bunch of Fresh Prince GIFs and clips. He liked and reblogged every single one. That Monday morning in the cafeteria, he paid for my Pop Tarts and grape juice and said, “The first Aunt Viv was the best Aunt Viv.”
It was the beginning of us.
Chris gets The Fresh Prince, which helps him get me. We once talked about how cool it was that Will remained himself in his new world. I slipped up and said I wish I could be like that at school. Chris said, “Why can’t you, Fresh Princess?”
Ever since, I don’t have to decide which Starr I have to be with him. He likes both. Well, the parts I’ve shown him. Some things I can’t reveal, like Natasha. Once you’ve seen how broken someone is it’s like seeing them naked—you can’t look at them the same anymore.
I like the way he looks at me now, as if I’m one of the best things in his life. He’s one of the best things in mine too.
I can’t lie, we get the “why is he dating her” stare that usually comes from rich white girls. Sometimes I wonder the same thing. Chris acts like those looks don’t exist. When he does stuff like this, rapping and beatboxing in the middle of a busy hall just to make me smile, I forget about those looks too.
He starts the second verse, swaying his shoulders and looking at me. The worst part? His silly butt knows it’s working. “‘In West Philadelphia, born and raised’—c’mon, babe. Join in.”
He grabs my hands.
One-Fifteen follows Khalil’s hands with the flashlight. He orders Khalil to get out with his hands up.
He barks at me to put my hands on the dashboard.
I kneel beside my dead friend in the middle of the street with my hands raised. A cop as white as Chris points a gun at me.
As white as Chris.
I flinch and snatch away.
Chris frowns. “Starr, you okay?”
Khalil opens the door. “You okay, Starr—” Pow!
There’s blood. Too much blood.
The second bell rings, jolting me back to normal Williamson, where I’m not normal Starr. Chris leans down, his face in front of mine. My tears blur him. “Starr?”
It’s a few tears, yeah, but I feel exposed. I turn to go to class, and Chris grabs my arm. I yank away and whirl on him.
His hands go up in surrender. “Sorry. I was . . .”
I wipe my eyes and walk into the classroom. Chris is right behind me. Hailey and Maya shoot him the dirtiest looks. I lower myself into the desk in front of Hailey.
She squeezes my shoulder. “That jackwad.”
Nobody mentioned Khalil at school today. I hate to admit it, because it’s like throwing him the middle finger, but I’m relieved.
Since basketball season is over, I leave when everybody else does. Probably for the first time in my life I wish it wasn’t the end of the day. I’m that much closer to talking to the cops.
Hailey and I trek across the parking lot, arm in arm. Maya has a driver to pick her up. Hailey has her own car, and I have a brother with a car; the two of us always end up walking out together.
“Are you absolutely sure you don’t want me to kick Chris’s ass?” Hailey asks.
I told her and Maya about Condomgate, and as far as they’re concerned Chris is eternally banished to Asshole Land.
“Yes,” I say, for the hundredth time. “You’re violent, Hails.”
“When it comes to my friends, possibly. Seriously though, why would he even? God, boys and their fucking sex drive.”
I snort. “Is that why you and Luke haven’t gotten together?” She lightly elbows me. “Shut up.”
I laugh. “Why won’t you admit you like him?” “What makes you think I like him?”
“Whatever, Starr. This isn’t about me. This is about you and your sex-driven boyfriend.” “He’s not sex-driven,” I say.
“Then what do you call it?” “He was horny at that moment.” “Same thing!”
I try to keep a straight face and she does too, but soon we’re cracking up. God, it feels good to be normal Starr and Hailey. Has me wondering if I imagined a change.
We part at the halfway point to Hailey’s car and Seven’s. “The ass-kicking offer is still on the table,” she calls to me.
I walk off, rubbing my arms. Spring has decided to go through an identity crisis and get chilly on me. A few feet away, Seven keeps a hand on his car as he talks to his girlfriend, Layla. Him and that damn Mustang. He touches it more than he touches Layla. She obviously doesn’t care. She plays with the dreadlock near his face that isn’t pulled into his ponytail. Eye-roll worthy. Some girls do too much. Can’t she play with all them curls on her own head?
Honestly though, I don’t have a problem with Layla. She’s a geek like Seven, smart enough for Harvard but Howard bound, and real sweet. She’s one of the four black girls in the senior class, and if Seven just wants to date black girls, he picked a great one.
I walk up to them and go, “Hem-hem.”
Seven keeps his eyes on Layla. “Go sign Sekani out.” “Can’t,” I lie. “Momma didn’t put me on the list.” “Yeah, she did. Go.”
I fold my arms. “I am not walking halfway across campus to get him and halfway back. We can get him when we’re leaving.”
He side-eyes me, but I’m too tired for all that, and it’s cold. Seven kisses Layla and goes around to the driver’s side. “Acting like that’s a long walk,” he mumbles.
“Acting like we can’t get him when we’re leaving,” I say, and hop in.
He starts the car. This nice mix Chris made of Kanye and my other future husband J. Cole plays from Seven’s iPod dock. He maneuvers through the parking lot traffic to Sekani’s school. Seven signs him out of his after-school program, and we leave.
“I’m hungry,” Sekani whines not even five minutes out the parking lot. “Didn’t they give you a snack in after-school?” Seven asks.
“So? I’m still hungry.”
“Greedy butt,” Seven says, and Sekani kicks the back of his seat. Seven laughs. “Okay, okay! Ma
asked me to bring some food to the clinic anyway. I’ll get you something too.” He looks at Sekani in the rearview mirror. “Is that cool—”
Seven freezes. He turns Chris’s mix off and slows down. “What you turn the music off for?” Sekani asks.
“Shut up,” Seven hisses.
We stop at a red light. A Riverton Hills patrol car pulls up beside us.
Seven straightens up and stares ahead, barely blinking and gripping the steering wheel. His eyes move a little like he wants to look at the cop car. He swallows hard.
“C’mon, light,” he prays. “C’mon.”
I stare ahead and pray for the light to change too.
It finally turns green, and Seven lets the patrol car go first. His shoulders don’t relax until we get on the freeway. Mine neither.
We stop at this Chinese restaurant Momma loves and get food for all of us. She wants me to eat before I talk to the detectives. In Garden Heights, kids play in the streets. Sekani presses his face against my window and watches them. He won’t play with them though. Last time he played with some neighborhood kids, they called him “white boy” ’cause he goes to Williamson.
Black Jesus greets us from a mural on the side of the clinic. He has locs like Seven. His arms stretch the width of the wall, and there are puffy white clouds behind him. Big letters above him remind us that
Jesus Loves You.
Seven passes Black Jesus and goes into the parking lot behind the clinic. He punches in a code to open the gate and parks next to Momma’s Camry. I get the tray of sodas, Seven gets the food, and Sekani doesn’t take anything because he never takes anything.
I hit the buzzer for the back door and wave up at the camera. The door opens into a sterile-smelling hall with bright-white walls and white-tile floors that reflect us. The hall takes us to the waiting room. A handful of people watch the news on the old box TV in the ceiling or read magazines that have been there since I was little. When this shaggy-haired man sees that we have food, he straightens up and sniffs hard as if it’s for him.
“What y’all bringing up in here?” Ms. Felicia asks at the front desk, stretching her neck to see. Momma comes from the other hallway in her plain yellow scrubs, following a teary-eyed boy and his
mom. The boy sucks on a lollipop, a reward for surviving a shot.
“There go my babies,” Momma says when she sees us. “And they got my food too. C’mon. Let’s go in the back.”
“Save me some!” Ms. Felicia calls after us. Momma tells her to hush.
We set the food out on the break room table. Momma gets some paper plates and plastic utensils that she keeps in a cabinet for days like this. We say grace and dig in.
Momma sits on the countertop and eats. “Mmm-mm! This is hitting the spot. Thank you, Seven baby. I only had a bag of Cheetos today.”
“You didn’t have lunch?” Sekani asks, with a mouth full of fried rice.
Momma points her fork at him. “What did I tell you about talking with your mouth full? And for your information, no I did not. I had a meeting on my lunch break. Now, tell me about y’all. How was school?” Sekani always talks the longest because he gives every single detail. Seven says his day was fine. I’m
as short with my “It was all right.”
Momma sips her soda. “Anything happen?”
I freaked out when my boyfriend touched me, but—“Nope. Nothing.”
Ms. Felicia comes to the door. “Lisa, sorry to bother you, but we have an issue up front.”
“I’m on break, Felicia.”
“Don’t you think I know that? But she asking for you. It’s Brenda.” Khalil’s momma.
My mom sets her plate down. She looks straight at me when she says, “Stay here.”
I’m hardheaded though. I follow her to the waiting room. Ms. Brenda sits with her face in her hands. Her hair is uncombed, and her white shirt is dingy, almost brown. She has sores and scabs on her arms and legs, and since she’s real light-skinned they show up even more.
Momma kneels in front of her. “Bren, hey.”
Ms. Brenda moves her hands. Her red eyes remind me of what Khalil said when we were little, that his momma had turned into a dragon. He claimed that one day he’d become a knight and turn her back.
It doesn’t make sense that he sold drugs. I would’ve thought his broken heart wouldn’t let him. “My baby,” his momma cries. “Lisa, my baby.”
Momma sandwiches Ms. Brenda’s hands between hers and rubs them, not caring that they’re nasty looking. “I know, Bren.”
“They killed my baby.” “I know.”
“They killed him.” “I know.”
“Lord Jesus,” Ms. Felicia says from the doorway. Next to her, Seven puts his arm around Sekani. Some patients in the waiting room shake their heads.
“But Bren, you gotta get cleaned up,” Momma says. “That’s what he wanted.” “I can’t. My baby ain’t here.”
“Yes, you can. You have Cameron, and he needs you. Your momma needs you.”
Khalil needed you, I wanna say. He waited for you and cried for you. But where were you? You don’t get to cry now. Nuh-uh. It’s too late.
But she keeps crying. Rocking and crying.
“Tammy and I can get you some help, Bren,” Momma says. “But you gotta really want it this time.” “I don’t wanna live like this no more.”
“I know.” Momma waves Ms. Felicia over and hands Ms. Felicia her phone. “Look through my contacts and find Tammy Harris’s number. Call and tell her that her sister is here. Bren, when was the last time you ate?”
“I don’t know. I don’t—my baby.”
Momma straightens up and rubs Ms. Brenda’s shoulder. “I’m gonna get you some food.”
I follow Momma back. She walks kinda fast but passes the food and goes to the counter. She leans on it with her back to me and bows her head, not saying a word.
Everything I wanted to say in the waiting room comes bubbling out. “How come she gets to be upset? She wasn’t there for Khalil. You know how many times he cried about her? Birthdays, Christmas, all that. Why does she get to cry now?”
“She hasn’t acted like a mom to him! Now all of a sudden, he’s her baby? It’s bullshit!”
Momma smacks the counter, and I jump. “Shut up!” she screams. She turns around, tears streaking her face. “That wasn’t some li’l friend of hers. That was her son, you hear me? Her son!” Her voice cracks. “She carried that boy, birthed that boy. And you have no right to judge her.”
I have cotton-mouth. “I—”
Momma closes her eyes. She massages her forehead. “I’m sorry. Fix her a plate, baby, okay? Fix her a plate.”
I do and put a little extra of everything on it. I take it to Ms. Brenda. She mumbles what sounds like “thank you” as she takes it.
When she looks at me through the red haze, Khalil’s eyes stare back at me, and I realize my mom’s right. Ms. Brenda is Khalil’s momma. Regardless.