Authors: Angie Thomas
“DeVante?” So this is the dude Kenya fought over.
“Yeah, that’s me.” He looks at me from head to toe and licks his lips again. “You heard ’bout me or something?”
All that lip licking. Not cute. “Yeah, I’ve heard about you. And you may wanna get some Chapstick if your lips that dry, since you’re licking them so much.”
“Damn, it’s like that?”
“What she means is thanks for helping us out,” Seven says, even though that’s not what I meant. “We appreciate it.”
“It’s all good. Them fools running around here ’cause the riots happening on their side. It’s too hot for them over there.”
“What you doing in the park this early anyway?” Seven asks.
He shoves his hands in his pockets and shrugs. “Posted up. You know how it go.”
He’s a d-boy. Damn, Kenya really knows how to pick them. Anytime drug-dealing gangbangers are your type, you’ve got some serious issues. Well, King
“I heard about your brother,” Seven says. “I’m sorry, man. Dalvin was a cool dude.”
DeVante kicks at a pebble on the court. “Thanks. Mom’s taking it real hard. That’s why I’m here. Had to get out the house.”
Dalvin? DeVante? I tilt my head. “Your momma named y’all after them dudes from that old group Jodeci?” I only know because my parents love them some Jodeci.
“It was just a question. You don’t have to have an attitude.”
A white Tahoe screeches to a stop on the other side of the fence. Daddy’s Tahoe.
His window rolls down. He’s in a wifebeater and pillow marks zigzag across his face. I pray he doesn’t get out because knowing Daddy his legs are ashy and he’s wearing Nike flip-flops with socks. “What the hell y’all thinking, leaving the house without telling nobody?” he yells.
The King Lords across the street bust out laughing. DeVante coughs into his fist like he wants to laugh too. Seven and I look at everything but Daddy.
“Oh, y’all wanna act like y’all don’t hear me? Answer me when I’m talking to you!”
The King Lords howl with laughter.
“Pops, we just came to play ball,” Seven says.
“I don’t care. All this shit going on, and y’all leave? Get in this truck!”
“Goddamn,” I say under my breath. “Always gotta act a fool.”
“What you say?” he barks.
The King Lords howl louder. I wanna disappear.
“Nothing,” I say.
“Nah, it was something. Tell you what, don’t climb the fence. Go round to the entrance. And I bet’ not beat y’all there.”
He drives off.
I grab my ball, and Seven and I haul ass across the park. The last time I ran this fast, Coach was making us do suicides. We get to the entrance as Daddy pulls up. I climb in the back of the truck, and Seven’s dumb butt gets in the passenger seat.
Daddy drives off. “Done lost y’all minds,” he says. “People rioting, damn near calling the National Guard around here, and y’all wanna play ball.”
“Why you have to embarrass us like that?” Seven snaps.
I’m so glad I’m in the backseat. Daddy turns toward Seven, not even looking at the road, and growls, “You ain’t too old.”
Seven stares ahead. Steam is just about coming off him.
Daddy looks at the road again. “Got some goddamn nerve talking to me like that ’cause some King Lords were laughing at you. What, you Kinging now?”
Seven doesn’t respond.
“I’m talking to you, boy!”
“No, sir,” he bites out.
“So why you care what they think? You wanna be a man so damn bad, but men don’t care what nobody thinks.”
He pulls into our driveway. Not even halfway up the walkway I see Momma through the screen on the door in her nightgown, her arms folded and her bare foot tapping.
“Get in this house!” she shouts.
She paces the living room as we come in. The question isn’t if she’ll explode but when.
Seven and I sink onto her good sofa.
“Where were y’all?” she asks. “And you better not lie.”
“The basketball court,” I mumble, staring at my J’s.
Momma leans down close to me and puts her hand to her ear. “What was that? I didn’t hear you good.”
“Speak up, girl,” Daddy says.
“The basketball court,” I repeat louder.
“The basketball court.” Momma straightens up and laughs. “She said the basketball court.” Her laughter stops, and her voice gets louder with each word. “I’m walking around here, worried out my mind, and y’all at the damn basketball court!”
Somebody giggles in the hallway.
“Sekani, go to your room!” Momma says without looking that way. His feet thump hurriedly down the hall.
“I hollered and told y’all we were leaving,” I say.
“Oh, she hollered,” Daddy mocks. “Did you hear anybody holler, baby? ’Cause I didn’t.”
Momma sucks her teeth. “Neither did I. She can wake us up to ask for some money, but she can’t wake us up to tell us she’s going in a war zone.”
“It’s my fault,” Seven says. “I wanted to get her out the house and do something normal.”
“Baby, there’s no such thing as normal right now!” says Momma. “You see what’s been happening. And y’all were crazy enough to go out there like that?”
“Dumb enough is more like it,” Daddy adds.
I keep my eyes on my shoes.
“Hand over your phones,” Momma says.
“What?” I shriek. “That’s not fair! I hollered and told y’all—”
“Starr Amara,” she says through her teeth. Since my first name is only one syllable, she has to throw my middle name in there to break it down. “If you don’t hand me that phone, I swear to God.”
I open my mouth, but she goes, “Say something else! I dare you, say something else! I’ll take all them Jordans too!”
This is some bullshit. For real. Daddy watches us; her attack dog, waiting for us to make a wrong move. That’s how they work. Momma does the first round, and if it’s not successful, Daddy goes for the KO. And you never want Daddy to go for the KO.
Seven and I hand her our phones.
“I thought so,” she says, and passes them to Daddy. “Since y’all want ‘normal’ so much, go get your stuff. We’re going to Carlos’s for the day.”
“Nah, not him.” Daddy motions Seven to get up. “He going to the store with me.”
Momma looks at me and jerks her head toward the hall. “Go. I oughta make you take a shower, smelling like outside.” As I’m leaving, she hollers, “And don’t get any skimpy stuff to wear to Carlos’s either!”
Ooh, she gets on my nerves. See, Chris lives down the street from Uncle Carlos. I am glad she didn’t say any more in front of Daddy though.
Brickz meets me at my bedroom door. He jumps up my legs and tries to lick my face. I had about forty shoe boxes stacked in a corner, and he knocked all of them over.
I scratch behind his ears. “Clumsy dog.”
I would take him with us, but they don’t allow pits in Uncle Carlos’s neighborhood. He settles on my bed and watches me pack. I only really need my swimsuit and some sandals, but Momma could decide to stay out there the whole weekend because of the riots. I pack a couple of outfits and get my school backpack. I throw each backpack over a shoulder. “C’mon, Brickz.”
He follows me to his spot in the backyard, and I hook him up to his chain. While I refill Brickz’s food and water bowls, Daddy crouches beside his roses and examines the petals. He waters them like he’s supposed to, but for some reason they’re dry looking.
“C’mon, now,” he tells them. “Y’all gotta do better than this.”
Momma and Sekani wait for me in her Camry. I end up in the passenger’s seat. It’s childish, but I don’t wanna sit this close to her right now. Unfortunately it’s either sit next to her or next to Sir-Farts-a-Lot Sekani. I’m staring straight ahead, and out the corner of my eye I see her looking at me. She makes this sound like she’s about to speak, but her words decide to come out as a sigh.
Good. I don’t wanna talk to her either. I’m being petty as hell and don’t even care.
We head for the freeway, passing the Cedar Grove projects, where we used to live. We get to Magnolia Avenue, the busiest street in Garden Heights, where most of the businesses are located. Usually on Saturday mornings, guys around the neighborhood have their cars on display, cruising up and down the street and racing each other.
Today the street’s blocked off. A crowd marches down the middle of it. They’re holding signs and posters of Khalil’s face and are chanting, “Justice for Khalil!”
I should be out there with them, but I can’t join that march, knowing I’m one of the reasons they’re protesting.
“You know none of this is your fault, right?” Momma asks.
How in the world did she do that? “I know.”
“I mean it, baby. It’s not. You did everything right.”
“But sometimes right’s not good enough, huh?”
She takes my hand, and despite my annoyance I let her. It’s the closest thing I get to an answer for a while.
Saturday morning traffic on the freeway moves smoothly compared to weekday traffic. Sekani puts his headphones on and plays with his tablet. Some nineties R&B songs play on the radio, and Momma sings along under her breath. When she really gets into it, she attempts all kinds of runs and goes, “Yes, girl! Yes!”
Out of nowhere she says, “You weren’t breathing when you were born.”
My first time hearing that. “For real?”
“Uh-huh. I was eighteen when I had you. Still a baby myself,
but I thought I was grown. Wouldn’t admit to anybody that I was scared to death. Your nana thought there was no way in hell I could be a good parent. Not wild Lisa.
“I was determined to prove her wrong. I stopped drinking and smoking, went to all of my appointments, ate right, took my vitamins, the whole nine. Shoot, I even played Mozart on some headphones and put them on my belly. We see what good that was. You didn’t finish a month of piano lessons.”
I laugh. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay. Like I was saying, I did everything right. I remember being in that delivery room, and when they pulled you out, I waited for you to cry. But you didn’t. Everybody ran around, and your father and I kept asking what was wrong. Finally the nurse said you weren’t breathing.
“I freaked out. Your daddy couldn’t calm me down. He was barely calm himself. After the longest minute of my life, you cried. I think I cried harder than you though. I knew I did something wrong. But one of the nurses took my hand”—Momma grabs my hand again—“looked me in the eye, and said, ‘Sometimes you can do everything right and things will still go wrong. The key is to never stop doing right.’”
She holds my hand the rest of the drive.
I used to think the sun shone brighter out here in Uncle Carlos’s neighborhood, but today it really does—there’s no smoke lingering, and the air is fresher. All the houses have two stories.
Kids play on the sidewalks and in the big yards. There are lemonade stands, garage sales, and lots of joggers. Even with all that going on, it’s real quiet.
We pass Maya’s house, a few streets over from Uncle Carlos’s. I would text her and see if I could come over, but, you know, I don’t have my phone.
“You can’t visit your li’l friend today,” Momma says, reading my mind once a-freaking-gain. “You’re grounded.”
My mouth flies wide open.
“But she can come over to Carlos’s and see you.”
She glances at me out the corner of her eye with a half smile. This is supposed to be the moment I hug her and thank her and tell her she’s the best.
Not happening. I say, “Cool. Whatever,” and sit back.
She busts out laughing. “You are so stubborn!”
“No, I’m not!”
“Yes, you are,” she says. “Just like your father.”
Soon as we pull into Uncle Carlos’s driveway, Sekani jumps out. Our cousin Daniel waves at him from down the sidewalk with some other boys, and they’re all on their bikes.
“Later, Momma,” Sekani says. He runs past Uncle Carlos, who’s coming out the garage, and grabs his bike. Sekani got it for Christmas, but he keeps it at Uncle Carlos’s house because Momma’s not about to let him ride around Garden Heights. He pedals down the driveway.
Momma hops out and calls after him, “Don’t go too far!”
I get out, and Uncle Carlos meets me with a perfect Uncle Carlos hug—not too tight, but so firm that it tells me how much he loves me in a few seconds.
He kisses the top of my head twice and asks, “How are you doing, baby girl?”
“Okay.” I sniff. Smoke’s in the air. The good kind though. “You barbecuing?”
“Just heated the grill up. Gonna throw some burgers and chicken on for lunch.”
“I hope we don’t end up with food poisoning,” Momma teases.
“Ah, look who’s trying to be a comedian,” he says. “You’ll be eating your words and everything I cook, baby sis, because I’m about to throw down. Food Network doesn’t have anything on me.” And he pops his collar.
Lord. He’s so corny sometimes.
Aunt Pam tends to the grill on the patio. My little cousin Ava sucks her thumb and hugs Aunt Pam’s leg. The second she sees me, she comes running. “Starr-Starr!”
Her ponytails fly as she runs, and she launches herself into my arms. I swing her around, getting a whole lot of giggles out of her. “How’s my favorite three-year-old in the whole wide world doing?”
“Good!” She sticks her wrinkly, wet thumb back in her mouth. “Hey, Auntie Leelee.”
“Hey, baby. You’ve been good?”
Ava nods too much. No way she’s been
Aunt Pam lets Uncle Carlos handle the grill and greets Momma with a hug. She has dark-brown skin and big curly hair. Nana likes her because she comes from a “good family.” Her mom is an attorney, and her dad is the first black chief of surgery at the same hospital where Aunt Pam works as a surgeon. Real-life Huxtables, I swear.
I put Ava down, and Aunt Pam hugs me extra tight. “How are you doing, sweetie?”
She says she understands, but nobody really does.
Nana comes busting out the back door with her arms outstretched. “My girls!”
That’s the first sign something’s up. She hugs me and Momma and kisses our cheeks. Nana never kisses us, and she never lets us kiss her. She says she doesn’t know where our mouths have been. She frames my face with her hands, talking about, “Thank the Lord. He spared your life. Hallelujah!”