Authors: Angie Thomas
“Did you get her number?” I repeat Seven’s question.
“Nah,” he admits, and we’re hollering laughing. “Man, whatever. Hate all y’all want. I eventually did something right.”
“Yeah,” Momma admits, running her fingers through my hair. “You did.”
By the second quarter of Cleveland versus Chicago, we’re yelling and shouting at the TV. When LeBron steals the ball, I jump up, and bam! He dunks it.
“In yo’ face!” I yell at Momma and Seven. “In yo’ face!”
Daddy gives me a high five and claps. “That’s what I’m talking ’bout!”
Momma and Seven roll their eyes.
I sit in my “game time” position—knees pulled in, right arm draped over my head and holding my left ear, and my left thumb in my mouth. Don’t hate. It works. Cleveland’s offense and defense is on point. “Let’s go, Cavs!”
Glass shatters. Then,
pop, pop, pop
“Get down!” Daddy yells.
I’m already down. Sekani comes down next to me, then Momma on top of us, and she wraps her arms around us. Daddy’s feet thud toward the front of the house and the hinges on the front door squeak as it swings open. Tires screech off.
“Mothaf—” Gunshots cut Daddy off.
My heart stops. For a split second, I visit a world without
my dad, and it doesn’t seem like much of a world at all.
But his footsteps rush back in. “Y’all a’ight?”
The weight on top of me lifts. Momma says she’s okay, and Sekani says he is too. Seven echoes them.
Daddy’s holding his Glock. “I shot at them fools,” he says between heavy breaths. “I think I hit a tire. Ain’t never seen that car before.”
“Did they shoot in the house?” Momma asks.
“Yeah, a couple shots through the front window,” he says. “They threw something too. Landed in the living room.”
I head for the front.
“Starr! Get back here!” Momma calls.
I’m too curious and too hardheaded. Glass shards glisten all over Momma’s good sofa. A brick sits in the middle of the floor.
Momma calls Uncle Carlos. He gets to our house in half an hour.
Daddy hasn’t stopped pacing the den, and he hasn’t put his Glock down. Seven takes Sekani to bed. Momma has her arm around me on the sectional and won’t let go.
Some of our neighbors checked in, like Mrs. Pearl and Ms. Jones. Mr. Charles from next door rushed over, holding his own piece. None of them saw who did it.
Doesn’t matter who did it. It was clearly a message for me.
I have this sick feeling like I got when I ate ice cream and played in hot weather too long when I was younger. Ms. Rosalie
said the heat “boiled” my stomach and that something cool would settle it. Nothing cool can settle this.
“Did you call the police?” Uncle Carlos asks.
“Hell nah!” says Daddy. “How I know it wasn’t them?”
“Maverick, you still should’ve called,” Uncle Carlos says. “This needs to be recorded, and they can send someone to guard the house.”
“Oh, I got somebody to guard the house. Don’t worry about that. It definitely ain’t gon’ be no crooked pig who may have been behind this.”
“King Lords could’ve done this!” says Uncle Carlos. “Didn’t you say King made a veiled threat against Starr because of her interview?”
“I’m not going tomorrow,” I say, but I have a better chance of being heard at a Drake concert.
“It ain’t no damn coincidence that somebody’s trying to scare us the night before she testifies to the grand jury,” Daddy says. “That’s some shit your buddies would do.”
“You’d be surprised at how many of us want justice in this case,” says Uncle Carlos. “But of course, classic Maverick. Every cop is automatically a bad cop.”
“I’m not going tomorrow,” I repeat.
“I ain’t say every cop is a bad cop, but I ain’t gon’ stand here like a fool, thinking that some of them don’t do dirty shit. Hell, they made me lay face-down on the sidewalk. And for what? ’Cause they could!”
“It could’ve been either one of them,” Momma says. “Trying to figure out who did it will get us nowhere. The main thing is making sure Starr is safe tomorrow—”
“I said I’m not going!” I shout.
They finally hear me. My stomach holds a roiling boil. “Yeah, it could’ve been King Lords, but what if it was the cops?” I look at Daddy and remember that moment weeks ago in front of the store. “I thought they were gonna kill you,” I croak. “Because of me.”
He kneels in front of me and sits the Glock beside my feet. He lifts my chin. “Point one of the Ten-Point Program. Say it.”
My brothers and I learned to recite the Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Program the same way other kids learn the Pledge of Allegiance.
“‘We want freedom,’” I say. “‘We want the power to determine the destiny of our black and oppressed communities.’”
“Say it again.”
“‘We want freedom. We want the power to determine the destiny of our black and oppressed communities.’”
“‘We want an immediate end to police brutality,’” I say, “‘and the murder of black people, other people of color, and oppressed people.’”
“‘We want an immediate end to police brutality and the
murder of black people, other people of color, and oppressed people.’”
“And what did Brother Malcolm say is our objective?”
Seven and I could recite Malcolm X quotes by the time we were thirteen. Sekani hasn’t gotten there yet.
“‘Complete freedom, justice, and equality,’” I say, “‘by any means necessary.’”
“‘Complete freedom, justice, and equality, by any means necessary.’”
“So why you gon’ be quiet?” Daddy asks.
Because the Ten-Point Program didn’t work for the Panthers. Huey Newton died a crackhead, and the government crushed the Panthers one by one.
By any means necessary
didn’t keep Brother Malcolm from dying, possibly at the hands of his own people. Intentions always look better on paper than in reality. The reality is, I may not make it to the courthouse in the morning.
Two loud knocks at the front door startle us.
Daddy straightens up, grabs his Glock, and leaves to answer. He says what’s up to somebody, and there’s a sound like palms slapping. Then a male voice says, “You know we got you, Big Mav.”
Daddy returns with some tall, wide-shouldered guys dressed in gray and black. It’s a lighter gray than what King and his folks wear. It takes a hood-trained eye to notice it and
understand. This is a different set of King Lords.
“This is Goon.” Daddy points to the shortest one, in front with the ponytails. “Him and his boys gon’ provide security for us tonight and tomorrow.”
Uncle Carlos folds his arms and gives the King Lords a hard look. “You asked King Lords to guard the house when King Lords may have put us in this position?”
“They don’t mess with King,” Daddy says. “They Cedar Grove King Lords.”
Shit, they may as well be GDs then. Sets make all the difference in gangbanging, not colors. The Cedar Grove King Lords have been beefing with King’s set, the West Side King Lords, for a while now.
“You need us to fall back, Big Mav?” Goon asks.
“Nah, don’t worry about him,” Daddy says. “Y’all do what y’all came to do.”
“Nothing but a thang,” Goon says, and gives Daddy dap. Him and his boys head back outside.
“Are you serious right now?” Uncle Carlos yells. “You really think gangbangers can provide adequate security?”
“They strapped, ain’t they?” Daddy says.
“Ridiculous!” Uncle Carlos looks at Momma. “Look, I’ll go with you to the courthouse tomorrow as long as they aren’t coming too.”
“Punk ass,” Daddy says. “Can’t even protect your niece ’cause you scared of what it’ll look like to your fellow cops if
you’re working with gangbangers.”
“Oh, you wanna go there, Maverick?” Uncle Carlos says.
“Carlos, calm down.”
“No, Lisa. I wanna make sure I got this right. Does he mean the same niece I took care of while he was locked up? Huh? The one I took to her first day of school because he took a charge for his so-called boy? The one I held when she cried for her daddy?”
He’s loud, and Momma stands in front of him to keep him from Daddy.
“You can call me as many names as you want, Maverick, but don’t you ever say I don’t care about my niece and nephews! Yeah, that’s right, nephews! Seven too. When you were locked up—”
“Carlos,” Momma says.
“No, he needs to hear this. When you were locked up, I helped Lisa every time your sorry-ass baby momma dropped Seven off on her for weeks at a time. Me! I bought clothes, food, provided shelter. My Uncle Tom ass! Hell no, I don’t wanna work with criminals, but don’t you ever insinuate I don’t care about any of those kids!”
Daddy’s mouth makes a line. He’s silent.
Uncle Carlos snatches his keys off the coffee table, gives my forehead two pecks, and leaves. The front door slams shut.
The smell of hickory bacon and the sound of way too many voices wake me up.
I blink to soothe my eyes from the assault my neon-blue walls are giving them. It takes me a few minutes lying here to remember it’s grand jury day.
Time to see if I’ll fail Khalil or not.
I put my feet in my slippers and head toward the unfamiliar voices. Seven and Sekani are at school by now, plus their voices aren’t that deep. I should be worried about some unknown dudes seeing me in my pajamas, but that’s the beauty of sleeping in tanks and basketball shorts. They won’t see much.
The kitchen’s standing-room-only. Guys in black slacks, white shirts, and ties are at the table or standing against the wall, shoveling food in their mouths. They have tattoos on
their faces and hands. A couple of them give me quick nods and mumble “S’up” through mouths full of food.
The Cedar Grove King Lords. Damn, they clean up nicely.
Momma and Aunt Pam work the stove as skillets full of bacon and eggs sizzle, blue flames dancing beneath them. Nana pours juice and coffee and runs her mouth.
Momma barely looks over her shoulder and says, “Morning, Munch. Your plate’s in the microwave. Come get these biscuits out for me, please.”
She and Aunt Pam move to the ends of the stove, stirring the eggs and turning the bacon. I grab a towel and open the oven. The aroma of buttery biscuits and a heat wave hit me head-on. I pick the pan up with the towel, and that thing is still too hot to hold for long.
“Over here, li’l momma,” Goon says at the table.
I’m glad to put it down. Not even two minutes after I set it on the table, every last biscuit is gone. Goddamn. I grab my paper towel–covered plate from the microwave before the King Lords inhale it too.
“Starr, get those other plates for your dad and your uncle,” Aunt Pam says. “Take them outside, please.”
Uncle Carlos is here? I tell Aunt Pam, “Yes, ma’am,” stack their plates on top of mine, grab the hot sauce and some forks, and leave as Nana starts one of her “back in my theater days” stories.
Outside, the sunlight’s so bright it makes the paint on my
walls seem dim. I squint and look around for Daddy or Uncle Carlos. The hatch on Daddy’s Tahoe is up, and they’re sitting on the back of it.
My slippers scuff against the concrete, sounding like brooms sweeping the floor. Daddy looks around the truck. “There go my baby.”
I hand him and Uncle Carlos a plate and get a kiss to the cheek from Daddy in return. “You sleep okay?” he asks.
Uncle Carlos moves his pistol from the space between them and pats the empty spot. “Keep us company for a bit.”
I hop up next to them. We unwrap the plates that have enough biscuits, bacon, and eggs for a few people.
“I think this one’s yours, Maverick,” Uncle Carlos says. “It’s got turkey bacon.”
“Thanks, man,” Daddy says, and they exchange plates.
I shake hot sauce on my eggs and pass Daddy the bottle. Uncle Carlos holds his hand out for it too.
Daddy smirks and passes it down. “I would’ve thought you were too refined for some hot sauce on your eggs.”
“You do realize this is the house I grew up in, right?” He covers his eggs completely in hot sauce, sets the bottle down, and licks his fingers for the sauce that got on them. “Don’t tell Pam I ate all of this though. She’s always on me about watching my sodium.”
“I won’t tell if you won’t tell,” Daddy says. They bump fists to seal the deal.
I woke up on another planet or in an alternate reality. Something. “Y’all cool all of a sudden?”
“We talked,” Daddy says. “It’s all good.”
“Yep,” says Uncle Carlos. “Some things are more important than others.”
I want details, but I won’t get them. If they’re good though, I’m good. And honestly? It’s about damn time.
“Since you and Aunt Pam are here, where’s DeVante?” I ask Uncle Carlos.
“At home for once and not playing video games with your li’l boyfriend.”
“Why does Chris always have to be ‘li’l’ to you?” I ask. “He’s not little.”
“You better be talking about his height,” says Daddy.
“Amen,” Uncle Carlos adds, and they fist-bump again.
So they’ve found common complaining ground—Chris. Figures.
Our street is quiet for the most part this morning. It usually is. The drama always comes from people who don’t live here. Two houses down, Mrs. Lynn and Ms. Carol talk in Mrs. Lynn’s yard. Probably gossiping. Can’t tell either one of them anything if you don’t want it spread around Garden Heights like a cold. Mrs. Pearl works in her flower bed across the street with a little help from Fo’ty Ounce. Everybody calls him that ’cause he always asks for money to buy a “Fo’ty ounce from the licka sto’ real quick.” His rusty shopping cart with all of his belongings is in Mrs. Pearl’s driveway, a big bag of mulch on
the bottom of it. Apparently he has a green thumb. He laughs at something Mrs. Pearl says, and people two streets over probably hear that guffaw of his.
“Can’t believe that fool’s alive,” Uncle Carlos says. “Would’ve thought he drank himself to death by now.”
“Who? Fo’ty Ounce?” I ask.
“Yeah! He was around when I was a kid.”
“Nah, he ain’t going nowhere,” says Daddy. “He claims the liquor keeps him alive.”
“Does Mrs. Rooks live around the corner?” Uncle Carlos asks.
“Yep,” I say. “And she still makes the best red velvet cakes you ever had in your life.”
“Wow. I told Pam I have yet to taste a red velvet cake as good as Mrs. Rooks’s. What about um . . .” He snaps his fingers. “The man who fixed cars. Lived at the corner.”
“Mr. Washington,” says Daddy. “Still kicking it and still does better work than any automotive shop around. Got his son helping him too.”
“Li’l John?” Uncle Carlos asks. “The one that played basketball but got on that stuff?”
“Yep,” says Daddy. “He been clean for a minute now.”
“Man.” Uncle Carlos pushes his red eggs around his plate. “I almost miss living here sometimes.”
I watch Fo’ty Ounce help Mrs. Pearl. People around here don’t have much, but they help each other out as best they can. It’s this strange, dysfunctional-as-hell family, but it’s still a
family. More than I realized until recently.
“Starr!” Nana calls from the front door. People two streets over probably hear her like they heard Fo’ty Ounce. “Your momma said hurry up. You gotta get ready. Hey, Pearl!”
Mrs. Pearl shields her eyes and looks our way. “Hey, Adele! Haven’t seen you in a while. You all right?”
“Hanging in there, girl. You got that flowerbed looking good! I’m coming by later to get some of that Birds of Paradise.”
“You not gon’ say hey to me, Adele?” Fo’ty Ounce asks. When he talks, it jumbled together like one long word.
“Hell nah, you old fool,” Nana says. The door slams behind her.
Daddy, Uncle Carlos, and I crack up.
The Cedar Grove King Lords trail us in two cars, and Uncle Carlos drives me and my parents. One of his off-duty buddies occupies the passenger’s seat. Nana and Aunt Pam trail us too.
All these people though, and none of them can go in the grand jury room with me.
It takes fifteen minutes to get to downtown from Garden Heights. There’s always construction work going on for some new building. Garden Heights has dope boys on corners, but downtown people in business suits wait for crossing lights to change. I wonder if they ever hear the gunshots and shit in my neighborhood.
We turn onto the street where the courthouse is, and I have
one of those weird déjà-vu moments. I’m three, and Uncle Carlos drives Momma, Seven, and me to the courthouse. Momma cries the entire drive, and I wish Daddy were here because he can always get her to stop crying. Seven and I hold Momma’s hands as we walk into a courtroom. Some cops bring Daddy out in an orange jumpsuit. He can’t hug us because he’s handcuffed. I tell him I like his jumpsuit; orange is one of my favorite colors. But he looks at me real seriously, and says, “Don’t you ever wear this, you hear me?”
All I remember after that is the judge saying something, Momma sobbing, and Daddy telling us he loves us as the cops haul him off. For three years I hated the courthouse because it took Daddy from us.
I’m not thrilled to see it now. News vans and trucks are across the street from the courthouse, and police barricades separate them from everybody else. I now know why people call it a “media circus.” It seriously looks like the circus is setting up in town.
Two traffic lanes separate the courthouse from the media frenzy, but I swear they’re a world away. Hundreds of people quietly kneel on the courthouse lawn. Men and women in clerical collars stand at the front of the crowd, their heads bowed.
To avoid the clowns and their cameras, Uncle Carlos turns onto the street alongside the courthouse. We go in through the back door. Goon and another King Lord join us. They flank me and don’t hesitate to let security check them for weapons.
Another security guard leads us through the courthouse. The farther we go, the fewer people we pass in the halls. Ms. Ofrah waits beside a door with a brass plate that says Grand Jury Room.
She hugs me and asks, “Ready?”
For once I am. “Yes, ma’am.”
“I’ll be out here the whole time,” she says. “If you need to ask me something, you have that right.” She looks at my entourage. “I’m sorry, but only Starr’s parents are allowed to watch in the TV room.”
Uncle Carlos and Aunt Pam hug me. Nana pats my shoulder as she shakes her head. Goon and his boy give me quick nods and leave with them.
Momma’s eyes brim with tears. She pulls me into a tight hug, and it’s at that moment, of all the moments, that I realize I’ve gotten an inch or two taller than she is. She plants kisses all over my face and hugs me again. “I’m proud of you, baby. You are so brave.”
That word. I hate it. “No, I’m not.”
“Yeah, you are.” She pulls back and pushes a strand of hair away from my face. I can’t explain the look in her eyes, but it knows me better than I know myself. It wraps me up and warms me from the inside out. “Brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared, Starr,” she says. “It means you go on even though you’re scared. And you’re doing that.”
She leans up slightly on her tiptoes and kisses my forehead
as if that makes it true. For me it kinda does.
Daddy wraps his arms around both of us. “You got this, baby girl.”
The door to the grand jury room creaks open, and the DA, Ms. Monroe, looks out. “We’re ready if you are.”
I walk into the grand jury room alone, but somehow my parents are with me.
The room has wood-paneled walls and no windows. About twenty or so men and women occupy a U-shaped table. Some of them are black, some of them aren’t. Their eyes follow us as Ms. Monroe leads me to a table in front of them with a mic on it.
One of Ms. Monroe’s colleagues swears me in, and I promise on the Bible to tell the truth. I silently promise it to Khalil too.
Ms. Monroe says from the back of the room, “Could you please introduce yourself to the grand jurors?”
I scoot closer to the mic and clear my throat. “My name—” My small voice sounds like a five-year-old’s. I sit up straight and try again. “My name is Starr Carter. I’m sixteen years old.”
“The mic is only recording you, not projecting your voice,” Ms. Monroe says. “As we have our conversation, we need you to speak loud enough for everyone to hear, okay?”
“Yes—” My lips brush the mic. Too close. I move back and try again. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Good. You came here on your own free will, is that correct?”
“You have an attorney, Ms. April Ofrah, correct?” she says.
“You understand you have the right to consult with her, correct?”
“You understand you’re not the focus of any criminal charges, correct?”
Bullshit. Khalil and I have been on trial since he died. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Today, we want to hear in your own words what happened to Khalil Harris, okay?”
I look at the jurors, unable to read their faces and tell if they really want to hear my words. Hopefully they do. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Now, since we have that understanding, let’s talk about Khalil. You were friends with him, right?”
I nod, but Ms. Monroe says, “Please give a verbal response.”
I lean toward the mic and say, “Yes, ma’am.”
Shit. I forgot the jurors can’t hear me on it and it’s only for recording. It doesn’t make any sense that I’m so nervous.
“How long did you know Khalil?”
The same story, all over again. I become a robot who repeats how I knew Khalil since I was three, how we grew up together, the kind of person he was.
When I finish, Ms. Monroe says, “Okay. We’re going to
discuss the night of the shooting in detail. Are you okay with that?”
The un-brave part of me, which feels like most of me, shouts no. It wants to crawl up in a corner and act as if none of this ever happened. But all those people outside are praying for me. My parents are watching me. Khalil needs me.
I straighten up and allow the tiny brave part of me to speak. “Yes, ma’am.”