Authors: Angie Thomas
DeVante lies in the bed of the truck. He holds his eyes and rolls in agony. “Shit, man! Shit!”
“Bri, get him some milk,” Goon says through the back window.
“We’re out, Unc,” says the girl in the bandana.
“Fuck!” Goon hisses. “Hold on, Vante.”
Tears and snot drip down my face. My eyes are damn near numb from burning.
The truck slows down. “Get li’l homie,” Goon says.
The two guys in the bandanas grab some kid on the street by his arms and lift him into the truck. The kid looks around thirteen. His shirt is covered in soot, and he coughs and heaves.
I get into a coughing fit. Snorting is like hacking up hot coals. The man in the shirt and tie hands me his dampened handkerchief.
“It’ll help some,” he says. “Put it against your nose and breathe through it.”
It gives me a small amount of clean air. I pass it to Chris, he uses it, passes it to Seven beside him. Seven uses it and passes it to someone else.
“As you can see, Jim,” the man says, looking at the camera, “there are a lot of youth out here protesting tonight, black and white.”
“I’m the token, huh?” Chris mutters to me before coughing. I’d laugh if it didn’t hurt.
“And you have people like this gentlemen, going around the neighborhood, helping out where they can,” the white man says. “Driver, what’s your name?”
The Latino turns the camera toward Goon.
“Nunya,” Goon says.
“Thank you, Nunya, for giving us a ride.”
Woooow. I realize why he looks familiar though. He’s a national news anchor, Brian somebody.
“This young lady here made a powerful statement earlier,” he says, and the camera points toward me. “Are you really the witness?”
I nod. No point hiding anymore.
“We caught what you said back there. Anything else you’d like to add for our viewers?”
“Yeah. None of this makes sense.”
I start coughing again. He leaves me alone.
When my eyes aren’t closed I see what my neighborhood has become. More tanks, more cops in riot gear, more smoke. Businesses ransacked. Streetlights are out, and fires keep everything from being in complete darkness. People run out of the Walmart and carry armfuls of items, looking like ants rushing from an anthill. The untouched businesses have boarded-up windows and graffiti that says “black owned.”
We eventually turn onto Marigold Avenue, and even with the fire in my lungs I take a deep breath. Our store is in one piece. The windows are boarded up with that same “black owned” tag on them, like it’s lamb’s blood protecting the store from the plague of death. The street is pretty still. Top Shelf Spirits and Wine is the only business with broken windows. It doesn’t have a “black owned” tag either.
Goon stops in front of our store. He jumps out, comes to the back of the truck, and helps everyone out. “Starr, Sev, y’all got a key?”
I pat my pockets for Seven’s keys and toss them to Goon. He tries each key until one unlocks the door. “In here, y’all,” he says.
Everyone including the cameraman and reporter go in the store. Goon and one of the guys in the bandana get DeVante and carry him inside. No sign of Daddy.
I crawl onto the floor and fall on my stomach, blinking fast. My eyes burn and fill with tears.
Goon sets DeVante on the old people’s bench before running toward the refrigerator.
He rushes back with a gallon of milk and pours it onto DeVante’s face. The milk momentarily turns him white. DeVante coughs and sputters. Goon pours more.
“Stop!” DeVante says. “You ’bout to drown me!”
“I bet your eyes ain’t hurting no more though,” Goon replies.
I half-crawl, half-run to the refrigerators and get a gallon for myself. I pour it on my face. The relief comes in seconds.
People pour milk onto their faces while the cameraman records it all. An older lady drinks from a gallon. Milk pools on the floor, and a college-aged guy lies face-down in it and gasps for air.
When people get the relief they need, they leave. Goon grabs a bunch of cartons of milk and asks, “Ay, can we take this in case somebody needs it on the street?”
Seven nods and sips from a carton.
“Thanks, li’l homie. If I see your pops again I’ll tell him y’all here.”
“You saw our—” I cough and sip some milk, dousing the flames in my lungs. “You saw our dad?”
“Yeah, a li’l while ago. He was looking for y’all.”
“Sir,” the reporter says to Goon, “can we ride along? We’d like to see more of the neighborhood.”
“Ain’t no thang, homie. Hop in the back.” He turns to the camera and twists his fingers so they resemble a K and an L.
“Cedar Grove Kings, baby! Crowns up! Addi-o!” He gives the King Lord call. Leave it to Goon to throw gang signs on live TV.
They leave us alone in the store. Seven, Chris, I are in the pool of milk with our knees up to our chests. DeVante’s arms and legs dangle off the old people’s bench. He chugs back some milk.
Seven takes his phone from his pocket. “Damn. My phone’s dead. Starr, you got yours?”
“Yeah.” I have way too many voice mails and way too many texts, most of them from Momma.
I play the voice mails first. They start out safe enough with Momma saying,
“Starr baby, call me as soon as you get this, okay?”
But they soon become,
“Starr Amara, I know you’re getting these messages. Call me. I’m not playing.”
They progress to,
“See, you’ve taken this too far. Carlos and I are heading out the door right now, and you better pray to God we don’t find you!”
And on the last message, left a few minutes ago, Momma says,
“Oh, so you can’t return my calls, but you can lead protests, huh? Momma told me she saw you on live TV, giving speeches and throwing tear gas at cops! I swear I’m gon’ snatch your life if you don’t call me!”
“We in deep shit, man,” DeVante says. “Deep shit.”
Seven glances at his watch. “Damn. We’ve been gone about four hours.”
“Deep shit,” DeVante repeats.
“Maybe the four of us can get a place in Mexico?” says Chris.
I shake my head. “Not far enough for our mom.”
Seven picks at his face. The milk has dried and formed a crust. “All right, we need to call them. And if we call from the office phone, Ma will see it on the caller ID and know we’re not lying when we say we’re here. That’ll help, right?”
“We’re at least three hours too late for any help,” I say.
Seven stands and gives me and Chris a hand up. He helps DeVante off the bench. “C’mon. Make sure y’all sound remorseful, all right?”
We head for Daddy’s office.
The front door creaks. Something thuds onto the floor.
I turn around. A glass bottle with flaming cloth—
The store is suddenly lit bright orange. A heat wave hits like the sun dropped in. Flames lick the ceiling and block the door.
An entire aisle is already engulfed.
“The back door,” Seven says, choked up. “The back door!”
Chris and DeVante follow us down the narrow hall near Daddy’s office. It leads to the restroom and the back door where deliveries are unloaded. Smoke’s already filling the hall.
Seven pushes the door. It doesn’t budge. He and Chris ram their shoulders against it, but it’s bulletproof, shoulder-proof, everything-proof. The burglar bars won’t let us out anyway.
“Starr, my keys,” Seven croaks.
I shake my head. I gave them to Goon, and the last time I saw them he left them in the front door.
DeVante coughs. It’s getting harder to breathe with all the smoke. “Man, we can’t die up in here. I don’t wanna die.”
“Shut up!” Chris says. “We’re not gonna die.”
I cough into the crook of my arm. “Daddy may have a spare,” I say, and my voice is thin. “In his office.”
We rush back down the hall, but the office door is locked too.
“Fuck!” Seven screams.
Mr. Lewis limps into the middle of the street. He grips a baseball bat in each hand. He glances around, like he’s trying to figure out where the smoke is coming from. With the boards on the windows, he can’t see the inferno in the store unless he looks through the front door.
“Mr. Lewis!” I scream as loud as I can.
The guys join in. The smoke strangles our voices. The flames dance feet away, but I swear it’s like I’m standing in them.
Mr. Lewis limps toward the store, squinting his eyes. They widen as he looks in through the door, straight at us on the other side of the flames. “Oh Lord!”
He limps into the street faster than I’ve ever seen him move. “Help! These kids stuck up in here! Help!”
There’s a loud crackling to our right. The fire takes out another shelf.
Mr. Reuben’s nephew, Tim, runs over and opens the front door, but the flames are too much.
“Go to the back door!” he calls to us.
Tim almost beats us getting there. He yanks hard on the door, and the glass rattles. The way he’s pulling, the door will come off eventually. We don’t have eventually time though.
Tires screech outside.
Moments later, Daddy runs up to the back door.
“Watch out,” he tells Tim, moving him out the way.
Daddy fumbles for his keys and sticks several in the lock while muttering, “Please, God. Please.”
I can barely see Seven, Chris, or DeVante for all the smoke, and they’re coughing and wheezing next to me.
A click. The knob turns. The door flies open. We rush out. Fresh air fills my lungs.
Daddy pulls me and Seven through the alley, around the corner, and across the street to Reuben’s. Tim gets DeVante and Chris. They make us sit on the sidewalk.
Tires screech again, and Momma goes, “Oh my God!”
She runs over, Uncle Carlos on her heels. She holds my shoulders and helps me lie on the sidewalk.
“Breathe, baby,” she says. “Breathe.”
But I have to see. I sit up.
Daddy attempts to run into the store for God knows what. The flames swat him back. Tim rushes a bucket of water from his uncle’s restaurant. He runs into our store and douses it on the flames, but he’s forced to jump back too.
People trickle onto the street, and more buckets of sloshing water are hauled into the store. Ms. Yvette carries one from her beauty shop. Tim tosses it onto the fire. Flames eat away at the roof, and smoke billows from the windows of the barbershop next door.
“My shop!” Mr. Lewis cries. Mr. Reuben stops him from running toward it. “My shop!”
Daddy stands in the middle of the street, breathing hard, looking helpless. A crowd has gathered, and people watch with their hands pressed to their mouths.
Bass rattles nearby. Daddy slowly turns his head.
The gray BMW is parked in the intersection near the liquor store. King leans up against it. Some other King Lords stand alongside him and sit on the hood of the car. They laugh and point.
King stares straight at Daddy and takes out his cigarette lighter. He sparks a flame.
Iesha said King was gonna fuck
up because I dry snitched. That meant my whole family.
This is it.
“You son of a bitch!” Daddy marches toward King, and King’s boys advance toward Daddy. Uncle Carlos stops him. The King Lords reach for their pieces and tell Daddy to bring it. King laughs like it’s a comedy show.
“You think this shit funny?” Daddy yells. “Punk ass, always hiding behind your boys!”
King stops laughing.
“Yeah, I said it! I ain’t scared of you! You ain’t shit to be scared of! Trying to burn up some kids, you fucking coward!”
“Oh uh-uh!” Momma starts for King, and Uncle Carlos has to work overtime to hold her back too.
“He burned Maverick’s store down!” Mr. Lewis announces to everybody, in case we didn’t hear. “King burned Maverick’s store down!”
It bubbles around the crowd, and narrowed eyes set on King.
Of course, that’s when the cops and the fire truck decide to show up. Of course. Because that’s how it works in Garden Heights.
Uncle Carlos convinces my parents to back away. King lifts his cigar to his lips, eyes gleaming. I wanna get one of Mr. Lewis’s baseball bats and knock him upside his head.
The firefighters get to work. The cops order the crowd to back up. King and his boys are really amused now. Shit, it’s like the cops are helping them out.
“You need to be getting them!” Mr. Lewis says. “They the ones who started the fire!”
“That old man don’t know what he talking about,” King says. “All this smoke done got to him.”
Mr. Lewis starts to charge at King, and an officer has to hold him back. “I ain’t crazy! You did start it! Everybody know it!”
King’s face twitches. “You better watch yourself, lying on folks.”
Daddy glances back at me, and there’s this expression on his face that I’ve never seen before. He turns around to the cop who’s holding Mr. Lewis and says, “He ain’t lying. King did start it, Officer.”
“It’s my store,” he says. “I know he started the fire.”
“Did you see him do it?” the cop asks.
No. That’s the problem. We know King did it, but if nobody saw it . . .
“I saw him,” Mr. Reuben says. “He did it.”
“I saw him too,” Tim says.
“So did I,” Ms. Yvette adds.
And shit, now the crowd is echoing the same thing, pointing at King and his boys. I mean, everybody’s snitching. The rules no fucking longer apply.
King reaches for his car door, but some of the officers draw their guns and order him and his boys to the ground.
An ambulance arrives. Momma tells them about our smoke inhalation. I snitch and tell them about DeVante, although his black eye makes it obvious he needs help. They let the four of us sit on the curb, and they put oxygen masks on us. I thought I wasn’t that bad anymore, but I forgot how nice clean air is. I’ve been breathing in smoke since I got to Garden Heights.
They look at DeVante’s side. It’s purple-looking, and they tell him he’ll need to go in for X-rays. He doesn’t wanna go in the ambulance, and Momma assures the paramedics that she’ll take him in herself.
I rest my head on Chris’s shoulder as we hold hands, oxygen masks on both of us. I’m not gonna lie and say tonight was
better because he was here—frankly this has been one fucked-up night, nothing could make it better—but it doesn’t hurt that we went through it together.
My parents come our way. Daddy’s lips thin, and he mumbles something to Momma. She elbows him and says, “Be nice.”
She sits between Chris and Seven. Daddy hovers over me and Chris at first, as if he’s expecting us to make room for him.
“Maverick,” Momma says.
“A’ight, a’ight.” He sits on the other side of me.
We watch the firefighters put out the flames. No point though. They’re only saving a shell of the store.
Daddy sighs, rubbing his bald head. “Damn, man.”
My heart aches. We’re losing a family member, for real. I’ve spent most of my life in that store. I move my head off Chris and rest it on Daddy’s shoulder. He puts his arm around me and kisses my hair. I don’t miss that smug look that crosses his face. Petty.
“Wait a minute.” He pulls away. “Where the hell y’all been?”
“That’s what I wanna know,” Momma says. “Acting like you can’t answer my texts or calls!”
Really? Seven and I almost died in a fire, and they’re mad ’cause we didn’t call them? I lift my mask and say, “Long night.”
“Oh, I’m sure it was,” Momma says. “We got ourselves a li’l radical, Maverick. All on the news, throwing tear gas at the cops.”
“After they threw it at us,” I point out.
“Whaaat?” Daddy says, but in that impressed way. Momma cuts him a side-eye, and he says in a more stern tone, “I mean, what? What you do that for?”
“I was mad.” I fold my arms onto my knees and stare at my Timbs through the gap. “That decision wasn’t right.”
Daddy puts his arm around me again and rests his head against mine. A Daddy-snuggle. “Nah,” he says. “It wasn’t.”
“Hey,” Momma beckons me to look at her. “The decision may not have been right, but it’s not your fault. Remember what I said? Sometimes things will go wrong—”
“But the key is to keep doing right.” My eyes drift to my Timbs again. “Khalil still deserved better than that.”
“Yeah.” Her voice thickens. “He did.”
Daddy looks past me at my boyfriend. “So . . . Plain-Ass Chris.”
Seven snorts. DeVante snickers. Momma goes, “Maverick!” as I say, “Daddy!”
“At least it’s not white boy,” Chris says.
“Exactly,” Daddy says. “It’s a step up. You gotta earn my tolerance in increments if you gon’ date my daughter.”
“Lord.” Momma rolls her eyes. “Chris, baby, you’ve been out
The way she says it, I can’t help but laugh. She’s basically asking him, “You do realize you’re in the hood, right?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Chris says. “All night.”
Daddy grunts. “Maybe you do got some balls then.”
My mouth drops, and Momma says, “Maverick Carter!” Seven and DeVante crack up.
But Chris? Chris says, “Yes, sir, I’d like to think I do.”
“Daaaaamn,” says Seven. He reaches to give Chris dap, but Daddy cuts him a hard eye and he pulls his hand back.
“A’ight, Plain-Ass Chris,” Daddy says. “Boxing gym, next Saturday, you and me.”
Chris lifts his oxygen mask so fast. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said—”
“Calm down, I’m not gon’ fight you,” Daddy says. “We gon’ train. Get to know each other. You been seeing my daughter for a minute now. I gotta know you, and you can learn a lot about a man at a boxing gym.”
“Oh . . .” Chris’s shoulders relax. “Okay.” He puts the oxygen mask back on.
Daddy grins. It’s a little too mischievous for my liking. He’s gonna kill my poor boyfriend.
The cops load King and his boys into patrol cars, and the crowd claps and cheers. Finally, something to celebrate tonight.
Uncle Carlos strolls over. He’s got on a wifebeater and shorts, which is so not Uncle Carlos, yet something about him still looks detectivey. He’s been in cop mode since his colleagues arrived.
Uncle Carlos gives this old-man grunt as he lowers himself onto the sidewalk next to DeVante. He grabs the back of
DeVante’s neck the same way Daddy grabs Seven’s. Man hugs, I call them.
“I’m glad you’re safe, kid,” he says. “Even if you do look like a truck ran over you twice.”
“You not mad I left without telling y’all?”
“Of course I’m mad. I’m actually pissed. But I’m happier that you’re safe. Now, my mom and Pam, that’s a whole different story. I can’t save you from their wrath.”
“Are you putting me out?”
“No. You’re grounded, probably for the rest of your life, but that’s only because we love you.”
DeVante cracks a smile.
Uncle Carlos pats his knees. “Sooo . . . thanks to all these witnesses, we should get King for arson.”
“Oh, for real?” Daddy says.
“Yep. It’s a start, but not really enough. He’ll be out by the end of the week.”
And back to the same ol’ shit. With targets this time.
“If y’all knew where King’s stash was,” DeVante says, “would that help?”
Uncle Carlos says, “Probably, yeah.”
“If somebody agreed to rat on him, would that help?”
Uncle Carlos turns completely toward him. “Are you saying you want to turn witness?”
“I mean . . .” DeVante pauses. “Will it help Kenya, her momma, and her sister?”
“If King went to jail?” says Seven. “Yeah. A lot.”
“It’ll help the whole neighborhood, honestly,” Daddy says.
“And I’ll be protected?” DeVante asks Uncle Carlos.
“Absolutely. I promise.”
“And Uncle Carlos always keeps his promises,” I say.
DeVante nods for a moment. “Then I guess I will turn witness.”
Ho-ly shit again. “You’re sure about that?” I ask.
“Yeah. After seeing you face those cops the way you did, I don’t know, man. That did something to me,” he says. “And that lady said our voices are weapons. I should use mine, right?”
“So you’re willing to become a snitch,” Chris says.
“On King,” Seven adds.
DeVante shrugs. “I already need the stitches. Might as well snitch.”