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[2 of 5] The Hate U Give - Part 1: When It Happens - Six to Ten - by Angie Thomas (2017)

Author: Angie Thomas

“Part 1: When It Happens - Six to Ten.” The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, Balzer & Bray/Harperteen, 2017, pp. 93–198.

SIX

My mom and I arrive at the police station at four thirty on the dot.

A handful of cops talk on phones, type on computers, or stand around. Normal stuff, like on Law & Order, but my breath catches. I count: One. Two. Three. Four. I lose count around twelve because the guns in their holsters are all I can see.

All of them. Two of us.

Momma squeezes my hand. “Breathe.” I didn’t realize I had grabbed hers.

I take a deep breath and another, and she nods with each one, saying, “That’s it. You’re okay. We’re okay.”

Uncle Carlos comes over, and he and Momma lead me to his desk, where I sit down. I feel eyes on me from all around. The grip tightens around my lungs. Uncle Carlos hands me a sweating bottle of water. Momma puts it up to my lips.

I take slow sips and look around Uncle Carlos’s desk to avoid the curious eyes of the officers. He has almost as many pictures of me and Sekani on display as he has of his own kids.

“I’m taking her home,” Momma tells him. “I’m not putting her through this today. She’s not ready.” “I understand, but she has to talk to them at some point, Lisa. She’s a vital part of this investigation.” Momma sighs. “Carlos—”

“I get it,” he says, in a noticeably lower voice. “Believe me, I do. Unfortunately, if we want this investigation done right, she has to talk to them. If not today, then another day.”

Another day of waiting and wondering what’s gonna happen. I can’t go through that.

“I wanna do it today,” I mumble. “I wanna get it over with.” They look at me, like they just remembered I’m here.

Uncle Carlos kneels in front of me. “Are you sure, baby girl?” I nod before I lose my nerve.

“All right,” Momma says. “But I’m going with her.” “That’s totally fine,” Uncle Carlos says.

“I don’t care if it’s not fine.” She looks at me. “She’s not doing this alone.” Those words feel as good as any hug I’ve ever gotten.

Uncle Carlos keeps an arm around me and leads us to a small room that has nothing in it but a table and some chairs. An unseen air conditioner hums loudly, blasting freezing air into the room.

“All right,” Uncle Carlos says. “I’ll be outside, okay?” “Okay,” I say.

He kisses my forehead with his usual two pecks. Momma takes my hand, and her tight squeeze tells me what she doesn’t say out loud—I got your back.

We sit at the table. She’s still holding my hand when the two detectives come in—a young white guy

with slick black hair and a Latina with lines around her mouth and a spiky haircut. Both of them wear guns on their waists.

Keep your hands visible. No sudden moves.

Only speak when spoken to.

“Hi, Starr and Mrs. Carter,” the woman says, holding out her hand. “I’m Detective Gomez, and this is my partner, Detective Wilkes.”

I let go of my mom’s hand to shake the detectives’ hands. “Hello.” My voice is changing already. It always happens around “other” people, whether I’m at Williamson or not. I don’t talk like me or sound like me. I choose every word carefully and make sure I pronounce them well. I can never, ever let anyone think I’m ghetto.

“It’s so nice to meet you both,” Wilkes says.

“Considering the circumstances, I wouldn’t call it nice,” says Momma. Wilkes’s face and neck get extremely red.

“What he means is we’ve heard so much about you both,” Gomez says. “Carlos always gushes about his wonderful family. We feel like we know you already.”

She’s laying it on extra thick.

“Please, have a seat.” Gomez points to a chair, and she and Wilkes sit across from us. “Just so you know, you’re being recorded, but it’s simply so we can have Starr’s statement on record.”

“Okay,” I say. There it is again, all perky and shit. I’m never perky.

Detective Gomez gives the date and time and the names of the people in the room and reminds us that we’re being recorded. Wilkes scribbles in his notebook. Momma rubs my back. For a moment there’s only the sound of pencil on paper.

“All right then.” Gomez adjusts herself in her chair and smiles, the lines around her mouth deepening. “Don’t be nervous, Starr. You haven’t done anything wrong. We just want to know what happened.”

I know I haven’t done anything wrong, I think, but it comes out as, “Yes, ma’am.” “You’re sixteen, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“How long did you know Khalil?”

“Since I was three. His grandmother used to babysit me.”

“Wow,” she says, all teacher-like, stretching out the word. “That’s a long time. Can you tell us what happened the night of the incident?”

“You mean the night he was killed?”

Shit.

Gomez’s smile dims, the lines around her mouth aren’t as deep, but she says, “The night of the incident, yes. Start where you feel comfortable.”

I look at Momma. She nods.

“My friend Kenya and I went to a house party hosted by a guy named Darius,” I say.

Thump-thump-thump. I drum the table. Stop. No sudden moves.

I lay my hands flat to keep them visible.

“He has one every spring break,” I say. “Khalil saw me, came over, and said hello.” “Do you know why he was at the party?” Gomez asks.

Why does anybody go to a party? To party. “I assume it was for recreational purposes,” I say. “He and I talked about things going on in our lives.”

“What kind of things?” she questions.

“His grandmother has cancer. I didn’t know until he told me that evening.” “I see,” Gomez says. “What happened after that?”

“A fight occurred at the party, so we left together in his car.” “Khalil didn’t have anything to do with the fight?”

I raise an eyebrow. “Nah.”

Dammit. Proper English.

I sit up straight. “I mean, no, ma’am. We were talking when the fight occurred.” “Okay, so you two left. Where were you going?”

“He offered to take me home or to my father’s grocery store. Before we could decide, One-Fifteen pulled us over.”

“Who?” she asks.

“The officer, that’s his badge number,” I say. “I remember it.” Wilkes scribbles.

“I see,” Gomez says. “Can you describe what happened next?”

I don’t think I’ll ever forget what happened, but saying it out loud, that’s different. And hard. My eyes prickle. I blink, staring at the table.

Momma rubs my back. “Look up, Starr.”

My parents have this thing where they never want me or my brothers to talk to somebody without looking them in their eyes. They claim that a person’s eyes say more than their mouth, and that it goes both ways—if we look someone in their eyes and mean what we say, they should have little reason to doubt us.

I look at Gomez.

“Khalil pulled over to the side of the road and turned the ignition off,” I say. “One-Fifteen put his brights on. He approached the window and asked Khalil for his license and registration.”

“Did Khalil comply?” Gomez asks.

“He asked the officer why he pulled us over first. Then he showed his license and registration.” “Did Khalil seem irate during this exchange?”

“Annoyed, not irate,” I say. “He felt that the cop was harassing him.” “Did he tell you this?”

“No, but I could tell. I assumed the same thing myself.”

Shit.

Gomez scoots closer. Maroon lipstick stains her teeth, and her breath smells like coffee. “And why was that?”

Breathe.

The room isn’t hot. You’re nervous.

“Because we weren’t doing anything wrong,” I say. “Khalil wasn’t speeding or driving recklessly. It didn’t seem like he had a reason to pull us over.”

“I see. What happened next?”

“The officer forced Khalil out the car.”

“Forced?” she says.

“Yes, ma’am. He pulled him out.” “Because Khalil was hesitant, right?”

Momma makes this throaty sound, like she was about to say something but stopped herself. She purses her lips and rubs my back in circles.

I remember what Daddy said—“Don’t let them put words in your mouth.”

“No, ma’am,” I say to Gomez. “He was getting out on his own, and the officer yanked him the rest of the way.”

She says “I see” again, but she didn’t see it so she probably doesn’t believe it. “What happened next?” she asks.

“The officer patted Khalil down three times.” “Three?”

Yeah. I counted. “Yes, ma’am. He didn’t find anything. He then told Khalil to stay put while he ran his license and registration.”

“But Khalil didn’t stay put, did he?” she says. “He didn’t pull the trigger on himself either.”

Shit. Your fucking big mouth.

The detectives glance at each other. A moment of silent conversation.

The walls move in closer. The grip around my lungs returns. I pull my shirt away from my neck. “I think we’re done for today,” Momma says, taking my hand as she starts to stand up.

“But Mrs. Carter, we’re not finished.” “I don’t care—”

“Mom,” I say, and she looks down at me. “It’s okay. I can do this.”

She gives them a glare similar to the one she gives me and my brothers when we’ve pushed her to her limit. She sits down but holds on to my hand.

“Okay,” Gomez says. “So he patted Khalil down and told him he would check his license and registration. What next?”

“Khalil opened the driver’s side door and—”

Pow!

Pow!

Pow!

Blood.

Tears crawl down my cheeks. I wipe them on my arm. “The officer shot him.” “Do you—” Gomez starts, but Momma holds a finger toward her.

“Could you please give her a second,” she says. It sounds more like an order than a question. Gomez doesn’t say anything. Wilkes scribbles some more.

My mom wipes some of my tears for me. “Whenever you’re ready,” she says. I swallow the lump in my throat and nod.

“Okay,” Gomez says, and takes a deep breath. “Do you know why Khalil came to the door, Starr?” “I think he was coming to ask if I was okay.”

“You think?”

I’m not a telepath. “Yes, ma’am. He started asking but didn’t finish because the officer shot him in the back.”

More salty tears fall on my lips.

Gomez leans across the table. “We all want to get to the bottom of this, Starr. We appreciate your cooperation. I understand this is hard right now.”

I wipe my face on my arm again. “Yeah.”

“Yeah.” She smiles and says in that same sugary, sympathetic tone, “Now, do you know if Khalil sold narcotics?”

Pause.

What the fuck?

My tears stop. For real, my eyes get dry with the quickness. Before I can say anything, my mom goes, “What does that have to do with anything?”

“It’s only a question,” Gomez says. “Do you, Starr?”

All the sympathy, the smiles, the understanding. This chick was baiting me. Investigating or justifying?

I know the answer to her question. I knew it when I saw Khalil at the party. He never wore new shoes. And jewelry? Those little ninety-nine-cent chains he bought at the beauty supply store didn’t count. Ms. Rosalie just confirmed it.

But what the hell does that have to do with him getting murdered? Is that supposed to make all of this okay?

Gomez tilts her head. “Starr? Can you please answer the question?” I refuse to make them feel better about killing my friend.

I straighten up, look Gomez dead in her eyes, and say, “I never saw him sell drugs or do drugs.” “But do you know if he sold them?” she asks.

“He never told me he did,” I say, which is true. Khalil never flat-out admitted it to me. “Do you have knowledge of him selling them?”

“I heard things.” Also true.

She sighs. “I see. Do you know if he was involved with the King Lords?” “No.”

“The Garden Disciples?” “No.”

“Did you consume any alcohol at the party?” she asks.

I know that move from Law & Order. She’s trying to discredit me. “No. I don’t drink.” “Did Khalil?”

“Whoa, wait one second,” Momma says. “Are y’all putting Khalil and Starr on trial or the cop who killed him?”

Wilkes looks up from his notes.

“I—I don’t quite understand, Mrs. Carter?” Gomez sputters.

“You haven’t asked my child about that cop yet,” Momma says. “You keep asking her about Khalil, like he’s the reason he’s dead. Like she said, he didn’t pull the trigger on himself.”

“We just want the whole picture, Mrs. Carter. That’s all.”

“One-Fifteen killed him,” I say. “And he wasn’t doing anything wrong. How much of a bigger picture do you need?”

Fifteen minutes later, I leave the police station with my mom. Both of us know the same thing: This is gonna be some bullshit.

SEVEN

Khalil’s funeral is Friday. Tomorrow. Exactly one week since he died.

I’m at school, trying not to think about what he’ll look like in the coffin, how many people will be there, what he’ll look like in the coffin, if other people will know I was with him when he died . . . what he’ll look like in the coffin.

I’m failing at not thinking about it.

On the Monday night news, they finally gave Khalil’s name in the story about the shooting, but with a title added to it—Khalil Harris, a Suspected Drug Dealer. They didn’t mention that he was unarmed. They said that an “unidentified witness” had been questioned and that the police were still investigating.

After what I told the cops, I’m not sure what’s left to “investigate.”

In the gym everyone’s changed into their blue shorts and gold Williamson T-shirts, but class hasn’t started yet. To pass time, some of the girls challenged some of the boys to a basketball game. They’re playing on one end of the gym, the floor squeaking as they run around. The girls are all “Staawp!” when the guys guard them. Flirting, Williamson style.

Hailey, Maya, and I are in the bleachers on the other end. On the floor, some guys are supposedly dancing, trying to get their moves ready for prom. I say supposedly because there’s no way that shit can be called dancing. Maya’s boyfriend, Ryan, is the only one even close, and he’s just doing the dab. It’s his go-to move. He’s a big, wide-shouldered linebacker, and it looks a little funny, but that’s an advantage of being the sole black guy in class. You can look silly and still be cool.

Chris is on the bottom bleacher, playing one of his mixes on his phone for them to dance to. He glances over his shoulder at me.

I have two bodyguards who won’t allow him near me—Maya on one side, cheering Ryan on, and Hailey, who’s laughing her ass off at Luke and recording him. They’re still pissed at Chris.

I’m honestly not. He made a mistake, and I forgive him. The Fresh Prince theme and his willingness to embarrass himself helped with that.

But that moment he grabbed my hands and I flashed back to that night, it’s like I suddenly really, really realized that Chris is white. Just like One-Fifteen. And I know, I’m sitting here next to my white best friend, but it’s almost as if I’m giving Khalil, Daddy, Seven, and every other black guy in my life a big, loud “fuck you” by having a white boyfriend.

Chris didn’t pull us over, he didn’t shoot Khalil, but am I betraying who I am by dating him? I need to figure this out.

“Oh my God, that’s sickening,” says Hailey. She’s stopped recording to watch the basketball game. “They’re not even trying.”

They’re really not. The ball sails past the hoop from an attempted shot by Bridgette Holloway. Either homegirl’s hand-eye coordination is way off or she missed that on purpose, because now Jackson Reynolds is showing her how to shoot. Basically, he’s all up on her. And shirtless.

“I don’t know what’s worse,” Hailey says. “The fact that they’re going soft on them because they’re

girls, or that the girls are letting them go soft on them.”

“Equality in basketball. Right, Hails?” Maya says with a wink.

“Yes! Wait.” She eyes Maya suspiciously. “Are you making fun of me or are you serious, Shorty?” “Both,” I say, leaning back on my elbows, my belly pooching out my shirt—a food baby. We just left

lunch, and the cafeteria had fried chicken, one of the foods Williamson gets right. “It’s not even a real game, Hails,” I tell her.

“Nope.” Maya pats my stomach. “When are you due?” “Same day as you.”

“Aww! We can raise our food offspring as siblings.” “I know, right? I’m naming mine Fernando,” I say. “Why Fernando?” Maya asks.

“Dunno. It sounds like a food baby name. Especially when you roll the r.”

“I can’t roll my r’s.” She tries, but she makes some weird noise, spit flying, and I’m cracking up. Hailey points at the game. “Look at that! It’s that whole ‘play like a girl’ mind-set the male gender

uses to belittle women, when we have as much athleticism as they do.” Oh my Lord. She’s seriously upset over this.

“Take the ball to the hole!” she hollers to the girls.

Maya catches my eye, hers glimmering sneakily, and it’s middle school déjà vu. “And don’t be afraid to shoot the outside J!” Maya shouts.

“Just keep ya head in the game,” I say. “Just keep ya head in the game.” “And don’t be afraid to ‘shoot the outside J,’” Maya sings.

“‘Just get’cha head in the game,’” I sing.

We bust out with “Get’cha Head in the Game” from High School Musical. It’ll be stuck in my head for days. We were obsessed with the movies around the same time as our Jonas Brothers obsession. Disney took all our parents’ money.

We’re loud with it now. Hailey’s trying to glare at us. She snorts.

“C’mon.” She gets up and pulls me and Maya up too. “Get’cha head in this game.”

I’m thinking, Oh, so you can drag me to play basketball during one of your feminist rages, but you can’t follow my Tumblr because of Emmett Till? I don’t know why I can’t make myself bring it up. It’s Tumblr.

But then, it’s Tumblr.

“Hey!” Hailey says. “We wanna play.”

“No we don’t,” Maya mutters. Hailey nudges her.

I don’t wanna play either, but for some reason Hailey makes decisions and Maya and I follow along. It’s not like we planned it to be this way. Sometimes the shit just happens, and one day you realize there’s a leader among you and your friends and it’s not you.

“Come on in, ladies.” Jackson beckons us into the game. “There’s always room for pretty girls. We’ll try not to hurt you.”

Hailey looks at me, I look at her, and we have the same deadpan expression that we’ve had mastered since fifth grade, mouths slightly open, eyes ready to roll at any moment.

“Alrighty then,” I say. “Let’s play.”

“Three on three,” Hailey says as we take our positions. “Girls versus boys. Half court. First to twenty. Sorry, ladies, but me and my girls are gonna handle this one, mm-kay?”

Bridgette gives Hailey some serious stank-eye. She and her friends move to the sideline.

The dance party stops and those guys come over, Chris included. He whispers something to Tyler, one

of the boys who played in the previous game. Chris takes Tyler’s place on the court.

Jackson checks the ball to Hailey. I run around my guard, Garrett, and Hailey passes to me. No matter what’s going on, when Hailey, Maya, and I play together, it’s rhythm, chemistry, and skill rolled into a ball of amazingness.

Garrett’s guarding me, but Chris runs up and elbows him aside. Garrett goes, “The hell, Bryant?” “I’ve got her,” Chris says.

He gets in his defensive stance. We’re eye to eye as I dribble the ball. “Hey,” he says.

“Hey.”

I do a chest-pass to Maya, who’s wide open for a jump shot. She makes it.

Two to zero.

“Good job, Yang!” says Coach Meyers. She’s come out her office. All it takes is a hint of a real game, and she’s in coaching mode. She reminds me of a fitness trainer on a reality TV show. She’s petite yet muscular, and God that woman can yell.

Garrett’s at the baseline with the ball.

Chris runs to get open. Stomach full, I have to push harder to stay on him. We’re hip to hip, watching Garrett try to decide who to pass to. Our arms brush, and something in me is activated; my senses are suddenly consumed by Chris. His legs look so good in his gym shorts. He’s wearing Old Spice, and even just from that little brush, his skin feels so soft.

“I miss you,” he says.

No point in lying. “I miss you too.”

The ball sails his way. Chris catches it. Now I’m in my defensive stance, and we’re eye to eye again as he dribbles. My gaze lowers to his lips; they’re a little wet and begging me to kiss them. See, this is why I can never play ball with him. I get too distracted.

“Will you at least talk to me?” Chris asks. “Defense, Carter!” Coach yells.

I focus on the ball and attempt to steal. Not quick enough. He gets around me and goes straight for the hoop, only to pass it to Jackson, who’s open at the three-point line.

“Grant!” Coach shouts for Hailey.

Hailey runs over. Her fingertips graze the ball as it leaves Jackson’s hand, changing its course. The ball goes flying. I go running. I catch it.

Chris is behind me, the only thing between me and the hoop. Let me clarify—my butt is against his crotch, my back against his chest. I’m bumping up against him, trying to figure out how to get the ball in the hole. It sounds way dirtier than it actually is, especially in this position. I understand why Bridgette missed shots though.

“Starr!” Hailey calls.

She’s open at the three. I bounce-pass it to her. She shoots. Nails it.

Five to zero.

“C’mon, boys,” Maya taunts. “Is that all you can do?” Coach claps. “Good job. Good job.”

Jackson’s at the baseline. He passes to Chris. Chris chest-passes it back to him.

“I don’t get it,” Chris says. “You practically freaked out the other day in the hall. What’s going on?” Garrett passes to Chris. I get in my defensive stance, eyes on the ball. Not on Chris. Cannot look at

Chris. My eyes will give me away. “Talk to me,” he says.

I attempt to steal again. No luck. “Play the game,” I say.

Chris goes left, quickly changes direction, and goes right. I try to stay on him, but my heavy stomach slows me down. He gets to the hoop and makes the layup. It’s good.

Five to two.

“Dammit, Starr!” Hailey yells, recovering the ball. She passes it to me. “Hustle! Pretend the ball is some fried chicken. Bet you’ll stay on it then.”

What.

The.

Actual.

Fuck?

The world surges forward without me. I hold the ball and stare at Hailey as she jogs away, blue-streaked hair bouncing behind her.

I can’t believe she said . . . She couldn’t have. No way.

The ball falls out my hands. I walk off the court. I’m breathing hard, and my eyes burn.

The smell of postgame funk lingers in the girls’ locker room. It’s my place of solace when we lose a game, where I can cry or cuss if I want.

I pace from one side of the lockers to the other.

Hailey and Maya rush in, out of breath. “What’s up with you?” Hailey asks. “Me?” I say, my voice bouncing off the lockers. “What the hell was that comment?” “Lighten up! It was only game talk.”

“A fried chicken joke was only game talk? Really?” I ask.

“It’s fried chicken day!” she says. “You and Maya were just joking about it. What are you trying to say?”

I keep pacing.

Her eyes widen. “Oh my God. You think I was being racist?”

I look at her. “You made a fried chicken comment to the only black girl in the room. What do you think?”

“Ho-ly shit, Starr! Seriously? After everything we’ve been through, you think I’m a racist? Really?” “You can say something racist and not be a racist!”

“Is something else going on, Starr?” Maya says. “Why does everyone keep asking me that?” I snap.

“Because you’re acting so weird lately!” Hailey snaps back. She looks at me and asks, “Does this have something to do with the police shooting that drug dealer in your neighborhood?”

“Wh-what?”

“I heard about it on the news,” she says. “And I know you’re into that sort of thing now—” That sort of thing? What the fuck is “that sort of thing”?

“And then they said the drug dealer’s name was Khalil,” she says, and exchanges a look with Maya. “We’ve wanted to ask if it was the Khalil who used to come to your birthday parties,” Maya adds.

“We didn’t know how, though.”

The drug dealer. That’s how they see him. It doesn’t matter that he’s suspected of doing it. “Drug dealer” is louder than “suspected” ever will be.

If it’s revealed that I was in the car, what will that make me? The thug ghetto girl with the drug dealer?

What will my teachers think about me? My friends? The whole fucking world, possibly? “I—”

I close my eyes. Khalil stares at the sky.

“Mind your business, Starr,” he says.

I swallow and whisper, “I don’t know that Khalil.”

It’s a betrayal worse than dating a white boy. I fucking deny him, damn near erasing every laugh we shared, every hug, every tear, every second we spent together. A million “I’m sorry”s sound in my head, and I hope they reach Khalil wherever he is, yet they’ll never be enough.

But I had to do it. I had to.

“Then what is it?” Hailey asks. “Is this, like, Natasha’s anniversary or something?”

I stare at the ceiling and blink fast to keep from bawling. Besides my brothers and the teachers, Hailey and Maya are the only people at Williamson who know about Natasha. I don’t want all the pity.

“Mom’s anniversary was a few weeks ago,” Hailey says. “I was in a shitty mood for days. I understand if you’re upset, but to accuse me of being racist, Starr? How can you even?”

I blink faster. God, I’m pushing her away, Chris away. Hell, do I deserve them? I don’t talk about Natasha, and I just flat-out denied Khalil. I could’ve been the one killed instead of them. I don’t have the decency to keep their memories alive, yet I’m supposed to be their best friend.

I cover my mouth. It doesn’t stop the sob. It’s loud and echoes off the walls. One follows it, and another and another. Maya and Hailey rub my back and shoulders.

Coach Meyers rushes in. “Carter—” Hailey looks at her and says, “Natasha.”

Coach nods heavily. “Carter, go see Ms. Lawrence.”

What? No. She’s sending me to the school shrink? All the teachers know about poor Starr who saw her friend die when she was ten. I used to bust out crying all the time, and that was always their go-to line —see Ms. Lawrence. I wipe my eyes. “Coach, I’m okay—”

“No, you’re not.” She pulls a hall pass from her pocket and holds it toward me. “Go talk to her. It’ll help you feel better.”

No it won’t, but I know what will.

I take the pass, grab my backpack out my locker, and go back into the gym. My classmates follow me with their eyes as I hurry toward the doors. Chris calls out for me. I speed up.

They probably heard me crying. Great. What’s worse than being the Angry Black Girl? The Weak Black Girl.

By the time I get to the main office, I’ve dried my eyes and my face completely.

“Good afternoon, Ms. Carter,” Dr. Davis, the headmaster, says. He’s leaving as I’m going in and doesn’t wait for my response. Does he know all the students by name, or just the ones who are black like him? I hate that I think about stuff like that now.

His secretary, Mrs. Lindsey, greets me with a smile and asks how she can assist me. “I need to call someone to come get me,” I say. “I don’t feel good.”

I call Uncle Carlos. My parents would ask too many questions. A limb has to be missing for them to take me out of school. I only have to tell Uncle Carlos that I have cramps, and he’ll pick me up.

Feminine problems. The key to ending an Uncle Carlos interrogation.

Luckily he’s on lunch break. He signs me out, and I hold my stomach for added effect. As we leave he asks if I want some fro-yo. I say yeah, and a short while later we’re going into a shop that’s walking distance from Williamson. It’s in a brand-new mini mall that should be called Hipster Heaven, full of

stores you’d never find in Garden Heights. On one side of the fro-yo place, there’s Indie Urban Style and on the other side, Dapper Dog, where you can buy outfits for your dog. Clothes. For a dog. What kinda fool would I be, dressing Brickz in a linen shirt and jeans?

On a serious tip—white people are crazy for their dogs.

We fill our cups with yogurt. At the toppings bar, Uncle Carlos breaks out into his fro-yo rap. “I’m getting fro-yo, yo. Fro-yo, yo, yo.”

He loves his fro-yo. It’s kinda adorable. We take a booth in a corner that’s got a lime-green table and hot-pink seats. You know, typical fro-yo decor.

Uncle Carlos looks over into my cup. “Did you seriously ruin perfectly good fro-yo with Cap’n Crunch?”

“You can’t talk,” I say. “Oreos, Uncle Carlos? Really? And they’re not even the Golden Oreos, which are by far the superior Oreos. You got the regular ones. Ill.”

He devours a spoonful and says, “You’re weird.” You’re weird.”

“So cramps, huh?” he says.

Shit. I almost forgot about that. I hold my stomach and groan. “Yeah. They’re real bad today.”

I know who won’t win an Oscar anytime soon. Uncle Carlos gives me his hard detective stare. I groan again; this one sounds a little more believable. He raises his eyebrows.

His phone rings in his jacket pocket. He sticks another spoonful of fro-yo in his mouth and checks it. “It’s your mom calling me back,” he says around the spoon. He holds the phone with his cheek and shoulder. “Hey, Lisa. You get my message?”

Shit.

“She’s not feeling good,” Uncle Carlos says. “She’s got, you know, feminine problems.” Her response is loud but muffled. Shit, shit.

Uncle Carlos holds the nape of his neck and slowly releases a long, deep breath. He turns into a little boy when Momma raises her voice at him, and he’s supposed to be the oldest.

“Okay, okay. I hear you,” he says. “Here, you talk to her.” Shit, shit, shit.

He passes me the piece of dynamite formerly known as his phone. There’s an explosion of questioning as soon as I say, “Hello?”

“Cramps, Starr? Really?” she says.

“They’re bad, Mommy,” I whine, lying my butt off.

“Girl, please. I went to class in labor with you,” she says. “I pay too much money for you to go to Williamson so you can leave because of cramps.”

I almost point out that I get a scholarship too, but nah. She’d become the first person in history to hit someone through a phone.

“Did something happen?” she asks. “No.”

“Is it Khalil?” she asks.

I sigh. This time tomorrow I’ll be staring at him in a coffin. “Starr?” she says.

“Nothing happened.”

Ms. Felicia calls for her in the background. “Look, I gotta go,” she says. “Carlos will take you home. Lock the door, stay inside, and don’t let anybody in, you hear me?”

Those aren’t zombie survival tips. Just normal instructions for latchkey kids in Garden Heights. “I

can’t let Seven and Sekani in? Great.”

“Oh, somebody’s trying to be funny. Now I know you ain’t feeling bad. We’ll talk later. I love you. Mwah!”

It takes a lot of nerve to go off on somebody, call them out, and tell them you love them within a span of five minutes. I tell her I love her too and pass Uncle Carlos his phone.

“All right, baby girl,” he says. “Spill it.”

I stuff some fro-yo in my mouth. It’s melting already. “Like I said. Cramps.”

“I’m not buying that, and let’s be clear about something: you only get one ‘Uncle Carlos, get me out of school’ card per school year, and you’re using it right now.”

“You got me in December, remember?” For cramps also. I didn’t lie about those. They were a bitch that day.

“All right, one per calendar year,” he clarifies. I smile. “But you gotta give me a little more to work with. So talk.”

I push Cap’n Crunch around my fro-yo. “Khalil’s funeral is tomorrow.” “I know.”

“I don’t know if I should go.” “What? Why?”

“Because,” I say. “I hadn’t seen him in months before the party.”

“You still should go,” he says. “You’ll regret it if you don’t. I thought about going. Not sure if that’s a good idea, considering.”

Silence.

“Are you really friends with that cop?” I ask. “I wouldn’t say friends, no. Colleagues.” “But you’re on a first-name basis, right?” “Yes,” he says.

I stare at my cup. Uncle Carlos was my first dad in some ways. Daddy went to prison around the time I realized that “Mommy” and “Daddy” weren’t just names, but they meant something. I talked to Daddy on the phone every week, but he didn’t want me and Seven to ever set foot in a prison, so I didn’t see him.

I saw Uncle Carlos though. He fulfilled the role and then some. Once I asked if I could call him Daddy. He said no, because I already had one, but being my uncle was the best thing he could ever be. Ever since, “Uncle” has meant almost as much as “Daddy.”

My uncle. On a first-name basis with that cop.

“Baby girl, I don’t know what to say.” His voice is gruff. “I wish I could—I’m sorry this happened. I am.”

“Why haven’t they arrested him?” “Cases like this are difficult.”

“It’s not that difficult,” I say. “He killed Khalil.”

“I know, I know,” he says, and wipes his face. “I know.” “Would you have killed him?”

He looks at me. “Starr—I can’t answer that.” “Yeah, you can.”

“No, I can’t. I’d like to think I wouldn’t have, but it’s hard to say unless you’re in that situation, feeling what that officer is feeling—”

“He pointed his gun at me,” I blurt out. “What?”

My eyes prickle like crazy. “While we were waiting on help to show up,” I say, my words wobbling. “He kept it on me until somebody else got there. Like I was a threat. I wasn’t the one with the gun.”

Uncle Carlos stares at me for the longest time.

“Baby girl.” He reaches for my hand. He squeezes it and moves to my side of the table. His arm goes around me, and I bury my face in his rib cage, tears and snot wetting his shirt.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He kisses my hair with each apology. “But I know that’s not enough.”

EIGHT

Funerals aren’t for dead people. They’re for the living.

I doubt Khalil cares what songs are sung or what the preacher says about him. He’s in a casket. Nothing can change that.

My family and I leave thirty minutes before the funeral starts, but the parking lot at Christ Temple Church is already full. Some kids from Khalil’s school stand around in “RIP Khalil” T-shirts with his face on them. A guy tried to sell some to us yesterday, but Momma said we weren’t wearing them today—T-shirts are for the streets, not for church.

So here we are, getting out the car in our dresses and suits. My parents hold hands and walk in front of me and my brothers. We used to go to Christ Temple when I was younger, but Momma got tired of how people here act like their shit don’t stank, and now we go to this “diverse” church in Riverton Hills. Way too many people go there, and praise and worship is led by a white guy on guitar. Oh, and service lasts less than an hour.

Going back in Christ Temple is like when you go back to your old elementary school after you’ve been to high school. When you were younger it seemed big, but when you go back you realize how small it is. People fill up the tiny foyer. It has cranberry-colored carpet and two burgundy high-back chairs. One time Momma brought me out here because I was acting up. She made me sit in one of those chairs and told me not to move until service was over. I didn’t. A painting of the pastor hung above the chairs, and I could’ve sworn he was watching me. All these years later and they still have that creepy painting up.

There’s a line to sign a book for Khalil’s family and another line to go into the sanctuary. To see him. I catch a glimpse of the white casket at the front of the sanctuary, but I can’t make myself try to see

more than that. I’ll see him eventually, but—I don’t know. I wanna wait until I don’t have any other choice.

Pastor Eldridge greets people in the doorway of the sanctuary. He’s wearing a long white robe with gold crosses on it. He smiles at everyone. I don’t know why they made him look so creepy in that painting. He’s not creepy at all.

Momma glances back at me, Seven, and Sekani, like she’s making sure we look nice, then she and Daddy go up to Pastor Eldridge. “Morning, Pastor,” she says.

“Lisa! So good to see you.” He kisses her cheek and shakes Daddy’s hand. “Maverick, good to see you as well. We miss y’all around here.”

“I bet y’all do,” Daddy mumbles. Another reason we left Christ Temple: Daddy doesn’t like that they take up so many offerings. But he doesn’t even go to our diverse church.

“And these must be the children,” Pastor Eldridge says. He shakes Seven’s and Sekani’s hands and kisses my cheek. I feel more of his bristly mustache than anything. “Y’all sure have grown since I last saw you. I remember when the little one was an itty-bitty thing wrapped up in a blanket. How’s your momma doing, Lisa?”

“She’s good. She misses coming here, but the drive is a little long for her.”

I side-eye the hell—excuse me, heck; we’re in church—out of her. Nana stopped coming to Christ Temple because of some incident between her and Mother Wilson over Deacon Rankin. It ended with Nana storming off from the church picnic, banana pudding in hand. That’s all I know though.

“We understand,” says Pastor Eldridge. “Let her know we’re praying for her.” He looks at me with an expression I know too well—pity. “Ms. Rosalie told me you were with Khalil when this happened. I am so sorry you had to witness it.”

“Thank you.” It’s weird saying that, like I’m stealing sympathy from Khalil’s family. Momma grabs my hand. “We’re gonna find some seats. Nice talking to you, Pastor.” Daddy wraps his arm around me, and the three of us walk into the sanctuary together.

My legs tremble and a wave of nausea hits me, and we aren’t even at the front of the viewing line yet. People go up to the casket in twos, so I can’t see Khalil at all.

Soon there are six people in front of us. Four. Two. I keep my eyes closed the whole time with the last two. Then it’s our turn.

My parents lead me up. “Baby, open your eyes,” Momma says.

I do. It looks more like a mannequin than Khalil in the casket. His skin is darker and his lips are pinker than they should be, because of the makeup. Khalil would’ve had a fit if he knew they put that on him. He’s wearing a white suit and a gold cross pendant.

The real Khalil had dimples. This mannequin version of him doesn’t.

Momma brushes tears from her eyes. Daddy shakes his head. Seven and Sekani stare.

That’s not Khalil, I tell myself. Like it wasn’t Natasha.

Natasha’s mannequin wore a white dress with pink and yellow flowers all over it. It had on makeup too. Momma had told me, “See, she looks asleep,” but when I squeezed her hand, her eyes never opened.

Daddy carried me out the sanctuary as I screamed for her to wake up.

We move so the next set of people can look at Khalil’s mannequin. An usher is about to direct us to some seats, but this lady with natural twists gestures toward the front row of the friends’ side, right in front of her. No clue who she is, but she must be somebody if she’s giving orders like that. And she must know something about me if she thinks my family deserves the front row.

We take our seats, and I focus on the flowers instead. There’s a big heart made out of red and white roses, a “K” made out of calla lilies, and an arrangement of flowers in orange and green, his favorite colors.

When I run out of flowers, I look at the funeral program. It’s full of pictures of Khalil, from the time he was a curly-haired baby up until a few weeks ago with friends I don’t recognize. There are pictures of me and him from years ago and one with us and Natasha. All three of us smile, trying to look gangster with our peace signs. The Hood Trio, tighter than the inside of Voldemort’s nose. Now I’m the only one left.

I close the program.

“Let us stand.” Pastor Eldridge’s voice echoes throughout the sanctuary. The organist starts playing, and everyone stands.

“And Jesus said, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled,’” he says, coming down the aisle. “‘You believe in God, believe also in me.’”

Ms. Rosalie marches behind him. Cameron walks alongside her, gripping her hand. Tears stain his chubby cheeks. He’s only nine, a year older than Sekani. Had one of those bullets hit me, that could’ve been my little brother crying like that.

Khalil’s aunt Tammy holds Ms. Rosalie’s other hand. Ms. Brenda is wailing behind them, wearing a black dress that once belonged to Momma. Her hair has been combed into a ponytail. Two guys, I think they’re Khalil’s cousins, hold her up. It’s easier to look at the casket.

“‘My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?’” Pastor Eldridge says. “‘And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.’”

At Natasha’s funeral, her momma passed out when she saw her in the casket. Somehow Khalil’s momma and grandma don’t.

“I wanna make one thing clear today,” Pastor Eldridge says once everyone is seated. “No matter the circumstances, this is a homegoing celebration. Weeping may endure for a night, but how many of you know that JOY—!” He doesn’t even finish and people shout.

The choir sings upbeat songs, and almost everyone claps and praises Jesus. Momma sings along and waves her hands. Khalil’s grandma and auntie clap and sing too. A praise break even starts, and people run around the sanctuary and do the “Holy Ghost Two-Step,” as Seven and I call it, their feet moving like James Brown and their bent arms flapping like chicken wings.

But if Khalil’s not celebrating, how the hell can they? And why praise Jesus, since he let Khalil get shot in the first place?

I put my face in my hands, hoping to drown out the drums, the horns, the shouting. This shit doesn’t make any sense.

After all that praising, some of Khalil’s classmates—the ones who were in the parking lot in the T-shirts—make a presentation. They give his family the cap and gown Khalil would’ve worn in a few months and cry as they tell funny stories I’d never heard. Yet I’m the one in the front row on the friends’ side. I’m such a fucking phony.

Next, the lady with the twists goes up to the podium. Her black pencil skirt and blazer are more professional-looking than church-looking, and she’s wearing an “RIP Khalil” T-shirt too.

“Good morning,” she says, and everyone responds. “My name is April Ofrah, and I’m with Just Us for Justice. We are a small organization here in Garden Heights that advocates for police accountability.

“As we say farewell to Khalil, we find our hearts burdened with the harsh truth of how he lost his life. Just before the start of this service, I was informed that, despite a credible eyewitness account, the police department has no intentions of arresting the officer who murdered this young man.”

“What?” I say, as people murmur around the sanctuary. Everything I told them, and they’re not arresting him?

“What they don’t want you to know,” Ms. Ofrah says, “is that Khalil was unarmed at the time of his murder.”

People really start talking then. A couple of folks yell out, including one person who’s bold enough to shout “This is bullshit” in a church.

“We won’t give up until Khalil receives justice,” Ms. Ofrah says over the talking. “I ask you to join us and Khalil’s family after the service for a peaceful march to the cemetery. Our route happens to pass the police station. Khalil was silenced, but let’s join together and make our voices heard for him. Thank you.” The congregation gives her a standing ovation. As she returns to her seat, she glances at me. If Ms.

Rosalie told the pastor I was with Khalil, she probably told this lady too. I bet she wants to talk.

Pastor Eldridge just about preaches Khalil into heaven. I’m not saying Khalil didn’t make it to heaven —I don’t know—but Pastor Eldridge tries to make sure he gets there. He sweats and breathes so hard I get tired looking at him.

At the end of the eulogy, he says, “If anybody wishes to view the body, now is the—” He stares at the back of the church. Murmurs bubble around the sanctuary.

Momma looks back. “What in the world?”

King and a bunch of his boys post up in the back in their gray clothes and bandanas. King has his arm

hooked around a lady in a tight black dress that barely covers her thighs. She has way too much weave in her head—for real, it comes to her ass—and way too much makeup on.

Seven turns back around. I wouldn’t wanna see my momma looking like that either. But why are they here? King Lords only show up at King Lord funerals.

Pastor Eldridge clears his throat. “As I was saying, if anyone wishes to view the body, now is the time.”

King and his boys swagger down the aisle. Everybody stares. Iesha walks alongside him, all proud and shit, not realizing she looks a hot mess. She glances at my parents and smirks, and I can’t stand her ass. I mean, not just because of how she treats Seven, but because every time she shows up, there’s suddenly an unspoken tension between my parents. Like now. Momma shifts her shoulder so it’s not as close to Daddy, and his jaw is clenched. She’s the Achilles’ heel of their marriage, and it’s only noticeable if you’ve been watching it for sixteen years like I have.

King, Iesha, and the rest of them go up to the casket. One of King’s boys hands him a folded gray bandana, and he lays it across Khalil’s chest.

My heart stops.

Khalil was a King Lord too?

Ms. Rosalie jumps up. “Like hell you will!”

She marches to the coffin and snatches the bandana off Khalil. She starts toward King, but Daddy catches her halfway and holds her back. “Get outta here, you demon!” she screams. “And take this mess with you!”

She throws the bandana at the back of King’s head. He stills. Slowly, he turns around.

“Now look, bi—”

“Ay!” Daddy says. “King, man, just go! Leave, a’ight?”

“You ol’ hag,” Iesha snarls. “Got some nerve treating my man like this after he offered to pay for this funeral.”

“He can keep his filthy money!” Ms. Rosalie says. “And you can take your behind right out the door too. Coming in the Lord’s house, looking like the prostitute you are!”

Seven shakes his head. It’s no secret that my big brother is the result of a “for hire” session Daddy had with Iesha after a fight with Momma. Iesha was King’s girl, but he told her to “hook Maverick up,” not knowing Seven would come along looking exactly like Daddy. Fucked up, I know.

Momma reaches behind me and rubs Seven’s back. There are rare times, when Seven’s not around and Momma thinks Sekani and I can’t hear her, that she’ll tell Daddy, “I still can’t believe you slept with that nasty ho.” But Seven can’t be around. When he’s around, none of that matters. She loves him more than she hates Iesha.

The King Lords leave, and conversations break out all around. Daddy leads Ms. Rosalie to her seat. She’s so mad she’s shaking.

I look at the mannequin in the coffin. All those horror stories Daddy told us about gangbanging, and Khalil became a King Lord? How could he even think about doing that?

It doesn’t make sense though. He had green in his car. That’s what Garden Disciples do, not King Lords. And he didn’t run to help out with the fight at Big D’s party.

But the bandana. Daddy once said that’s a King Lord tradition—they crown their fallen comrades by putting a folded bandana on the body, as if to say they’re going into heaven repping their set. Khalil must’ve joined to get that honor.

I could’ve talked him out of it, I know it, but I abandoned him. Fuck the friends’ side. I shouldn’t even

be at his funeral.

Daddy stays with Ms. Rosalie for the rest of the service and later helps her when the family follows the casket out. Aunt Tammy motions us over to join them.

“Thank you for being here,” she tells me. “You meant a lot to Khalil, I hope you know that.” My throat tightens too much for me to tell her he means a lot to me too.

We follow the casket with the family. Just about everyone we pass has tears in their eyes. For Khalil. He really is in that casket, and he’s not coming back.

I’ve never told anyone, but Khalil was my first crush. He unknowingly introduced me to stomach butterflies and later heartbreak when he got his own crush on Imani Anderson, a high schooler who wasn’t even thinking about fourth-grade him. I worried about my appearance for the first time around him.

But fuck the crush, he was one of the best friends I ever had, no matter if we saw each other every day or once a year. Time didn’t compare to all the shit we went through together. And now he’s in a casket, like Natasha.

Big fat tears fall from my eyes, and I sob. A loud, nasty, ugly sob that everybody hears and sees as I come up the aisle.

“They left me,” I cry.

Momma wraps her arm around me and presses my head onto her shoulder. “I know, baby, but we’re here. We aren’t going anywhere.”

Warmth brushes my face, and I know we’re outside. All of the voices and noises make me look. There are more people out here than in the church, holding posters with Khalil’s face on them and signs that say “Justice for Khalil.” His classmates have posters saying “Am I Next?” and “Enough Is Enough!” News vans with tall antennas are parked across the street.

I bury my face in Momma’s shoulder again. People—I don’t know who—pat my back and tell me it’ll be okay.

I can tell when it’s Daddy who’s rubbing my back without him even saying anything. “We gon’ stay and march, baby,” he tells Momma. “I want Seven and Sekani to be a part of this.”

“Yeah, I’m taking her home. How are y’all getting back?”

“We can walk to the store. I gotta open up anyway.” He kisses my hair. “I love you, baby girl. Get some rest, a’ight?”

Heels clack toward us, then someone says, “Hi, Mr. and Mrs. Carter, I’m April Ofrah with Just Us for Justice.”

Momma tenses up and pulls me closer. “How may we help you?”

She lowers her voice and says, “Khalil’s grandmother told me that Starr is the one who was with Khalil when this happened. I know she gave a statement to the police, and I want to commend her on her bravery. This is a difficult situation, and that must’ve taken a lot of strength.”

“Yeah, it did,” Daddy says.

I move my head off Momma’s shoulder. Ms. Ofrah shifts her weight from foot to foot and fumbles with her fingers. My parents aren’t helping with the hard looks they’re giving her.

“We all want the same thing,” she says. “Justice for Khalil.”

“Excuse me, Ms. Ofrah,” Momma says, “but as much as I want that, I want my daughter to have some peace. And privacy.”

Momma looks at the news vans across the street. Ms. Ofrah glances back at them.

“Oh!” she says. “Oh no. No, no, no. We weren’t—I wasn’t—I don’t want to put Starr out there like that. Quite the opposite, actually. I want to protect her privacy.”

Momma loosens her hold. “I see.”

“Starr offers a unique perspective in this, one you don’t get a lot with these cases, and I want to make sure her rights are protected and that her voice is heard, but without her being—”

“Exploited?” Daddy asks. “Pimped?”

“Exactly. The case is about to gain national media attention, but I don’t want it to be at her expense.” She hands each of us a business card. “Besides being an advocate, I’m also an attorney. Just Us for Justice isn’t providing the Harris family with legal representation—someone else is doing that. We’re simply rallying behind them. However, I’m available and willing to represent Starr on my own. Whenever you’re ready, please give me a call. And I am so sorry for your loss.”

She disappears into the crowd.

Call her when I’m ready, huh? I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready for the shit that’s about to happen.

NINE

My brothers come home with a message—Daddy’s spending the night at the store. He also leaves instructions for us—stay inside.

A chain-link fence surrounds our house. Seven puts the big lock on the gate, the one we use when we go out of town. I bring Brickz inside. He doesn’t know how to act, walking around in circles and jumping on the furniture. Momma doesn’t say anything until he gets on her good sofa in the living room.

“Ay!” She snaps her fingers at him. “Get your big behind off my furniture. You crazy?” He whimpers and scurries over to me.

The sun sets. We’re in the middle of saying grace over pot roast and potatoes when the first gunshots ring out.

We open our eyes. Sekani flinches. I’m used to gunshots, but these are louder, faster. One barely sounds off before another’s right behind it.

“Machine guns,” says Seven. More shots follow.

“Take your dinner to the den,” Momma says, getting up from the table. “And sit on the floor. Bullets don’t know where they’re supposed to go.”

Seven gets up too. “Ma, I can—” “Seven, den,” she says.

“But—”

“Se-ven.” She breaks his name down. “I’m turning the lights off, baby, okay? Please, go to the den.” He gives in. “All right.” When Daddy isn’t home, Seven acts like he’s the man of the house by default.

Momma always has to break his name down and put him in his place.

I grab my plate and Momma’s and head for the den, the one room without exterior walls. Brickz is right behind me, but he always follows food. The hallway darkens as Momma turns off the lights throughout the house.

We have one of those old-school big-screen TVs in the den. It’s Daddy’s prized possession. We crowd around it, and Seven turns on the news, lighting up the den.

There are at least a hundred people gathered on Magnolia Avenue. They chant for justice and hold signs, fists high in the air for black power.

Momma comes in, talking on the phone. “All right, Mrs. Pearl, as long as you sure. Just remember we got enough room over here for you if you don’t feel comfortable being alone. I’ll check in later.”

Mrs. Pearl is this elderly lady who lives by herself across the street. Momma checks on her all the time. She says Mrs. Pearl needs to know that somebody cares.

Momma sits next to me. Sekani rests his head in her lap. Brickz mimics him and puts his head in my lap, licking my fingers.

“Are they mad ’cause Khalil died?” Sekani asks.

Momma brushes her fingers through his high-top fade. “Yeah, baby. We all are.”

But they’re really mad that Khalil was unarmed. Can’t be a coincidence this is happening after Ms.

Ofrah announced that at his funeral.

The cops respond to the chants with tear gas that blankets the crowd in a white cloud. The news cuts to footage inside the crowd of people running and screaming.

“Damn,” Seven says.

Sekani buries his face in Momma’s thigh. I feed Brickz a piece of my pot roast. The clenching in my stomach won’t let me eat.

Sirens wail outside. The news shows three patrol cars that have been set ablaze at the police precinct, about a five-minute drive away from us. A gas station near the freeway gets looted, and the owner, this Indian man, staggers around bloody, saying he didn’t have anything to do with Khalil’s death. A line of cops guard the Walmart on the east side.

My neighborhood is a war zone.

Chris texts to see if I’m okay, and I immediately feel like shit for avoiding him, Beyoncé’ing him, and everything else. I would apologize, but texting “I’m sorry” combined with every emoji in the world isn’t the same as saying it face-to-face. I do let him know I’m okay though.

Maya and Hailey call, asking about the store, the house, my family, me. Neither of them mention the fried chicken drama. It’s weird talking to them about Garden Heights. We never do. I’m always afraid one of them will call it “the ghetto.”

I get it. Garden Heights is the ghetto, so it wouldn’t be a lie, but it’s like when I was nine and Seven and I got into one of our fights. He went for a low blow and called me Shorty McShort-Short. A lame insult now when I think about it, but it tore me up back then. I knew there was a possibility I was short— everybody else was taller than I was—and I could call myself short if I wanted. It became an uncomfortable truth when Seven said it.

I can call Garden Heights the ghetto all I want. Nobody else can.

Momma stays on her phone too, checking on some neighbors and getting calls from others who are checking on us. Ms. Jones down the street says that she and her four kids are holed up in their den like we are. Mr. Charles next door says that if the power goes out we can use his generator.

Uncle Carlos checks on us too. Nana takes the phone and tells Momma to bring us out there. Like we’re about to go through the shit to get out of it. Daddy calls and says the store is all right. It doesn’t stop me from tensing up every time the news mentions a business that’s been attacked.

The news does more than give Khalil’s name now—they show his picture too. They only call me “the witness.” Sometimes “the sixteen-year-old black female witness.”

The police chief appears onscreen and says what I was afraid he’d say: “We have taken into consideration the evidence as well as the statement given by the witness, and as of now we see no reason to arrest the officer.”

Momma and Seven glance at me. They don’t say anything with Sekani right here. They don’t have to. All of this is my fault. The riots, gunshots, tear gas, all of it, are ultimately my fault. I forgot to tell the cops that Khalil got out with his hands up. I didn’t mention that the officer pointed his gun at me. I didn’t say something right, and now that cop’s not getting arrested.

But while the riots are my fault, the news basically makes it sound like it’s Khalil’s fault he died. “There are multiple reports that a gun was found in the car,” the anchor claims. “There is also

suspicion that the victim was a drug dealer as well as a gang member. Officials have not confirmed if any of this is true.”

The gun stuff can’t be true. When I asked Khalil if he had anything in the car, he said no.

He also wouldn’t say if he was a drug dealer or not. And he didn’t even mention the gangbanging stuff. Does it matter though? He didn’t deserve to die.

Sekani and Brickz start breathing deeply around the same time, fast asleep. That’s not an option for me with the helicopters, the gunshots, and the sirens. Momma and Seven stay up too. Around four in the morning, when it’s quieted down, Daddy comes in bleary-eyed and yawning.

“They didn’t hit Marigold,” he says between bites of pot roast at the kitchen table. “Looks like they keeping it mostly on the east side, near where he was killed. For now at least.”

“For now,” Momma repeats.

Daddy runs his hand over his face. “Yeah. I don’t know what’s gon’ stop them from coming this way. Shit, much as I understand it, I dread it if they do.”

“We can’t stay here, Maverick,” she says, and her voice is shaky, like she’s been holding something in this entire time and is just now letting it out. “This won’t get better. It’ll get worse.”

Daddy reaches for her hand. She lets him take it, and he pulls her onto his lap. Daddy wraps his arms around her and kisses the back of her head.

“We’ll be a’ight.”

He sends me and Seven to bed. Somehow I fall asleep.

Natasha runs into the store again. “Starr, come on!”

Her braids have dirt in them, and her once-fat cheeks are sunken. Blood soaks through her clothes. I step back. She runs up to me and grabs my hand. Hers feels icy like it did in her coffin.

“Come on.” She tugs at me. “Come on!”

She pulls me toward the door, and my feet move against my will. “Stop,” I say. “Natasha, stop!”

A hand extends through the door, holding a Glock. Bang!

I jolt awake.

Seven bangs his fist against my door. He doesn’t text normal, and he doesn’t wake people up normal either. “We’re leaving in ten.”

My heart beats against my chest like it’s trying to get out. You’re fine, I remind myself. It’s Seven’s stupid butt. “Leaving for what?” I ask him.

“Basketball at the park. It’s the last Saturday of the month, right? Isn’t this what we always do?” “But—the riots and stuff?”

“Like Pops said, that stuff happened on the east. We’re good over here. Plus the news said it’s quiet this morning.”

What if somebody knows I’m the witness? What if they know that it’s my fault that cop hasn’t been arrested? What if we come across some cops and they know who I am?

“It’ll be all right,” Seven says, like he read my mind. “I promise. Now get your lazy butt up so I can kill you on the court.”

If it’s possible to be a sweet asshole, that’s Seven. I get out of bed and put on my basketball shorts, LeBron jersey, and my Thirteens like Jordan wore before he left the Bulls. I comb my hair into a ponytail. Seven waits for me at the front door, spinning the basketball between his hands.

I snatch it from him. “Like you know what to do with it.” “We’ll see ’bout that.”

I holler to let Momma and Daddy know we’ll be back later and leave.

At first Garden Heights looks the same, but a couple of blocks away at least five police cars speed by. Smoke lingers in the air, making everything look hazy. It stinks too.

We make it to Rose Park. Some King Lords sit in a gray Escalade across the street, and a younger one’s on the park merry-go-round. Long as we don’t bother them, they won’t bother us.

Rose Park occupies a whole block, and a tall chain-link fence surrounds it. I’m not sure what it’s protecting—the graffiti on the basketball court, the rusting playground equipment, the benches that way too many babies have been made on, or the liquor bottles, cigarette butts, and trash that litter the grass.

We’re right near the basketball courts, but the entrance to the park is on the other side of the block. I toss the ball to Seven and climb the fence. I used to jump down from the top, but one fall and a sprained ankle stopped me from doing that again.

When I get over the fence Seven tosses the ball to me and climbs. Khalil, Natasha, and I used to take a shortcut through the park after school. We’d run up the slides, spin on the merry-go-round till we were dizzy, and try to swing higher than one another.

I try to forget all that as I check the ball to Seven. “First to thirty?”

“Forty,” he says, knowing damn well he’ll be lucky if he gets twenty points. He can’t play ball just like Daddy can’t play ball.

As if to prove it, Seven dribbles using the palm of his hand. You’re supposed to use your fingertips. Then this fool shoots for a three.

The ball bounces off the rim. Of course. I grab it and look at him. “Weak! You knew that shit wasn’t going in.”

“Whatever. Play the damn game.”

Five minutes in, I have ten points to his two, and I basically gave him those. I fake left, make a quick right in a smooth crossover, and go for the three. That baby goes in nicely. This girl’s got game.

Seven makes a T with his hands. He pants harder than I do, and I’m the one who used to have asthma. “Time out. Water break.”

I wipe my forehead with my arm. The sun glares on the court already. “How about we call it?” “Hell no. I got some game in me. I gotta get my angles right.”

“Angles? This is ball, Seven. Not selfies.” “Ay, yo!” some boy calls.

We turn around, and my breath catches. “Shit.”

There are two of them. They look thirteen, fourteen years old and are wearing green Celtics jerseys. Garden Disciples, no doubt. They cross the courts, coming straight for us.

The tallest one steps to Seven. “Nigga, you Kinging?”

I can’t even take this fool seriously. His voice squeaks. Daddy says there’s a trick to telling OGs from Young Gs, besides their age. OGs don’t start stuff, they finish it. Young Gs always start stuff.

“Nah, I’m neutral,” Seven says.

“Ain’t King your daddy?” the shorter one asks. “Hell, no. He just messing with my momma.”

“It don’t even matter.” The tall one flicks out a pocket knife. “Hand your shit over. Sneakers, phones, everything.”

Rule of the Garden—if it doesn’t involve you, it doesn’t have shit to do with you. Period. The King Lords in the Escalade see everything going down. Since we don’t claim their set, we don’t exist.

But the boy on the merry-go-round runs over and pushes the GDs back. He lifts up his shirt, flashing his piece. “We got a problem?”

They back up. “Yeah, we got a problem,” the shorter one says.

“You sure? Last time I checked, Rose Park was King territory.” He looks toward the Escalade. The King Lords inside nod at us, a simple way of asking if things are cool. We nod back.

“A’ight,” the tall GD says. “We got you.” The GDs leave the same way they came.

The younger King Lord slaps palms with Seven. “You straight, bruh?” he asks. “Yeah. Good looking out, Vante.”

I can’t lie, he’s kinda cute. Hey, just ’cause I have a boyfriend doesn’t mean I can’t look, and as much as Chris drools over Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé, and Amber Rose, I dare him to get mad at me for looking.

On a side note—my boyfriend clearly has a type.

This Vante guy’s around my age, a little taller, with a big Afro puff and the faint signs of a mustache. He has some nice lips too. Real plump and soft.

I’ve looked at them too long. He licks them and smiles. “I had to make sure you and li’l momma were okay.”

And that ruins it. Don’t call me by a nickname if you don’t know me. “Yeah, we’re fine,” I say. “Them GDs helped you out anyway,” he tells Seven. “She was killing you out here.”

“Man, shut up,” Seven says. “This is my sister, Starr.”

“Oh yeah,” the guy says. “You the one who work up in Big Mav’s store, ain’t you?” Like I said, I get that all. The. Time. “Yep. That’s me.”

“Starr, this is DeVante,” Seven says. “He’s one of King’s boys.” “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 is her daddy.

“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.

“Yeah, so?”

“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. Shit.

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 that good.

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?” “Okay.”

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!”

So many alarms go off in my head. Not that she wouldn’t be happy that “the Lord spared my life,” but this isn’t Nana. At all.

She takes me and Momma by our wrists and pulls us toward the poolside loungers. “Y’all come over here and talk to me.”

“But I was gonna talk to Pam—”

Nana looks at Momma and hisses through gritted teeth, “Shut the hell up, sit down, and talk to me,

goddammit.”

Now that’s Nana. She sits back in a lounger and fans herself all dramatically. She’s a retired theater teacher, so she does everything dramatically. Momma and I share a lounger and sit on the side of it.

“What’s wrong?” Momma asks.

“When—” she begins, but plasters on a fake smile when Ava waddles over with her baby doll and a comb. Ava hands both to me and goes to play with some of her other toys.

I comb the doll’s hair. That girl has me trained. Doesn’t have to say anything, and I do it. Once Ava’s out of earshot, Nana says, “When y’all taking me back to my house?” “What happened?” Momma asks.

“Keep your damn voice down!” Ironically, she’s not keeping hers down. “Yesterday morning, I took some catfish out for dinner. Was gonna fry it up with some hush puppies, fries, the whole nine. I left to run some errands.”

“What kinda errands?” I ask for the hell of it.

Nana cuts me “the look” and it’s like seeing Momma in thirty years, with a few wrinkles and gray hairs she missed when coloring her hair (she’d whoop my behind for saying that).

“I’m grown, li’l girl,” she says. “Don’t ask me what I do. Anyway, I come home and that heffa done covered my catfish in some damn cornflakes and baked it!”

“Cornflakes?” I say, parting the doll’s hair.

“Yes! Talking ’bout, ‘It’s healthier that way.’ If I want healthy, I eat a salad.”

Momma covers her mouth, and the edges of her lips are turned up. “I thought you and Pam got along.” “We did. Until she messed with my food. Now, I’ve dealt with a lotta things since I’ve been here. But that”—she holds up a finger—“is taking it too damn far. I’d rather live with you and that ex-con than deal

with this.”

Momma stands and kisses Nana’s forehead. “You’ll be all right.”

Nana waves her off. When Momma leaves, she looks at me. “You okay, li’l girl? Carlos told me you were in the car with that boy when he was killed.”

“Yes, ma’am, I’m okay.”

“Good. And if you’re not, you will be. We’re strong like that.” I nod, but I don’t believe it. At least not about myself.

The doorbell rings up front. I say, “I’ll get it,” put Ava’s doll down, and go inside.

Crap. Chris is on the other side of the door. I wanna apologize to him, but dammit, I need time to prepare.

Weird though. He’s pacing. The same way he does when we study for tests or before a big game. He’s afraid to talk to me.

I open the door and lean against the frame. “Hey.” “Hey.” He smiles, and despite everything I smile too.

“I was washing one of my dad’s cars and saw you guys pull up,” he says. That explains his tank top, flip-flops, and shorts. “Are you okay? I know you said you were in your text, but I wanted to be sure.”

“I’m okay,” I say.

“Your dad’s store didn’t get hit, did it?” he asks. “Nope.”

“Good.”

Staring and silence.

He sighs. “Look, if this is about the condom stuff, I’ll never buy one again.” “Never?”

“Well, only when you want me to.” He quickly adds, “Which doesn’t have to be anytime soon. Matter of fact, you don’t have to ever sleep with me. Or kiss me. Hell, if you don’t want me to touch you, I—”

“Chris, Chris,” I say, my hands up to get him to slow down, and I’m fighting a laugh. “It’s okay. I know what you mean.”

“Okay.”

“Okay.”

Another round of staring and silence.

“I’m sorry, actually,” I tell him, shifting my weight from foot to foot. “For giving you the silent treatment. It wasn’t about the condom.”

“Oh . . .” His eyebrows meet. “Then what was it about?” I sigh. “I don’t feel like talking about it.”

“So you can be mad at me, but you can’t even tell me why?” “It has nothing to do with you.”

“Yeah, it does if you’re giving me the silent treatment,” he says. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“Maybe you should let me determine that myself?” he says. “Here I am, calling you, texting you, everything, and you can’t tell me why you’re ignoring me? That’s kinda shitty, Starr.”

I give him this look, and I have a strong feeling I look like Momma and Nana right now with their “I know you didn’t just say that” glare.

“I told you, you wouldn’t understand. So drop it.”

“No.” He folds his arms. “I came all the way down here—” “All the way? Bruh, all what way? Down the street?” Garden Heights Starr is all up in my voice right now.

“Yeah, down the street,” he says. “And guess what? I didn’t have to do that. But I did. And you can’t even tell me what’s going on!”

“You’re white, okay?” I yell. “You’re white!” Silence.

“I’m white?” he says, like he’s just hearing that for the first time. “What the fuck’s that got to do with anything?”

“Everything! You’re white, I’m black. You’re rich, I’m not.”

“That doesn’t matter!” he says. “I don’t care about that kinda stuff, Starr. I care about you.” “That kinda stuff is part of me!”

“Okay, and . . . ? It’s no big deal. God, seriously? This is what you’re pissed about? This is why you’re giving me the silent treatment?”

I stare at him, and I know, I know, I’m straight up looking like Lisa Janae Carter. My mouth is slightly open like hers when I or my brothers “get smart,” as she calls it, I’ve pulled my chin back a little, and my eyebrows are raised. Shit, my hand’s even on my hip.

Chris takes a small step back, just like my brothers and I do. “It just . . . it doesn’t make sense to me, okay? That’s all.”

“So like I said, you don’t understand. Do you?”

Bam. If I am acting like my mom, this is one of her “see, I told you” moments. “No. I guess I don’t,” he says.

Another round of silence.

Chris puts his hands in his pockets. “Maybe you can help me understand? I don’t know. But I do know that not having you in my life is worse than not making beats or playing basketball. And you know how

much I love making beats and playing basketball, Starr.” I smirk. “You call that a line?”

He bites his bottom lip and shrugs. I laugh. He does too. “Bad line, huh?” he asks.

“Awful.”

We go silent again, but it’s the type of silence I don’t mind. He puts his hand out for mine.

I still don’t know if I’m betraying who I am by dating Chris, but I’ve missed him so much it hurts. Momma thinks coming to Uncle Carlos’s house is normal, but Chris is the kind of normal I really want. The normal where I don’t have to choose which Starr to be. The normal where nobody tells you how sorry they are or talks about “Khalil the drug dealer.” Just . . . normal.

That’s why I can’t tell Chris I’m the witness.

I take his hand, and everything suddenly feels right. No flinching and no flashbacks. “C’mon,” I say. “Uncle Carlos should have the burgers ready.”

We go into the backyard, hand in hand. He’s smiling, and surprisingly I am too.

TEN

We spend the night at Uncle Carlos’s house because the riots started again as soon as the sun went down. Somehow the store got spared. We should go to church and thank God for that, but Momma and I are too tired to sit through less than an hour of anything. Sekani wants to spend another day at Uncle Carlos’s, so Sunday morning we return to Garden Heights without him.

Right as we get off the freeway, we’re met by a police roadblock. Only one lane of traffic isn’t blocked by a patrol car, and officers talk to drivers before letting them pass through.

Suddenly it’s as if someone grabbed my heart and twisted it. “Can we—” I swallow. “Can we get around them?”

“Doubt it. They probably got these all around the neighborhood.” Momma glances over at me and frowns. “Munch? You okay?”

I grab my door handle. They can easily grab their guns and leave us like Khalil. All the blood in our bodies pooling on the street for everybody to see. Our mouths wide open. Our eyes staring at the sky, searching for God.

“Hey.” Momma cups my cheek. “Hey, look at me.”

I try to, but my eyes are filled with tears. I’m so sick of being this damn weak. Khalil may have lost his life, but I lost something too, and it pisses me off.

“It’s okay,” Momma says. “We got this, all right? Close your eyes if you have to.” I do.

Keep your hands visible. No sudden moves.

Only speak when spoken to.

The seconds drag by like hours. The officer asks Momma for her ID and proof of insurance, and I beg Black Jesus to get us home, hoping there won’t be a gunshot as she searches through her purse.

We finally drive off. “See, baby,” she says. “Everything’s fine.”

Her words used to have power. If she said it was fine, it was fine. But after you’ve held two people as they took their last breaths, words like that don’t mean shit anymore.

I haven’t let go of the car door handle when we pull into our driveway.

Daddy comes out and knocks on my window. Momma rolls it down for me. “There go my girls.” He smiles, but it fades into a frown. “What’s wrong?”

“You about to go somewhere, baby?” Momma asks, meaning they’ll talk later.

“Yeah, gotta run to the warehouse and stock up.” He taps my shoulder. “Ay, wanna hang out with your daddy? I’ll get you some ice cream. One of them big fat tubs that’ll last ’bout a month.”

I laugh even though I don’t feel like it. Daddy’s talented like that. “I don’t need all that ice cream.” “I ain’t say you needed it. When we get back, we can watch that Harry Potter shit you like so much.” “Noooooooo.”

“What?” he asks.

“Daddy, you’re the worst person to watch Harry Potter with. The whole time you’re talking about”—I deepen my voice—“‘Why don’t they shoot that nigga Voldemort?’”

“Ay, it don’t make sense that in all them movies and books, nobody thought to shoot him.” “If it’s not that,” Momma says, “you’re giving your ‘Harry Potter is about gangs’ theory.” “It is!” he says.

Okay, so it is a good theory. Daddy claims the Hogwarts houses are really gangs. They have their own colors, their own hideouts, and they are always riding for each other, like gangs. Harry, Ron, and Hermione never snitch on one another, just like gangbangers. Death Eaters even have matching tattoos. And look at Voldemort. They’re scared to say his name. Really, that “He Who Must Not Be Named” stuff is like giving him a street name. That’s some gangbanging shit right there.

“Y’all know that make a lot of sense,” Daddy says. “Just ’cause they was in England don’t mean they wasn’t gangbanging.” He looks at me. “So you down to hang out with your old man today or what?”

I’m always down to hang out with him.

We roll through the streets, Tupac blasting through the subwoofers. He’s rapping about keeping your head up, and Daddy glances at me as he raps along, like he’s telling me the same thing Tupac is.

“I know you’re fed up, baby”—he nudges my chin—“but keep your head up.”

He sings with the chorus about how things will get easier, and I don’t know if I wanna cry ’cause that’s really speaking to me right now, or crack up ’cause Daddy’s singing is so horrible.

Daddy says, “That was a deep dude right there. Real deep. They don’t make rappers like that no more.”

“You’re showing your age, Daddy.”

“Whatever. It’s the truth. Rappers nowadays only care ’bout money, hoes, and clothes.” “Showing your age,” I whisper.

“’Pac rapped ’bout that stuff too, yeah, but he also cared ’bout uplifting black people,” says Daddy. “Like he took the word ‘nigga’ and gave it a whole new meaning—Never Ignorant Getting Goals Accomplished. And he said Thug Life meant—”

“The Hate U Give Little Infants F—s Everybody,” I censor myself. This is my daddy I’m talking to, you know?

“You know ’bout that?”

“Yeah. Khalil told me what he thought it means. We were listening to Tupac right before . . . you know.”

“A’ight, so what do you think it means?” “You don’t know?” I ask.

“I know. I wanna hear what you think.”

Here he goes. Picking my brain. “Khalil said it’s about what society feeds us as youth and how it comes back and bites them later,” I say. “I think it’s about more than youth though. I think it’s about us, period.”

“Us who?” he asks.

“Black people, minorities, poor people. Everybody at the bottom in society.” “The oppressed,” says Daddy.

“Yeah. We’re the ones who get the short end of the stick, but we’re the ones they fear the most. That’s why the government targeted the Black Panthers, right? Because they were scared of the Panthers?”

“Uh-huh,” Daddy says. “The Panthers educated and empowered the people. That tactic of empowering the oppressed goes even further back than the Panthers though. Name one.”

Is he serious? He always makes me think. This one takes me a second. “The slave rebellion of 1831,”

I say. “Nat Turner empowered and educated other slaves, and it led to one of the biggest slave revolts in history.”

“A’ight, a’ight. You on it.” He gives me dap. “So, what’s the hate they’re giving the ‘little infants’ in today’s society?”

“Racism?”

“You gotta get a li’l more detailed than that. Think ’bout Khalil and his whole situation. Before he died.”

“He was a drug dealer.” It hurts to say that. “And possibly a gang member.”

“Why was he a drug dealer? Why are so many people in our neighborhood drug dealers?”

I remember what Khalil said—he got tired of choosing between lights and food. “They need money,” I say. “And they don’t have a lot of other ways to get it.”

“Right. Lack of opportunities,” Daddy says. “Corporate America don’t bring jobs to our communities, and they damn sure ain’t quick to hire us. Then, shit, even if you do have a high school diploma, so many of the schools in our neighborhoods don’t prepare us well enough. That’s why when your momma talked about sending you and your brothers to Williamson, I agreed. Our schools don’t get the resources to equip you like Williamson does. It’s easier to find some crack than it is to find a good school around here.

“Now, think ’bout this,” he says. “How did the drugs even get in our neighborhood? This is a multibillion-dollar industry we talking ’bout, baby. That shit is flown into our communities, but I don’t know anybody with a private jet. Do you?”

“No.”

“Exactly. Drugs come from somewhere, and they’re destroying our community,” he says. “You got folks like Brenda, who think they need them to survive, and then you got the Khalils, who think they need to sell them to survive. The Brendas can’t get jobs unless they’re clean, and they can’t pay for rehab unless they got jobs. When the Khalils get arrested for selling drugs, they either spend most of their life in prison, another billion-dollar industry, or they have a hard time getting a real job and probably start selling drugs again. That’s the hate they’re giving us, baby, a system designed against us. That’s Thug Life.”

“I hear you, but Khalil didn’t have to sell drugs,” I say. “You stopped doing it.”

“True, but unless you’re in his shoes, don’t judge him. It’s easier to fall into that life than it is to stay outta it, especially in a situation like his. Now, one more question.”

“Really?” Damn, he’s messed with my head enough.

“Yeah, really,” he mocks in a high voice. I don’t even sound like that. “After everything I’ve said, how does Thug Life apply to the protests and the riots?”

I have to think about that one for a minute. “Everybody’s pissed ’cause One-Fifteen hasn’t been charged,” I say, “but also because he’s not the first one to do something like this and get away with it. It’s been happening, and people will keep rioting until it changes. So I guess the system’s still giving hate, and everybody’s still getting fucked?”

Daddy laughs and gives me dap. “My girl. Watch your mouth, but yeah, that’s about right. And we won’t stop getting fucked till it changes. That’s the key. It’s gotta change.”

A lump forms in my throat as the truth hits me. Hard. “That’s why people are speaking out, huh? Because it won’t change if we don’t say something.”

“Exactly. We can’t be silent.” “So I can’t be silent.” Daddy stills. He looks at me.

I see the fight in his eyes. I matter more to him than a movement. I’m his baby, and I’ll always be his

baby, and if being silent means I’m safe, he’s all for it.

This is bigger than me and Khalil though. This is about Us, with a capital U; everybody who looks like us, feels like us, and is experiencing this pain with us despite not knowing me or Khalil. My silence isn’t helping Us.

Daddy fixes his gaze on the road again. He nods. “Yeah. Can’t be silent.”

The trip to the warehouse is hell.

You got all these people pushing big flatbeds around, and them things are hard to push as it is, and you gotta maneuver it while it’s stacked with stuff. By the time we leave, I feel like Black Jesus snatched me from the depths of hell. Daddy does get me ice cream though.

Buying the stuff is only the first step. We unload it at the store, put it on the shelves, and we (scratch that, I) put price stickers on all those bags of chips, cookies, and candies. I should’ve thought about that before I agreed to hang out with Daddy. While I do the hard work, he pays bills in his office.

I’m putting stickers on the Hot Fries when somebody knocks on the front door. “We’re closed,” I yell without looking. We have a sign, can’t they read? Obviously not. They knock again.

Daddy appears in the doorway of his office. “We closed!” Another knock.

Daddy disappears into his office and returns with his Glock. He’s not supposed to carry it since he’s a felon, but he says that technically he doesn’t carry it. He keeps it in his office.

He looks out at the person on the other side of the door. “What you want?” “I’m hungry,” a guy says. “Can I buy something?”

Daddy unlocks the door and holds it open. “You got five minutes.”

“Thanks,” DeVante says as he comes in. His Afro puff has become a full-blown Afro. He has this wild look about him, and I don’t mean ’cause of his hair, but like in his eyes. They’re puffy and red and darting around. He barely gives me a nod when he passes.

Daddy waits at the cash register with his piece.

DeVante glances outside. He looks at the chips. “Fritos, Cheetos, or Dori—” His voice trails off as he glances again. He notices me watching him and looks at the chips. “Doritos.”

“Your five minutes getting shorter,” Daddy says.

“Damn, man. A’ight!” DeVante grabs a bag of Fritos. “Can I get something to drink?” “Hurry up.”

DeVante goes to the refrigerators. I join Daddy at the cash register. It’s so obvious something is up. DeVante keeps stretching his neck to look outside. His five minutes pass at least three times. It doesn’t take anybody that long to choose between Coke, Pepsi, or Faygo. I’m sorry but it doesn’t.

“A’ight, Vante.” Daddy motions him to the cash register. “You trying to get the nerve to stick me up or you running from somebody?”

“Hell nah, I ain’t trying to stick you up.” He takes out a wad of money and sets it on the counter. “I’m paid. And I’m a King. I don’t run from no-damn-body.”

“No, you hide in stores,” I say.

He glares at me, but Daddy tells him, “She right. You hiding from somebody. Kings or GDs?” “It’s not those GDs from the park, is it?” I ask.

“Why don’t you mind your business?” he snaps.

“You came in my daddy’s business, so I am minding my business.” “Ay!” Daddy says. “But for real, who you hiding from?”

DeVante stares at his scuffed-up Chucks that are beyond the help of my cleaning kit. “King,” he mumbles.

“Kings or King?” Daddy asks.

“King,” DeVante repeats louder. “He wants me to handle the dudes that killed my brother. I’m not trying to have that on me though.”

“Yeah, I heard ’bout Dalvin,” Daddy says. “I’m sorry. What happened?”

“We were at Big D’s party, and some GDs stepped to him. They got into it, and one of them cowards shot him in the back.”

Oh, damn. That was the same party Khalil and I were at. Those were the gunshots that made us leave. “Big Mav, how’d you get out the game?” DeVante asks.

Daddy strokes his goatee, studying DeVante. “The hard way,” he eventually says. “My daddy was a King Lord. Adonis Carter. A straight up OG.”

“Yo!” DeVante says. “That’s your pops? Big Don?” “Yep. Biggest drug dealer this city ever seen.”

“Yo! Man, that’s crazy.” DeVante’s seriously fangirling right now. “I heard he had cops working for him and everything. He pulled in big money.”

I heard my granddaddy was so busy pulling in big money that he didn’t have time for Daddy. There are lots of pictures of Daddy when he was younger wearing mink coats, playing with expensive toys, flashing jewelry, and Grandpa Don isn’t in any of the pictures.

“Probably so,” Daddy says. “I wouldn’t know too much ’bout that. He went to prison when I was eight. Been there ever since. I’m his only child, his son. Everybody expected me to pick up where he left off.

“I became a King Lord when I was twelve. Shit, that was the only way to survive. Somebody was always coming at me ’cause of my pops, but if I was a King Lord I had folks to watch my back. Kinging became my life. I was down to die for it, say the word.”

He glances at me. “Then I became a daddy, and I realized that King Lord shit wasn’t worth dying for. I wanted out. But you know how the game work, it ain’t as easy as saying you done. King was the crown and he was my boy, but he couldn’t let me out like that. I was making good money too, and it was honestly hard to consider walking away from it.”

“Yeah, King says you one of the best d-boys he ever knew,” DeVante says.

Daddy shrugs. “I got it from my pops. But really I was only good ’cause I never got caught. One day, me and King took a trip to do a pickup, and we got busted. Cops wanted to know who the weapons belonged to. King had two strikes, and that charge would’ve meant life. I didn’t have a record, so I took the charge and got a few years and probation. Loyal like a motha.

“Those were the hardest three years of my life. Growing up I was pissed at my daddy for going to prison and leaving me. And there I was, in the same prison as him, missing out on my babies’ lives.”

DeVante’s eyebrows meet. “You were in prison with your pops?”

Daddy nods. “All my life, people made him sound like a real king, you know what I’m saying? A legend. But he was a weak old man, regretting the time he missed with me. Realest thing he ever told me was, ‘Don’t repeat my mistakes.’” Daddy looks at me again. “And I was doing that. I missed first days of school, all that. Had my baby wanting to call somebody else daddy ’cause I wasn’t there.”

I look away. He knows how close Uncle Carlos and I became.

“I was officially done with the King Lord shit, drug shit, all of it,” Daddy says. “And since I took that charge, King agreed to let me out. It made those three years worth it.”

DeVante’s eyes dim like they do when he talks about his brother. “You had to go to prison to get out?”

“I’m the exception, not the rule,” Daddy says. “When people say it’s for life, it’s for life. You gotta be willing to die in it or die for it. You want out?”

“I don’t wanna go to prison.”

“He didn’t ask you that,” I say. “He asked if you wanted out.”

DeVante is quiet for a long time. He looks up at Daddy and says, “I just wanna be alive, man.”

Daddy strokes his goatee. He sighs. “A’ight. I’ll help you. But I promise, you go back to slinging or banging, you’ll wish King would’ve got you when I’m done. You go to school?”

“Yeah.”

“What your grades look like?” Daddy asks. He shrugs.

“What the hell is this?” Daddy imitates DeVante’s shrug. “You know what grades you get, so what kind?”

“I mean, I get As and Bs and shit,” DeVante says. “I ain’t dumb.” “A’ight, good. We gon’ make sure you stay in school too.”

“Man, I can’t go back to Garden High,” DeVante says. “All them King Lords up in there. You know that’s a death wish, right?”

“I ain’t say you was going there. We’ll figure something out. In the meantime you can work here in the store. You been staying home at night?”

“Nah. King got his boys watching for me over there.”

“Of course he do,” Daddy mumbles. “We’ll figure something out with that too. Starr, show him how to do the price stickers.”

“You’re really hiring him, just like that?” I ask. “Whose store is this, Starr?”

“Yours, but—”

“’Nuff said. Show him how to do the price stickers.” DeVante snickers. I wanna punch him in his throat. “C’mon,” I mumble.

We sit crossed-legged in the chip aisle. Daddy locks the front door and goes back in his office. I grab a jumbo bag of Hot Cheetos and slap a ninety-nine-cent sticker on them.

“You supposed to show me how to do it,” DeVante says. “I am showing you. Watch.”

I grab another bag. He leans real close over my shoulder. Too close. Breathing in my ear and shit. I move my head and look at him. “Do you mind?”

“What’s your problem with me?” he asks. “You caught an attitude yesterday, soon as I walked up. I ain’t did nothing to you.”

I put a sticker on some Doritos. “No, but you did it to Denasia. And Kenya. And who knows how many other girls in Garden Heights.”

“Hold up, I ain’t do nothing to Kenya.”

“You asked for her number, didn’t you? Even though you’re with Denasia.”

“I’m not with Denasia. I just danced with her at that party,” he says. “She the one who wanted to act like she was my girlfriend and got mad ’cause I was talking to Kenya. If I wouldn’t have been dealing with them, I could’ve—” He swallows. “I could’ve helped Dalvin. By the time I got to him, he was on the floor, bleeding. All I could do was hold him.”

I see myself sitting in a pool of blood too. “And try to tell him it would be okay, even though you knew

—”

“There was no chance in hell it would be.” We go quiet.

I get one of those weird déjà-vu moments though. I see myself sitting cross-legged like I am now, but I’m showing Khalil how to do the price stickers.

We couldn’t help Khalil with his situation before he died. Maybe we can help DeVante.

I hand him a bag of Hot Fries. “I’m only gonna explain how to use this price gun one time, and you better pay attention.”

He grins. “My attention’s all yours, li’l momma.”

Later, when I’m supposed to be asleep, my mom tells my dad in the hallway, “So he’s hiding from King, and you think he should hide here?”

DeVante. Apparently, Daddy couldn’t “figure it out” and decided that DeVante should stay with us. Daddy dropped the two of us off a couple of hours ago before heading back to the store to protect it from the rioters. He just got back. He said our house is the one place King won’t look for DeVante.

“I had to do something,” Daddy says.

“I understand that, and I know you think this is your do-over with Khalil—” “It ain’t like that.”

“Yeah, it is,” she says softly. “I get it, baby. I have a ton of regrets regarding Khalil myself. But this? This is dangerous for our family.”

“It’s just for now. DeVante can’t stay in Garden Heights. This neighborhood ain’t good for him.” “Wait. It’s not good for him, but it’s fine for our kids?”

“C’mon, Lisa. It’s late. I’m not trying to hear this right now. I been at that store all night.”

“And I’ve been up all night, worried about you! Worried about my babies being in this neighborhood.” “They fine! They ain’t involved in none of that banging shit.”

Momma scoffs. “Yeah, so fine that I have to drive almost an hour to get them to a decent school. And God forbid Sekani wants to play outside. I gotta drive to my brother’s house, where I don’t have to worry about him getting shot like his sister’s best friend did.”

It’s messed up that she could mean either Khalil or Natasha.

“A’ight, let’s say we move,” Daddy said. “Then what? We just like all the other sellouts who leave and turn their backs on the neighborhood. We can change stuff around here, but instead we run? That’s what you wanna teach our kids?”

“I want my kids to enjoy life! I get it, Maverick, you wanna help your people out. I do too. That’s why I bust my butt every day at that clinic. But moving out of the neighborhood won’t mean you’re not real and it won’t mean you can’t help this community. You need to figure out what’s more important, your family or Garden Heights. I’ve already made my choice.”

“What you saying?”

“I’m saying I’ll do what I gotta do for my babies.” There are footsteps, then a door closes.

I stay up most of the night, wondering what that means for them. Us. Okay, yeah, they’ve talked about moving before, but they weren’t arguing about it like this until after Khalil died.

If they break up, it’ll be one more thing One-Fifteen takes from me.

DMU Timestamp: September 03, 2020 08:33