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[3 of 5] The Hate U Give - Part 1: When It Happens - Eleven to Fifteen - by Angie Thomas (2017)

Author: Angie Thomas

“Part 1: When It Happens - Eleven to Fifteen.” The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, Balzer & Bray/Harperteen, 2017, pp. 182-276.

ELEVEN

Monday morning, I know something is up when I first step into Williamson. Folks are quiet as hell. Well, whispering really, in little huddles in the halls and the atrium like they’re discussing plays during a basketball game.

Hailey and Maya find me before I find them. “Did you get the text?” Hailey asks.

That’s the first thing she says. No hey or anything. I still don’t have my phone, so I’m like, “What text?”

She shows me hers. There’s a big group text with about a hundred names on it. Hailey’s older brother, Remy, sent out the first message.

Protesting today @ 1st period.

Then curly-haired, dimpled Luke replied:

Hell yeah. Free day. I’m game.

And Remy came back with:

That’s the point, dumbass.

It’s like somebody hit a pause button on my heart. “They’re protesting for Khalil?”

“Yeah,” Hailey says, all giddy and shit. “Perfect timing too. I so did not study for that English exam. This is, like, the first time Remy actually came up with a good idea to get out of class. I mean, it’s kinda messed up that we’re protesting a drug dealer’s death, but—”

All my Williamson rules go out the door, and Starr from Garden Heights shows up. “What the fuck that got to do with it?”

Their mouths open into perfectly shaped O’s. “Like, I mean . . . if he was a drug dealer,” Hailey says, “that explains why . . .”

“He got killed even though he wasn’t doing shit? So it’s cool he got killed? But I thought you were protesting it?”

“We are! God, lighten up, Starr,” she says. “I thought you’d be all over this, considering your obsession on Tumblr lately.”

“You know what?” I say, one second from really going off. “Leave me alone. Have fun in your little protest.”

I wanna fight every person I pass, Floyd Mayweather style. They’re so damn excited about getting a day off. Khalil’s in a grave. He can’t get a day off from that shit. I live it every single day too.

In class I toss my backpack on the floor and throw myself into my seat. When Hailey and Maya come in, I give them a stank-eye and silently dare them to say shit to me.

I’m breaking all of my Williamson Starr rules with zero fucks to give.

Chris gets there before the bell rings, headphones draped around his neck. He comes down my aisle and squeezes my nose, going, “Honk, honk,” because for some reason it’s hilarious to him. Usually I laugh and swat at him, but today . . . Yeah, I’m not in the mood. I just swat. Kinda hard too.

He goes, “Ow,” and gives his hand a quick shake. “What’s wrong with you?”

I don’t respond. If I open my mouth, I’ll explode.

He crouches beside my desk and shakes my thigh. “Starr? You okay?”

Our teacher, balding, stumpy Mr. Warren, clears his throat. “Mr. Bryant, my class is not the Love Connection. Please have a seat.”

Chris slides into the desk next to mine. “What’s wrong with her?” he whispers to Hailey. She plays dumb and says, “Dunno.”

Mr. Warren tells us to take out our MacBooks and begins the lesson on British literature. Not even five minutes in, someone says, “Justice for Khalil.”

“Justice for Khalil,” the others chant. “Justice for Khalil.”

Mr. Warren tells them to stop, but they get louder and pound their fists on the desks. I wanna puke and scream and cry.

My classmates stampede toward the door. Maya’s the last one out. She glances back at me then at Hailey who motions her to come on. Maya follows her out.

I think I’m done following Hailey.

In the hall, chants for Khalil go off like sirens. Unlike Hailey, some of them may not care that he was a drug dealer. They might be almost as upset as I am. But since I know why Remy started this protest, I stay in my seat.

Chris does too for some reason. His desk scrapes the floor as it scoots closer to mine until they touch. He brushes my tears with his thumb.

“You knew him, didn’t you?” he says. I nod.

“Oh,” says Mr. Warren. “I am so sorry, Starr. You don’t have to—you can call your parents, you know?”

I wipe my face. The last thing I want is Momma making a fuss because I can’t handle all this. Worse, I don’t wanna be unable to handle it. “Can you continue with the lesson, sir?” I ask. “The distraction would be nice.”

He smiles sadly and does as I ask.

For the rest of the day, sometimes Chris and I are the only ones in our classes. Sometimes one or two other people join us. People go out of their way to tell me they think Khalil’s death is bullshit, but that Remy’s reason for protesting is bullshit too. I mean, this sophomore girl comes up to me in the hall and explains that she supports the cause but decided to go back to class after she heard why they were really protesting.

They act like I’m the official representative of the black race and they owe me an explanation. I think I understand though. If I sit out a protest, I’m making a statement, but if they sit out a protest, they look racist.

At lunch, Chris and I head to our table near the vending machines. Jess with her perfect pixie cut is the only one there, eating cheese fries and reading her phone.

“Hey?” I ask more than say. I’m surprised she’s here.

“S’up?” She nods. “Have a seat. As you can see, there’s plenty of room.”

I sit beside her, and Chris sits on the other side of me. Jess and I have played basketball together for three years, and she’s put her head on my shoulder for two of them, but I’m ashamed to admit I don’t know much about her. I do know she’s a senior, her parents are attorneys, and she works at a bookstore. I didn’t know that she’d skip the protest.

I guess I’m staring at her hard, because she says, “I don’t use dead people to get out of class.”

If I wasn’t straight I would totally date her for saying that. This time I rest my head on her shoulder.

She pats my hair and says, “White people do stupid shit sometimes.” Jess is white.

Seven and Layla join us with their trays. Seven holds his fist out to me. I bump it.

“Sev-en,” Jess says, and they fist-bump too. I had no idea they were cool like that. “I take it we’re protesting the ‘Get Out of Class’ protest?”

“Yep,” Seven says. “Protesting the ‘Get Out of Class’ protest.”

Seven and I get Sekani after school, and he won’t shut up about the news cameras he saw from his classroom window, because he’s Sekani and he came into this world looking for a camera. I have too many selfies of him on my phone giving the “light skin face,” his eyes squinted and eyebrows raised.

“Are y’all gonna be on the news?” he asks. “Nah,” says Seven. “Don’t need to be.”

We could go home, lock the door, and fight over the TV like we always do, or we could help Daddy at the store. We go to the store.

Daddy stands in the doorway, watching a reporter and camera operator set up in front of Mr. Lewis’s shop. Of course, when Sekani sees the camera, he says, “Ooh, I wanna be on TV!”

“Shut up,” I say. “No you don’t.”

“Yes, I do. You don’t know what I want!”

The car stops, and Sekani pushes my seat forward, sending my chin into the dashboard as he jumps out. “Daddy, I wanna be on TV!”

I rub my chin. His hyper butt is gonna kill me one day.

Daddy holds Sekani by the shoulders. “Calm down, man. You not gon’ be on TV.” “What’s going on?” Seven asks when we get out.

“Some cops got jumped around the corner,” Daddy says, one arm around Sekani’s chest to keep him still.

“Jumped?” I say.

“Yeah. They pulled them out their patrol car and stomped them. Gray Boys.” The code name for King Lords. Damn.

“I heard what happened at y’all school,” Daddy says. “Everything cool?” “Yeah.” I give the easy answer. “We’re good.”

Mr. Lewis adjusts his clothes and runs a hand over his Afro. The reporter says something, and he lets out a belly-jiggling laugh.

“What this fool ’bout to say?” Daddy wonders.

“We go live in five,” says the camera operator, and all I can think is, Please don’t put Mr. Lewis on live TV. “Four, three, two, one.”

“That’s right, Joe,” the reporter says. “I’m here with Mr. Cedric Lewis Jr., who witnessed the incident involving the officers today. Can you tell us what you saw, Mr. Lewis?”

“He ain’t witness nothing,” Daddy tells us. “Was in his shop the whole time. I told him what happened!”

“I sholl can,” Mr. Lewis says. “Them boys pulled those officers out their car. They weren’t doing nothing either. Just sitting there and got beat like dogs. Ridiculous! You hear me? Re-damn-diculous!”

Somebody’s gonna turn Mr. Lewis into a meme. He’s making a fool out of himself and doesn’t even know it.

“Do you think that it was retaliation for the Khalil Harris case?” the reporter asks.

“I sholl do! Which is stupid. These thugs been terrorizing Garden Heights for years, how they gon’ get

mad now? What, ’cause they didn’t kill him themselves? The president and all’a them searching for terrorists, but I’ll name one right now they can come get.”

“Don’t do it, Mr. Lewis,” Daddy prays. “Don’t do it.”

Of course, he does. “His name King, and he live right here in Garden Heights. Probably the biggest drug dealer in the city. He over that King Lords gang. Come get him if you wanna get somebody. Wasn’t nobody but his boys who did that to them cops anyway. We sick of this! Somebody march ’bout that!”

Daddy covers Sekani’s ears. Every cuss word that follows equals a dollar in Sekani’s jar if he hears it. “Shit,” Daddy hisses. “Shit, shit, shit. This motha—”

“He snitched,” says Seven. “On live TV,” I add.

Daddy keeps saying, “Shit, shit, shit.”

“Do you think that the curfew the mayor announced today will prevent incidents like this?” the reporter asks Mr. Lewis.

I look at Daddy. “What curfew?”

He takes his hands off Sekani’s ears. “Every business in Garden Heights gotta close by nine. And nobody can be in the streets after ten. Lights out, like in prison.”

“So you’ll be home tonight, Daddy?” Sekani asks.

Daddy smiles and pulls him closer. “Yeah, man. After you do your homework, I can show you a thang or two on Madden.”

The reporter wraps up her interview. Daddy waits until she and the camera operator leave and then goes over to Mr. Lewis. “You crazy?” he asks.

“What? ’Cause I told the truth?” Mr. Lewis says.

“Man, you can’t be going on live TV, snitching like that. You a dead man walking, you know that, right?”

“I ain’t scared of that nigga!” Mr. Lewis says real loud, for everybody to hear. “You scared of him?” “Nah, but I know how the game work.”

“I’m too old for games! You oughta be too!” “Mr. Lewis, listen—”

“Nah, you listen here, boy. I fought a war, came back, and fought one here. See this?” He lifts up his pants leg, revealing a plaid sock over a prosthetic. “Lost it in the war. This right here.” He lifts his shirt to his underarm. There’s a thin pink scar stretching from his back to his swollen belly. “Got it after some white boys cut me ’cause I drank from their fountain.” He lets his shirt fall down. “I done faced a whole lot worse than some so-called King. Ain’t nothing he can do but kill me, and if that’s how I gotta go for speaking the truth, that’s how I gotta go.”

“You don’t get it,” Daddy says.

“Yeah I do. Hell, I get you. Walking around here, claiming you ain’t a gangster no more, claiming you trying to change stuff, but still following all’a that ‘don’t snitch’ mess. And you teaching them kids the same thing, ain’t you? King still controlling your dumb ass, and you too stupid to realize it.”

“Stupid? How you gon’ call me stupid when you the one snitching on live TV!” A familiar whoop-whoop sound alarms us.

Oh God.

The patrol car with flashing lights cruises down the street. It stops next to Daddy and Mr. Lewis. Two officers get out. One black, one white. Their hands linger too close to the guns at their waists. No, no, no.

“We got a problem here?” the black one asks, looking squarely at Daddy. He’s bald just like Daddy,

but older, taller, bigger.

“No, sir, officer,” Daddy says. His hands that were once in his jeans pockets are visible at his sides. “You sure about that?” the younger white one asks. “It didn’t seem that way to us.”

“We were just talking, officers,” Mr. Lewis says, much softer than he was minutes ago. His hands are at his sides too. His parents must’ve had the talk with him when he was twelve.

“To me it looks like this young man was harassing you, sir,” the black one says, still looking at Daddy. He hasn’t looked at Mr. Lewis yet. I wonder if it’s because Mr. Lewis isn’t wearing an NWA T-shirt. Or because there aren’t tattoos all on his arms. Or because he’s not wearing somewhat baggy jeans and a backwards cap.

“You got some ID on you?” the black cop asks Daddy. “Sir, I was about to go back to my store—”

“I said do you have some ID on you?”

My hands shake. Breakfast, lunch, and everything else churns in my stomach, ready to come back up my throat. They’re gonna take Daddy from me.

“What’s going on?”

I turn around. Tim, Mr. Reuben’s nephew, walks over to us. People have stopped on the sidewalk across the street.

“I’m gonna reach for my ID,” Daddy says. “It’s in my back pocket. A’ight?” “Daddy—” I say.

Daddy keeps his eyes on the officer. “Y’all, go in the store, a’ight? It’s okay.” We don’t move though.

Daddy’s hand slowly goes to his back pocket, and I look from his hands to theirs, watching to see if they’re gonna make a move for their guns.

Daddy removes his wallet, the leather one I bought him for Father’s Day with his initials embossed on it. He shows it to them.

“See? My ID is in here.”

His voice has never sounded so small.

The black officer takes the wallet and opens it. “Oh,” he says. “Maverick Carter.” He exchanges a look with his partner.

Both of them look at me. My heart stops.

They’ve realized I’m the witness.

There must be a file that lists my parents’ names on it. Or the detectives blabbed, and now everyone at the station knows our names. Or they could’ve gotten it from Uncle Carlos somehow. I don’t know how it happened, but it happened. And if something happens to Daddy . . .

The black officer looks at him. “Get on the ground, hands behind your back.” “But—”

“On the ground, face-down!” he yells. “Now!”

Daddy looks at us. His expression apologizes for the fact that we have to see this.

He gets down on one knee and lowers himself to the ground, face-down. His hands go behind his back, and his fingers interlock.

Where’s that camera operator now? Why can’t this be on the news?

“Now, wait a minute, Officer,” Mr. Lewis says. “Me and him were just talking.” “Sir, go inside,” the white cop tells him.

“But he didn’t do anything!” Seven says.

“Boy, go inside!” the black cop says. “No! That’s my father, and—” “Seven!” Daddy yells.

Even though he’s lying on the concrete, there’s enough authority in his voice to make Seven shut up. The black officer checks Daddy while his partner glances around at all of the onlookers. There’s quite

a few of us now. Ms. Yvette and a couple of her clients stand in her doorway, towels around the clients’ shoulders. A car has stopped in the street.

“Everyone, go about your own business,” the white one says. “No, sir,” says Tim. “This is our business.”

The black cop keeps his knee on Daddy’s back as he searches him. He pats him down once, twice, three times, just like One-Fifteen did Khalil. Nothing.

“Larry,” the white cop says.

The black one, who must be Larry, looks up at him, then at all the people who have gathered around. Larry takes his knee off Daddy’s back and stands. “Get up,” he says.

Slowly, Daddy gets to his feet.

Larry glances at me. Bile pools in my mouth. He turns to Daddy and says, “I’m keeping an eye on you, boy. Remember that.”

Daddy’s jaw looks rock hard.

The cops drive off. The car that had stopped in the street leaves, and all of the onlookers go on about their business. One person hollers out, “It’s all right, Maverick.”

Daddy looks at the sky and blinks the way I do when I don’t wanna cry. He clenches and unclenches his hands.

Mr. Lewis touches his back. “C’mon, son.”

He guides Daddy our way, but they pass us and go into the store. Tim follows them.

“Why did they do Daddy like that?” Sekani asks softly. He looks at me and Seven with tears in his eyes.

Seven wraps an arm around him. “I don’t know, man.”

I know.

I go in the store.

DeVante leans against a broom near the cash register, wearing one of those ugly green aprons Daddy tries to make me and Seven wear when we work in the store.

There’s a pang in my chest. Khalil wore one too.

DeVante’s talking to Kenya as she holds a basket full of groceries. When the bell on the door clangs behind me, both of them look my way.

“Yo, what happened?” DeVante asks. “Was that the cops outside?” says Kenya.

From here I see Mr. Lewis and Tim standing in the doorway of Daddy’s office. He must be in there. “Yeah,” I answer Kenya, heading toward the back. Kenya and DeVante follow me, asking about fifty

million questions that I don’t have time to answer.

Papers are scattered all on the office floor. Daddy’s hunched over his desk, his back moving up and down with each heavy breath.

He pounds the desk. “Fuck!”

Daddy once told me there’s a rage passed down to every black man from his ancestors, born the moment they couldn’t stop the slave masters from hurting their families. Daddy also said there’s nothing more dangerous than when that rage is activated.

“Let it out, son,” Mr. Lewis tells him.

“Fuck them pigs, man,” Tim says. “They only did that shit ’cause they know ’bout Starr.” Wait. What?

Daddy glances over his shoulder. His eyes are puffy and wet, like he’s been crying. “The hell you talking ’bout, Tim?”

“One of the homeboys saw you, Lisa, and your baby girl getting out an ambulance at the crime scene that night,” Tim says. “Word spread around the neighborhood, and folks think she’s the witness they been talking ’bout on the news.”

Oh.

Shit.

“Starr, go ring Kenya up,” Daddy says. “Vante, finish them floors.” I head for the cash register, passing Seven and Sekani.

The neighborhood knows.

I ring Kenya up, my stomach knotted the whole time. If the neighborhood knows, it won’t be long until people outside of Garden Heights know. And then what?

“You rang that up twice,” Kenya says. “Huh?”

“The milk. You rang it up twice, Starr.” “Oh.”

I cancel one of the milks and put the carton into a bag. Kenya’s probably cooking for herself and Lyric tonight. She does that sometimes. I ring up the rest of her stuff, take her money, and hand her the change.

She stares at me a second, then says, “Were you really the one with him?” My throat is thick. “Does it matter?”

“Yeah, it matters. Why you keeping quiet ’bout it? Like you hiding or something.” “Don’t say it that way.”

“But it is that way. Right?”

I sigh. “Kenya, stop. You don’t understand, all right?” Kenya folds her arms. “What’s to understand?”

“A lot!” I don’t mean to yell, but damn. “I can’t go around telling people that shit.” “Why not?”

“Because! You ain’t see what the cops just did to my dad ’cause they know I’m the witness.”

“So you gon’ let the police stop you from speaking out for Khalil? I thought you cared about him way more than that.”

“I do.” I care more than she may ever know. “I already talked to the cops, Kenya. Nothing happened. What else am I supposed to do?”

“Go on TV or something, I don’t know,” she says. “Tell everybody what really happened that night. They’re not even giving his side of the story. You’re letting them trash-talk him—”

“Excuse— How the hell am I letting them do anything?”

“You hear all the stuff they’re saying ’bout him on the news, calling him a thug and stuff, and you know that ain’t Khalil. I bet if he was one of your private school friends, you’d be all on TV, defending him and shit.”

“Are you for real?”

“Hell yeah,” she says. “You dropped him for them bougie-ass kids, and you know it. You probably would’ve dropped me if I didn’t come around ’cause of my brother.”

“That’s not true!”

“You sure?” I’m not.

Kenya shakes her head. “Fucked-up part about this? The Khalil I know would’ve jumped on TV in a hot second and told everybody what happened that night if it meant defending you. And you can’t do the same for him.”

It’s a verbal slap. The worst kind too, because it’s the truth.

Kenya gets her bags. “I’m just saying, Starr. If I could change what happens at my house with my momma and daddy, I would. Here you are, with a chance to help change what happens in our whole neighborhood, and you staying quiet. Like a coward.”

Kenya leaves. Tim and Mr. Lewis aren’t far behind her. Tim gives me the black power fist on his way out. I don’t deserve it though.

I head to Daddy’s office. Seven’s standing in the doorway, and Daddy’s sitting on his desk. Sekani’s next to him, nodding along to whatever Daddy’s saying but looking sad. Reminds me of the time Daddy and Momma had the talk with me. Guess Daddy decided not to wait until Sekani’s twelve.

Daddy sees me. “Sev, go cover the cash register. Take Sekani with you. ’Bout time he learned.” “Aww, man,” Sekani groans. Don’t blame him. The more you learn to do at the store, the more you’re

expected to do at the store.

Daddy pats the now-empty spot beside him on the desk. I hop up on it. His office has just enough space for the desk and a file cabinet. Framed photographs crowd the walls, like the one of him and Momma at the courthouse the day they got married, her belly (a.k.a. me) big and round; pictures of me and my brothers as babies, and this one picture from about seven years ago when my parents took the three of us to the mall for one of those J. C. Penney family portraits. They dressed alike in baseball jerseys, baggy jeans, and Timberlands. Tacky.

“You a’ight?” Daddy asks. “Are you?”

“I will be,” he says. “Just hate that you and your brothers had to see that shit.” “They only did it ’cause of me.”

“Nah, baby. They started that before they knew ’bout you.”

“But that didn’t help.” I stare at my J’s as I kick my feet back and forth. “Kenya called me a coward for not speaking out.”

“She didn’t mean it. She going through a lot, that’s all. King throwing Iesha around like a rag doll every single night.”

“But she’s right.” My voice cracks. I’m this close to crying. “I am a coward. After seeing what they did to you, I don’t wanna say shit now.”

“Hey.” Daddy takes my chin so I have no choice but to look at him. “Don’t fall for that trap. That’s what they want. If you don’t wanna speak out, that’s up to you, but don’t let it be because you’re scared of them. Who do I tell you that you have to fear?”

“Nobody but God. And you and Momma. Especially Momma when she’s extremely pissed.”

He chuckles. “Yeah. The list ends there. You ain’t got nothing or nobody else to fear. You see this?” He rolls up his shirt sleeve, revealing the tattoo of my baby picture on his upper arm. “What it say at the bottom?”

“Something to live for, something to die for,” I say, without really looking. I’ve seen it my whole life. “Exactly. You and your brothers are something to live for, and something to die for, and I’ll do whatever I gotta do to protect you.” He kisses my forehead. “If you’re ready to talk, baby, talk. I got your

back.”

TWELVE

I’m luring Brickz inside when it passes out front.

I watch it crawl down the street for the longest time till I get the sense to alert somebody. “Daddy!” He looks up from pulling weeds around his bell peppers. “Are they for real with that?”

The tank resembles the ones they show on the news when talking about war in the Middle East. It’s the size of two Hummers. The blue-and-white lights on the front make the street almost as bright as it is in daytime. An officer is positioned on top, wearing a vest and a helmet. He points his rifle ahead.

A voice booms from the armored vehicle, “All persons found violating the curfew will be subject to arrest.”

Daddy pulls more weeds. “Some bullshit.”

Brickz follows the piece of bologna I dangle in front of him all the way to his spot in the kitchen. He sits there all content, chomping on it and the rest of his food. Brickz won’t act crazy as long as Daddy’s home.

All of us are kinda like Brickz, really. Daddy being home means Momma won’t sit up all night, Sekani won’t flinch all the time, and Seven won’t have to be the man of the house. I’ll sleep better too.

Daddy comes in, dusting caked dirt off his hands. “Them roses dying. Brickz, you been pissing on my roses?”

Brickz’s head perks up. He locks his eyes with Daddy’s but eventually lowers his head. “I bet’ not catch you doing it,” Daddy says. “Or we gon’ have a problem.”

Brickz lowers his eyes too.

I grab a paper towel and a slice of pizza from the box on the counter. This is like my fourth slice tonight. Momma bought two huge pies from Sal’s on the other side of the freeway. Italians own it, so the pizza is thin, herby (is that a word?), and good.

“You finished your homework?” Daddy asks. “Yep.” A lie.

He washes his hands at the kitchen sink. “Got any tests this week?” “Trig on Friday.”

“You studied for it?” “Yep.” Another lie.

“Good.” He gets the grapes out the refrigerator. “You still got that old laptop? The one you had before we bought you that expensive-ass fruit one?”

I laugh. “It’s an Apple MacBook, Daddy.”

“It damn sure wasn’t the price of an apple. Anyway, you got the old one?” “Yeah.”

“Good. Give it to Seven. Tell him to look over it and make sure it’s a’ight. I want DeVante to have it.” “Why?”

“You pay bills?”

“No.”

“Then I ain’t gotta answer that.”

That’s how he gets out of almost every argument with me. I should buy one of those cheap magazine subscriptions and say, “Yeah, I pay a bill, and what?” It won’t matter though.

I head to my room after I finish my pizza. Daddy’s already gone to his and Momma’s room. Their TV’s on, and they’re both lying on their stomachs on the bed, one of her legs on his as she types on her laptop. It’s oddly adorable. Sometimes I watch them to get an idea of what I want one day.

“You still mad at me ’bout DeVante?” Daddy asks her. She doesn’t answer, keeping her eyes on her laptop. He scrunches up his nose and gets all in her face. “You still mad at me? Huh? You still mad at me?”

She laughs and playfully pushes at him. “Move, boy. No, I’m not mad at you. Now give me a grape.” He grins and feeds her a grape, and I just can’t. The cuteness is too much. Yeah, they’re my parents,

but they’re my OTP. Seriously.

Daddy watches whatever she’s doing on the computer, feeding her a grape every time he eats one. She’s probably uploading the latest family snapshots on Facebook for our out-of-town relatives. With everything that’s going on, what can she say? “Sekani saw cops harass his daddy, but he’s doing so well in school. #ProudMom.” Or, “Starr saw her best friend die, keep her in your prayers, but my baby made the honor roll again. #Blessed.” Or even, “Tanks are rolling by outside, but Seven’s been accepted into six colleges so far. #HeIsGoingPlaces.”

I go to my room. Both my old and new laptops are on my desk, which is a mess. There’s a huge pair of Daddy’s Jordans next to my old laptop. The yellowed bottoms of the sneakers face the lamp, and a layer of Saran Wrap protects my concoction of detergent and toothpaste that’ll eventually clean them. Watching yellowed soles turn icy again is as satisfying as squeezing a blackhead and getting all the gunk out. Ah-maz-ing.

According to the lie I told Daddy, my homework is supposed to be done, but I’ve been on a “Tumblr break,” a.k.a. I haven’t started my homework and have spent the last two hours on Tumblr. I started a new blog—The Khalil I Know. It doesn’t have my name on it, just pictures of Khalil. In the first one he’s thirteen with an Afro. Uncle Carlos took us to a ranch so we could “get a taste of country life,” and Khalil’s looking side-eyed at a horse that’s beside him. I remember him saying, “If this thing makes a wrong move, I’m running!”

On Tumblr, I captioned the picture: “The Khalil I know was afraid of animals.” I tagged it with his name. One person liked it and reblogged it. Then another and another.

That made me post more pictures, like one of us in a bathtub when we were four. You can’t see our private parts because of all the suds, and I’m looking away from the camera. Ms. Rosalie’s sitting on the side of the tub, beaming at us, and Khalil’s beaming right back at her. I wrote, “The Khalil I know loved bubble baths almost as much as he loved his grandma.”

In just two hours, hundreds of people have liked and reblogged the pictures. I know it’s not the same as getting on the news like Kenya said, but I hope it helps. It’s helping me at least.

Other people posted about Khalil, uploaded artwork of him, posted pictures of him that they show on the news. I think I’ve reblogged every single one.

Funny though: somebody posted a video clip of Tupac from back in the day. Okay, so every video clip of Tupac is from back in the day. He’s got a little kid on his lap and is wearing a backwards snapback that would be fly now. He explains Thug Life like Khalil said he did—The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody. ’Pac spells out “Fucks” because that kid is looking dead in his face. When Khalil told me what it meant I kinda understood it. I really understand it now.

I grab my old laptop when my phone buzzes on my desk. Momma returned it earlier—hallelujah, thank you, Black Jesus. She said it’s only in case there’s another situation at school. I got it back though, don’t really care why. I’m hoping it’s a text from Kenya. I sent her the link to my new Tumblr earlier. Thought she’d like to see it since she kinda pushed me to do it.

But it’s Chris. He took note from Seven with his all-caps texts:

OMG!

THIS FRESH PRINCE EPISODE

WILL’S DAD DIDN’T TAKE HIM WITH HIM

THE ASSHOLE CAME BACK AND LEFT HIM AGAIN

NOW HE’S HAVING A BREAKDOWN WITH UNCLE PHIL

MY EYES ARE SWEATING

Understandable. That’s seriously the saddest episode ever. I text Chris back:

Sorry :(. And your eyes aren’t sweating. You’re crying, babe.

He replies:

LIES!

I say:

You ain’t gotta lie, Craig. You ain’t gotta lie.

He responds:

DID YOU REALLY USE A LINE FROM FRIDAY ON ME???

So watching nineties movies is kinda our thing too. I text back:

Yep ե

He replies:

BYE, FELICIA!

I take the laptop to Seven’s room, phone in hand in case Chris has another Fresh Prince breakdown. Some reggae chants meet me in the hall, followed by Kendrick Lamar rapping about being a hypocrite. Seven sits on the side of the lower bunk, an open computer tower at his feet. With his head down, his dreads hang loosely and make a curtain in front of his face. DeVante sits cross-legged on the floor. His Afro bobs to the song.

A zombie version of Steve Jobs watches them from a poster on the wall along with all these superheroes and Star Wars characters. There’s a Slytherin comforter on the bottom bunk that I swear I’ll steal one day. Seven and I are reverse HP fans—we liked the movies first, then the books. I got Khalil and Natasha hooked on them too. Momma found the first movie for a dollar at a thrift store back when we lived in the Cedar Grove projects. Seven and I said we were Slytherins since almost all Slytherins were rich. When you’re a kid in a one-bedroom in the projects, rich is the best thing anybody can be.

Seven removes a silver box from the computer and examines it. “It’s not even that old.” “What are you doing?” I ask.

“Big D asked me to fix his computer. It needs some new DVD drives. He burnt his out making all them bootlegs.”

My brother is the unofficial Garden Heights tech guy. Old ladies, hustlers, and everybody in between pay him to fix their computers and phones. He makes good money like that too.

A black garbage bag leans against the foot of the bunk bed with some clothes sticking out the top of it. Somebody put it over the fence and left it in our front yard. Seven, Sekani, and I found it when we came home from the store. We thought it may have been DeVante’s, but Seven looked inside and everything in it belonged to him. The stuff he had at his momma’s house.

He called Iesha. She said she was putting him out. King told her to.

“Seven, I’m sorry—” “It’s okay, Starr.”

“But she shouldn’t have—”

“I said it’s okay.” He glances up at me. “All right? Don’t sweat it.”

“All right,” I say as my phone vibrates. I hand DeVante the laptop and look. Still no response from Kenya. Instead it’s a text from Maya.

Are u mad @ us?

“What’s this for?” DeVante asks, staring at the laptop.

“Daddy wants you to have it. But he said let Seven check it out first,” I tell him as I reply to Maya.

What do u think?

“What he want me to have it for?” DeVante asks.

“Maybe he wants to see if you actually know how to operate one,” I tell DeVante. “I know how to use a computer,” DeVante says. He hits Seven, who’s snickering. My phone buzzes three times. Maya has responded.

Definitely mad. Can the 3 of us talk?

Things have been awkward lately.

Typical Maya. If Hailey and I have any kind of disagreement, she tries to fix it. She has to know this won’t be a “Kumbaya” moment. I reply:

Okay. Will let u know when I’m @ my uncle’s.

Gunshots fire at rapid speed in the distance. I flinch.

“Goddamn machine guns,” Daddy says. “Folks acting like this Iran or some shit.” “No cussing, Daddy!” Sekani says from the den.

“Sorry, man. I’ll add a dollar to the jar.” “Two! You said the ‘g-d’ word.”

“A’ight, two. Starr, come to the kitchen for a second.”

In the kitchen, Momma speaks in her “other voice” on the phone. “Yes, ma’am. We want the same thing.” She sees me. “And here’s my lovely daughter now. Could you hold, please?” She covers the receiver. “It’s the DA. She would like to talk to you this week.”

Definitely not what I expected. “Oh . . .”

“Yeah,” Momma says. “Look, baby, if you’re not comfortable with it—” “I am.” I glance at Daddy. He nods. “I can do it.”

“Oh,” she says, looking from me to Daddy and back. “Okay. As long as you’re sure. I think we should meet with Ms. Ofrah first though. Possibly take her up on her offer to represent you.”

“Definitely,” Daddy says. “I don’t trust them folks at the DA office.”

“So how about we see her tomorrow and meet with the DA later on this week?” Momma asks.

I grab another slice of pizza and take a bite. It’s cold now, but cold pizza is the best pizza. “So two days of no school?”

“Oh, you’re going to school,” she says. “And did you eat any salad while you’re eating all that pizza?” “I’ve had veggies. These little bitty peppers.”

“They don’t count when they’re that little.”

“Yeah, they do. If babies can count as humans when they’re little, veggies can count as veggies when they’re little.”

“That logic ain’t working with me. So, we’ll meet with Ms. Ofrah tomorrow and the DA on Wednesday. Sound like a plan?”

“Yeah, except the school part.”

Momma uncovers the phone. “Sorry for the delay. We can come in on Wednesday morning.”

“In the meantime tell your boys the mayor and the police chief to get them fucking tanks out my neighborhood,” Daddy says loudly. Momma swats at him, but he’s going down the hall. “Claim folks need to act peaceful, but rolling through here like we in a goddamn war.”

“Two dollars, Daddy,” Sekani says.

When Momma hangs up, I say, “It wouldn’t kill me to miss one day of school. I don’t wanna be there if they try that protest mess again.” I wouldn’t be surprised if Remy tried to get a whole week off because of Khalil. “I need two days, that’s all.” Momma raises her brows. “Okay, one and a half. Please?”

She takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. “We’ll see. But not a word of this to your brothers, you hear me?”

Basically, she said yes without saying yes outright. I can deal with that.

Pastor Eldridge once preached that “Faith isn’t just believing but taking steps toward that belief.” So when my alarm goes off Tuesday morning, by faith I don’t get up, believing that Momma won’t make me go to school.

And to quote Pastor Eldridge, hallelujah, God shows up and shows out. Momma doesn’t make me get up. I stay in bed, listening as everybody else gets ready for the day. Sekani makes it his business to tell Momma I’m not up yet.

“Don’t worry about her,” she says. “Worry about yourself.”

The TV in the den blares some morning news show, and Momma hums around the house. When Khalil and One-Fifteen are mentioned, the volume lowers a whole lot and doesn’t go back up until a political story comes on.

My phone buzzes under my pillow. I take it out and look. Kenya finally texted me back about my new Tumblr. She would make me wait hours for a response, and her comment is short as hell:

It’s aight

I roll my eyes. That’s about as close as I’m gonna get to a compliment from her. I text back.

I love you too

Her response?

I know g}

She’s so petty. Part of me wonders though if she didn’t respond last night ’cause of drama at her house. Daddy said King’s still beating Iesha up. Sometimes he hits Kenya and Lyric too. Kenya’s not the type to talk about it like that, so I ask:

Everything okay?

The usual, she writes back.

Short, but it says enough. There isn’t much I can do, so I just remind her:

I’m here if you need me

Her response?

You better be

See? Petty.

Here’s the messed-up part about missing school: you wonder what you would be doing if you went. At eight, I figure Chris and I would just be getting to history since it’s our first class on Tuesdays. I send him a quick text.

Won’t be at school today.

Two minutes later, he replies.

Are you sick? Need me to kiss it and make it better? Wink wink

He seriously typed “wink wink” instead of two wink emojis. I’ll admit, I smile. I write back:

What if I’m contagious?

He says:

Doesn’t matter. I’ll kiss you anywhere. Wink wink.

I reply:

Is that another line?

He responds in less than a minute.

It’s whatever you want it to be. Love you Fresh Princess.

Pause. That “L” word completely catches me off guard, like a player from the other team stealing the ball right as you’re about to make a layup. It takes all of your momentum and you spend a week wondering how that steal slipped up on you.

Yeah. Chris saying “love you” is like that, except I can’t waste a week wondering about it. By not answering, I’m answering, if that makes sense. The shot clock is winding down, and I need to say something.

But what?

By not saying “I” before “love you,” he’s making it more casual. Seriously, “love you” and “I love you” are different. Same team, different players. “Love you” isn’t as forward or aggressive as “I love you.” “Love you” can slip up on you, sure, but it doesn’t make an in-your-face slam dunk. More like a nice jump shot.

Two minutes pass. I need to say something.

Love you too.

It’s as foreign as a Spanish word I haven’t learned yet, but funny enough it comes pretty easily. I get a wink emoji in return.

Just Us for Justice occupies the old Taco Bell on Magnolia Avenue, between the car wash and the cash advance place. Daddy used to take me and Seven to that Taco Bell every Friday and get us ninety-nine-cent tacos, cinnamon twists, and a soda to share. This was right after he got out of prison, when he didn’t have a lot of money. He usually watched us eat. Sometimes he asked the manager, one of Momma’s girlfriends, to keep an eye on us, and he went to the cash advance place next door. When I got older and discovered that presents don’t just “show up,” I realized Daddy always went over there around our birthdays and Christmas.

Momma rings the doorbell at Just Us, and Ms. Ofrah lets us in.

“Sorry about that,” she says, locking the door. “It’s just me here today.” “Oh,” Momma says. “Where are your colleagues?”

“Some of them are at Garden Heights High doing a roundtable discussion. Others are leading a march on Carnation where Khalil was murdered.”

It’s weird to hear somebody say “Khalil was murdered” as easily as Ms. Ofrah does. She doesn’t bite her tongue or hesitate.

Short-walled cubicles take up most of the restaurant. They have almost as many posters as Seven has, but the kind Daddy would love, like Malcolm X standing next to a window holding a rifle, Huey Newton in prison with his fist up for black power, and photographs of the Black Panthers at rallies and giving breakfast to kids.

Ms. Ofrah leads us to her cubicle next to the drive-through window. It’s kinda funny too ’cause she has a Taco Bell cup on her desk. “Thank you so much for coming,” she says. “I was so happy when you

called, Mrs. Carter.”

“Please, call me Lisa. How long have you all been in this space?”

“Almost two years now. And if you’re wondering, yes, we do get the occasional prankster who pulls up to the window and tells me they want a chalupa.”

We laugh. The doorbell rings up front.

“That’s probably my husband,” Momma says. “He was on his way.”

Ms. Ofrah leaves, and soon Daddy’s voice echoes through the office as he follows her back. He grabs a third chair from another cubicle and sets it halfway in Ms. Ofrah’s office and halfway in the hall. That’s how small her cubicle is.

“Sorry I’m late. Had to get DeVante situated with Mr. Lewis.” “Mr. Lewis?” I ask.

“Yeah. Since I’m here, I asked him to let DeVante help around the shop. Mr. Lewis needs somebody to look out for his dumb behind. Snitching on live TV.”

“You’re talking about the gentleman who did the interview about the King Lords?” Ms. Ofrah asks. “Yeah, him,” says Daddy. “He owns the barbershop next to my store.”

“Oh, wow. That interview definitely has people talking. Last I checked it had almost a million views online.”

I knew it. Mr. Lewis has become a meme.

“It takes a lot of guts to be as upfront as he is. I meant what I said at Khalil’s funeral, Starr. It was very brave of you to talk to the police.”

“I don’t feel brave.” With Malcolm X watching me on her wall, I can’t lie. “I’m not running my mouth on TV like Mr. Lewis.”

“And that’s okay,” Ms. Ofrah says. “It seemed Mr. Lewis impulsively spoke out in anger and frustration. In a case like Khalil’s, I would much rather that you spoke out in a more deliberate and planned way.” She looks at Momma. “You said the DA called yesterday?”

“Yes. They’d like to meet with Starr tomorrow.”

“Makes sense. The case was turned over to their office, and they’re preparing to take it to a grand jury.”

“What does that mean?” I ask.

“A jury will decide if charges should be brought against Officer Cruise.” “And Starr will have to testify to the grand jury,” Daddy says.

Ms. Ofrah nods. “It’s a bit different from a normal trial. There won’t be a judge or a defense attorney present, and the DA will ask Starr questions.”

“But what if I can’t answer them all?” “What do you mean?” Ms. Ofrah says.

“I—the gun in the car stuff. On the news they said there may have been a gun in the car, like that changes everything. I honestly don’t know if there was.”

Ms. Ofrah opens a folder that’s on her desk, takes a piece of paper out, and pushes it toward me. It’s a photograph of Khalil’s black hairbrush, the one he used in the car.

“That’s the so-called gun,” Ms. Ofrah explains. “Officer Cruise claims he saw it in the car door, and he assumed Khalil was reaching for it. The handle was thick enough, black enough, for him to assume it was a gun.”

“And Khalil was black enough,” Daddy adds. A hairbrush.

Khalil died over a fucking hairbrush.

Ms. Ofrah slips the photograph back in the folder. “It’ll be interesting to see how his father addresses it in his interview tonight.”

Hold up. “Interview?” I ask.

Momma shifts a little in her chair. “Um . . . the officer’s father has a television interview that’s airing tonight.”

I glance from her to Daddy. “And nobody told me?” “’Cause it ain’t worth talking about, baby,” Daddy says.

I look at Ms. Ofrah. “So his dad can give his son’s side to the whole world, and I can’t give mine and Khalil’s? He’s gonna have everybody thinking One-Fifteen’s the victim.”

“Not necessarily,” Ms. Ofrah says. “Sometimes these kinds of things backfire. And at the end of the day, the court of public opinion has no say in this. The grand jury does. If they see enough evidence, which they should, Officer Cruise will be charged and tried.”

“If,” I repeat.

A wave of awkward silence rolls in. One-Fifteen’s father is his voice, but I’m Khalil’s. The only way people will know his side of the story is if I speak out.

I look out the drive-through window at the car wash next door. Water cascades from a hose, making rainbows against the sunlight like it did six years ago, right before bullets took Natasha.

I turn to Ms. Ofrah. “When I was ten, I saw my other best friend get murdered in a drive-by.” Funny how murdered comes out easily now.

“Oh.” Ms. Ofrah sinks back. “I didn’t— I’m so sorry, Starr.”

I stare at my fingers and fumble with them. Tears well in my eyes. “I’ve tried to forget it, but I remember everything. The shots, the look on Natasha’s face. They never caught the person who did it. I guess it didn’t matter enough. But it did matter. She mattered.” I look at Ms. Ofrah, but I can barely see her for all the tears. “And I want everyone to know that Khalil mattered too.”

Ms. Ofrah blinks. A lot. “Absolutely. I—” She clears her throat. “I would like to represent you, Starr. Pro bono, in fact.”

Momma nods, and she’s teary-eyed too.

“I’ll do whatever I can to make sure you’re heard, Starr. Because just like Khalil and Natasha mattered, you matter and your voice matters. I can start by trying to get you a television interview.” She looks at my parents. “If you’re okay with that.”

“As long as they don’t reveal her identity, yeah,” Daddy says.

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” she says. “We will absolutely make sure her privacy is protected.”

A quiet buzzing comes from Daddy’s way. He takes out his phone and answers. The person on the other end shouts something, but I can’t make it out. “Ay, calm down, Vante. Say that again?” The response makes Daddy stand up. “I’m coming. You call nine-one-one?”

“What’s wrong?” Momma says.

He motions for us to follow him. “Stay with him, a’ight? We on the way.”

THIRTEEN

Mr. Lewis’s left eye is swollen shut and blood drips onto his shirt from a slash on his cheek, but he refuses to go to the hospital.

Daddy’s office has become an examining room, and Momma tends to Mr. Lewis with Daddy’s help. I lean against the doorway and watch. DeVante stands even farther back in the store.

“It took five of ’em to take me down,” Mr. Lewis says. “Five of ’em! Against one li’l ol’ man. Ain’t that something?”

“It’s really something that you’re alive,” I say. Snitches get stitches doesn’t apply to King Lords. More like snitches get graves.

Momma tilts Mr. Lewis’s head to look at the cut on his cheek. “She’s right. You’re real lucky, Mr. Lewis. Don’t even need stitches.”

“King himself gave me that one,” he says. “He ain’t come in till them other ones got me down. Ol’ punk ass, looking like a black Michelin Man.”

I snort.

“This ain’t funny,” Daddy says. “I told you they was gon’ come after you.”

“And I told you I ain’t scared! If this the worst they could do, they ain’t did nothing!” “Nah, this ain’t the worst,” says Daddy. “They could’ve killed you!”

“I ain’t the one they want dead!” He stretches his fat finger my way, but he looks beyond me at DeVante. “That’s the one you need to worry ’bout! I made him hide before they came in, but King said he know you helping that boy, and he gon’ kill him if he find him.”

DeVante backs away, his eyes wide.

I swear, in like two seconds Daddy grabs DeVante by his neck and slams him against the freezer. “What the hell you do?”

DeVante kicks and squirms and tries to pull Daddy’s hands from his neck. “Daddy, stop!”

“Shut up!” His glare never leaves DeVante. “I brought you in my house, and you ain’t been honest ’bout why you hiding? King wouldn’t want you dead unless you did something, so what you do?”

“Mav-rick!” Momma breaks his name down real good. “Let him go. He can’t explain anything with you choking him.”

Daddy releases, and DeVante bends over, gasping for air. “Don’t be putting your hands on me!” he says.

“Or what?” Daddy taunts. “Start talking.” “Man, look, it ain’t a big deal. King tripping.” Is he for real? “What did you do?” I ask.

DeVante slides onto the floor and tries to catch his breath. He blinks real fast for several seconds. His face scrunches up. Suddenly he’s bawling like a baby.

I don’t know anything else to do, so I sit in front of him. When Khalil would cry like that because his

momma was messed up, I’d lift his head. I lift DeVante’s. “It’s okay,” I say.

That always worked with Khalil. It works with DeVante too. He stops crying as hard and says, “I stole ’bout five Gs from King.”

“Dammit!” Daddy groans. “What the hell, man?”

“I had to get my family outta here! I was gonna handle the dudes that killed Dalvin, and shit, all that would do was make some GDs come after me. I was a dead man walking, straight up. I didn’t want my momma and my sisters caught up in that. So I got them some bus tickets and got them outta town.”

“That’s why we can’t get your momma on the phone,” Momma realizes.

Tears fall around his lips. “She didn’t want me coming anyway. Said I’d get them killed. Put me out the house before they left.” He looks at Daddy. “Big Mav, I’m sorry. I should’ve told you the other day. I did change my mind ’bout killing them dudes though, but now King wants me dead. Please don’t take me to him. I’ll do anything. Please?”

“He bet’ not!” Mr. Lewis limps out Daddy’s office. “You help that boy, Maverick!” Daddy stares at the ceiling like he could cuss God out.

“Daddy,” I plead. “A’ight! C’mon, Vante.”

“Big Mav,” he whimpers, “I’m sorry, please—”

“I’m not taking you to King, but we gotta get you outta here. Now.”

Forty minutes later, Momma and I pull up behind Daddy and DeVante in Uncle Carlos’s driveway.

I’m surprised Daddy knows how to get here. He never comes out here with us. Ne-ver. Holidays, birthdays, none of that. I guess he doesn’t wanna deal with Nana and her mouth.

Momma and I get out her car as Daddy and DeVante get out the truck. “This is where you’re bringing him?” Momma says. “My brother’s house?” “Yeah,” Daddy says, like it’s no big deal.

Uncle Carlos comes from the garage, wiping oil off his hands with one of Aunt Pam’s good towels. He shouldn’t be home. It’s the middle of a workday, and he never takes sick days. He stops wiping his hands, but the knuckles on one of them are still dark.

DeVante squints against the sunlight and looks around like we brought him to another planet. “Damn, Big Mav. Where we at?”

“Where are we?” Uncle Carlos corrects, and offers his hand. “Carlos. You must be DeVante.” DeVante stares at his hand. No manners at all. “How you know my name?”

Uncle Carlos awkwardly lets his hand fall to his side. “Maverick told me about you. We’ve discussed getting you out here.”

“Oh!” Momma says with a hollow laugh. “Maverick’s discussed getting him out here.” She narrows her eyes at Daddy. “I’m surprised you even knew how to get out here, Maverick.”

Daddy’s nostrils flare. “We’ll talk later.”

“C’mon,” Uncle Carlos says. “I’ll show you your room.”

DeVante stares at the house, his eyes all big. “What you do to get a house like this?” “Dang, you’re nosy,” I say.

Uncle Carlos chuckles. “It’s okay, Starr. My wife’s a surgeon, and I’m a detective.” DeVante stops dead. He turns on Daddy. “What the fuck, man? You brought me to a cop?”

“Watch your mouth,” Daddy says. “And I brought you to somebody who actually wanna help you.” “A cop though? If the homies find out, they gon’ think I’m snitching.”

“They’re not your homies if you gotta hide from them,” I say. “Plus Uncle Carlos wouldn’t ask you to snitch.”

“She’s right,” says Uncle Carlos. “Maverick’s really serious about getting you out of Garden Heights.”

Momma scoffs. Loudly.

“When he told us the situation, we wanted to help,” Uncle Carlos goes on. “And it sounds like you need our help.”

DeVante sighs. “Man, this ain’t cool.”

“Look, I’m on leave,” says Uncle Carlos. “You don’t have to worry about me getting information out of you.”

“Leave?” I say. That explains the sweats in the middle of the day. “Why’d they put you on leave?”

He glances from me to Momma, and she probably doesn’t know I see her shake her head real quick. “Don’t worry about it, baby girl,” he says, hooking his arm around me. “I needed a vacation.”

It’s so, so obvious. They put him on leave because of me.

Nana meets us at the front door. Knowing her, she’s been watching through the window since we got here. She has one arm folded and takes a drag of her cigarette with the other. She blows the smoke toward the ceiling while staring at DeVante. “Who he supposed to be?”

“DeVante,” Uncle Carlos says. “He’s staying with us.” “What you mean he’s staying with us?”

“Just what I said. He got in a little trouble in Garden Heights and needs to stay here.”

She scoffs, and I know where Momma gets it from. “A li’l trouble, huh? Tell the truth, boy.” She lowers her voice and asks with suspicious, squinted eyes, “Did you kill somebody?”

“Momma!” my momma says.

“What? I better ask before y’all have me sleeping in the house with a murderer, waking up dead!” What in the . . . “You can’t wake up dead,” I say.

“Li’l girl, you know what I mean!” She moves from the doorway. “I’ll be waking up in Jesus’s face, trying to figure out what happened!”

“Like you going to heaven,” Daddy mumbles.

Uncle Carlos gives DeVante a tour. His room is about as big as me and Seven’s rooms put together. It doesn’t seem right that he only has a little backpack to put in it, and when we go to the kitchen Uncle Carlos makes him hand that over.

“There are a few rules for living here,” Uncle Carlos says. “One, follow the rules. Two”—he pulls the Glock from DeVante’s backpack—“no weapons and no drugs.”

“I know you ain’t bring that in my house, Vante,” Daddy says.

“King probably got money on my head. You damn right I got a piece.”

“Rule three.” Uncle Carlos speaks over him. “No cursing. I have an eight-year-old and a three-year-old. They don’t need to hear that.”

’Cause they hear it from Nana enough. Ava’s new favorite word is “Goddammit!” “Rule four,” Uncle Carlos says, “go to school.”

“Man,” DeVante groans. “I already told Big Mav I can’t go back to Garden High.”

“We know,” Daddy says. “Once we get in touch with your momma, we’ll get you enrolled in an online program. Lisa’s momma is a retired teacher. She can tutor you through it so you can finish the year out.”

“Like hell I can!” Nana says. I don’t know where she is, but I’m not surprised she’s listening. “Momma, stop being nosy!” Uncle Carlos says.

“Stop volunteering me for shit!” “Stop cursing,” he says.

“Tell me what to do again and see what happens.” Uncle Carlos’s face and neck go red.

The doorbell rings.

“Carlos, get the door,” Nana says from wherever she’s hiding.

He purses his lips and leaves to answer. As he comes back I can hear him talking to somebody. Then somebody laughs, and I know that laugh ’cause it makes me laugh.

“Look who I found,” Uncle Carlos says.

Chris is behind him in his white Williamson polo and khaki shorts. He has on the red-and-black Jordan Twelves that MJ wore when he had the flu during the ’97 finals. Shoot, that makes Chris finer for some reason. Or I have a Jordan fetish.

“Hi.” He smiles without showing teeth. “Hi.” I smile too.

I forget that Daddy is here and that I potentially have a big-ass problem on my hands. That only lasts about ten seconds though because Daddy asks, “Who you?”

Chris extends his hand to Daddy. “Christopher, sir. Nice to meet you.” Daddy gives him a twice-over. “You know my daughter or something?”

“Yeah.” Chris stretches it kinda long and looks at me. “We both go to Williamson?” I nod. Good answer.

Daddy folds his arms. “Well, do you or don’t you? You sound a li’l unsure ’bout that.”

Momma gives Chris a quick hug. All the while Daddy mean-mugs the hell outta him. “How are you doing, sweetie?” she asks.

“I’m fine. I didn’t mean to interrupt anything. I saw your car, and Starr wasn’t at school today, so I wanted to check on her.”

“It’s fine,” says Momma. “Tell your mom and dad I said hello. How are they?”

“Hold up,” Daddy says. “Y’all act like this dude been around a minute.” Daddy turns to me. “Why ain’t I never heard ’bout him?”

It’s gonna take a hell of a lotta boldness to put myself out there for Khalil. Like “I once told my militant black daddy about my white boyfriend” kinda boldness. If I can’t stand up to my dad about Chris, how can I stand up for Khalil?

Daddy always tells me to never bite my tongue for anyone. That includes him. So I say it. “He’s my boyfriend.”

“Boyfriend?” Daddy repeats.

“Yeah, her boyfriend!” Nana pipes up again from wherever she is. “Hey, Chris baby.” Chris glances around, all confused. “Uh, hey, Ms. Montgomery.”

Nana was the first to find out about Chris, thanks to her master snooping skills. She told me, “Go ’head, get your swirl on, baby,” then proceeded to tell me about all of her swirling adventures, which I didn’t need to know.

“The hell, Starr?” Daddy says. “You dating a white boy?” “Maverick!” Momma snaps.

“Calm down, Maverick,” Uncle Carlos says. “He’s a good kid, and he treats her well. That’s all that matters, isn’t it?”

“You knew?” Daddy says. He looks at me, and I don’t know if that’s anger or hurt in his eyes. He knew, and I didn’t?”

This happens when you have two dads. One of them’s bound to get hurt, and you’re bound to feel like shit because of it.

“Let’s go outside,” Momma says tightly. “Now.”

Daddy glares at Chris and follows Momma to the patio. The doors have thick glass, but I still hear her go off on him.

“C’mon, DeVante,” Uncle Carlos says. “Gonna show you the basement and the laundry room.” DeVante sizes Chris up. “Boyfriend,” he says with a slight laugh, and looks at me. “I should’ve known

you’d have a white boy.”

He leaves with Uncle Carlos. What the hell that’s supposed to mean? “Sorry,” I tell Chris. “My dad shouldn’t have gone off like that.”

“It could’ve been worse. He could’ve killed me.”

True. I motion him to sit at the counter while I get us some drinks. “Who was that guy with your uncle?” he asks.

Aunt Pam ain’t got one soda up in here. Juice, water, and sparkling water. I bet Nana has a stash of Sprite and Coke in her room though. “DeVante,” I say, grabbing two apple juice boxes. “He got caught up in some King Lord stuff, and Daddy brought him to live with Uncle Carlos.”

“Why was he looking at me like that?”

“Get over it, Maverick. He’s white!” Momma shouts on the patio. “White, white, white!” Chris blushes. And blushes, and blushes, and blushes.

I hand him a juice box. That’s why DeVante was looking at you that way. You’re white.” “Okay?” he asks more than says. “Is this one of those black things I won’t understand?”

“Okay, babe, real talk? If you were somebody else I’d side-eye the shit out of you for calling it that.” “Calling it what? A black thing?”

“Yeah.”

“But isn’t that what it is?”

“Not really,” I say. “It’s not like this kinda stuff is exclusive to black people, you know? The reasoning may be different, but that’s about it. Your parents don’t have a problem with us dating?”

“I wouldn’t call it a problem,” Chris says, “but we did talk about it.” “So it’s not just a black thing then, huh?”

“Point made.”

We sit at the counter, and I listen to his play-by-play of school today. Nobody walked out because the police were there, waiting for any drama.

“Hailey and Maya asked about you,” he says. “I told them you were sick.” “They could’ve texted me and asked themselves.”

“I think they feel guilty about yesterday. Especially Hailey. White guilt.” He winks. I crack up. My white boyfriend talking about white guilt.

Momma yells, “And I love how you insist on getting somebody else’s child out of Garden Heights, but you want ours to stay in that hellhole!”

“You want them in the suburbs with all this fake shit?” Daddy says.

“If this is fake, baby, I’ll take it over real any day. I’m sick of this! The kids go to school out here, I take them to church out here, their friends are out here. We can afford to move. But you wanna stay in that mess!”

“’Cause at least in Garden Heights people ain’t gonna treat them like shit.”

“They already do! And wait until King can’t find DeVante. Who do you think he’s gonna look at? Us!” “I told you I’ll handle that,” Daddy says. “We ain’t moving. It ain’t even up for discussion.”

“Oh, really?” “Really.”

Chris gives me a bit of a smile. “This is awkward.”

My cheeks are hot, and I’m glad I’m too brown for it to show. “Yeah. Awkward.”

He takes my hand and taps his fingertips against my fingertips, one at a time. He laces his fingers through mine, and we let our arms swing together in the space between us.

Daddy comes in and slams the door behind him. He zeroes straight in on our joined hands. Chris doesn’t let go. Point for my boyfriend.

“We’ll talk later, Starr.” Daddy marches out.

“If this were a rom-com,” Chris says, “you’d be Zoe Saldana and I’d be Ashton Kutcher.” “Huh?”

He sips his juice. “This old movie, Guess Who. I caught it when I had the flu a few weeks ago. Zoe Saldana dated Ashton Kutcher. Her dad didn’t like that she was seeing a white guy. That’s us.”

“Except this isn’t funny,” I say. “It can be.”

“Nah. What’s funny though is that you watched a rom-com.”

“Hey!” he cries. “It was hilarious. More of a comedy than a rom-com. Bernie Mac was her dad. That guy was hilarious, one of the Kings of Comedy. I don’t think it can be called a rom-com simply because he was in it.”

“Okay, you get points for knowing Bernie Mac and that he was a King of Comedy—” “Everyone should know that.”

“True, but you don’t get a pass. It was still a rom-com. I won’t tell anyone though.”

I lean over to kiss his cheek, but he moves his head, giving me no choice but to kiss him on the mouth. Soon we’re making out, right there in my uncle’s kitchen.

“Hem-hem!” Somebody clears their throat. Chris and I separate so fast.

I thought embarrassment was having my boyfriend hear my parents argue. Nope. Embarrassment is having my mom walk in on me and Chris making out. Again.

“Don’t y’all think y’all should let each other breathe?” she says. Chris blushes down to his Adam’s apple. “I should go.”

He leaves with a quick good-bye to Momma.

She raises her eyebrows at me. “Are you taking your birth control pills?” “Mommy!”

“Answer my question. Are you?”

“Yeeees,” I groan, putting my face on the countertop. “When was your last cycle?”

Oh. My. Lord. I lift my head and flash the fakest of fake smiles. “We’re fine. Promise.”

“Y’all got some nerve. Your daddy was barely out the driveway, and y’all slobbering all over each other. You know how Maverick is.”

“Are we staying out here tonight?”

The question catches her off guard. “Why would you think that?” “Because you and Daddy—”

“Had a disagreement, that’s all.”

“A disagreement the whole neighborhood heard.” Plus one the other night. “Starr, we’re okay. Don’t worry about it. Your father’s being . . . your father.” Outside, somebody honks his car horn a bunch of times.

Momma rolls her eyes. “Speaking of your father, I guess Mr. I’m-Gonna-Slam-Doors needs me to move my car so he can leave.” She shakes her head and heads toward the front.

I throw Chris’s juice away and search the cabinets. Aunt Pam may be picky when it comes to drinks, but she always buys good snacks, and my stomach is talking. I get some graham crackers and slather peanut butter on them. So good.

DeVante comes in the kitchen. “Can’t believe you dating a white boy.” He sits next to me and steals a graham cracker sandwich. “A wigga at that.”

“Excuse you?” I say with a mouth full of peanut butter. “He is not a wigga.”

“Please! Dude wearing J’s. White boys wear Converse and Vans, not no J’s unless they trying to be black.”

Really? “My bad. I didn’t know shoes determined somebody’s race.”

He can’t say anything to that. Like I thought. “What you see in him anyway? For real? All them dudes in Garden Heights who would get with you in a second, and you looking at Justin Bieber?”

I point in his face. “Don’t call him that. And what dudes? Nobody in Garden Heights is checking for me. Hardly anybody knows my name. Hell, even you called me Big Mav’s daughter who work in the store.”

“’Cause you don’t come around,” he says. “I ain’t never seen you at a party, nothing.”

Without thinking, I say, “You mean parties where people get shot at?” And as soon as it leaves my mouth, I feel like shit. “Oh my God, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

He stares at the countertop. “It’s cool. Don’t worry about it.” We quietly nibble on graham crackers.

“Um . . .” I say. The silence is brutal. “Uncle Carlos and Aunt Pam are cool. I think you’ll like it here.”

He bites another graham cracker.

“They can be corny sometimes, but they’re sweet. They’ll look out for you. Knowing Aunt Pam, she’ll treat you like Ava and Daniel. Uncle Carlos will probably be tougher. If you follow the rules, you’ll be okay.”

“Khalil talked ’bout you sometimes,” DeVante says. “Huh?”

“You said nobody knows you, but Khalil talked ’bout you. I ain’t know you was Big Mav’s daughter who—I ain’t know that was you,” he says. “But he talked ’bout his friend Starr. He said you were the coolest girl he knew.”

Some peanut butter gets stuck in my throat, but it’s not the only reason I swallow. “How did you know —oh. Yeah. Both of y’all were King Lords.”

I swear to God whenever I think about Khalil falling into that life, it’s like watching him die all over again. Yeah, Khalil matters and not the stuff he did, but I can’t lie and say it doesn’t bother me or it’s not disappointing. He knew better.

DeVante says, “Khalil wasn’t a King Lord, Starr.” “But at the funeral, King put the bandana on him—”

“To save face,” DeVante says. “He tried to get Khalil to join, but Khalil said nah. Then a cop killed him, so you know, all the homies riding for him now. King not ’bout to admit that Khalil turned him down. So he got folks thinking that Khalil repped King Lords.”

“Wait,” I say. “How do you know he turned King down?” “Khalil told me in the park one day. We was posted up.” “So y’all sold drugs together?”

“Yeah. For King.” “Oh.”

“He didn’t wanna sell drugs, Starr,” DeVante says. “Nobody really wanna do that shit. Khalil ain’t have much of a choice though.”

“Yeah, he did,” I say thickly.

“No, he didn’t. Look, his momma stole some shit from King. King wanted her dead. Khalil found out and started selling to pay the debt.”

“What?”

“Yeah. That’s the only reason he started doing that shit. Trying to save her.” I can’t believe it.

Then again, I can. That was classic Khalil. No matter what his momma did, he was still her knight and he was still gonna protect her.

This is worse than denying him. I thought the worst of him. Like everybody else.

“Don’t be mad at him,” DeVante says, and it’s funny because I can hear Khalil asking me not to be mad too.

“I’m not—” I sigh. “Okay, I was a little mad. I just hate how he’s being called a thug and shit when people don’t know the whole story. You said it, he wasn’t a gangbanger, and if everybody knew why he sold drugs, then—”

“They wouldn’t think he was a thug like me?” Oh, damn. “I didn’t mean . . .”

“It’s cool,” he says. “I get it. I guess I am a thug, I don’t know. I did what I had to do. King Lords was the closest thing me and Dalvin had to a family.”

“But your momma,” I say, “and your sisters—”

“They couldn’t look out for us like King Lords do,” he says. “Me and Dalvin looked out for them. With King Lords, we had a whole bunch of folks who had our backs, no matter what. They bought us clothes and shit our momma couldn’t afford and always made sure we ate.” He looks at the counter. “It was just cool to have somebody take care of us for a change, instead of the other way around.”

“Oh.” A shitty response, I know.

“Like I said, nobody likes selling drugs,” he says. “I hated that shit. For real. But I hated seeing my momma and my sisters go hungry, you know?”

“I don’t know.” I’ve never had to know. My parents made sure of that.

“You got it good then,” he says. “I’m sorry they talking ’bout Khalil like that though. He really was a good dude. Hopefully one day they can find out the truth.”

“Yeah,” I say quietly.

DeVante. Khalil. Neither one of them thought they had much of a choice. If I were them, I’m not sure I’d make a much better one.

Guess that makes me a thug too.

“I’m going for a walk,” I say, getting up. My head’s all over the place. “You can have the rest of the graham crackers and peanut butter.”

I leave. I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know much of anything anymore.

FOURTEEN

I end up at Maya’s house. Truth be told, that’s the farthest I can go in Uncle Carlos’s neighborhood before the houses start looking the same.

It’s that weird time between day and night when the sky looks like it’s on fire and mosquitoes are on the hunt; all of the lights at the Yang house are already on, which is a lot of lights. Their house is big enough for me and my family to live with them and have a little wiggle room. There’s a blue Infiniti Coupe with a dented bumper in the circular driveway. Hailey can’t drive for shit.

No lie, it stings a little knowing they hang out without me. That’s what happens when you live so far away from your friends. I can’t get mad about it. Jealous maybe. Not mad.

That protest shit though? Now that makes me mad. Mad enough to ring the doorbell. Besides, I told Maya the three of us could talk, so fine, we’ll talk.

Mrs. Yang answers, her Bluetooth headset around her neck.

“Starr!” She beams and hugs me. “So good to see you. How is everyone?”

“Good,” I say. She announces my arrival to Maya and lets me in. The aroma of Mrs. Yang’s seafood lasagna greets me in the foyer.

“I hope it’s not a bad time,” I say.

“Not at all, sweetie. Maya’s upstairs. Hailey too. You’re more than welcome to join us for dinner. . . .

No, George, I wasn’t talking to you,” she says into her headset, then mouths at me, “My assistant,” and rolls her eyes a little.

I smile and take off my Nike Dunks. In the Yang house, shoe removal is part Chinese tradition, part Mrs. Yang likes people to be comfy.

Maya races down the stairs, wearing an oversized T-shirt and basketball shorts that almost hang to her ankles. “Starr!”

She reaches the bottom, and there’s this awkward moment where her arms are out like she wants to hug me, but she starts lowering them. I hug her anyway. It’s been a while since I got a good Maya hug. Her hair smells like citrus, and she hugs all tight and motherly.

Maya leads me to her bedroom. White Christmas lights hang from the ceiling. There’s a shelf for video games, Adventure Time memorabilia all around, and Hailey in a beanbag chair, concentrating on the basketball players she’s controlling on Maya’s flat-screen.

“Look who’s here, Hails,” Maya says. Hailey glances up at me. “Hey.” “Hey.”

It’s Awkward Central in here.

I step over an empty Sprite can and a bag of Doritos and sit in the other beanbag chair. Maya closes her door. An old-school poster of Michael Jordan, in his famous Jumpman pose, is on the back.

Maya belly flops onto her bed and grabs a controller off the floor. “You wanna join in, Starr?” “Yeah, sure.”

She hands me a third controller, and we start a new game—the three of us against a computer-controlled team. It’s a lot like when we play in real life, a combination of rhythm, chemistry, and skill, but the awkwardness in the room is so thick it’s hard to ignore.

They keep glancing at me. I keep my eyes on the screen. The animated crowd cheers as Hailey’s player makes a three-pointer. “Nice shot,” I say.

“Okay, cut the crap.” Hailey grabs the TV remote and flicks the game off, turning to a detective show instead. “Why are you mad at us?”

“Why did you protest?” Since she wants to cut the crap, may as well get right to it.

“Because,” she says, like that’s reason enough. “I don’t see what the big deal is, Starr. You said you didn’t know him.”

“Why does that make a difference?” “Isn’t a protest a good thing?”

“Not if you’re only doing it to cut class.”

“So you want us to apologize for it even though everybody else did it too?” Hailey asks. “Just because everyone else did it doesn’t mean it’s okay.”

Shit. I sound like my mother.

“Guys, stop!” Maya says. “Hailey, if Starr wants us to apologize, fine, we can apologize. Starr, I’m sorry for protesting. It was stupid to use a tragedy just to get out of class.”

We look at Hailey. She sits back and folds her arms. “I’m not apologizing when I didn’t do anything wrong. If anything, she should apologize for accusing me of being racist last week.”

“Wow,” I say. One thing that irks the hell out of me about Hailey? The way she can turn an argument around and make herself the victim. She’s a master at this shit. I used to fall for it, but now?

“I’m not apologizing for what I felt,” I say. “I don’t care what your intention was, Hailey. That fried chicken comment felt racist to me.”

“Fine,” she says. “Just like I felt it was fine to protest. Since I won’t apologize for what I felt, and you won’t apologize for what you felt, I guess we’ll just watch TV.”

“Fine,” I say.

Maya grunts like it’s taking everything in her not to choke us. “You know what? If you two want to be this stubborn, fine.”

Maya flicks through channels. Hailey does that BS move where you look at someone out the corner of your eye, but you don’t want them to know that you care enough to look, so you avert your eyes. At this point it’s whatever. I thought I came to talk, but yeah, I really want an apology.

I look at TV. A singing competition, a reality show, One-Fifteen, a celebrity dance—wait. “Back up, back up,” I tell Maya.

She flicks through the channels, and when he appears again, I say, “Right there!”

I’ve pictured his face so much. Actually seeing it again is different. My memory is pretty spot-on—a thin, jagged scar above his lip, bursts of freckles that cover his face and neck.

My stomach churns and my skin crawls, and I wanna get away from One-Fifteen. My instinct doesn’t care that it’s a photograph being shown on TV. A silver cross pendant hangs from his neck, like he’s saying Jesus endorses what he did. We must believe in a different Jesus.

What looks like an older version of him appears on the screen, but this man doesn’t have the scar on his lip, and there are more wrinkles on his neck than freckles. He has white hair, although there’s still some streaks of brown in it.

“My son was afraid for his life,” he says. “He only wanted to get home to his wife and kids.” Pictures flash on the screen. One-Fifteen smiles with his arms draped around a blurred-out woman.

He’s on a fishing trip with two small, blurred-out children. They show him with a smiley golden retriever, with his pastor and some fellow deacons who are all blurred out, and then in his police uniform.

“Officer Brian Cruise Jr. has been on the force for sixteen years,” the voice-over says, and more pics of him as a cop are shown. He’s been a cop for as long as Khalil was alive, and I wonder if in some sick twist of fate Khalil was only born for this man to kill.

“A majority of those years have been spent serving in Garden Heights,” the voice-over continues, “a neighborhood notorious for gangs and drug dealers.”

I tense as footage of my neighborhood, my home, is shown. It’s like they picked the worst parts—the drug addicts roaming the streets, the broken-down Cedar Grove projects, gangbangers flashing signs, bodies on the sidewalks with white sheets over them. What about Mrs. Rooks and her cakes? Or Mr. Lewis and his haircuts? Mr. Reuben? The clinic? My family?

Me?

I feel Hailey’s and Maya’s eyes on me. I can’t look at them.

“My son loved working in the neighborhood,” One-Fifteen’s father claims. “He always wanted to make a difference in the lives there.”

Funny. Slave masters thought they were making a difference in black people’s lives too. Saving them from their “wild African ways.” Same shit, different century. I wish people like them would stop thinking that people like me need saving.

One-Fifteen Sr. talks about his son’s life before the shooting. How he was a good kid who never got into trouble, always wanted to help others. A lot like Khalil. But then he talks about the stuff One-Fifteen did that Khalil will never get to do, like go to college, get married, have a family.

The interviewer asks about that night.

“Apparently, Brian pulled the kid over ’cause he had a broken taillight and was speeding.” Khalil wasn’t speeding.

“He told me, ‘Pop, soon as I pulled him over, I had a bad feeling,’” says One-Fifteen Sr. “Why is that?” the interviewer asks.

“He said the kid and his friend immediately started cursing him out—” We never cursed.

“And they kept glancing at each other, like they were up to something. Brian says that’s when he got scared, ’cause they could’ve taken him down if they teamed up.”

I couldn’t have taken anyone down. I was too afraid. He makes us sound like we’re superhumans. We’re kids.

“No matter how afraid he is, my son’s still gonna do his job,” he says. “And that’s all he set out to do that night.”

“There have been reports that Khalil Harris was unarmed when the incident took place,” the interviewer says. “Has your son told you why he made the decision to shoot?”

“Brian says he had his back to the kid, and he heard the kid say, ‘I’m gon’ show your ass today.’” No, no, no. Khalil asked if I was okay.

“Brian turned around and saw something in the car door. He thought it was a gun—” It was a hairbrush.

His lips quiver. My body shakes. He covers his mouth to hold back a sob. I cover mine to keep from puking.

“Brian’s a good boy,” he says, in tears. “He only wanted to get home to his family, and people are making him out to be a monster.”

That’s all Khalil and I wanted, and you’re making us out to be monsters.

I can’t breathe, like I’m drowning in the tears I refuse to shed. I won’t give One-Fifteen or his father the satisfaction of crying. Tonight, they shot me too, more than once, and killed a part of me. Unfortunately for them, it’s the part that felt any hesitation about speaking out.

“How has your son’s life changed since this happened?” the interviewer asks.

“All of our lives have been hell, honestly,” his father claims. “Brian’s a people person, but now he’s afraid to go out in public, even for something as simple as getting a gallon of milk. There have been threats on his life, our family’s lives. His wife had to quit her job. He’s even been attacked by fellow officers.”

“Physically or verbally?” the interviewer asks. “Both,” he says.

It hits me. Uncle Carlos’s bruised knuckles. “This is awful,” Hailey says. “That poor family.”

She’s looking at One-Fifteen Sr. with sympathy that belongs to Brenda and Ms. Rosalie. I blink several times. “What?”

“His son lost everything because he was trying to do his job and protect himself. His life matters too, you know?”

I cannot right now. I can’t. I stand up or otherwise I will say or do something really stupid. Like punch her.

“I need to . . . yeah.” I say all that I can and start for the door, but Maya grabs the tail of my cardigan. “Whoa, whoa. You guys haven’t worked this out yet,” she says.

“Maya,” I say, as calmly as possible. “Please let me go. I cannot talk to her. Did you not hear what she said?”

“Are you serious right now?” Hailey asks. “What’s wrong with saying his life matters too?” “His life always matters more!” My voice is gruff, and my throat is tight. “That’s the problem!”

“Starr! Starr!” Maya says, trying to catch my eye. I look at her. “What’s going on? You’re Harry in

Order of the Phoenix angry lately.”

“Thank you!” Hailey says. “She’s been in bitch mode for weeks but wants to blame me.” “Excuse you?”

There’s a knock on the door. “Girls, is everything okay?” Mrs. Yang asks.

“We’re fine, Mom. Video game stuff.” Maya looks at me and lowers her voice. “Please, sit down. Please?”

I sit on her bed. Commercials replace One-Fifteen Sr. on the TV and fill in the gap of silence we’ve created.

I blurt out, “Why did you unfollow my Tumblr?” Hailey turns toward me. “What?”

“You unfollowed my Tumblr. Why?”

She glances at Maya—quickly, but I notice—and goes, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “Cut the bullshit, Hailey. You unfollowed me. Months ago. Why?”

She doesn’t say anything.

I swallow. “Is it because of the Emmett Till picture?”

“Oh my God,” she says, standing up. “Here we go again. I am not gonna stay here and let you accuse me of something, Starr—”

“You don’t text me anymore,” I say. “You freaked out about that picture.” “Do you hear her?” Hailey says to Maya. “Once again, calling me racist.”

“I’m not calling you anything. I’m asking a question and giving you examples.”

“You’re insinuating!”

“I never even mentioned race.” Silence comes between us.

Hailey shakes her head. Her lips are thin. “Unbelievable.” She grabs her jacket off Maya’s bed and starts for the door. She stops, and her back is to me. “You wanna really know why I unfollowed you, Starr? Because I don’t know who the hell you are anymore.”

She slams the door on her way out.

The news program returns on the television. They show footage of protests all over the country, not just in Garden Heights. Hopefully none of them used Khalil’s death to skip class or work.

Out of nowhere, Maya says, “That’s not why.”

She’s staring at her closed door, her shoulders a bit stiff. “Huh?” I say.

“She’s lying,” Maya says. “That’s not why she unfollowed you. She said she didn’t wanna see that shit on her dashboard.”

I figured. “That Emmett Till picture, right?”

“No. All the ‘black stuff,’ she called it. The petitions. The Black Panther pictures. That post on those four little girls who were killed in that church. The stuff about that Marcus Garvey guy. The one about those Black Panthers who were shot by the government.”

“Fred Hampton and Bobby Hutton,” I say. “Yeah. Them.”

Wow. She’s been paying attention. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

She stares at her plush Finn on the floor. “I hoped she’d change her mind before you found out. I should’ve known better though. It’s not like that’s the first fucked-up thing she’s said.”

“What are you talking about?”

Maya swallows hard. “Do you remember that time she asked if my family ate a cat for Thanksgiving?” “What? When?”

Her eyes are glossy. “Freshman year. First period. Mrs. Edwards’s biology class. We’d just gotten back from Thanksgiving break. Class hadn’t started yet, and we were talking about what we did for Thanksgiving. I told you guys my grandparents visited, and it was their first time celebrating Thanksgiving. Hailey asked if we ate a cat. Because we’re Chinese.”

Ho-ly shit. I’m wracking my brain right now. Freshman year is so close to middle school; there’s a huge possibility I said or did something extremely stupid. I’m afraid to know, but I ask, “What did I say?” “Nothing. You had this look on your face like you couldn’t believe she said that. She claimed it was a joke and laughed. I laughed, and then you laughed.” Maya blinks. A lot. “I only laughed because I thought I

was supposed to. I felt like shit the rest of the week.” “Oh.”

“Yeah.”

I feel like shit right now. I can’t believe I let Hailey say that. Or has she always joked like that? Did I always laugh because I thought I had to?

That’s the problem. We let people say stuff, and they say it so much that it becomes okay to them and normal for us. What’s the point of having a voice if you’re gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn’t be?

“Maya?” I say. “Yeah?”

“We can’t let her get away with saying stuff like that again, okay?”

She cracks a smile. “A minority alliance?” “Hell, yeah,” I say, and we laugh.

“All right. Deal.”

A game of NBA 2K15 later (I whooped Maya’s butt), I’m walking back to Uncle Carlos’s house with a foil-wrapped plate of seafood lasagna. Mrs. Yang never lets me leave empty-handed, and I never turn down food.

Iron streetlamps line the sidewalks, and I see Uncle Carlos from a few houses down, sitting on his front steps in the dark. He’s chugging back something, and as I get closer, I can see the Heineken.

I put my plate on the steps and sit beside him.

“You better not have been at your li’l boyfriend’s house,” he says.

Lord. Chris is always “li’l” to him, and they’re almost the same height. “No. I was at Maya’s.” I stretch my legs forward and yawn. It’s been a long-ass day. “I can’t believe you’re drinking,” I say through my yawn.

“I’m not drinking. It’s one beer.” “Is that what Nana said?”

He cuts me a look. “Starr.” “Uncle Carlos,” I say as firmly.

We battle it out, hard stare versus hard stare.

He sets the beer down. Here’s the thing—Nana’s an alcoholic. She’s not as bad as she used to be, but all it takes is one hard drink and she’s the “other” Nana. I’ve heard stories of her drunken rages from back in the day. She’d blame Momma and Uncle Carlos that their daddy went back to his wife and other kids. She’d lock them out the house, cuss at them, all kinds of stuff.

So, no. One beer isn’t one beer to Uncle Carlos, who’s always been anti-alcohol. “Sorry,” he says. “It’s one of those nights.”

“You saw the interview, didn’t you?” I ask. “Yeah. I was hoping you didn’t.”

“I did. Did my mom see—”

“Oh yeah, she saw it. So did Pam. And your grandma. I’ve never been in a room with so many pissed-off women in my life.” He looks at me. “How are you dealing with it?”

I shrug. Yeah, I’m pissed, but honestly? “I expected his dad to make him the victim.”

“I did too.” He rests his cheek in his palm, his elbow propped on his knee. It’s not too dark on the steps. I see the bruising on his hand fine.

“So . . . ,” I say, patting my knees. “On leave, huh?”

He looks at me like he’s trying to figure out what I’m getting at. “Yeah?” Silence.

“Did you fight him, Uncle Carlos?”

He straightens up. “No, I had a discussion with him.”

“You mean your fist talked to his eye. Did he say something about me?” “He pointed his gun at you. That was more than enough.”

His voice has a foreign edge to it. It’s totally inappropriate, but I laugh. I have to hold my side I laugh so hard.

“What’s so funny?” he cries.

“Uncle Carlos, you punched somebody!”

“Hey, I’m from Garden Heights. I know how to fight. I can get down.”

I’m hollering right now.

“It’s not funny!” he says. “I shouldn’t have lost my cool like that. It was unprofessional. Now I’ve set a bad example for you.”

“Yeah, you have, Muhammad Ali.” I’m still laughing. Now he’s laughing. “Hush,” he says.

Our laughter dies down, and it’s real quiet out here. Nothing to do but look at the sky and all the stars. There’s so many of them tonight. It’s possible that I don’t notice them at home because of all the other stuff. Sometimes it’s hard to believe Garden Heights and Riverton Hills share the same sky.

“You remember what I used to tell you?” Uncle Carlos says.

I scoot closer to him. “That I’m not named after the stars, but the stars are named after me. You were really trying to give me a big head, huh?”

He chuckles. “No. I wanted you to know how special you are.”

“Special or not, you shouldn’t have risked your job for me. You love your job.”

“But I love you more. You’re one reason I even became a cop, baby girl. Because I love you and all those folks in the neighborhood.”

“I know. That’s why I don’t want you to risk it. We need the ones like you.”

“The ones like me.” He gives a hollow laugh. “You know, I got pissed listening to that man talk about you and Khalil like that, but it made me consider the comments I made about Khalil that night in your parents’ kitchen.”

“What comments?”

“I know you were eavesdropping, Starr. Don’t act brand-new.”

I smirk. Uncle Carlos said “brand-new.” “You mean when you called Khalil a drug dealer?”

He nods. “Even if he was, I knew that boy. Watched him grow up with you. He was more than any bad decision he made,” he says. “I hate that I let myself fall into that mind-set of trying to rationalize his death. And at the end of the day, you don’t kill someone for opening a car door. If you do, you shouldn’t be a cop.”

I tear up. It’s good to hear my parents and Ms. Ofrah say that or see all the protestors shout about it. From my uncle the cop though? It’s a relief, even if it makes everything hurt a little more.

“I told Brian that,” he says, looking at his knuckles. “After I clocked him. Told the chief too. Actually, I think I screamed it loud enough for everybody in the precinct to hear. It doesn’t take away from what I did though. I dropped the ball on Khalil.”

“No, you didn’t—”

“Yes, I did,” he says. “I knew him, knew his family’s situation. After he stopped coming around with you, he was out of sight and out of mind to me, and there’s no excuse for that.”

There’s no excuse for me either. “I think all of us feel like that,” I mutter. “That’s one reason Daddy’s determined to help DeVante.”

“Yeah,” he says. “Me too.”

I look at all the stars again. Daddy says he named me Starr because I was his light in the darkness. I need some light in my own darkness right about now.

“I wouldn’t have killed Khalil, by the way,” Uncle Carlos says. “I don’t know a lot of stuff, but I do know that.”

My eyes sting, and my throat tightens. I’ve turned into such a damn crybaby. I snuggle closer to Uncle Carlos and hope it says everything I can’t.

FIFTEEN

It takes an untouched stack of pancakes for Momma to say, “All right, Munch. What’s up?”

We have a table to ourselves in IHOP. It’s early morning, and the restaurant’s almost empty except for us and these big-bellied, bearded truckers stuffing their faces in a booth. Thanks to them, country music plays on the jukebox.

I poke my fork at my pancakes. “Not real hungry.”

Somewhat a lie, somewhat the truth. I’m having a serious emotional hangover. There’s that interview. Uncle Carlos. Hailey. Khalil. DeVante. My parents.

Momma, Sekani, and I spent the night at Uncle Carlos’s house, and I know it was more because Momma’s mad at Daddy than it was about the riots. In fact, the news said last night was the first semipeaceful night in the Garden. Just protests, no riots. Cops were still throwing tear gas though.

Anyway, if I bring up my parents’ fight, Momma’s gonna tell me, “Stay outta grown folks’ business.” You’d think since it’s partially my fault they fought, it is my business, but nope.

“I don’t know who’s supposed to believe that you’re not hungry,” Momma says. “You’ve always been greedy.”

I roll my eyes and yawn. She got me up too early and said we were going to IHOP, just the two of us like we used to do before Sekani came along and ruined everything. He has an extra uniform at Uncle Carlos’s and can go to school with Daniel. I only had some sweats and a Drake T-shirt—not DA office appropriate. I gotta go home and change.

“Thanks for bringing me here,” I say. With my awful mood, I owe her that.

“Anytime, baby. We haven’t hung out in a while. Somebody decided I wasn’t cool anymore. I thought I was still cool, so whatever.” She sips from her steaming mug of coffee. “Are you scared to talk to the DA?”

“Not really.” Although I do notice the clock is only three and a half hours away from our nine-thirty meeting.

“Is it that BS of an interview? That bastard.” Here we go again. “Momma—”

“Got his damn daddy going on TV, telling lies,” she says. “And who’s supposed to believe a grown man was that scared of two children?”

People on the internet are saying the same thing. Black Twitter’s been going in on Officer Cruise’s dad, claiming his name should be Tom Cruise with that performance he put on. Tumblr too. I’m sure there are people who believe him—Hailey did—but Ms. Ofrah was right: it backfired. Folks who never met me or Khalil are calling BS.

So while the interview bothers me, it doesn’t bother me that much. “It’s not really the interview,” I say. “It’s other stuff too.”

“Like?”

“Khalil,” I say. “DeVante told me some stuff about him, and I feel guilty.”

“Stuff like what?” she says.

“Why he sold drugs. He was trying to help Ms. Brenda pay a debt to King.” Momma’s eyes widen. “What?”

“Yeah. And he wasn’t a King Lord. Khalil turned King down, and King’s been lying to save face.” Momma shakes her head. “Why am I not surprised? King would do some mess like that.”

I stare at my pancakes. “I should’ve known better. Should’ve known Khalil better.” “You had no way of knowing, baby,” she says.

“That’s the thing. If I would’ve been there for him, I—”

“Couldn’t have stopped him. Khalil was almost as stubborn as you. I know you cared about him a lot, even as more than a friend, but you can’t blame yourself for this.”

I look up at her. “What you mean ‘cared about him as more than a friend’?” “Don’t play dumb, Starr. Y’all liked each other for a long time.”

“You think he liked me too?”

“Lord!” Momma rolls her eyes. “Between the two of us, I’m the old one—” “You just called yourself old.”

Older one,” she corrects, and shoots me a quick stank-eye, “and I saw it. How in the world did you miss it?”

“I dunno. He always talked about other girls, not me. It’s weird though. I thought I was over my crush, but sometimes I don’t know.”

Momma traces the rim of her mug. “Munch,” she says, and it’s followed by a sigh. “Baby, look. You’re grieving, okay? That can amplify your emotions and make you feel things you haven’t felt in a long time. Even if you do have feelings for Khalil, there’s nothing wrong with that.”

“Even though I’m with Chris?”

“Yes. You’re sixteen. You’re allowed to have feelings for more than one person.” “So you’re saying I can be a ho?”

“Girl!” She points at me. “Don’t make me kick you under this table. I’m saying don’t beat yourself up about it. Grieve Khalil all you want. Miss him, allow yourself to miss what could’ve been, let your feelings get out of whack. But like I told you, don’t stop living. All right?”

“All right.”

“Good. So that’s two things,” she says. “What else is up?”

What isn’t up? My head is tight like my brain is overloaded. I’m guessing emotional hangovers feel a lot like actual hangovers.

“Hailey,” I say.

She slurps her coffee. Loudly. “What that li’l girl do now?” Here she goes with this. “Momma, you’ve never liked her.”

“No, I’ve never liked how you’ve followed her like you can’t think for yourself. Difference.” “I haven’t—”

“Don’t lie! Remember that drum set you begged me to buy. Why did you want it, Starr?” “Hailey wanted to start a band, but I liked the idea too.”

“Hold up, though. Didn’t you tell me you wanted to play guitar in this ‘band,’ but Hailey said you should play drums?”

“Yeah, but—”

“Them li’l Jonas boys,” she says. “Which one did you really like?” “Joe.”

“But who said you should be with the curly-headed one instead?”

“Hailey, but Nick was still fine as all get-out, and this is middle school stuff—” “Uh-uh! Last year you begged me to let you color your hair purple. Why, Starr?” “I wanted—”

“No. Why, Starr?” she says. “The real why.”

Damn. There’s a pattern here. “Because Hailey wanted me, her, and Maya to have matching hair.” “E-xact-damn-ly. Baby, I love you, but you have a history of putting your wants aside and doing

whatever that li’l girl wants. Excuse me if I don’t like her.”

With all my receipts put out there like that, I say, “I can see why.” “Good. Realizing is the first step. So what she do now?”

“We had an argument yesterday,” I say. “Really though, things have been weird for a while. She stopped texting me and unfollowed my Tumblr.”

Momma reaches her fork onto my plate and breaks off a piece of pancake. “What is Tumblr anyway? Is it like Facebook?”

“No, and you’re forbidden to get one. No parents allowed. You guys already took over Facebook.” “You haven’t responded to my friend request yet.”

“I know.”

“I need Candy Crush lives.” “That’s why I’ll never respond.”

She gives me “the look.” I don’t care. There are some things I absolutely refuse to do.

“So she unfollowed your Tumblr thingy,” Momma says, proving why she can never have one. “Is that all?”

“No. She said and did some stupid stuff too.” I rub my eyes. Like I said, it’s too early. “I’m starting to wonder why we’re friends.”

“Well, Munch”—she gets another freaking piece of my pancakes—“you have to decide if the relationship is worth salvaging. Make a list of the good stuff, then make a list of the bad stuff. If one outweighs the other, then you know what you gotta do. Trust me, that method hasn’t failed me yet.”

“Is that what you did with Daddy after Iesha got pregnant?” I ask. “’Cause I’ll be honest, I would’ve kicked him to the curb. No offense.”

“It’s all right. A lot of people called me a fool for going back to your daddy. Shoot, they may still call me a fool behind my back. Your nana would have a stroke if she knew this, but she’s the real reason I stayed with your daddy.”

“I thought Nana hated Daddy?” I think Nana still hates Daddy.

Sadness creeps into Momma’s eyes, but she gives me a small smile. “When I was growing up, your grandmother would do and say hurtful things when she was drunk, and apologize the next morning. At an early age I learned that people make mistakes, and you have to decide if their mistakes are bigger than your love for them.”

She takes a deep breath. “Seven’s not a mistake, I love him to death, but Maverick made a mistake in his actions. However, all of his good and the love we share outweighs that one mistake.”

“Even with crazy Iesha in our lives?” I ask.

Momma chuckles. “Even with crazy, messy, annoying Iesha. It’s a little different, yeah, but if the good outweighs the bad, keep Hailey in your life, baby.”

That might be the problem. A lot of the good stuff is from the past. The Jonas Brothers, High School Musical, our shared grief. Our friendship is based on memories. What do we have now?

“What if the good doesn’t outweigh the bad?” I ask.

“Then let her go,” Momma says. “And if you keep her in your life and she keeps doing the bad, let her

go. Because I promise you, had your daddy pulled some mess like that again, I’d be married to Idris Elba and saying, ‘Maverick who?’”

I bust out laughing.

“Now eat,” she says, and hands me her fork. “Before I have no choice but to eat these pancakes for you.”

I’m so used to seeing smoke in Garden Heights, it’s weird when we go back and there isn’t any. It’s dreary because of a late-night storm, but we can ride with the windows down. Even though the riots stopped, we pass as many tanks as we pass lowriders.

But at home smoke greets us at the front door.

“Maverick!” Momma hollers, and we hurry toward the kitchen.

Daddy pours water on a skillet at the sink, and the skillet responds with a loud sizzle and a white cloud. Whatever he burned, he burned it bad.

“Hallelujah!” Seven throws his hands up at the table. “Somebody who can actually cook.” “Shut up,” Daddy says.

Momma takes the skillet and examines the unidentifiable remains. “What was this? Eggs?”

“Glad to see you know how to come home,” he says. He walks right by me without a glance or a good morning. He’s still pissed about Chris?

Momma gets a fork and stabs at the charred food stuck to the skillet. “You want some breakfast, Seven baby?”

He watches her and goes, “Um, nah. By the way, the skillet didn’t do anything, Ma.”

“You’re right,” she says, but she keeps stabbing. “Seriously, I can fix you something. Eggs. Bacon.” She looks toward the hall and shouts, “The pork kind! Pig! Swine! All’a that!”

So much for the good outweighing the bad. Seven and I look at each other. We hate when they fight because we always get stuck in the middle of their wars. Our appetites are the greatest casualty. If Momma’s mad and not cooking, we have to eat Daddy’s struggle meals, like spaghetti with ketchup and hot dogs in it.

“I’ll grab something at school.” Seven kisses her cheek. “Thanks though.” He gives me a fist bump on his way out, the Seven way of wishing me good luck.

Daddy returns wearing a backwards cap. He grabs his keys and a banana.

“We have to be at the DA’s office at nine thirty,” Momma says. “Are you coming?” “Oh, Carlos can’t do it? Since he the one y’all let in on secrets and stuff.”

“You know what, Maverick—” “I’ll be there,” he says, and leaves. Momma stabs the skillet some more.

The DA personally escorts us to a conference room. Her name is Karen Monroe, and she’s a middle-aged white lady who claims she understands what I’m going through.

Ms. Ofrah is already in the conference room along with some people who work at the DA’s office. Ms. Monroe gives a long speech about how much she wants justice for Khalil and apologizes that it’s taken this long for us to meet.

“Twelve days, to be exact,” Daddy points out. “Too long, if you ask me.” Ms. Monroe looks a bit uncomfortable at that.

She explains the grand jury proceedings. Then she asks about that night. I pretty much tell her what I told the cops, except she doesn’t ask any stupid questions about Khalil. But when I get to the part when I

describe the number of shots, how they hit Khalil in his back, the look on his face—

My stomach bubbles, bile pools in my mouth, and I gag. Momma jumps up and grabs a garbage bin. She puts it in front of me quick enough to catch the vomit that spews from my mouth.

And I cry and puke. Cry and puke. It’s all I can do.

The DA gets me a soda and says, “That’ll be all today, sweetie. Thank you.”

Daddy helps me to Momma’s car, and people in the halls gawk. I bet they know I’m the witness from my teary, snotty face, and are probably giving me a new name—Poor Thing. As in, “Oh, that poor thing.” That makes it worse.

I get in the car away from their pity and rest my head against the window, feeling like shit.

Momma parks in front of the store, and Daddy pulls up behind us. He gets out his truck and comes to Momma’s side of the car. She rolls her window down.

“I’m going to the school,” she tells him. “They need to know what’s going on. Can she stay with you?” “Yeah, that’s fine. She can rest in the office.”

Another thing puking and crying gets you—people talk about you like you’re not there and make plans for you. Poor Thing apparently can’t hear.

“You sure?” Momma asks him. “Or do I need to take her to Carlos?” Daddy sighs. “Lisa—”

“Maverick, I don’t give a flying monkey’s ass what your problem is, just be there for your daughter. Please?”

Daddy moves to my side of the car and opens the door. “Come here, baby.”

I climb out, blubbering like a little kid who skinned her knee. Daddy pulls me into his chest, rubbing my back and kissing my hair. Momma drives off.

“I’m sorry, baby,” he says.

The crying, the puking don’t mean anything anymore. My daddy’s got me.

We go in the store. Daddy turns on the lights but keeps the closed sign in the window. He goes to his office for a second, then comes back to me and holds my chin.

“Open your mouth,” he says. I open it, and his face scrunches up. Ill. We gotta get you a whole bottle of mouthwash. ’Bout to raise the dead with that breath.”

I laugh with tears in my eyes. Like I said, Daddy’s talented that way.

He wipes my face with his hands, which are rough as sandpaper, but I’m used to them. He frames my face. I smile. “There go my baby,” he says. “You’ll be a’ight.”

I feel normal enough to say, “Now I’m your baby? You haven’t been acting like it.” “Don’t start!” He goes down the medicine aisle. “Sounding like your momma.” “I’m just saying. You’ve been extra salty today.”

He returns with a bottle of Listerine. “Here. Before you kill my produce with your breath.” “Like you killed those eggs this morning?”

“Ay, those were blackened eggs. Y’all don’t know ’bout that.” Nobody knows ’bout that.”

A couple of rinses in the restroom transform my mouth from a swamp of puke residue to normal. Daddy waits on the wooden bench at the front of the store. Our older customers who can’t walk much usually sit there as Daddy, Seven, or I get their groceries for them.

Daddy pats the spot next to him.

I sit. “You’re gonna open back up soon?”

“In a li’l bit. What you see in that white boy?”

Damn. I wasn’t expecting him to go right into it. “Besides the fact he’s adorable—” I say, and Daddy makes a gagging sound, “he’s smart, funny, and he cares about me. A lot.”

“You got a problem with black boys?”

“No. I’ve had black boyfriends.” Three of them. One in fourth grade, although that doesn’t really count, and two in middle school, which don’t count either ’cause nobody knows shit about a relationship in middle school. Or about anything really.

“What?” he says. “I ain’t know ’bout them.”

“Because I knew you’d act crazy. Put a hit on them or something.” “You know, that ain’t a bad idea.”

“Daddy!” I smack his arm as he cracks up. “Did Carlos know ’bout them?” he asks.

“No. He would’ve ran background checks on them or arrested them. Not cool.” “So why you tell him ’bout the white boy?”

“I didn’t tell him,” I say. “He found out. Chris lives down the street from him, so it was harder to hide. And let’s be real here, Daddy. I’ve heard the stuff you’ve said about interracial couples. I didn’t want you talking about me and Chris like that.”

“Chris,” he mocks. “What kinda plain-ass name is that?”

He’s so petty. “Since you wanna ask me questions, do you have a problem with white people?” “Not really.”

Not really?”

“Ay, I’m being honest. My thing is, girls usually date boys who are like their daddies, and I ain’t gon’ lie, when I saw that white—Chris,” he corrects, and I smile. “I got worried. Thought I turned you against black men or didn’t set a good example of a black man. I couldn’t handle that.”

I rest my head on his shoulder. “Nah, Daddy. You haven’t set a good example of what a black man should be. You’ve set a good example of what a man should be. Duh!”

“Duh,” he mocks, and kisses the top of my head. “My baby.” A gray BMW comes to a sudden stop in front of the store. Daddy nudges me off the bench. “C’mon.”

He pulls me to his office and shoves me in. I catch a glimpse of King getting out the BMW before Daddy closes the door in my face.

Hands shaking, I crack open the door.

Daddy stands guard in the entrance of the store. His hand drifts to his waist. His piece.

Three other King Lords hop out the BMW, but Daddy calls out, “Nah. If you wanna talk, we do this alone.”

King nods at his boys. They wait beside the car.

Daddy steps aside, and King lumbers in. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I don’t know if Daddy stands a chance against King. Daddy isn’t skinny or short, but compared to King, who’s pure muscle at six feet, he looks tiny. It’s damn near blasphemous to think like that though.

“Where he at?” King asks. “Where who at?”

“You know who. Vante.”

“How I’m supposed to know?” Daddy says. “He was working here, wasn’t he?”

“For a day or two, yeah. I ain’t seen him today.”

King paces and points his cigar at Daddy. Sweat glistens on the rolls of fat on the back of his head.

“You lying.”

“Why I gotta lie, King?”

“All the shit I did for you,” King says, “and this how you repay me? Where he at, Big Mav?” “I don’t know.”

“Where he at?” King yells.

“I said I don’t know! He asked me for a couple hundred dollars the other day. I told him he had to work for it. So he did. I had some mercy and paid it all up front like a dumbass. He was supposed to come in today and didn’t. End of story.”

“Why he need money from you when he stole five Gs from me?” “Hell if I know,” Daddy says.

“If I find out you lying—”

“You ain’t gotta worry ’bout that. Got too many problems of my own.”

“Oh, yeah. I know ’bout your problems,” King says, a laugh bubbling from him. “I heard Starr-Starr the witness they been talking ’bout on the news. Hope she know to keep her mouth shut when she supposed to.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“These cases always interesting,” King says. “They dig for information. Shit, they try to find out more ’bout the person who died than the person who shot them. Make it seem like a good thing they got killed. They already saying Khalil sold drugs. That could mean problems for anybody who may have been involved in his hustle. So people gotta be careful when they talking to the DA. Wouldn’t want them to be in danger ’cause they ran their mouth.”

“Nah,” Daddy says. “The folks who were involved in the hustle need to be careful ’bout what they say or even think ’bout doing.”

There are several agonizing seconds of Daddy and King staring each other down. Daddy’s hand is at his waist like it’s glued there.

King leaves, pushing the door hard enough to nearly break the hinges, the bell clanging wildly. He gets in his BMW. His minions follow, and he peels out, leaving the truth behind.

He’s gonna mess me up if I rat on him.

Daddy sinks onto the old people’s bench. His shoulders slump, and he takes a deep breath.

We close early and pick up dinner from Reuben’s.

During the short drive home, I notice every car behind us, especially if it’s gray. “I won’t let him do anything to you,” Daddy says.

I know. But still.

Momma’s beating the hell out of some steaks when we get home. First the skillet and now red meat. Nothing in the kitchen is safe.

Daddy holds up the bags for her to see. “I got dinner, baby.” It doesn’t stop her from beating the steaks.

We all sit around the kitchen table, but it’s the quietest dinner in Carter family history. My parents aren’t talking. Seven’s not talking. I’m definitely not talking. Or eating. Between the disaster at the DA’s office and King, my ribs and baked beans look disgusting. Sekani can’t sit still, like he’s itching to give every detail of his day. I guess he can tell nobody’s in the mood. Brickz chomps and slobbers over some ribs in his corner.

Afterward, Momma collects our plates and silverware. “All right, guys, finish your homework. And don’t worry, Starr. Your teachers gave me yours.”

Why would I worry about that? “Thanks.”

She starts to pick up Daddy’s plate, but he touches her arm. “Nah. I got it.”

He takes all of the plates from her, dumps them in the sink, and turns the water on. “Maverick, you don’t have to do that.”

He squirts way too much dishwashing liquid in the sink. He always does. “It’s cool. What time you gotta be at the clinic in the morning?”

“I’ll be off again tomorrow. I have a job interview.” Daddy turns around. “Another one?”

Another one?

“Yeah. Markham Memorial again.” “That’s where Aunt Pam works,” I say.

“Yeah. Her dad is on the board and recommended me. It’s the Pediatrics Nursing Manager. This is my second interview for it actually. They want some of the higher-ups to interview me this time.”

“Baby, that’s amazing,” Daddy says. “That means you’re close to getting it, huh?” “Hopefully,” she says. “Pam thinks it’s as good as mine.”

“Why didn’t you guys tell us?” Seven asks. “’Cause it’s none of y’all business,” Daddy says.

“And we didn’t want to get your hopes up,” Momma adds. “It’s a competitive position.” “How much does it pay?” Seven’s rude self asks.

“More than what I make at the clinic. Six figures.” “Six?” Seven and I say.

“Momma’s gonna be a millionaire!” Sekani shouts.

I swear he doesn’t know anything. “Six figures is the hundred thousands, Sekani,” I say. “Oh. It’s still a lot.”

“What time is your interview?” Daddy asks. “Eleven.”

“Okay, good.” He turns around and wipes a plate. “We can look at some houses before you go to it.” Momma’s hand goes across her chest, and she steps back. “What?”

He looks at me, then at her. “I’m getting us outta Garden Heights, baby. You got my word.”

The idea is as crazy as a four-point shot. Living somewhere other than Garden Heights? Yeah, right. I’d never believe it if it wasn’t Daddy saying it. Daddy never says something unless he means it. King’s threat must’ve really got to him.

He scrubs the skillet that Momma stabbed this morning.

She takes it from him, sets it down, and grabs his hand. “Don’t worry about that.” “I told you it’s cool. I can get the dishes.”

“Forget the dishes.”

And she pulls him to their bedroom and closes the door.

Suddenly, their TV blares real loud, and Jodeci sings over it from the stereo. If that woman ends up with a fetus in her uterus, I will be completely done. Done.

“Ill, man,” Seven says, knowing the deal too. “They’re too old for that.” “Too old for what?” Sekani asks.

“Nothing,” Seven and I say together.

“You think Daddy meant that though?” I ask Seven. “We’re moving?”

He twists one of his dreads at the root. I don’t think he realizes he’s doing it. “Sounds like y’all are. Especially if Ma gets this job.”

Y’all?” I say. “You’re not staying in Garden Heights.”

“I mean, I’ll visit, but I can’t leave my momma and my sisters, Starr. You know that.” “Your momma put you out,” Sekani says “Where else you gonna go, stupid?”

“Who you calling stupid?” Seven sticks his hand under his armpit, then rubs it in Sekani’s face. The one time he did it to me I was nine. He got a busted lip, and I got a whooping.

“You’re not gonna be at your momma’s house anyway,” I say. “You’re going away to college, hallelujah, thank Black Jesus.”

Seven raises his brows. “You want an armpit hand too? And I’m going to Central Community so I can stay at my momma’s house and watch out for my sisters.”

That stings. A little. I’m his sister too, not just them. “House,” I repeat. “You never call it home.” “Yeah, I do,” he says.

“No, you don’t.” “Yeah.”

“Shut the hell up.” I end that argument.

“Ooh!” Sekani holds his hand out. “Gimme my dollar!” “Hell no,” I say. “That shit doesn’t work with me.” “Three dollars!”

“Okay, fine. I’ll give you a three-dollar bill.” “I’ve never seen a three-dollar bill,” he says. “Exactly. And you’ll never see my three dollars.”

DMU Timestamp: September 03, 2020 08:33