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[4 of 5] The Hate U Give - Parts 2, 3, & 4 - Sixteen to Twenty-One - by Angie Thomas (2017)

Author: Angie Thomas

“Part 2: Five Weeks After It," "Part 3: Eight Weeks After It," "Part 4: Ten Weeks After It" - "Sixteen to Twenty-One.” The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, Balzer & Bray/Harperteen, 2017, pp. 280-367.

PART 2

FIVE WEEKS AFTER IT

SIXTEEN

Ms. Ofrah arranged for me to do an interview with one of the national news programs today—exactly a week before I testify before the grand jury next Monday.

It’s around six o’clock when the limo that the news program sent arrives. My family’s coming with me. I doubt my brothers will be interviewed, but Seven wants to support me. Sekani claims he does too, but really he’s hoping he’ll get “discovered” somehow with all those cameras around.

My parents told him about everything. As much as he gets on my nerves, it was sweet when he gave me a handmade card that said “Sorry.” Until I opened it. There was drawing of me crying over Khalil, and I had devil horns. Sekani said he wanted it to be “real.” Little asshole.

We all head out to the limo. Some neighbors watch curiously from their porches and yards. Momma made all of us, including Daddy, dress up like we’re going to Christ Temple—not quite Easter formal but not “diverse church” casual. She says we’re not gonna have the news people thinking we’re “hood rats.”

So as we’re walking to the car, she’s all, “When we get there, don’t touch anything and only speak when somebody speaks to you. It’s ‘yes, ma’am’ and ‘yes, sir,’ or ‘no, ma’am’ and ‘no, sir.’ Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, ma’am,” the three of us say.

“All right now, Starr,” one of our neighbors calls out. I get that just about every day in the neighborhood now. Word’s spreading around the Garden that I’m the witness. “All right now” is more than a greeting. It’s a simple way people let me know they got my back.

The best part though? It’s never “All right now, Big Mav’s daughter who works in the store.” It’s always Starr.

We leave in the limo. I drum my fingers on my knee as I watch the neighborhood pass by. I’ve talked to detectives and the DA, and next week I’ll talk to the grand jury. I’ve talked about that night so much I can repeat it back in my sleep. But the whole world will see this.

My phone vibrates in my blazer pocket. A couple of texts from Chris.

My mom wants to know what color your prom dress is. Something about the tailor needs to know ASAP.

Oh, shit. The Junior-Senior Prom is Saturday. I haven’t bought a dress. With all this Khalil stuff, I’m not sure I wanna go. Momma said I need to get my mind off things. I said no. She gave me “the look.”

So I’m going to the damn prom. This dictatorship she’s on? Not cool. I text Chris back.

Uh . . . light blue?

He responds:

You don’t have a dress yet?

I’ve got plenty of time, I write back. Just been busy.

It’s true. Ms. Ofrah prepared me for this interview every day after school. Some days we finished early, and I helped out around Just Us for Justice. Answered phones, passed out flyers, anything they needed me to do. Sometimes I listened in on their staff meetings as they discussed police reform ideas and the importance of telling the community to protest not riot.

I asked Dr. Davis if Just Us could have a roundtable discussion at Williamson like they do at Garden High. He said he didn’t see the need.

Chris replies to my prom text:

Okay, if you say so Btw Vante says sup.

About to kill him on Madden

He needs to stop calling me Bieber tho

After all that “white boy trying to be black” shit DeVante said about Chris, lately he’s at Chris’s house more than I am. Chris invited him over to play Madden, and all of a sudden they’re “bros.” According to DeVante, Chris’s massive video game collection makes up for his whiteness.

I told DeVante he’s a video game thot. He told me to shut up. We’re cool like that though.

We arrive at a fancy hotel downtown. A white guy in a hoodie waits under the awning leading up to the door. He has a clipboard under his arm and a Starbucks cup in his hand.

Still, he somehow manages to open the limo door and shake our hands when we get out. “John, the producer. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” He shakes my hand a second time. “And let me guess, you’re Starr.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Thank you so much for having the bravery to do this.”

There’s that word again. Bravery. Brave peoples’ legs don’t shake. Brave people don’t feel like puking. Brave people sure don’t have to remind themselves how to breathe if they think about that night too hard. If bravery is a medical condition, everybody’s misdiagnosed me.

John leads us through all of these twists and turns, and I’m so glad I’m wearing flats. He can’t stop talking about how important the interview is and how much they wanna get the truth out there. He’s not exactly adding to my “bravery.”

He takes us to the hotel courtyard, where some camera operators and other show people are setting up. In the middle of the chaos, the interviewer, Diane Carey, is getting her makeup done.

It’s weird seeing her in the flesh and not as a bunch of pixels on TV. When I was younger, every single time I spent the night at Nana’s house she made me sleep in one of her long-ass nightgowns, say my bedtime prayers for at least five minutes, and watch Diane Carey’s news report so I could be “knowledgeable of the world.”

“Hi!” Mrs. Carey’s face lights up when she sees us. She comes over, and I gotta give the makeup lady props ’cause she follows her and keeps working like a pro. Mrs. Carey shakes our hands. “Diane. So nice to meet you all. And you must be Starr,” she says to me. “Don’t be nervous. This will simply be a conversation between the two of us.”

The whole time she talks, some guy snaps photos of us. Yeah, this will be a normal conversation. “Starr, we were thinking we could get shots of you and Diane walking and talking around the

courtyard,” John says. “Then we’ll go up to the suite and do the conversations between you and Diane; you, Diane, and Ms. Ofrah; and finally you and your parents. After that, we’ll be all set.”

One of the production people mics me up as John gives me a rundown of this walk and talk thing. “It’s only a transitional shot,” he says. “Simple stuff.”

Simple my ass. The first time, I practically power-walk. The second time, I walk like I’m in a funeral processional and can’t answer Mrs. Carey’s questions. I never realized walking and talking required so much coordination.

Once we get that right, we take an elevator to the top floor. John leads us to a huge suite—seriously, it looks like a penthouse—overlooking downtown. About a dozen people are setting up cameras and lighting. Ms. Ofrah’s there in one of her Khalil shirts and a skirt. John says they’re ready for me.

I sit in the loveseat across from Mrs. Carey. I’ve never been able to cross my legs, for whatever reason, so that’s out the question. They check my mic, and Mrs. Carey tells me to relax. Soon, the cameras are rolling.

“Millions of people around the world have heard the name Khalil Harris,” she says, “and they’ve developed their own ideas of who he was. Who was he to you?”

More than he may have ever realized. “One of my best friends,” I say. “We knew each other since we were babies. If he were here, he’d point out that he was five months, two weeks, and three days older than me.” We both chuckle at that. “But that’s who Khalil is—was.”

Damn. It hurts to correct myself.

“He was a jokester. Even when things were hard, he’d somehow find some light in it. And he . . .” My voice cracks.

I know it’s corny, but I think he’s here. His nosy ass would show up to make sure I say the right things. Probably calling me his number one fan or some annoying title that only Khalil can think of.

I miss that boy.

“He had a big heart,” I say. “I know that some people call him a thug, but if you knew him, you’d know that wasn’t the case at all. I’m not saying he was an angel or anything, but he wasn’t a bad person. He was a . . .” I shrug. “He was a kid.”

She nods. “He was a kid.” “He was a kid.”

“What do you think about people who focus on the not-so-good aspect of him?” she asks. “The fact that he may have sold drugs?”

Ms. Ofrah once said that this is how I fight, with my voice. So I fight.

“I hate it,” I say. “If people knew why he sold drugs, they wouldn’t talk about him that way.” Mrs. Carey sits up a little. “Why did he sell them?”

I glance at Ms. Ofrah, and she shakes her head. During all our prep meetings, she advised me not to go into details about Khalil selling drugs. She said the public doesn’t have to know about that.

But then I look at the camera, suddenly aware that millions of people will watch this in a few days. King may be one of them. Although his threat is loud in my head, it’s not nearly as loud as what Kenya said that day in the store.

Khalil would defend me. I should defend him. So I gear up to throw a punch.

“Khalil’s mom is a drug addict,” I tell Mrs. Carey. “Anybody who knew him knew how much that bothered him and how much he hated drugs. He only sold them to help her out of a situation with the biggest drug dealer and gang leader in the neighborhood.”

Ms. Ofrah noticeably sighs. My parents have wide eyes.

It’s dry snitching, but it’s snitching. Anybody who knows anything about Garden Heights will know exactly who I’m talking about. Hell, if they watch Mr. Lewis’s interview they can figure it out.

But hey, since King wants to go around the neighborhood lying and saying Khalil repped his set, I can let the world know Khalil was forced to sell drugs for him. “His mom’s life was in danger,” I say. “That’s the only reason he’d ever do something like that. And he wasn’t a gang member—”

“He wasn’t?”

“No, ma’am. He never wanted to fall into that type of life. But I guess—” I think about DeVante for

some reason. “I don’t understand how everyone can make it seem like it’s okay he got killed if he was a drug dealer and a gangbanger.”

A hook straight to the jaw. “The media?” she asks.

“Yes, ma’am. It seems like they always talk about what he may have said, what he may have done, what he may not have done. I didn’t know a dead person could be charged in his own murder, you know?”

The moment I say it, I know it’s my jab to the mouth.

Mrs. Carey asks for my account of that night. I can’t go into a lot of details—Ms. Ofrah told me not to —but I tell her we did everything One-Fifteen asked and never once cussed at him like his father claims. I tell her how afraid I was, how Khalil was so concerned about me that he opened the door and asked if I was okay.

“So he didn’t make a threat on Officer Cruise’s life?” she questions.

“No, ma’am. His exact words were, ‘Starr, are you okay?’ That was the last thing he said, and—” I’m ugly crying, describing the moment when the shots rang out and Khalil looked at me for the last time; how I held him in the street and saw his eyes gloss over. I tell her One-Fifteen pointed his gun at me. “He pointed his gun at you?” she asks.

“Yes, ma’am. He kept it on me until the other officers arrived.”

Behind the cameras, Momma puts her hand over her mouth. Fury sparks in Daddy’s eyes. Ms. Ofrah looks stunned.

It’s another jab.

See, I only told Uncle Carlos that part.

Mrs. Carey gives me Kleenex and a moment to get myself together. “Has this situation made you fearful of cops?” she eventually asks.

“I don’t know,” I say truthfully. “My uncle’s a cop. I know not all cops are bad. And they risk their lives, you know? I’m always scared for my uncle. But I’m tired of them assuming. Especially when it comes to black people.”

“You wish that more cops wouldn’t make assumptions about black people?” she clarifies.

“Right. This all happened because he”—I can’t say his name—“assumed that we were up to no good. Because we’re black and because of where we live. We were just two kids, minding our business, you know? His assumption killed Khalil. It could’ve killed me.”

A kick straight to the ribs.

“If Officer Cruise were sitting here,” Mrs. Carey says, “what would you say to him?”

I blink several times. My mouth waters, but I swallow. No way I’m gonna let myself cry or throw up from thinking about that man.

If he were sitting here, I don’t have enough Black Jesus in me to tell him I forgive him. Instead I’d probably punch him. Straight up.

But Ms. Ofrah says this interview is the way I fight. When you fight, you put yourself out there, not caring who you hurt or if you’ll get hurt.

So I throw one more blow, right at One-Fifteen. “I’d ask him if he wished he shot me too.”

SEVENTEEN

My interview aired yesterday on Diane Carey’s Friday Night News Special. This morning, John the producer called and said it’s one of the most-watched interviews in the network’s history.

A millionaire, who wishes to remain anonymous, offered to pay my college tuition. John said the offer was made right after the interview aired. I think it’s Oprah, but that’s just me because I’ve always imagined she’s my fairy godmother and one day she’ll come to my house saying, “You get a car!”

The network’s already got a bunch of emails in support of me. I haven’t seen any of them, but I received the best message in a text from Kenya.

Bout time you spoke out.

Don’t let this fame go to your head tho.

The interview trended online. When I looked this morning, people were still talking about it. Black Twitter and Tumblr have my back. Some assholes want me dead.

King’s not too happy either. Kenya told me he’s heated that I dry snitched.

The Saturday news programs discussed the interview too, dissecting my words like I’m the president or something. This one network is outraged by my “disregard for cops.” I’m not sure how they got that out the interview. It’s not like I was on some NWA “Fuck the Police” type shit. I simply said I’d ask the man if he wished he shot me too.

I don’t care. I’m not apologizing for how I feel. People can say what they want.

But it’s Saturday, and I’m sitting in a Rolls-Royce on my way to prom with a boyfriend who isn’t saying much of anything to me. Chris is more interested in his phone.

“You look nice,” I tell him. Which he does. His black tux with a light-blue vest and tie match the strapless tea-length gown I have on. His black leather Chuck Taylors are also a good match to my silver sequined ones. The dictator, a.k.a. my mom, bought my outfit. She has pretty good taste.

Chris says, “Thanks. You too,” but it’s so robotic, like he’s saying what he’s supposed to and not what he wants to. And how does he know what I look like? He’s barely looked at me since he picked me up from Uncle Carlos’s house.

I have no clue what’s wrong with him. Things have been fine between us, as far as I know. Now, out of nowhere, he’s all moody and silent. I would ask the driver to take me back to Uncle Carlos’s, but I look too cute to go home.

The driveway at the country club is lit with blue lights, and golden balloon arches hang over it. We’re in the only Rolls-Royce among a sea of limos, so of course people look when we pull up to the entrance.

The driver opens the door for us. Mr. Silent climbs out first and actually helps me out. Our classmates whoop and cheer and whistle. Chris wraps his arm around my waist, and we smile for pictures like everything’s all good. Chris takes my hand and wordlessly escorts me inside.

Loud music greets us. Chandeliers and flashing party lights light up the ballroom. Some committee decided the theme should be Midnight in Paris, so there’s a huge Eiffel Tower made out of Christmas lights. Looks like just about every junior and senior at Williamson is on the dance floor.

Let me say it. A Garden Heights party and a Williamson party are two very different things. At Big D’s party, people Nae-Naed, Hit the Quan, twerked and stuff. At prom, I honestly don’t know what the hell some of them are doing. Lots of jumping and fist pumping and attempts at twerking. It’s not bad. Just different. Way different.

It’s weird though—I’m not as hesitant to dance here as I was at Big D’s party. Like I said, at Williamson I’m cool by default because I’m black. I can go out there and do a silly dance move I made up, and everyone will think it’s the new thing. White people assume all black people are experts on trends and shit. There’s no way in hell I’d try that at a Garden Heights party though. You make a fool of yourself one time, and that’s it. Everybody in the neighborhood will know and nobody will forget.

In Garden Heights, I learn how to be dope by watching. At Williamson, I put my learned dopeness on display. I’m not even that dope, but these white kids think I am and that goes a long way in high school politics.

I start to ask Chris if he wants to dance, but he lets my hand go and heads toward some of his boys. Why did I come to prom again?

“Starr!” somebody calls. I look around a couple of times and finally spot Maya waving at me from a table.

“Girl-lee!” she says when I get there. “You look good! I know Chris went crazy when he saw you.” No. He nearly drove me crazy. “Thanks,” I say, and give her a once-over. She’s wearing a pink knee-length strapless dress. A pair of sparkly silver stilettos gives her about five more inches of height. I applaud her for making it this far in them. I hate heels. “But if anybody’s looking good tonight, it’s you. You clean up nice, Shorty.”

“Don’t call me that. Especially since She Who Must Not Be Named gave me that nickname.” Damn. She Voldemorted Hailey. “Maya, you don’t have to take sides, you know.”

“She’s the one not speaking to us, remember?”

Hailey’s been on some silent treatment shit since the incident at Maya’s house. I mean damn, I call you out on something, so I’m wrong and deserve the cold shoulder? Nah, she’s not guilt-tripping me like that. And when Maya admitted to Hailey that she told me why Hailey unfollowed my Tumblr, Hailey stopped speaking to Maya, claiming she won’t talk to either of us until we apologize. She’s not used to both of us turning on her like this.

Whatever. She and Chris can form a club for all I care. Call it the Silent Treatment League of Young, Rich Brats.

I’m in my feelings just a tad. I hate that Maya got pulled into it though. “Maya, I’m sorry—”

“No need,” she says. “Don’t know if I told you, but I brought up the cat thing to her. After I told her about Tumblr.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. And she told me to get over it.” Maya shakes her head. “I’m still mad at myself for letting her say it in the first place.”

“Yeah. I’m mad at myself too.” We get quiet.

Maya nudges my side. “Hey. We minorities have to stick together, remember?” I chuckle. “Okay, okay. Where’s Ryan?”

“Getting some snacks. He looks good tonight, if I say so myself. Where’s your guy?” “Don’t know,” I say. And don’t care at the moment.

The beautiful thing about best friends? They can tell when you don’t wanna talk, and they don’t push it. Maya hooks her arm through mine. “C’mon. I did not get dressed up to stand around.”

We head for the dance floor and jump and fist-pump along with the rest of them. Maya takes those heels off and barefoots it. Jess, Britt, and some of the other girls from the team join us, and we make our own little dancing circle. We lose our minds when my cousin-through-marriage, Beyoncé, comes on. (I swear I’m related to Jay-Z somehow. Same last name—we have to be.)

We sing loudly with Cousin Bey until we almost go hoarse, and Maya and I are really into it. I may not have Khalil, Natasha, or even Hailey, but I have Maya. She’s enough.

After six songs, we head back to our table, our arms draped around each other. I carry one of Maya’s shoes, and the other one dangles from her wrist by the strap.

“Did you see Mr. Warren do the robot?” Maya asks between laughs. “Did I? I didn’t know he had it in him.”

Maya stops. She looks around without looking at anything at all. “Don’t look, but look to the left,” she mutters.

“The hell? Which one is it?”

“Look to the left,” she says through her teeth. “But quickly.”

Hailey and Luke are arm in arm in the entrance, posing for pictures, and I can’t even throw shade— with her gold-and-white dress and his white tux, they’re cute. I mean, just ’cause we’ve got beef doesn’t mean I can’t compliment her, you know? I’m even happy she’s with Luke. It took long enough.

Hailey and Luke walk in our direction but brush right past us, her shoulder a couple of inches away from mine. She flashes us stank-eye. This chick. I probably shoot one back. Sometimes I give stank-eyes and don’t realize I’m giving them.

“Yeah, that’s right,” Maya says to Hailey’s back. “You better keep walking.”

Lord. Maya can go from zero to one hundred a little too quick. “Let’s get something to drink,” I say, pulling her with me. “Before you hurt yourself.”

We get some punch and join Ryan at our table. He’s stuffing his face with finger sandwiches and meatballs, crumbs falling onto his tux. “Where y’all been?” he asks.

“Dancing,” Maya says. She steals one of his shrimp. “You didn’t eat all day, did you?” “Nope. I was about to starve to death.” He nods at me. “What’s up, Black Girlfriend?”

We joke around about that whole “only two black kids in the class are supposed to date” thing. “What’s up, Black Boyfriend?” I say, and I steal a shrimp too.

What do you know, Chris remembers he came with somebody and walks over to our table. He says hey to Maya and Ryan, then asks me, “You wanna take pictures or something?”

His tone is all robotic again. On a scale of one to ten on the “I’m done” meter, I’m at about fifty. “No thanks,” I tell him. “I’m not taking pictures with somebody who doesn’t wanna be here with me.”

He sighs. “Why do you have to have an attitude?” “Me? You’re the one giving me the cold shoulder.”

“Dammit, Starr! Do you wanna take a fucking picture or not?”

The “done” meter blows up. Ka-boom. Blown to pieces. “Hell no. Go take one and shove it up your ass.”

I march off, ignoring Maya’s calls for me to come back. Chris follows me. He tries to grab my arm, but I snatch away and keep walking. It’s dark outside, but I easily find the Rolls-Royce parked along the driveway. The chauffeur isn’t around, or otherwise I would ask him to take me home. I hop in the back and lock the doors.

Chris knocks on the window. “Starr, c’mon.” He puts his hands against the window like they’re binoculars and he’s trying to look through the tint. “Can we talk?”

“Oh, now you wanna talk to me?”

“You’re the one who wouldn’t talk to me!” He bows his head, pressing his forehead against the glass. “Why didn’t you tell me you were the witness they’ve been talking about?”

He asks it softly, but it’s hard as a sucker punch in the gut. He knows.

I unlock the door and scoot over. Chris climbs in next to me. “How did you find out?” I ask.

“The interview. Watched it with my parents.” “They didn’t show my face though.”

“I knew your voice, Starr. And then they showed the back of you as you walked with that interview lady, and I’ve watched you walk away enough to know what you look like from the back, and . . . I sound like a pervert, don’t I?”

“So you knew me by my ass?”

“I . . . yeah.” His face goes red. “But that wasn’t all. Everything made sense, like how upset you got about the protest and about Khalil. Not that that wasn’t stuff to get upset about, ’cause it was, but it—” He sighs. “I’m sinking here, Starr. I just knew it was you. And it was, wasn’t it?”

I nod.

“Babe, you should’ve told me. Why would you keep something like that from me?”

I tilt my head. “Wow. I saw someone get murdered, and you’re acting like a brat ’cause I didn’t tell you?”

“I didn’t mean it like that.”

“But you think about that for a second,” I say. “Tonight you could hardly say two words to me because I didn’t tell you about one of the worst experiences of my life. You ever seen somebody die?”

“No.”

“I’ve seen it twice.”

“And I didn’t know that!” he says. “I’m your boyfriend, and I didn’t know any of that.” He looks at me, the same hurt in his eyes like there was when I snatched my hands away weeks ago. “There’s this whole part of your life that you’ve kept from me, Starr. We’ve been together over a year now, and you’ve never mentioned Khalil, who you claim was your best friend, or this other person you saw die. You didn’t trust me enough to tell me.”

My breath catches. “It’s—it’s not like that.”

“Really?” he says. “Then what is it like? What are we? Just Fresh Prince and fooling around?” “No.” My lips tremble, and my voice is small. “I . . . I can’t share that part of me here, Chris.” “Why not?”

“Because,” I croak. “People use it against me. Either I’m poor Starr who saw her friend get killed in a drive-by, or Starr the charity case who lives in the ghetto. That’s how the teachers act.”

“Okay, I get not telling people around school,” he says. “But I’m not them. I would never use that against you. You once told me I’m the only person you could be yourself around at Williamson, but the truth is you still didn’t trust me.”

I’m one second away from ugly crying. “You’re right,” I say. “I didn’t trust you. I didn’t want you to just see me as the girl from the ghetto.”

“You didn’t even give me the chance to prove you wrong. I wanna be there for you. You gotta let me in.”

God. Being two different people is so exhausting. I’ve taught myself to speak with two different voices and only say certain things around certain people. I’ve mastered it. As much as I say I don’t have to choose which Starr I am with Chris, maybe without realizing it, I have to an extent. Part of me feels like

I can’t exist around people like him.

I am not gonna cry, I am not gonna cry, I am not gonna cry.

“Please?” he says.

That does it. Everything starts spilling out.

“I was ten. When my other friend died,” I say, staring at the French tips on my nails. “She was ten too.”

“What was her name?” he asks.

“Natasha. It was a drive-by. It’s one of the reasons my parents put me and my brothers in Williamson. It was the closest they could get to protecting us a little more. They bust their butts for us to go to that school.”

Chris doesn’t say anything. I don’t need him to.

I take a shaky breath and look around. “You don’t know how crazy it is that I’m even sitting in this car,” I say. “A Rolls freaking Royce. I used to live in the projects in a one-bedroom apartment. I shared the room with my brothers, and my parents slept on a fold-out couch.”

The details of life back then are suddenly fresh. “The apartment smelled like cigarettes all the damn time,” I say. “Daddy smoked. Our neighbors above us and next to us smoked. I had so many asthma attacks, it ain’t funny. We only kept canned goods in the cabinets ’cause of the rats and roaches. Summers were always too hot, and winters too cold. We had to wear coats inside and outside.

“Sometimes Daddy sold food stamps to buy clothes for us,” I say. “He couldn’t get a job for the longest time, ’cause he’s an ex-con. When he got hired at the grocery store, he took us to Taco Bell, and we ordered whatever we wanted. I thought it was the greatest thing in the world. Almost better than the day we moved out the projects.”

Chris cracks a small smile. “Taco Bell is pretty awesome.”

“Yeah.” I look at my hands again. “He let Khalil come with us to Taco Bell. We were struggling, but Khalil was like our charity case. Everybody knew his momma was a crackhead.”

I feel the tears coming. Fuck, I’m sick of this. “We were real close back then. He was my first kiss, first crush. Before he died, we weren’t as close anymore. I mean, I hadn’t seen him in months and . . .” I’m ugly crying. “And it’s killing me because he was going through so much shit, and I wasn’t there for him anymore.”

Chris thumbs my tears away. “You can’t blame yourself.”

“But I do,” I say. “I could’ve stopped him from selling drugs. Then people wouldn’t be calling him a thug. And I’m sorry I didn’t tell you; I wanted to, but everybody who knows I was in the car acts like I’m made out of glass. You treated me normal. You were my normal.”

I’m an absolute mess right now. Chris takes my hand and pulls me onto his lap so I’m straddling him. I bury my face in his shoulder and cry like a big-ass baby. His tux is wet, my makeup is ruined. Awful.

“I’m sorry,” he says, rubbing my back. “I was an ass tonight.” “You were. But you’re my ass.”

“I’ve been watching myself walk away?”

I look at him and seriously punch his arm. He laughs and the sound of it makes me laugh. “You know what I mean! You’re my normal. And that’s all that matters.”

“All that matters.” He smiles.

I hold his cheek and let my lips reintroduce themselves to his. Chris’s are soft and perfect. They taste like fruit punch too.

Chris pulls back with a gentle tug to my bottom lip. He presses his forehead against mine and looks at me. “I love you.”

The “I” has appeared. My response is easy. “I love you too.”

Two loud knocks against the window startle us. Seven presses his face against the glass. “Y’all bet’ not be doing nothing!”

The best way to get turned all the way off? Have your brother show up.

“Seven, leave them alone,” Layla whines behind him. “We were about to dance, remember?” “That can wait. I gotta make sure he’s not getting some from my sister.”

“You won’t get any if you don’t stop acting so ridiculous!” she says. “I don’t care. Starr, get out this car. I ain’t playing!”

Chris laughs into my bare shoulder. “Did your dad tell him to keep an eye on you?” Knowing Daddy . . . “Probably so.”

He kisses my shoulder and his lips linger there a few seconds. “Are we good now?” I peck him back on the lips. “We’re good.”

“Good. Let’s go dance.”

We get out the car, and Seven yells about us sneaking off and threatens to tell Daddy. Layla pulls him back inside as he says, “And if she push out a little Chris in nine months, we gon’ have a problem, partna!”

Ridiculous. Re-damn-diculous.

The music is still bumping inside. I try not to laugh as Chris really does turn the Nae-Nae into a No-No. Maya and Ryan join us on the dance floor, and they give me these “What the hell?” looks at Chris’s moves. I shrug and go with it.

Toward the end of a song, Chris leans down to my ear and says, “I’ll be right back.”

He disappears into the crowd. I don’t think anything of it until about a minute later when his voice comes over the speakers, and he’s next to the DJ in the booth.

“Hey, everybody,” he says. “My girl and I had a fight earlier.”

Oh, Lord. He’s telling all of our business. I look at my Chucks and shield my face.

“And I wanted to do this song, our song, to show you how much I love you and care about you, Fresh Princess.”

A bunch of girls go, “Awww!” His boys whoop and cheer. I’m thinking, please don’t let him sing. Please. But there’s this familiar boomp . . . boomp, boomp, boomp.

“Now this is a story all about how my life got flipped turned upside down,” Chris raps. “And I’d like to take a minute, just sit right there, I’ll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel-Air.”

I smile way too hard. Our song. I rap along with him, and mostly everyone joins in. Even the teachers. At the end, I cheer louder than anybody.

Chris comes back down, and we laugh and hug and kiss. Then we dance and take silly selfies, flooding dashboards and timelines around the world. When prom is over, we let Maya, Ryan, Jess, and some of our other friends ride with us to IHOP. Everybody has somebody on their lap. At IHOP, we eat way too many pancakes and dance to songs on the jukebox. I don’t think about Khalil or Natasha.

It’s one of the best nights of my life.

EIGHTEEN

On Sunday, my parents take me and my brothers on a trip.

It seems like a normal visit to Uncle Carlos’s house until we pass his neighborhood. A little over five minutes later, a brick sign surrounded by colorful shrubs welcomes us to Brook Falls.

Single-story brick houses line freshly paved streets. Black kids, white kids, and everything in between play on the sidewalks and in yards. Open garage doors show all of the junk inside, and bikes and scooters lay abandoned in yards. Nobody’s worried about their stuff getting stolen in the middle of the day.

It reminds me of Uncle Carlos’s neighborhood yet it’s different. For one, there’s no gate around it, so they’re not keeping anyone out or in, but obviously people feel safe. The houses are smaller, more homey looking. And straight up? There are more people who look like us compared to Uncle Carlos’s neighborhood.

Daddy pulls into the driveway of a brown-brick house at the end of a cul-de-sac. Bushes and small trees decorate the yard, and a cobblestone walkway leads up to the front door.

“C’mon, y’all,” Daddy says.

We hop out, stretching and yawning. Those forty-five-minute drives aren’t a joke. A chubby black man waves at us from the driveway next door. We wave back and follow my parents up the walkway. Through the glass of the front door, the house appears empty.

“Whose house is this?” Seven asks. Daddy unlocks the door. “Hopefully ours.”

When we go inside, we’re standing in the living room. There’s a strong stench of paint and polished hardwood floors. Two halls, one on each side, lead away from the living room. The kitchen is right off from the living room with white cabinets, granite countertops, and stainless-steel appliances.

“We wanted you guys to see it,” Momma says. “Look around.” I can’t lie, I’m afraid to move. “This is our house?”

“Like I said, we hope so,” Daddy replies. “We’re waiting for the mortgage to be approved.” “Can we afford it?” Seven asks.

Momma raises an eyebrow. “Yes, we can.” “But like down payments and stuff—”

“Seven!” I hiss. He’s always in somebody’s business.

“We got everything taken care of,” Daddy says. “We’ll rent the house in the Garden out, so that’s gon’ help with the monthly payments. Plus . . .” He looks at Momma with this sly grin that’s kinda adorable, I gotta admit.

“I got the nurse manager job at Markham,” she says, smiling. “I start in two weeks.” “For real?” I say, and Seven goes, “Whoa,” while Sekani shouts, “Momma’s rich!” “Boy, ain’t nobody rich,” Daddy says. “Calm down.”

“But this helps,” says Momma. “A lot.”

“Daddy, you’re okay with us living out here with the fake people?” Sekani asks.

“Where you get that from, Sekani?” Momma says.

“Well, that’s what he always says. That people out here are fake, and that Garden Heights is real.” “Yeah, he does say that,” says Seven.

I nod. “All. The. Time.”

Momma folds her arms. “Care to explain, Maverick?” “I don’t say it that much—”

“Yeah, you do,” the rest of us say.

“A’ight, I say it a lot. I may not have been one hundred percent right on all of this—” Momma coughs, but there’s a “Ha” hidden in it.

Daddy glares at her. “But I realize being real ain’t got anything to do with where you live. The realest thing I can do is protect my family, and that means leaving Garden Heights.”

“What else?” Momma questions, like he’s being grilled in front of the class.

“And that living in the suburbs don’t make you any less black than living in the hood.” “Thank you,” she says with a satisfied smile.

“Now are y’all gon’ look around or what?” Daddy asks.

Seven hesitates to move, and since he’s hesitant, Sekani is too. But shoot, I want first dibs on a room. “Where are the bedrooms?”

Momma points to the hall on the left. I guess Seven and Sekani realize why I asked. The three of us exchange looks.

We rush for the hall. Sekani gets there first, and it’s not my best moment, but I sling his scrawny butt back.

“Mommy, she threw me!” he whines.

I beat Seven to the first room. It’s bigger than my current room but not as big as I want. Seven reaches the second one, looks around, and I guess he doesn’t like it. That leaves the third room as the biggest one, and it’s at the end of the hall.

Seven and I race for it, and it’s like Harry Potter versus Cedric Diggory trying to get to the Goblet of Fire. I grab Seven’s shirt, stretching it until I have a good enough grip to pull him back and get ahead of him. I beat him to the room and open the door.

And it’s smaller than the first one.

“I call dibs!” Sekani shouts. He shimmies in the doorway of the first room, the biggest of the three. Seven and I rock, paper, scissor it for the second-biggest room. Seven always goes with rock or paper, so I easily win.

Daddy leaves to get lunch, and Momma shows us the rest of the house. My brothers and I have to share a bathroom again. Sekani’s finally learned aim etiquette and the art of flushing, so it’s fine, I guess. The master suite is on the other hallway. There’s a laundry room, an unfinished basement, and a two-car garage. Momma says we’ll get a basketball hoop on wheels. We can keep it in the garage, roll it in front of the house, and play in the cul-de-sac sometimes. A wooden fence surrounds the backyard, and there’s plenty of space for Daddy’s garden and Brickz.

“Brickz can come out here, right?” I ask. “Of course. We aren’t gonna leave him.”

Daddy brings burgers and fries, and we eat on the kitchen floor. It’s super quiet out here. Dogs bark sometimes, but wall-rattling music and gunshots? Not happening.

“So, we’re gonna close in the next few weeks or so,” Momma says, “but since it’s the end of the school year, we’ll wait until you guys are out for summer to move.”

“’Cause moving ain’t no joke,” Daddy adds.

“Hopefully, we can get settled in before you go off to college, Seven,” Momma says. “Plus it gives you a chance to make your room yours, so you can have it for holidays and the summer.”

Sekani slurps his milk shake and says with a mouth full of froth, “Seven said he’s not going to college.”

Daddy says, “What?”

Seven glares at Sekani. “I didn’t say I wasn’t going to college. I said I wasn’t going away to college. I’m going to Central Community so I can be around for Kenya and Lyric.”

“Oh, hell no,” Daddy says.

“You can’t be serious,” says Momma.

Central Community is the junior college on the edge of Garden Heights. Some people call it Garden Heights High 2.0 ’cause so many people from Garden High go there and take the same drama and bullshit with them.

“They have engineering classes,” Seven argues.

“But they don’t have the same opportunities as those schools you applied to,” Momma says. “Do you realize what you’re passing up? Scholarships, internships—”

“The chance for me to finally have a Seven-free life,” I add, and slurp my milk shake. “Who asked you?” Seven says.

“Yo’ momma.”

Low blow, I know, but that response comes naturally. Seven flicks a fry at me. I block it and come this close to flipping him off, but Momma says, “You bet’ not!” and I lower my finger.

“Look, you not responsible for your sisters,” Daddy says, “but I’m responsible for you. And I ain’t letting you pass up opportunities so you can do what two grown-ass people supposed to do.”

“A dollar, Daddy,” Sekani points out.

“I love that you look out for Kenya and Lyric,” Daddy tells Seven, “but there’s only so much you can do. You can choose whatever college you want, and you’ll be successful. But you choose because that’s where you wanna be. Not because you trying to do somebody else’s job. You hear me?”

“Yeah,” Seven says.

Daddy hooks his arm around Seven’s neck and pulls him closer. Daddy kisses his temple. “I love you. And I always got your back.”

After lunch we gather in the living room, join hands, and bow our heads.

“Black Jesus, thank you for this blessing,” Daddy says. “Even when we weren’t so crazy about the idea of moving—”

Momma clears her throat.

“Okay, when I wasn’t so crazy about the idea of moving,” Daddy corrects, “you worked things out. Thank you for Lisa’s new job. Please help her and continue to be with her when she does extra shifts at the clinic. Help Sekani with his end-of-the-year tests. And thank you, Lord, for helping Seven do something I didn’t, get a high school diploma. Guide him as he chooses a college and let him know you’re protecting Kenya and Lyric.

“Now, Lord, tomorrow is a big day for my baby girl as she goes before this grand jury. Please give her peace and courage. As much as I wanna ask you to work this case out a certain way, I know you already got a plan. I ask for some mercy, God. That’s all. Mercy for Garden Heights, for Khalil’s family, for Starr. Help all of us through this. In your precious name—”

“Wait,” Momma says.

I peek out with one eye. Daddy does too. Momma never, ever interrupts prayer. “Uh, baby,” says Daddy, “I was finishing up.”

“I have something to add. Lord, bless my mom, and thank you that she went into her retirement fund and gave us the money for the down payment. Help us turn the basement into a suite so she can stay here sometimes.”

“No, Lord,” Daddy says. “Yes, Lord,” says Momma. “No, Lord.”

“Yes.” “No, amen!”

We get home in time to catch a playoffs game.

Basketball season equals war in our house. I’m a LeBron fan through and through. Miami, Cleveland, it doesn’t matter. I ride with him. Daddy hasn’t jumped off the Lakers ship yet, but he likes LeBron. Seven’s all about the Spurs. Momma’s an “anybody but LeBron” hater, and Sekani is a “whoever is winning” fan.

It’s Cleveland versus Chicago tonight. The battle lines are drawn—me and Daddy versus Seven and Momma. Seven jumps on that “anybody but LeBron” bandwagon of hateration too.

I change into my LeBron jersey. Every time I don’t wear it, his team loses. Seriously, I’m not even lying. I can’t wash it either. Momma washed my last jersey right before Finals, and Miami lost to the Spurs. I think she did it on purpose.

I take my lucky spot in the den in front of the sectional. Seven comes in and steps over me, putting his big bare foot near my face. I smack it away. “Get your crusty foot outta my face.”

“We’ll see who’s joking later. Ready for a butt whooping?” “You mean am I ready to give one? Yep!”

Momma peeks around the doorway. “Munch, you want some ice cream?”

I gape at her. She knows I don’t eat dairy products during games. Dairy gives me gas, and gas is bad luck.

She grins. “How about a sundae? Sprinkles, strawberry syrup, whipped cream.” I cover my ears. “La-la-la-la-la, go away, LeBron hater. La-la-la-la-la.”

Like I said, basketball season equals war, and my family has the dirtiest tactics.

Momma returns with a big bowl, shoveling ice cream into her mouth. She sits on the sectional and lowers her bowl into my face. “You sure you don’t want some, Munch? It’s your favorite too. Cake batter. So good!”

Be strong, I tell myself, but damn, that ice cream looks good. Strawberry syrup glistens on it and a big dollop of whipped cream sits pretty on top. I close my eyes. “I want a championship more.”

“Well, you aren’t getting that, so you may as well enjoy some ice cream.” “Ha!” Seven goes.

“What’s all this smack up in here?” Daddy asks.

He takes the recliner on the sectional, his lucky spot. Sekani scurries in and sits behind me, propping his bare feet on my shoulders. I don’t mind. They haven’t matured and funkified yet.

“I was offering Munch some of my sundae,” Momma says. “You want some, baby?” “Heck, nah. You know I don’t eat dairy during games.”

See? It’s serious.

“You and Seven may as well get ready for this butt whooping Cleveland ’bout to give y’all,” says Daddy. “I mean, it ain’t gon’ be a Kobe butt whooping, but it’s gon’ be a good one.”

“Amen!” I say. Except the Kobe part.

“Boy, bye,” Momma tells him. “You’re always picking sorry teams. First the Lakers—”

“Ay, a three-peat ain’t a sorry team, baby. And I don’t always pick sorry teams.” He grins. “I picked your team, didn’t I?”

Momma rolls her eyes, but she’s grinning too, and I hate to admit it but they’re kinda cute right now. “Yeah,” she says, “that’s the only time you picked right.”

“Uh-huh,” Daddy says. “See, your momma played for Saint Mary’s basketball team, and they had a game against Garden High, my school.”

“And we whooped their butts too,” Momma says, licking ice cream off her spoon. “Them li’l girls ain’t have anything on us. I’m just saying.”

“Anyway, I’m there to watch some of the homeboys play after the girls’ game,” Daddy says, looking at Momma. This is so adorable, I can’t stand it. “I got there early and saw the finest girl ever, and she was playing her ass off on the court.”

“Tell them what you did,” says Momma, although we know. “Ay, I was trying to—”

“Nah, nah, tell them what you did,” she says. “I tried to get your attention.”

“Uh-uh!” Momma says, getting up. She hands me her bowl and stands in front of the TV. “You were like this on the sideline,” she says, and she kinda leans to the side, holding her crotch and licking her lips. We crack up. I can so see Daddy doing that too.

“During the middle of a game!” she says. “Standing there looking like a pervert, just watching me.” “But you noticed me,” Daddy says. “Right?”

“’Cause you looked like a fool! Then, during halftime, I’m on the bench, and he’s behind me, talking about”—she deepens her voice—“‘Ay! Ay, shorty. What’s your name? You know you looking good out there. Can I get your number?’”

“Dang, Pops, you didn’t have any game,” Seven says. “I had game!” Daddy argues.

“Did you get her number that night though?” Seven says. “I mean, I was working on it—”

“Did you get her number?” I repeat Seven’s question.

“Nah,” he admits, and we’re hollering laughing. “Man, whatever. Hate all y’all want. I eventually did something right.”

“Yeah,” Momma admits, running her fingers through my hair. “You did.”

By the second quarter of Cleveland versus Chicago, we’re yelling and shouting at the TV. When LeBron steals the ball, I jump up, and bam! He dunks it.

“In yo’ face!” I yell at Momma and Seven. “In yo’ face!”

Daddy gives me a high five and claps. “That’s what I’m talking ’bout!” Momma and Seven roll their eyes.

I sit in my “game time” position—knees pulled in, right arm draped over my head and holding my left ear, and my left thumb in my mouth. Don’t hate. It works. Cleveland’s offense and defense is on point. “Let’s go, Cavs!”

Glass shatters. Then, pop, pop, pop, pop. Gunshots. “Get down!” Daddy yells.

I’m already down. Sekani comes down next to me, then Momma on top of us, and she wraps her arms around us. Daddy’s feet thud toward the front of the house and the hinges on the front door squeak as it

swings open. Tires screech off. “Mothaf—” Gunshots cut Daddy off.

My heart stops. For a split second, I visit a world without my dad, and it doesn’t seem like much of a world at all.

But his footsteps rush back in. “Y’all a’ight?”

The weight on top of me lifts. Momma says she’s okay, and Sekani says he is too. Seven echoes them. Daddy’s holding his Glock. “I shot at them fools,” he says between heavy breaths. “I think I hit a tire.

Ain’t never seen that car before.”

“Did they shoot in the house?” Momma asks.

“Yeah, a couple shots through the front window,” he says. “They threw something too. Landed in the living room.”

I head for the front.

“Starr! Get back here!” Momma calls.

I’m too curious and too hardheaded. Glass shards glisten all over Momma’s good sofa. A brick sits in the middle of the floor.

Momma calls Uncle Carlos. He gets to our house in half an hour.

Daddy hasn’t stopped pacing the den, and he hasn’t put his Glock down. Seven takes Sekani to bed. Momma has her arm around me on the sectional and won’t let go.

Some of our neighbors checked in, like Mrs. Pearl and Ms. Jones. Mr. Charles from next door rushed over, holding his own piece. None of them saw who did it.

Doesn’t matter who did it. It was clearly a message for me.

I have this sick feeling like I got when I ate ice cream and played in hot weather too long when I was younger. Ms. Rosalie said the heat “boiled” my stomach and that something cool would settle it. Nothing cool can settle this.

“Did you call the police?” Uncle Carlos asks.

“Hell nah!” says Daddy. “How I know it wasn’t them?”

“Maverick, you still should’ve called,” Uncle Carlos says. “This needs to be recorded, and they can send someone to guard the house.”

“Oh, I got somebody to guard the house. Don’t worry about that. It definitely ain’t gon’ be no crooked pig who may have been behind this.”

“King Lords could’ve done this!” says Uncle Carlos. “Didn’t you say King made a veiled threat against Starr because of her interview?”

“I’m not going tomorrow,” I say, but I have a better chance of being heard at a Drake concert.

“It ain’t no damn coincidence that somebody’s trying to scare us the night before she testifies to the grand jury,” Daddy says. “That’s some shit your buddies would do.”

“You’d be surprised at how many of us want justice in this case,” says Uncle Carlos. “But of course, classic Maverick. Every cop is automatically a bad cop.”

“I’m not going tomorrow,” I repeat.

“I ain’t say every cop is a bad cop, but I ain’t gon’ stand here like a fool, thinking that some of them don’t do dirty shit. Hell, they made me lay face-down on the sidewalk. And for what? ’Cause they could!” “It could’ve been either one of them,” Momma says. “Trying to figure out who did it will get us

nowhere. The main thing is making sure Starr is safe tomorrow—” “I said I’m not going!” I shout.

They finally hear me. My stomach holds a roiling boil. “Yeah, it could’ve been King Lords, but what

if it was the cops?” I look at Daddy and remember that moment weeks ago in front of the store. “I thought they were gonna kill you,” I croak. “Because of me.”

He kneels in front of me and sits the Glock beside my feet. He lifts my chin. “Point one of the Ten-Point Program. Say it.”

My brothers and I learned to recite the Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Program the same way other kids learn the Pledge of Allegiance.

“‘We want freedom,’” I say. “‘We want the power to determine the destiny of our black and oppressed communities.’”

“Say it again.”

“‘We want freedom. We want the power to determine the destiny of our black and oppressed communities.’”

“Point seven.”

“‘We want an immediate end to police brutality,’” I say, “‘and the murder of black people, other people of color, and oppressed people.’”

“Again.”

“‘We want an immediate end to police brutality and the murder of black people, other people of color, and oppressed people.’”

“And what did Brother Malcolm say is our objective?”

Seven and I could recite Malcolm X quotes by the time we were thirteen. Sekani hasn’t gotten there yet.

“‘Complete freedom, justice, and equality,’” I say, “‘by any means necessary.’” “Again.”

“‘Complete freedom, justice, and equality, by any means necessary.’” “So why you gon’ be quiet?” Daddy asks.

Because the Ten-Point Program didn’t work for the Panthers. Huey Newton died a crackhead, and the government crushed the Panthers one by one. By any means necessary didn’t keep Brother Malcolm from dying, possibly at the hands of his own people. Intentions always look better on paper than in reality. The reality is, I may not make it to the courthouse in the morning.

Two loud knocks at the front door startle us.

Daddy straightens up, grabs his Glock, and leaves to answer. He says what’s up to somebody, and there’s a sound like palms slapping. Then a male voice says, “You know we got you, Big Mav.”

Daddy returns with some tall, wide-shouldered guys dressed in gray and black. It’s a lighter gray than what King and his folks wear. It takes a hood-trained eye to notice it and understand. This is a different set of King Lords.

“This is Goon.” Daddy points to the shortest one, in front with the ponytails. “Him and his boys gon’ provide security for us tonight and tomorrow.”

Uncle Carlos folds his arms and gives the King Lords a hard look. “You asked King Lords to guard the house when King Lords may have put us in this position?”

“They don’t mess with King,” Daddy says. “They Cedar Grove King Lords.”

Shit, they may as well be GDs then. Sets make all the difference in gangbanging, not colors. The Cedar Grove King Lords have been beefing with King’s set, the West Side King Lords, for a while now.

“You need us to fall back, Big Mav?” Goon asks.

“Nah, don’t worry about him,” Daddy says. “Y’all do what y’all came to do.”

“Nothing but a thang,” Goon says, and gives Daddy dap. Him and his boys head back outside.

“Are you serious right now?” Uncle Carlos yells. “You really think gangbangers can provide adequate security?”

“They strapped, ain’t they?” Daddy says.

“Ridiculous!” Uncle Carlos looks at Momma. “Look, I’ll go with you to the courthouse tomorrow as long as they aren’t coming too.”

“Punk ass,” Daddy says. “Can’t even protect your niece ’cause you scared of what it’ll look like to your fellow cops if you’re working with gangbangers.”

“Oh, you wanna go there, Maverick?” Uncle Carlos says. “Carlos, calm down.”

“No, Lisa. I wanna make sure I got this right. Does he mean the same niece I took care of while he was locked up? Huh? The one I took to her first day of school because he took a charge for his so-called boy? The one I held when she cried for her daddy?”

He’s loud, and Momma stands in front of him to keep him from Daddy.

“You can call me as many names as you want, Maverick, but don’t you ever say I don’t care about my niece and nephews! Yeah, that’s right, nephews! Seven too. When you were locked up—”

“Carlos,” Momma says.

“No, he needs to hear this. When you were locked up, I helped Lisa every time your sorry-ass baby momma dropped Seven off on her for weeks at a time. Me! I bought clothes, food, provided shelter. My Uncle Tom ass! Hell no, I don’t wanna work with criminals, but don’t you ever insinuate I don’t care about any of those kids!”

Daddy’s mouth makes a line. He’s silent.

Uncle Carlos snatches his keys off the coffee table, gives my forehead two pecks, and leaves. The front door slams shut.

NINETEEN

The smell of hickory bacon and the sound of way too many voices wake me up.

I blink to soothe my eyes from the assault my neon-blue walls are giving them. It takes me a few minutes lying here to remember it’s grand jury day.

Time to see if I’ll fail Khalil or not.

I put my feet in my slippers and head toward the unfamiliar voices. Seven and Sekani are at school by now, plus their voices aren’t that deep. I should be worried about some unknown dudes seeing me in my pajamas, but that’s the beauty of sleeping in tanks and basketball shorts. They won’t see much.

The kitchen’s standing-room-only. Guys in black slacks, white shirts, and ties are at the table or standing against the wall, shoveling food in their mouths. They have tattoos on their faces and hands. A couple of them give me quick nods and mumble “S’up” through mouths full of food.

The Cedar Grove King Lords. Damn, they clean up nicely.

Momma and Aunt Pam work the stove as skillets full of bacon and eggs sizzle, blue flames dancing beneath them. Nana pours juice and coffee and runs her mouth.

Momma barely looks over her shoulder and says, “Morning, Munch. Your plate’s in the microwave. Come get these biscuits out for me, please.”

She and Aunt Pam move to the ends of the stove, stirring the eggs and turning the bacon. I grab a towel and open the oven. The aroma of buttery biscuits and a heat wave hit me head-on. I pick the pan up with the towel, and that thing is still too hot to hold for long.

“Over here, li’l momma,” Goon says at the table.

I’m glad to put it down. Not even two minutes after I set it on the table, every last biscuit is gone. Goddamn. I grab my paper towel–covered plate from the microwave before the King Lords inhale it too.

“Starr, get those other plates for your dad and your uncle,” Aunt Pam says. “Take them outside, please.”

Uncle Carlos is here? I tell Aunt Pam, “Yes, ma’am,” stack their plates on top of mine, grab the hot sauce and some forks, and leave as Nana starts one of her “back in my theater days” stories.

Outside, the sunlight’s so bright it makes the paint on my walls seem dim. I squint and look around for Daddy or Uncle Carlos. The hatch on Daddy’s Tahoe is up, and they’re sitting on the back of it.

My slippers scuff against the concrete, sounding like brooms sweeping the floor. Daddy looks around the truck. “There go my baby.”

I hand him and Uncle Carlos a plate and get a kiss to the cheek from Daddy in return. “You sleep okay?” he asks.

“Kinda.”

Uncle Carlos moves his pistol from the space between them and pats the empty spot. “Keep us company for a bit.”

I hop up next to them. We unwrap the plates that have enough biscuits, bacon, and eggs for a few people.

“I think this one’s yours, Maverick,” Uncle Carlos says. “It’s got turkey bacon.” “Thanks, man,” Daddy says, and they exchange plates.

I shake hot sauce on my eggs and pass Daddy the bottle. Uncle Carlos holds his hand out for it too. Daddy smirks and passes it down. “I would’ve thought you were too refined for some hot sauce on your eggs.”

“You do realize this is the house I grew up in, right?” He covers his eggs completely in hot sauce, sets the bottle down, and licks his fingers for the sauce that got on them. “Don’t tell Pam I ate all of this though. She’s always on me about watching my sodium.”

“I won’t tell if you won’t tell,” Daddy says. They bump fists to seal the deal.

I woke up on another planet or in an alternate reality. Something. “Y’all cool all of a sudden?” “We talked,” Daddy says. “It’s all good.”

“Yep,” says Uncle Carlos. “Some things are more important than others.”

I want details, but I won’t get them. If they’re good though, I’m good. And honestly? It’s about damn time.

“Since you and Aunt Pam are here, where’s DeVante?” I ask Uncle Carlos. “At home for once and not playing video games with your li’l boyfriend.” “Why does Chris always have to be ‘li’l’ to you?” I ask. “He’s not little.” “You better be talking about his height,” says Daddy.

“Amen,” Uncle Carlos adds, and they fist-bump again.

So they’ve found common complaining ground—Chris. Figures.

Our street is quiet for the most part this morning. It usually is. The drama always comes from people who don’t live here. Two houses down, Mrs. Lynn and Ms. Carol talk in Mrs. Lynn’s yard. Probably gossiping. Can’t tell either one of them anything if you don’t want it spread around Garden Heights like a cold. Mrs. Pearl works in her flower bed across the street with a little help from Fo’ty Ounce. Everybody calls him that ’cause he always asks for money to buy a “Fo’ty ounce from the licka sto’ real quick.” His rusty shopping cart with all of his belongings is in Mrs. Pearl’s driveway, a big bag of mulch on the bottom of it. Apparently he has a green thumb. He laughs at something Mrs. Pearl says, and people two streets over probably hear that guffaw of his.

“Can’t believe that fool’s alive,” Uncle Carlos says. “Would’ve thought he drank himself to death by now.”

“Who? Fo’ty Ounce?” I ask.

“Yeah! He was around when I was a kid.”

“Nah, he ain’t going nowhere,” says Daddy. “He claims the liquor keeps him alive.” “Does Mrs. Rooks live around the corner?” Uncle Carlos asks.

“Yep,” I say. “And she still makes the best red velvet cakes you ever had in your life.”

“Wow. I told Pam I have yet to taste a red velvet cake as good as Mrs. Rooks’s. What about um . . .” He snaps his fingers. “The man who fixed cars. Lived at the corner.”

“Mr. Washington,” says Daddy. “Still kicking it and still does better work than any automotive shop around. Got his son helping him too.”

“Li’l John?” Uncle Carlos asks. “The one that played basketball but got on that stuff?” “Yep,” says Daddy. “He been clean for a minute now.”

“Man.” Uncle Carlos pushes his red eggs around his plate. “I almost miss living here sometimes.”

I watch Fo’ty Ounce help Mrs. Pearl. People around here don’t have much, but they help each other out as best they can. It’s this strange, dysfunctional-as-hell family, but it’s still a family. More than I realized until recently.

“Starr!” Nana calls from the front door. People two streets over probably hear her like they heard Fo’ty Ounce. “Your momma said hurry up. You gotta get ready. Hey, Pearl!”

Mrs. Pearl shields her eyes and looks our way. “Hey, Adele! Haven’t seen you in a while. You all right?”

“Hanging in there, girl. You got that flowerbed looking good! I’m coming by later to get some of that Birds of Paradise.”

“All right.”

“You not gon’ say hey to me, Adele?” Fo’ty Ounce asks. When he talks, it jumbled together like one long word.

“Hell nah, you old fool,” Nana says. The door slams behind her. Daddy, Uncle Carlos, and I crack up.

The Cedar Grove King Lords trail us in two cars, and Uncle Carlos drives me and my parents. One of his off-duty buddies occupies the passenger’s seat. Nana and Aunt Pam trail us too.

All these people though, and none of them can go in the grand jury room with me.

It takes fifteen minutes to get to downtown from Garden Heights. There’s always construction work going on for some new building. Garden Heights has dope boys on corners, but downtown people in business suits wait for crossing lights to change. I wonder if they ever hear the gunshots and shit in my neighborhood.

We turn onto the street where the courthouse is, and I have one of those weird déjà-vu moments. I’m three, and Uncle Carlos drives Momma, Seven, and me to the courthouse. Momma cries the entire drive, and I wish Daddy were here because he can always get her to stop crying. Seven and I hold Momma’s hands as we walk into a courtroom. Some cops bring Daddy out in an orange jumpsuit. He can’t hug us because he’s handcuffed. I tell him I like his jumpsuit; orange is one of my favorite colors. But he looks at me real seriously, and says, “Don’t you ever wear this, you hear me?”

All I remember after that is the judge saying something, Momma sobbing, and Daddy telling us he loves us as the cops haul him off. For three years I hated the courthouse because it took Daddy from us.

I’m not thrilled to see it now. News vans and trucks are across the street from the courthouse, and police barricades separate them from everybody else. I now know why people call it a “media circus.” It seriously looks like the circus is setting up in town.

Two traffic lanes separate the courthouse from the media frenzy, but I swear they’re a world away. Hundreds of people quietly kneel on the courthouse lawn. Men and women in clerical collars stand at the front of the crowd, their heads bowed.

To avoid the clowns and their cameras, Uncle Carlos turns onto the street alongside the courthouse. We go in through the back door. Goon and another King Lord join us. They flank me and don’t hesitate to let security check them for weapons.

Another security guard leads us through the courthouse. The farther we go, the fewer people we pass in the halls. Ms. Ofrah waits beside a door with a brass plate that says Grand Jury Room.

She hugs me and asks, “Ready?” For once I am. “Yes, ma’am.”

“I’ll be out here the whole time,” she says. “If you need to ask me something, you have that right.” She looks at my entourage. “I’m sorry, but only Starr’s parents are allowed to watch in the TV room.”

Uncle Carlos and Aunt Pam hug me. Nana pats my shoulder as she shakes her head. Goon and his boy give me quick nods and leave with them.

Momma’s eyes brim with tears. She pulls me into a tight hug, and it’s at that moment, of all the

moments, that I realize I’ve gotten an inch or two taller than she is. She plants kisses all over my face and hugs me again. “I’m proud of you, baby. You are so brave.”

That word. I hate it. “No, I’m not.”

“Yeah, you are.” She pulls back and pushes a strand of hair away from my face. I can’t explain the look in her eyes, but it knows me better than I know myself. It wraps me up and warms me from the inside out. “Brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared, Starr,” she says. “It means you go on even though you’re scared. And you’re doing that.”

She leans up slightly on her tiptoes and kisses my forehead as if that makes it true. For me it kinda does.

Daddy wraps his arms around both of us. “You got this, baby girl.”

The door to the grand jury room creaks open, and the DA, Ms. Monroe, looks out. “We’re ready if you are.”

I walk into the grand jury room alone, but somehow my parents are with me.

The room has wood-paneled walls and no windows. About twenty or so men and women occupy a U-shaped table. Some of them are black, some of them aren’t. Their eyes follow us as Ms. Monroe leads me to a table in front of them with a mic on it.

One of Ms. Monroe’s colleagues swears me in, and I promise on the Bible to tell the truth. I silently promise it to Khalil too.

Ms. Monroe says from the back of the room, “Could you please introduce yourself to the grand jurors?”

I scoot closer to the mic and clear my throat. “My name—” My small voice sounds like a five-year-old’s. I sit up straight and try again. “My name is Starr Carter. I’m sixteen years old.”

“The mic is only recording you, not projecting your voice,” Ms. Monroe says. “As we have our conversation, we need you to speak loud enough for everyone to hear, okay?”

“Yes—” My lips brush the mic. Too close. I move back and try again. “Yes, ma’am.” “Good. You came here on your own free will, is that correct?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You have an attorney, Ms. April Ofrah, correct?” she says. “Yes, ma’am.”

“You understand you have the right to consult with her, correct?” “Yes, ma’am.”

“You understand you’re not the focus of any criminal charges, correct?” Bullshit. Khalil and I have been on trial since he died. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Today, we want to hear in your own words what happened to Khalil Harris, okay?”

I look at the jurors, unable to read their faces and tell if they really want to hear my words. Hopefully they do. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Now, since we have that understanding, let’s talk about Khalil. You were friends with him, right?” I nod, but Ms. Monroe says, “Please give a verbal response.”

I lean toward the mic and say, “Yes, ma’am.”

Shit. I forgot the jurors can’t hear me on it and it’s only for recording. It doesn’t make any sense that I’m so nervous.

“How long did you know Khalil?”

The same story, all over again. I become a robot who repeats how I knew Khalil since I was three, how we grew up together, the kind of person he was.

When I finish, Ms. Monroe says, “Okay. We’re going to discuss the night of the shooting in detail. Are

you okay with that?”

The un-brave part of me, which feels like most of me, shouts no. It wants to crawl up in a corner and act as if none of this ever happened. But all those people outside are praying for me. My parents are watching me. Khalil needs me.

I straighten up and allow the tiny brave part of me to speak. “Yes, ma’am.”

PART 3

EIGHT WEEKS AFTER IT

TWENTY

Three hours. That’s how long I was in the grand jury room. Ms. Monroe asked me all kinds of questions. What angle was Khalil at when he was shot? Where did he pull his license and registration from? How did Officer Cruise remove him from the car? Did Officer Cruise seem angry? What did he say?

She wanted every single detail. I gave her as much as I could.

It’s been over two weeks since I talked to the grand jury, and now we’re waiting for their decision, which is similar to waiting for a meteor to hit. You know it’s coming, you’re just not exactly sure when and where it’ll hit, and there ain’t shit you can do in the meantime but keep living.

So we’re living.

The sun is out today, but the rain fell in sheets as soon as we pulled into the parking lot of Williamson. When it rains like that while the sun’s out, Nana says the devil is beating his wife. Plus, it’s Friday the thirteenth, a.k.a. the devil’s day, according to Nana. She’s probably holed up in the house like it’s doomsday.

Seven and I dash from the car into the school. The atrium’s busy as usual with people talking to their little cliques or playing around. The school year’s almost over, so everybody’s goof-off levels are at their highest, and white-kid goofing off is a category of its own. I’m sorry, but it is. Yesterday a sophomore rode down the stairs in the janitor’s garbage can. His dumb ass got suspension and a concussion. Stupid.

I wiggle my toes. The one day I wear Chucks it decides to rain. They’re miraculously dry.

“You’re good?” Seven asks, and I doubt it’s about the rain. He’s been way more protective lately, ever since we got word that King’s still pissed I dry snitched. I heard Uncle Carlos tell Daddy it gave the cops another reason to watch King closely.

Unless King threw the brick, he hasn’t done anything. Yet. So Seven’s always on guard, even all the way out here at Williamson.

“Yeah,” I tell him. “I’m good.” “All right.”

He gives me dap and goes off to his locker.

I head for mine. Hailey and Maya are talking at Maya’s locker nearby. Actually, Maya’s doing most of the talking. Hailey’s got her arms folded and rolls her eyes a lot. She sees me down the hall and gets this smug expression.

“Perfect,” she says when I get closer. “The liar is here.” “Excuse me?” It’s way too early for this bullshit.

“Why don’t you tell Maya how you flat-out lied to us?” “What?”

Hailey hands me two pictures. One is Khalil’s thugshot, as Daddy calls it. One of the pictures they’ve shown on the news. Hailey printed it off the internet. Khalil wears a smirk, gripping a handful of money and throwing up a sideways peace sign.

The other picture, he’s twelve. I know because I’m twelve in it too. It’s my birthday party at this laser

tag place downtown. Khalil’s on one side of me, shoveling strawberry cake into his mouth, and Hailey’s on my other side, grinning for the camera along with me.

“I thought he looked familiar,” Hailey says as smugly as she looks. “He is the Khalil you knew. Isn’t he?”

I stare at the two Khalils. The pictures only show so much. For some people, the thugshot makes him look just like that—a thug. But I see somebody who was happy to finally have some money in his hand, damn where it came from. And the birthday picture? I remember how Khalil ate so much cake and pizza he got sick. His grandma hadn’t gotten paid yet, and food was limited in their house.

I knew the whole Khalil. That’s who I’ve been speaking up for. I shouldn’t deny any part of him. Not even at Williamson.

I hand the pictures back to Hailey. “Yeah, I knew him. So what?”

“Don’t you think you owe us an explanation?” she says. “You owe me an apology too.” “Um, what?”

“You’ve basically picked fights with me because you were upset about what happened to him,” she says. “You even accused me of being racist.”

“But you have said and done some racist stuff. So . . .” Maya shrugs. “Whether Starr lied or not doesn’t make it okay.”

Minority alliance activated.

“So, since I unfollowed her Tumblr because I didn’t wanna see any more pictures of that mutilated kid on my dashboard—”

“His name was Emmett Till,” says Maya.

“Whatever. So because I didn’t want to see that disgusting shit, I’m racist?”

“No,” Maya says. “What you said about it was racist. And your Thanksgiving joke was definitely racist.”

“Oh my God, you’re still upset about that?” Hailey says. “That was so long ago!” “Doesn’t make it okay,” I say. “And you can’t even apologize for it.”

“I’m not apologizing because it was only a joke!” she shouts. “It doesn’t make me a racist. I’m not letting you guys guilt trip me like this. What’s next? You want me to apologize because my ancestors were slave masters or something stupid?”

“Bitch—” I take a deep breath. Way too many people are watching. I cannot go angry black girl on her. “Your joke was hurtful,” I say, as calmly as I can. “If you give a damn about Maya, you’d apologize and at least try to see why it hurt her.”

“It’s not my fault she can’t get over a joke from freaking freshman year! Just like it’s not my fault you can’t get over what happened to Khalil.”

“So I’m supposed to ‘get over’ the fact he was murdered?” “Yes, get over it! He was probably gonna end up dead anyway.” “Are you serious?” Maya says.

“He was a drug dealer and a gangbanger,” Hailey says. “Somebody was gonna kill him eventually.” “Get over it?” I repeat.

She folds her arms and does this little neck movement. “Um, yeah? Isn’t that what I said? The cop probably did everyone a favor. One less drug dealer on the—”

I move Maya out the way and slam my fist against the side of Hailey’s face. It hurts, but damn it feels good.

Hailey holds her cheek, her eyes wide and her mouth open for several seconds.

“Bitch!” she shrieks. She goes straight for my hair like girls usually do, but my ponytail is real. She’s not pulling it out.

I hit at Hailey with my fists, and she slaps and claws me upside my head. I push her off, and she hits the floor. Her skirt goes up, and her pink drawers are out for everybody to see. Laughter erupts around us. Some people have their phones out.

I’m no longer Williamson Starr or even Garden Heights Starr. I’m pissed.

I kick and hit at Hailey, cuss words flying out my mouth. People gather around us, chanting “Fight! Fight!” and one fool even shouts, “World Star!”

Shit. I’m gonna end up on that ratchet site.

Somebody yanks my arm, and I turn, face-to-face with Remy, Hailey’s older brother. “You crazy bi—”

Before he can finish “bitch,” a blur of dreadlocks charges at us and pushes Remy back. “Get your hands off my sister!” Seven says.

And then they’re fighting. Seven throws blows like nobody’s business, knocking Remy upside his head with several good hooks and jabs. Daddy used to take both of us to the boxing gym after school.

Two security guards run over. Dr. Davis, the headmaster, marches toward us.

An hour later, I’m in Momma’s car. Seven trails us in his Mustang.

All four of us have been sentenced to three days’ suspension, despite Williamson’s zero-tolerance policy. Hailey and Remy’s dad, a Williamson board member, thought it was outrageous. He said Seven and I should be expelled because we “started it,” and that Seven shouldn’t be allowed to graduate. Dr. Davis told him, “Given the circumstances”—and he looked straight at me—“suspension will suffice.”

He knows I was with Khalil.

“This is exactly what They expect you to do,” Momma says. “Two kids from Garden Heights, acting like you ain’t got any sense!”

They with a capital T. There’s Them and then there’s Us. Sometimes They look like Us and don’t realize They are Us.

“But she was running her mouth, saying Khalil deserved—”

“I don’t care if she said she shot him herself. People are gonna say a whole lot, Starr. It doesn’t mean you hit somebody. You gotta walk away sometimes.”

“You mean walk away and get shot like Khalil did?” She sighs. “Baby, I understand—”

“No you don’t!” I say. Nobody understands! I saw the bullets rip through him. I sat there in the street as he took his last breath. I’ve had to listen to people try to make it seem like it’s okay he was murdered. As if he deserved it. But he didn’t deserve to die, and I didn’t do anything to deserve seeing that shit!”

WebMD calls it a stage of grief—anger. But I doubt I’ll ever get to the other stages. This one slices me into millions of pieces. Every time I’m whole and back to normal, something happens to tear me apart, and I’m forced to start all over again.

The rain lets up. The devil stops beating his wife, but I beat the dashboard, punching it over and over, numb to the pain of it. I wanna be numb to the pain of all of this.

“Let it out, Munch.” My mom rubs my back. “Let it out.”

I pull my polo over my mouth and scream until there aren’t any screams left in me. If there are any, I don’t have the energy to get them out. I cry for Khalil, for Natasha, even for Hailey, ’cause damn if I didn’t just lose her for good too.

When we turn on our street, I’m snot-nosed and wet-eyed. Finally numb.

A gray pickup and a green Chrysler 300 are parked behind Daddy’s truck in the driveway. Momma

and Seven have to park in front of the house.

“What is this man up to?” Momma says. She looks over at me. “You feel better?” I nod. What other choice do I have?

She leans over and kisses my temple. “We’ll get through this. I promise.”

We get out. I’m one hundred percent sure the cars in the driveway belong to King Lords and Garden Disciples. In Garden Heights you can’t drive a car that’s gray or green unless you claim a set. I expect yelling and cussing when I get inside, but all I hear is Daddy saying, “It don’t make no sense, man. For real, it don’t.”

It’s standing-room-only in the kitchen. We can’t even get in ’cause some guys are in the doorway. Half of them have green somewhere in their outfits. Garden Disciples. The others have light gray on somewhere. Cedar Grove King Lords. Mr. Reuben’s nephew, Tim, sits beside Daddy at the table. I’ve never noticed that cursive GD tattoo on his arm.

“We don’t know when the grand jury gon’ make their decision,” Daddy says. “But if they decide not to indict, y’all gotta tell these li’l dudes not to burn this neighborhood down.”

“What you expect them to do then?” says a GD at the table. “Folks tired of the bullshit, Mav.” “Straight up,” says the King Lord Goon, who’s at the table too. His long plaits have ponytail holders on them like I used to wear way back in the day. “Nothing we can do ’bout it.” “That’s bullshit,” says Tim. “We can do something.”

“We can all agree the riots got outta hand, right?” says Daddy. He gets a bunch of “yeahs” and “rights.”

“Then we can make sure it doesn’t go down like that again. Talk to these kids. Get in their heads. Yeah, they mad. We all mad, but burning down our neighborhood ain’t gon’ fix it.”

“Our?” says the GD at the table. “Nigga, you said you moving.” “To the suburbs,” Goon mocks. “You getting a minivan too, Mav?” They all laugh at that.

Daddy doesn’t though. “I’m moving, so what? I’ll still have a store here, and I’ll still give a damn what happens here. Who is it gon’ benefit if the whole neighborhood burns down? Damn sure won’t benefit none of us.”

“We gotta be more organized next time,” says Tim. “For one, make sure our brothers and sisters know they can’t destroy black-owned businesses. That messes it up for all of us.”

“For real,” says Daddy. “And I know, me and Tim out the game, so we can’t speak on some things, but all these territory wars gotta be put aside somehow. This is bigger than some street shit. And honestly all the street shit got these cops thinking they can do whatever they want.”

“Yeah, I feel you on that,” says Goon.

“Y’all gotta come together somehow, man,” Daddy says. “For the sake of the Garden. The last thing they’d ever expect is some unity around here. A’ight?”

Daddy slaps palms with Goon and the Garden Disciple. Then Goon and the Garden Disciple slap palms with each other.

“Wow,” Seven says.

It’s huge that these two gangs are in the same room together, and for my daddy to be the one behind it? Crazy.

He notices us in the doorway. “What y’all doing here?”

Momma inches into the kitchen, looking around. “The kids got suspended.” “Suspended?” Daddy says. “For what?”

Seven passes him his phone.

“It’s online already?” I say. “Yeah, somebody tagged me in it.”

Daddy taps the screen, and I hear Hailey running her mouth about Khalil, then a loud smack.

Some of the gang members watch over Daddy’s shoulder. “Damn, li’l momma,” one says, “you got hands.”

“You crazy bi—,” Remy says on the phone. A bunch of smacks and oohs follow. “Look at my boy!” Daddy says. “Look at him!”

“I ain’t know your li’l nerdy ass had it in you,” a King Lord teases. Momma clears her throat. Daddy stops the video.

“A’ight, y’all,” he says, serious all of a sudden. “I gotta handle some family business. We’ll meet back up tomorrow.”

Tim and all the gang members clear out, and cars crank up outside. Still no gunshots or arguing. They could’ve broken out into a gangsta rendition of “Kumbaya” and I wouldn’t be any more shocked than I am.

“How did you get all of them in here and keep the house in one piece?” Momma asks. “I got it like that.”

Momma kisses him on the lips. “You certainly do. My man, the activist.” “Uh-huh.” He kisses her back. “Your man.”

Seven clears his throat. “We’re standing right here.”

“Ay, y’all can’t complain,” Daddy says. “If you wouldn’t have been fighting, you wouldn’t have to see that.” He reaches over and pinches my cheek a little. “You a’ight?”

The dampness hasn’t left my eyes yet, and I’m not exactly smiling. I mutter, “Yeah.”

Daddy pulls me onto his lap. He cradles me and switches between kissing my cheek and pinching it, going over and over in a real deep voice, “What’s wrong with you? Huh? What’s wrong with you?”

And I’m giggling before I can stop myself.

Daddy gives me a sloppy, wet kiss to my cheek and lets me up. “I knew I’d get you laughing. Now what happened?”

“You saw the video. Hailey ran her mouth, so I popped her. Simple as that.”

“That’s your child, Maverick,” Momma says. “Gotta hit somebody because she didn’t like what they said.”

“Mine? Uh-uh, baby. That’s all you.” He looks at Seven. “Why were you fighting?” “Dude came at my sister,” Seven says. “I wasn’t gonna let him.”

As much as Seven talks about protecting Kenya and Lyric, it’s nice that he has my back too.

Daddy replays the video, starting with Hailey saying, “He was probably gonna end up dead anyway.” “Wow,” Momma says. “That li’l girl has a lot of nerve.”

“Spoiled ass don’t know a damn thing and running her mouth,” says Daddy. “So, what’s our punishment?” Seven asks.

“Go do your homework,” Momma says. “That’s it?” I say.

“You’ll also have to help your dad at the store while you’re suspended.” She drapes her arms over Daddy from behind. “Sound okay, baby?”

He kisses her arm. “Sounds good to me.”

If you can’t translate Parentish, this is what they really said:

Momma: I don’t condone what you did, and I’m not saying it’s okay, but I probably would’ve done it too. What about you, baby?

Daddy: Hell yeah, I would’ve.

I love them for that.

PART 4

TEN WEEKS AFTER IT

TWENTY-ONE

Still no decision from the grand jury, so we’re still living.

It’s Saturday, and my family is at Uncle Carlos’s house for a Memorial Day weekend barbecue, which is also serving as Seven’s birthday/graduation party. He turns eighteen tomorrow, and he officially became a high school graduate yesterday. I’ve never seen Daddy cry like he did when Dr. Davis handed Seven that diploma.

The backyard smells like barbecue, and it’s warm enough that Seven’s friends swim in the pool. Sekani and Daniel run around in their trunks and push unsuspecting people in. They get Jess. She laughs about it and threatens to get them later. They try it once with me and Kenya and never again. All it takes is some swift kicks to their asses.

But DeVante comes up behind us and pushes me in. Kenya shrieks as I go under, getting my freshly done cornrows soaked and my J’s too. I have on board shorts and a tankini, but they’re new and cute, meaning they’re supposed to be looked at, not swam in.

I break the surface of the water and gulp in air.

“Starr, you okay?” Kenya calls. She’s run about five feet away from the pool. “You not gon’ help me get out?” I say.

“Girl, nah. And mess up my outfit? You seem all right.”

Sekani and Daniel whoop and cheer for DeVante like he’s the greatest thing since Spide-Man. Bastards. I climb out that pool so fast.

“Uh-oh,” DeVante says, and the three of them take off in separate directions. Kenya goes after DeVante. I run after Sekani because dammit, blood is supposed to be thicker than pool water.

“Momma!” he squeals.

I catch him by his trunks and pull them way up, almost to his neck, until he has the worst wedgie ever. He gives a high-pitched scream. I let go, and he falls on the grass, his trunks so far up his butt it looks like he’s wearing a thong. That’s what he gets.

Kenya brings DeVante to me, holding his arms behind him like he’s under arrest. “Apologize,” she says.

“No!” Kenya yanks on his arms. “Okay, okay, I’m sorry!” She lets go. “Better be.”

DeVante rubs his arm with a smirk. “Violent ass.” “Punk ass,” she snips back.

He flicks his tongue at her, and she goes, “Boy, bye!”

This is flirting for them, believe it or not. I almost forget DeVante’s hiding from her daddy. They act like they’ve forgotten too.

DeVante gets me a towel. I snatch it and dry my face as I head to the poolside loungers with Kenya. DeVante sits beside her on one.

Ava skips over with her baby doll and a comb, and I naturally expect her to shove them into my hands.

She hands them to DeVante instead. “Here!” she tells him, and skips off.

And he starts combing the doll’s hair! Kenya and I stare at him for the longest. “What?” he says.

We bust out laughing.

“She got you trained!” I say.

“Man.” He groans. “She cute, okay? I can’t tell her no.” He braids the doll’s hair, and his long thin fingers move so quickly, they look like they’ll get tangled. “My li’l sisters did me like this all the time.”

His tone dips when he mentions them. “You heard from them or your momma?” I ask.

“Yeah, about a week ago. They at my cousin’s house. She live in like the middle of nowhere. Mom’s been a mess ’cause she didn’t know if I was okay. She apologized for leaving me and for being mad. She want me to come stay with them.”

Kenya frowns. “You leaving?”

“I don’t know. Mr. Carlos and Mrs. Pam said I can stay with them for my senior year. My momma said she’d be okay with that, if it means I stay outta trouble.” He examines his handiwork. The doll has a perfect French braid. “I gotta think about it. I kinda like it out here.”

Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” blasts from the speakers. That’s one song Daddy shouldn’t play. The only thing worse would be that old song “Back That Thang Up.” Momma loses her damn mind when it comes on. Really, just say, “Cash Money Records, takin’ over for the ’99 and the 2000,” and she suddenly becomes ratchet as hell.

She and Aunt Pam both go, “Heeey!” to Salt-N-Pepa and do all these old dance moves. I like nineties shows and movies, but I do not wanna see my mom and auntie reenact that decade in dance. Seven and his friends circle around them and cheer them on.

Seven’s the loudest. “Go, Ma! Go, Aunt Pam!”

Daddy jumps in the middle of the circle behind Momma. He puts both hands behind his head and moves his hips in a circle.

Seven pushes Daddy away from Momma, going, “Nooo! Stooop!” Daddy gets around him, and dances behind Momma.

“Uh-uh,” Kenya laughs. “That’s too much.”

DeVante watches them with a smile. “You were right about your aunt and uncle, Starr. They ain’t too bad. Your grandma kinda cool too.”

“Who? I know you don’t mean Nana.”

“Yeah, her. She found out I play spades. The other day, she took me to a game after she finished tutoring me. She called it extra-credit work. We been cool ever since.”

Figures.

Chris and Maya walk through the gate, and my stomach gets all jittery. I should be used to my two worlds colliding, but I never know which Starr I should be. I can use some slang, but not too much slang, some attitude, but not too much attitude, so I’m not a “sassy black girl.” I have to watch what I say and how I say it, but I can’t sound “white.”

Shit is exhausting.

Chris and his new “bro” DeVante slap palms, then Chris kisses my cheek. Maya and I do our handshake. DeVante nods at her. They met a few weeks ago.

Maya sits beside me on the lounger. Chris squeezes his big butt between us, pushing both of us aside a little.

Maya flashes him a stink eye. “Seriously, Chris?”

“Hey, she’s my girlfriend. I get to sit next to her.” “Um, no? Besties before testes.”

Kenya and I snicker, and DeVante goes, “Damn.” The jitters ease up a bit.

“So you’re Chris?” Kenya says. She’s seen pictures on my Instagram. “Yep. And you’re Kenya?” He’s seen pictures on my Instagram too.

“The one and only.” Kenya eyes me and mouths, He is fine! Like I didn’t know that already.

Kenya and Maya look at each other. Their paths last crossed almost a year ago at my Sweet Sixteen, if you can consider that path-crossing. Hailey and Maya were at one table, Kenya and Khalil at another table with Seven. They never talked.

“Maya, right?” Kenya says. Maya nods. “The one and only.”

Kenya’s lips curl up. “Your kicks are cute.”

“Thanks,” Maya says, checking them out for herself. Nike Air Max 95s. “They’re supposed to be running shoes. I never run in them.”

“I don’t run in mine neither,” Kenya says. “My brother’s the only person I know who actually runs in them.”

Maya laughs.

Okay. This is good so far. Nothing to worry about. Until Kenya goes, “So where blondie at?”

Chris snorts. Maya’s eyes widen.

“Kenya, that ain’t—that’s not her name,” I say.

“You knew who I was talking about though, didn’t you?”

“Yep!” Maya says. “She’s probably somewhere licking her wounds after Starr kicked her ass.” “What?” Kenya shouts. “Starr, you ain’t tell me about that!”

“It was, like, two weeks ago,” I say. “Wasn’t worth talking ’bout. I only hit her.” Only hit her?” Maya says. “You Mayweathered her.”

Chris and DeVante laugh.

“Wait, wait,” Kenya says. “What happened?”

So I tell her about it, without really thinking about what I say or how I sound. I just talk. Maya adds to the story, making it sound worse than it was, and Kenya eats it up. We tell her how Seven gave Remy a couple of hits, which has Kenya beaming, talking about, “My brother don’t play.” Like he’s only her brother, but whatever. Maya even tells her about the Thanksgiving cat thing.

“I told Starr we minorities gotta stick together,” Maya says.

“So true,” says Kenya. “White people been sticking together forever.” “Well . . .” Chris blushes. “This is awkward.”

“You’ll get over it, boo,” I say. Maya and Kenya crack up.

My two worlds just collided. Surprisingly, everything’s all right.

The song changes to “Wobble.” Momma runs over and pulls me up. “C’mon, Munch.” I can’t dig my feet in the grass fast enough. “Mommy, no!”

“Hush, girl. C’mon. Y’all too!” she hollers back to my friends.

Everybody lines up on the grassy area that’s become the makeshift dance floor. Momma pulls me to the front row. “Show ’em how it’s done, baby,” she says. “Show ’em how it’s done!”

I stay still on purpose. Dictator or not, she’s not gonna make me dance. Kenya and Maya egg her on in

egging me on. Never thought they’d team up against me.

Shoot, before I know it, I’m wobbling. I have duck lips too, so you know I’m feeling it.

I talk Chris through the steps, and he keeps up. I love him for trying. Nana joins in, doing a shoulder shimmy that’s not the Wobble, but I doubt she cares.

The “Cupid Shuffle” comes on, and my family leads everybody else on the front row. Sometimes we forget which way is right and which is left, and we laugh way too hard at ourselves. Embarrassing dancing and dysfunction aside, my family’s not so bad.

After all that wobbling and shuffling, my stomach begs for some food. I leave everybody else doing the “Bikers Shuffle,” which is a whole new level of shuffling, and most of our party guests are lost as hell.

Aluminum serving trays crowd the kitchen counter. I stack a plate with some ribs, wings, and corn on the cob. I scoop a nice amount of baked beans on there somehow. No potato salad. That’s the devil’s food. All that mayonnaise. I don’t care if Momma made it, I’m not touching that mess.

I refuse to eat outside, too many bugs that could get on my food. I plop down at the dining room table, and I’m about to go in on my plate.

But the damn phone rings.

Everybody else is outside, leaving me to answer. I shove a chicken wing in my mouth. “Hello?” I chomp in the other person’s ear. Rude? Definitely. Am I starving? Hell yeah.

“Hi, this is the front security gate. Iesha Robinson is asking to visit your residence.”

I stop chewing. Iesha was MIA at Seven’s graduation, which she was invited to, so why did she show up to the party she wasn’t invited to? How did she even find out about it? Seven didn’t tell her, and Kenya swore she wouldn’t. She lied and told her momma and daddy she was hanging with some other friends today.

I take the phone outside to Daddy because, shit, I don’t know what to do. I go out at a good time too. He’s trying—and failing—to Nae-Nae. I have to call him a second time for him to stop that atrocity and come over.

He grins. “You ain’t know your daddy had it in him, did you?”

“I still don’t. Here.” I hand him the phone. “That’s neighborhood security. Iesha’s at the security gate.” His grin disappears. He plugs one ear and puts the phone to the other. “Hello?”

The security guard talks for a moment. Daddy motions Seven to the patio. “Hold on.” He covers the receiver. “Your momma at the gate. She wanna see you.”

Seven’s eyebrows knit together. “How did she know we’re here?” “Your grandma’s with her. Didn’t you invite her?”

“Yeah, but not Iesha.”

“Look, man, if you want her to come back for a li’l bit, it’s cool,” Daddy says. “I’ll make DeVante go inside so she won’t see him. What you wanna do?”

“Pops, can you tell her—”

“Nah, man. That’s your momma. You handle that.”

Seven bites his lip for a moment. He sighs through his nose. “All right.”

Iesha pulls up out front. I follow Seven, Kenya, and my parents to the driveway. Seven always has my back. I figure he needs me to have his too.

Seven tells Kenya to stay back with us and goes toward Iesha’s pink BMW.

Lyric jumps out the car. “Sevvie!” She runs to him, the ball-shaped ponytail holders on her hair bouncing. I hated wearing those things. All it takes is one hitting you between your eyes and you’re done.

Lyric launches into Seven’s arms, and he swings her around.

I can’t lie, I always get a little jealous when I see Seven with his other sisters. It doesn’t make sense, I know. But they share a momma, and it makes things different between them. It’s like they have a stronger bond or something.

But there’s no way in hell I’d trade Momma for Iesha. Nope. Seven keeps Lyric on his hip and hugs his grandma with one arm.

Iesha gets out. A bob haircut has replaced her down-to-the-ass Indian import. She doesn’t even try to tug her hot-pink dress down that obviously rode up her thighs during the drive. Or maybe it didn’t ride up and that’s where it always was.

Nope. Wouldn’t trade Momma for anything.

“So you gon’ have a party and not invite me, Seven?” Iesha asks. “A birthday party at that? I’m the one who gave birth to your ass!”

Seven glances around. At least one of Uncle Carlos’s neighbors is looking. “Not now.”

“Oh, hell yes now. I had to find out from my momma because my own son couldn’t be bothered to invite me.” She sets her sharp glare on Kenya. “And this li’l fast thang lied to me about it! I oughta whoop your ass.”

Kenya flinches like Iesha already hit her. “Momma—”

“Don’t blame Kenya,” says Seven, setting Lyric down. “I asked her not to tell you, Iesha.” “Iesha?” she echoes, all in his face. “Who the hell you think you talking to like that?”

What happens next is like when you shake a soda can real hard. From the outside, you can’t tell anything is going on. But then you open it, and it explodes.

“This is why I didn’t invite you!” Seven shouts. “This! Right now! You don’t know how to act!” “Oh, so you ashamed of me, Seven?”

“You’re fucking right I’m ashamed of you!”

“Whoa!” Daddy says. Stepping between them, he puts his hand on Seven’s chest. “Seven, calm down.”

“Nah, Pops! Let me tell her how I didn’t invite her because I didn’t wanna explain to my friends that my stepmom isn’t my mom like they think. Or how I never once corrected anybody at Williamson who made the assumption. Hell, it wasn’t like she ever came to any of my stuff, so why bother? You couldn’t even show up to my graduation yesterday!”

“Seven,” Kenya pleads. “Stop.”

“No, Kenya!” he says, his sights square on their momma. “I’ll tell her how I didn’t think she gave a damn about my birthday, ’cause guess what? She never has! ‘You didn’t invite me, you didn’t invite me,’” he mocks. “Hell no, I didn’t. And why the fuck should I?”

Iesha blinks several times and says in a voice like broken glass, “After all I’ve done for you.”

“All you’ve done for me? What? Putting me out the house? Choosing a man over me every single chance you got? Remember when I tried to stop King from whooping your ass, Iesha? Who did you get mad at?”

“Seven,” Daddy says.

“Me! You got mad at me! Said I made him leave. That’s what you call ‘doing’ for me? That woman right there”—he stretches his arm toward Momma—“did everything you were supposed to and then some. How dare you stand there and take credit for it. All I ever did was love you.” His voice cracks. “That’s it. And you couldn’t even give that back to me.”

The music has stopped, and heads peek over the backyard fence.

Layla approaches him. She hooks her arm through his. He allows her to take him inside. Iesha turns on

her heels and starts for her car. “Iesha, wait,” Daddy says.

“Nothing to wait for.” She throws her door open. “You happy, Maverick? You and that trick you married finally turned my son against me. Can’t wait till King fuck y’all up for letting that girl snitch on him on TV.”

My stomach clenches.

“Tell him try it if he wants and see what happens!” says Daddy.

It’s one thing to hear gossip that somebody plans to “fuck you up,” but it’s a whole different thing to hear it from somebody who would actually know.

But I can’t worry about King right now. I have to go to my brother.

Kenya’s at my side. We find him on the bottom of the staircase. He sobs like a baby. Layla rests her head on his shoulder.

Seeing him cry like that . . . I wanna cry. “Seven?”

He looks up with red, puffy eyes that I’ve never seen on my brother before. Momma comes in. Layla gets up, and Momma takes her spot on the steps. “Come here, baby,” she says, and they somehow hug.

Daddy touches my shoulder and Kenya’s. “Go outside, y’all.”

Kenya’s face is scrunched up like she’s gonna cry. I grab her arm and take her to the kitchen. She sits at the counter and buries her face in her hands. I climb onto the stool and don’t say anything. Sometimes it’s not necessary.

After a few minutes, she says, “I’m sorry my daddy’s mad at you.”

This is the most awkward situation ever—my friend’s dad possibly wants to kill me. “Not your fault,” I mumble.

“I understand why my brother didn’t invite my momma, but . . .” Her voice cracks. “She going through a lot, Starr. With him.” Kenya wipes her face on her arm. “I wish she’d leave him.”

“Maybe she afraid to?” I say. “Look at me. I was afraid to speak out for Khalil, and you went off on me about it.”

“I didn’t go off.” “Yeah, you did.”

“Trust me, no, I didn’t. You’ll know when I go off on you.”

“Anyway! I know it’s not the same, but . . .” Good Lord, I never thought I’d say this. “I think I understand Iesha. It’s hard to stand up for yourself sometimes. She may need that push too.”

“So you want me to go off on her? I can’t believe you think I went off on you. Sensitive ass.”

My mouth flies open. “You know what? I’m gonna let that slide. Nah, I ain’t say you need to go off on her, that would be stupid. Just . . .” I sigh. “I don’t know.”

“I don’t either.” We go silent.

Kenya wipes her face again. “I’m good.” She gets up. “I’m good.” “You sure?”

“Yes! Stop asking me that. C’mon, let’s go back out there and stop them from talking about my brother, ’cause you know they’re talking.”

She heads for the door, but I say, “Our brother.” Kenya turns around. “What?”

Our brother. He’s mine too.”

I didn’t say it in a mean way or even with an attitude, I swear. She doesn’t respond. Not even an “okay.” Not that I expected her to suddenly go, “Of course, he’s our brother, I’m extremely sorry for acting like he wasn’t yours too.” I hoped for something though.

Kenya goes outside.

Seven and Iesha unknowingly hit the pause button on the party. The music’s off, and Seven’s friends stand around, talking in hushed tones.

Chris and Maya walk up to me. “Is Seven okay?” Maya asks. “Who turned the music off?” I ask. Chris shrugs.

I pick up Daddy’s iPod from the patio table, our DJ for the afternoon that’s hooked up to the sound system. Scrolling through the playlist, I find this Kendrick Lamar song Seven played for me one day, right after Khalil died. Kendrick raps about how everything will be all right. Seven said it’s for both of us.

I hit play and hope he hears it. It’s for Kenya too.

Midway through the song, Seven and Layla come back out. His eyes are puffy and pink but dry. He smiles at me a little and gives a quick nod. I return it.

Momma leads Daddy outside. They’re both wearing cone-shaped birthday hats, and Daddy carries a huge sheet cake with candles lit on top of it.

“Happy birthday to ya!” they sing, and Momma does this not-as-embarrassing shoulder bounce. “Happy birthday to ya! Happy birth-day!”

Seven smiles from ear to ear. I turn the music down.

Daddy sets the cake on the patio table, and everybody crowds around it and Seven. Our family, Kenya, DeVante, and Layla—basically, all the black people—sing the Stevie Wonder version of “Happy Birthday.” Maya seems to know it. A lot of Seven’s friends look lost. Chris does too. These cultural differences are crazy sometimes.

Nana takes the song way too far and hits notes that don’t need to be hit. Momma tells her, “The candles are about to go out, Momma!”

She’s so damn dramatic.

Seven leans down to blow the candles out, but Daddy says, “Wait! Man, you know you don’t blow no candles out till I say something.”

“Aww, Pops!”

“He can’t tell you what to do, Seven,” Sekani chirps. “You’re grown now!”

Daddy shoots Sekani an up-and-down look. “Boy—” He turns to Seven. “I’m proud of you, man. Like I told you, I never got a diploma. A lot of young brothers don’t get theirs. And where we come from, a lot of them don’t make it to eighteen. Some do make it, but they’re messed up by the time they get there. Not you though. You’re going places, no doubt. I always knew that.

“See, I believe in giving my kids names that mean something. Sekani, that means merriment and joy.” I snort. Sekani side-eyes me.

“I named your sister Starr because she was my light in the darkness. Seven, that’s a holy number. The number of perfection. I ain’t saying you’re perfect, nobody is, but you’re the perfect gift God gave me. I love you, man. Happy birthday and congratulations.”

Daddy affectionately clasps Seven’s neck. Seven grins wider. “Love you too, Pops.”

The cake is one of Mrs. Rooks’s red velvets. Everybody goes on and on about how good it is. Uncle Carlos pigs out on at least three slices. There’s more dancing, laughing. All in all, it’s a good day.

Good days don’t last forever though.

DMU Timestamp: September 03, 2020 08:33