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[5 of 5] Dear Martin, Chapters 20-23, by Nic Stone (2017)

Author: Nic Stone

“Chapters 20 - 23.” Dear Martin, by Nic Stone, Ember, 2018, pp. 125-161.

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CHAPTER 20

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Mrs. Friedman looks so shocked to see Justyce standing on her doorstep, he peeks over his shoulder to make sure there’s not a ghost or something behind him.

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“Justyce?”

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“Hey, Mrs. F. Is Sarah-Jane home?”

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“Sure. Come in, come in.”

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As Mrs. F stands there with her eyes popping out of her head, Jus thinks maybe he shouldn’t have just shown up with no notice. Not that he made a conscious decision to do that…He got back to school from Martel’s, hopped in his car, and let his instincts lead.

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This is where he ended up.

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“I should’ve called,” he says. “I’m sorry—”

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“No, no, that’s not it at all, I’m just— Well, we’ve really missed you around here.”

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They missed him?

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“SJ’s up in her room, but do you mind saying hello to Neil? He’ll be thrilled to see you.”

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“Uhh…sure.”

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Mrs. F leads him around to the living room where Mr. Friedman is kicked back in his recliner watching reruns of the Final Four. “Neil, look who’s here,” she says.

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When Mr. Friedman sees Jus, he sits bolt upright. “Jusmeister!”

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“Hey, Mr. F.”

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“It’s really you!” Mr. Friedman jumps up to hug Jus, who winces a little from the pressure on his shoulder. “How are you? We’re so glad to see you, son!”

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“I can see that.”

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The Friedmans laugh.

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Jus swallows. It’s a little overwhelming, all this…love.

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“Sarah’s in her room if you want to head up, Justyce,” Mrs. F says.

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“Thank you. And thanks for the warm welcome. Promise I’ll call first next time.”

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“Oh, don’t be silly.”

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Jus smiles and turns to head upstairs.

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“Hey, Jusmeister, if you need anything—anything at all, I mean it— don’t hesitate to call us, all right?” Mr. F says from behind him.

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At first, Jus recoils. If there’s one thing he can’t handle right now, it’s pity.

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But as he looks over his shoulder into the faces of SJ’s parents, he knows this is different.

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He clears his throat. “Thanks so much, sir. That really means a lot to me.”

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“You betcha, kiddo.”

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“Okay, we’ve embarrassed ourselves enough,” Mrs. F says. “Go on up.”

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As Jus climbs, he gets nervous. What if SJ isn’t as cool with him dropping in as her parents were? What if she’s busy? What if she’s asleep? What is he even going to say to her?

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The door is cracked, and he can hear what sounds like NPR and Carrie Underwood playing simultaneously inside SJ’s room.

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Typical.

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He knocks.

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“Come in.”

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She’s stretched out on the bed in her Bras Prep lacrosse shorts and a T-shirt, with an open calculus book in her lap. When she sees it’s him, she sits up just like her dad did, wearing the same expression her mom had.

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It makes him smile.

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“Hey,” he says.

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“Hey! Uhh…” She scrambles around for a second like she can’t figure out what to do. Shuts the calc book, sets it aside, and swings her legs around so she’s sitting on the edge of the bed. “Oh!” She grabs a remote from the nightstand and points it at the speakers attached to her computer on the desk. NPR and Carrie go quiet. “So…You’re, uhh… you’re here.”

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Jus laughs. “That’s what your parents said.”

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“Oh god, did they totally attack you? I’m so sorry.” She shakes her head. “You’re literally all they talk about these days. I would’ve warned you if I’d known you were coming.”

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Jus laughs again. “It’s all good. Actually felt pretty nice.”

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She smiles. “Wanna sit?” Points to the empty space beside her.

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He sits so close that their shoulders and legs are touching. She’s warm.

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“So…what brings you to la casa de Friedman, Mr. McAllister?” She nudges his knee with her own.

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He turns to look at her. “You.”

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“Me?”

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“Yeah, I…umm…” He looks away. “Well—”

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“Everything okay, Jus?” She touches his forearm just past his wrist, and the memory of handcuffs overwhelms him even all these months later.

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His eyes drop to her hands, and he feels a weight slip off his shoulders. They’re chipped now, but her nails are still painted his favorite color.

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Jus stands, pulls SJ up, and wraps her in a hug that lifts her off her feet.

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“Umm…okay,” she says.

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He inhales a whiff of her fruity shampoo. “I almost joined a gang today,” he says.

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“Huh?”

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“I almost joined a gang.” He puts her down. “Remember the guys I told you about from the Halloween party?”

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“You mean the ones who threatened to shoot you?”

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“Yeah. I went to see their leader.”

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“You what?”

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“I was thinkin’ about, uhhh…well, joining their crew.”

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She just gapes at him.

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They both sit back on the bed, and he tells her about visiting Quan in juvie, and the sequence of events that led him to Martel’s doorstep. At some point he starts crying. Which he’d normally be embarrassed about. But he’s not because it’s the best he’s felt since…well, since before he can remember.

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Granted, part of feeling so good probably has to do with being wrapped in SJ’s arms with his head on her shoulder. Jus has no idea when that happened, but here they are.

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He can imagine Manny calling him a punk for letting her hold him while he cries like a big-ass baby, but instead of making him sad, the thought makes him smile—he can also imagine Manny saying Took you long enough, fool.

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After a few minutes of silence, SJ lets him go, and he sits up. “Thanks for that.” He smiles at her.

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She doesn’t smile back.

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“You okay?”

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“Justyce, do you like me?”

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“Huh?”

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SJ clasps her hands in her lap. “Like…I know you’re going through a lot right now…”

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“But?” he says.

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She looks at him. “I can’t keep doing this to myself, Jus.”

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“What are you talking about, S?”

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She sighs. “Okay, this is the thing: I’ve had a crush on you since tenth grade.”

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“For real?”

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“Yes. At first, that’s all it was, didn’t expect anything to come of it.

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But then last semester, we started talking more and spending more time together, and it like…evolved.

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Jus doesn’t know what to say.

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“Problem is, I don’t really know how to read you. Sometimes it seems like you’re into me, but other times you’re kinda withdrawn. Sometimes you look at me in a way that makes me wanna put the world on a platter and hand it to you, but other times, you won’t look at me at all.”

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“Damn, S.”

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“As much as I enjoy your friendship and company, I can’t keep giving myself over to this hope we’ll become something more. I need to know where you stand. So tell me the truth.” She looks him right in the eye. “Do you like me, Jus?”

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He gulps. “Uhh…I, uhh…”

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“Oh my god. You totally don’t.”

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“Huh? I didn’t sa—”

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“You hesitated!”

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Jus peers down at his brown hands and sees Manny’s watch.

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“You know what? It’s fine,” she says. “We can still be frien—”

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“S, I like you.”

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She glares at him. “Don’t just say it to shut me up, Justyce.”

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“I’m not! I do like you, I swear! More than I’ve ever liked any girl.”

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“Why do I feel like there’s a ‘but’?”

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He sighs.

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“Melo, right?” she says.

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“What? No! Melo and I are done. As in never-gonna-happen-again.”

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“So what is it? Is it me?”

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“No! It’s…” He looks around the room. Anywhere but at her. “It’s complicated.”

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She drops her chin. “Just forget it.”

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“Wait! No!”

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It’s now or never, dawg, Manny says in his head.

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Jus turns to face her fully. “S, I’m sorry. For confusing you. You’re right. I never said how I felt cuz I was scared to.”

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She fiddles with her hands and doesn’t respond.

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Jus takes a deep breath. “This is the thing,” he says. “My mom… Well, she’s not real keen on me, uhh…dating girls who aren’t African American.”

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SJ draws back. And then her head cocks to one side. “Really?”

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“Yup. It’s been since I was little, but she’s gotten more adamant about it since—” He cuts off.

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“Since the shooting,” SJ says.

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“Yeah.”

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She sighs.

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“But I don’t care anymore,” Jus says.

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“Huh?”

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“About what she thinks. I don’t care.”

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SJ lifts an eyebrow and crosses her arms. “And I’m the Easter Bunny.”

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Jus laughs. “Okay, I care but…” Jus takes in her face. Sees what he’d be passing up. “I can’t let it stop me,” he says. “Life is too short.”

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She bites her lip. It drives Jus absolutely crazy.

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“Let me make it clear right now,” he says. “I like you, Sarah-Jane. No matter my mom’s opinion, you mean a lot to me, and if you’ll have me, I’d love to take you out sometime.”

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Her eyes narrow.

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“Like on a date.”

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“I know, numbnuts.” She rolls her eyes. And smiles. “You’ve never called me Sarah-Jane before.”

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He grins.

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She blushes.

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“Can’t lie: it’s real fun making your cheeks all red,” he says.

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“Shut up!” She punches him.

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It makes him laugh and want to kiss her. “So? What’s up? We doin’ this?”

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She covers her face. “Will you stop making me blush!”

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“Nope.”

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“Ugh!” She huffs and drops her hands. “You’re all in?”

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“I’m all in, girl.”

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Her eyes narrow for a second, and then: “Okay.” She smiles again.

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Jus shakes his head. “Had to make me sweat for it, huh?”

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“Just returning the favor.”

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“Touché.”

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A beat passes, and then: “Can I tell you something?” she says.

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“You mean there’s more?”

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“Shut up. This is serious.”

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“Okay…” And now he’s nervous.

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She takes a really deep breath and shifts her gaze across the room. “Seeing you with all those tubes in your body was probably the lowest moment of my life, Jus. To think I spent all that time being stupid, then almost lost you?” She shakes her head.

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“I felt the same way when I saw you at the funeral.”

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Silence.

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Then: “Justyce?”

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“Yes, Sarah-Jane?”

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“Can we agree not to be that stupid again?”

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He smiles and drapes an arm around her shoulders. “Sounds like a plan to me.”

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Transcript from nightly news, May 21

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Anchor: Good evening, and welcome to the Channel 2 Nightly News.

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In our top story tonight, investigators say a fire at the home of former Atlanta Police officer Garrett Tison was deliberately set.

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Investigator: Arson was our initial suspicion due to the number of threatening phone calls and letters Mrs. Tison has received during her husband’s detainment. We’re now able to confirm that this fire was started from the outside.

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(Cuts to picture of house’s charred remains.)

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Anchor (v.o.): Police have apprehended three teenage boys who were seen in the area on the night of the incident. Beverly Tison, Garrett’s wife, sustained multiple second-degree burns, leaving her in serious condition.

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Anchor (cont.): Tison’s trial in connection with the January shooting that left one teenager dead and another wounded is set to begin approximately five weeks from today.

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More on this story as it continues to develop.

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CHAPTER 21

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For the most part, Jus isn’t surprised when a pair of cops approach him and Mama after Bras Prep’s commencement ceremony. Since Blake’s “Justyce assaulted me” stunt fell flat—even the pundits were smart enough to ignore a kid photographed in a KKK robe—Jus figured it was only a matter of time before he got accused of something else.

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And he was right: not twelve hours after news broke that the fire at Garrett Tison’s house was set by someone outside it, the same newspeople who instigated “Thug-Gate” were speculating about Justyce’s “involvement in the arson plot.” Despite having nothing to do with it, for four days now, he’s been waiting for someone—cop, reporter, angry mob—to come after him.

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Just sucks that he’s still in his cap and gown, surrounded by his classmates and their families, when someone does.

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“Justyce McAllister?” the female of the pair says. She’s black. Slacks and a button-down. Badge on her belt.

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“Yes?”

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“I’m Detective Rosalyn Douglass, and this is Officer Troy.” She points to the white guy in uniform. “You mind if we ask you a few questions?”

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Mama steps forward and crosses her arms. “I’m his mother, and he’s a minor. What can I do for you, Officers?”

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“We mean your son no harm, ma’am,” says Officer Troy. “Just have a few queri—”

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“I don’t give my consent.”

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Detective: Ma’am, your son is seventeen years of age, and therefore an adult according to Georgia criminal law—

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“My son isn’t a criminal, so that law doesn’t apply to him.”

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The detective sighs and looks around before taking a step forward and lowering her voice. “Ma’am, we know this is a big day for your son. We’re trying not to make a scene here. If he’s willing to cooperate and

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answer a few questions for us, we might be able to avoid this going any further than it has to.”

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“So lemme guess,” Mama says. “You’re good cop, and whitey over there is bad?”

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“Ma, stop,” Jus says. “Let’s just hear them out so we can lea—”

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“Do you officers have any idea of the kinda hell my boy’s been through at the hands of people like you? He’s been falsely accused and unlawfully held under arrest. He’s lost his best friend. He’s been shot —”

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Detective: We’re well aware of your son’s background, Ms. McAllister. Our goal is to make this as painless as possible.

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Jus: What’s this about?

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Mama: I did not say you could talk to these people, Justyce!

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Jus: Ma, if they wanna treat me like an adult, I’m gonna act like one.

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She doesn’t say anything.

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Jus steps around her and looks each cop in the eye. “You were saying, Officers?”

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The detective nods as the white cop pulls out a notepad. “We appreciate your cooperation, Mr. McAllister.”

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Justyce almost laughs.

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Detective: On the night of May twentieth, there was a fire at the home of Garrett and Beverly Tison. The blaze was started at around eleven-forty-five p.m. You know anything about that?

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Jus shrugs. “Only what I’ve seen on the news.”

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The detective’s eyes narrow, and Justyce wonders if he’s being too nonchalant. He’s telling the truth, of course, but they obviously don’t know that.

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Detective Douglass examines Justyce’s face—which makes him feel like a cockroach under a magnifying glass. “Will you excuse us for a moment?” she says, gesturing to the officer.

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“Sure.”

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The moment they step away, Mama rounds on Jus. “I don’t appreciate you speaking to me that way in front of those police officers.

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You should’ve let me handle it.”

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“No offense, but I don’t think this is somethin’ you could ‘handle,’ Mama.”

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“Well, if you woulda kept your mouth shut—”

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“You realize once they said I don’t need your consent, refusing to talk would’ve made it look like I had something to hide, right? I turn eighteen in three weeks and head to college in ten. You can’t protect me forever.”

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Mama’s jaw drops, but before she has a chance to respond, the cops come back.

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“Okay, Justyce,” the detective says. (So he’s Justyce now, huh?) “This is the deal: we arrested three young men caught on camera siphoning gasoline from cars in a Walmart parking lot near the Tison home. Two of them…” Officer Troy passes her the notepad. “ ‘…Trey Filly and Bradley Mathers,’ ” she reads, “named you as an accomplice.”

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Jus shakes his head. Of course it was Black Jihad. Jus can’t believe he considered joining up with those fools. “I promise I had nothing to do with it, Detective.”

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She nods. “Well, we’re hesitant to believe these guys. For one, they’ve both tried to implicate innocent parties before. For two, the third young man did not mention you, which, considering the circumstances, is a little odd.”

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“Okay…”

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“I’m going to ask you a series of yes-or-no questions. Just answer truthfully and this should go pretty fast.”

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Jus nods.

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“Were you aware of an arson plot involving the home of Garrett Tison?”

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“No.”

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“Have you had any contact with Trey Filly or Bradley Mathers in the past two months?”

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“Yes.”

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Mama gasps—Jus is sure she knows both of those clowns by name— and the cops exchange another glance.

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“How many times have you had contact with either of these boys in the past two months?”

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“Once.”

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“And what was the nature of this contact?”

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Justyce gulps. “I went to meet someone, and they were there.”

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“Who were you meeting?”

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“If they’re not connected to the arson, does it matter?” Mama cuts in.

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The detective clears her throat. Jus is so relieved, he could kiss Mama.

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Detective Douglass continues: “Did you have any contact with either Trey Filly or Bradley Mathers on the night of May twentieth?”

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“Absolutely not. Haven’t seen or spoken to either of those guys since April twentieth.”

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Officer Troy’s eyebrows rise. “That’s pretty specific.”

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“It was a pretty memorable day.”

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“What was memorable about it?” Detective Douglass asks.

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“Something unrelated to what we’re talking about.”

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Jus can feel Mama’s gaze burning into him.

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“Where were you on the night of May twentieth?” the detective goes on.

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“I can assure you, it wasn’t anywhere near those guys or that fire.”

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“Is there someone who can verify your whereabouts?”

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“Ye—”

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“I can,” Mama says. “He was with me.”

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Jus could leave it at that. He knows he could. Yes, he can tell the cops are suspicious, but he knows that to dig deeper, they would need a warrant.

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But lying to the police after everything he’s been through?

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Nah.

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“You’re getting confused, Ma. I wasn’t with you. We went to visit Daddy’s grave on the twenty-first, not the twentieth.” And this is true.

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“But—”

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“On May twentieth, I was at my girlfriend’s house. We were celebrating her parents’ twentieth wedding anniversary.”

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Mama says nothing.

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“I see,” Detective Douglass says. “Would your girlfriend happen to be around here to verify that?”

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Justyce looks past her and the officer at the parting crowd.

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“She would,” he says. “She and her mom are headed right this way.”

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Mama doesn’t say a word the entire trip home. When they pull into the driveway and she tries to get out, Justyce reaches over and pulls her door shut.

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He locks it.

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“Oh, so you holdin’ me hostage now?”

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“You have somethin’ you wanna say to me, Ma?”

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“I certainly don’t.”

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“You sure about that?”

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“I don’t have anything to say to you, Justyce.”

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“Well, I have some things to say to you—”

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“That’s funny. I’ve learned more about my son in the past two hours than I’ve known in four years, and now he wants to talk to me?”

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“Mama—”

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“Tell me somethin’…did you ever plan to let your mama know about this ‘girlfriend’ of yours?”

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“Ma—”

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“I can understand you not wantin’ to bring up your recent contact with the neighborhood gangbangers, but if you actually care about this girl, seems to me like you would’ve at least mention—”

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“You know why I didn’t tell you anything, Mama!”

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She doesn’t respond.

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“I’m not saying keeping it from you was the right thing to do. But I

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knew no matter how happy I was, you woulda had somethin’ negative to say. You reacted in the parking lot by frownin’ at Mr. Friedman’s hand like it was diseased!”

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“I’m not shakin’ no white man’s hand, Justyce. Not after what that other one did to you.”

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“But what does that solve, Mama? Mr. Friedman and Garrett Tison are totally different people.”

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Mama crosses her arms and turns to the window.

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Jus shakes his head. “All my life, you’ve pushed me to be and do my absolute best. That’s what SJ brings out of me, Ma. She makes me better.”

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“Don’t you sit over there and tell yourself that lie, Justyce.”

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“It’s not a lie!”

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“It certainly is. I taught you a long time ago, only person can ‘make you better’ is you.

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Justyce grips the steering wheel. “Mama, if not for her, I don’t know that I woulda made it through this school year. For ten months now, people have been trying to tear me down. SJ worked harder than anybody to make sure I stayed standing.”

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“Hmph.”

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“Whether you believe it or not, she brings out the best in me. When I’m with her, I want to overcome everything.”

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“I get what you’re saying, son, but there are plenty of brilliant black women who can do the same—”

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Jus sighs. She doesn’t get it at all.

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“Ma, SJ is Jewish,” he says. Manny said it to him, and it’s a valid point, isn’t it? “I know you have issues with white folks, but her people have been through hardship too.”

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“Doesn’t matter, son. You can’t see Jewish in her skin color. You tried to help that other girl and wound up in handcuffs. And her daddy is black, ain’t he? If it looks white, it’s white in this world.”

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“But it’s not that simple—”

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“Yeah it is. You just refuse to accept it. I sent you to that school so

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you’d have a chance at the best education. But with this foolishness you’ve got in your head now, I’m wonderin’ if that was such a good idea.”

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“So what you’re saying is after a lifetime of getting picked apart because of my skin color, I should dismiss the girl I love because of hers?”

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Mama turns. “Love? Boy, you seventeen years old. You don’t know nothin’ about love.

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“You were eighteen when you married Daddy—”

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“And look where it got me.”

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Jus leans back against the headrest and shuts his eyes.

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For a minute, neither of them says anything.

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Then Mama sniffles.

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“Aww, Ma! Don’t cry—”

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“I’m afraid, son. This world is hard enough for a boy like you without the extra obstacles. That man almost killed you, Justyce! And what for? What were you doing wrong? Listenin’ to some music he didn’t like?”

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Jus doesn’t respond.

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He can’t.

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“I know you think I’m being unreasonable, but I—I can’t give you my blessing on this one,” she says. “I know you grown and you gonna do what you want, but you on your own here, baby.”

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“Come on, Ma—”

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“As you made clear earlier, I can’t protect you forever, right?”

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She unlocks her door and gets out of the car.

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CHAPTER 22

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Sitting on the witness stand, Jus wishes he could go back to the days when all he had to worry about was his mama not liking his girlfriend. The DA’s—Mr. Rentzen’s—questioning is running pretty smooth, and Mama, Doc, the Riverses, and the Friedmans are all there in the gallery to support him. But testifying with his best friend’s murderer glowering at him from twenty feet away? It’s the hardest thing he’s ever had to do.

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By the time Mr. Rentzen finishes his questions, the court has heard the tragic tale of two college-bound African American boys, gunned down at a traffic light by an angry white man who used a racial slur and fired his weapon at them when they didn’t comply with his demands.

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Jus, with tears in his eyes, recounts the final minutes of Manny’s life, and for a second he’s tempted to relax, especially when Doc gives him a thumbs-up from where he’s sitting.

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But then the defense attorney, a short white lady with blond hair and an upturned nose, steps up to the podium. She and Jus lock eyes.

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He can tell she’s out for blood.

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“Mr. McAllister,” she begins, all cool, calm, and collected. “Isn’t it true that at the beginning of your story, you stated that you and Emmanuel Rivers were ‘just driving around’?”

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“It is.”

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“That’s not what you originally intended to do, though, is it?”

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“I’m not sure I understand the question,” Jus says.

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“When Mr. Rivers retrieved you from your dormitory on January twenty-sixth, you had no idea you were getting into his car for the sake of ‘driving around,’ did you?”

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“No.”

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“So there were other plans, then.”

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Jus gulps. “Yes, there were.”

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“What were they?”

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“We were supposed to go hiking.”