Authors: Angie Thomas
So many alarms go off in my head. Not that she wouldn’t be happy that “the Lord spared my life,” but this isn’t Nana. At all.
She takes me and Momma by our wrists and pulls us toward the poolside loungers. “Y’all come over here and talk to me.”
“But I was gonna talk to Pam—”
Nana looks at Momma and hisses through gritted teeth, “Shut the hell up, sit down, and talk to me, goddammit.”
Nana. She sits back in a lounger and fans herself
all dramatically. She’s a retired theater teacher, so she does everything dramatically. Momma and I share a lounger and sit on the side of it.
“What’s wrong?” Momma asks.
“When—” she begins, but plasters on a fake smile when Ava waddles over with her baby doll and a comb. Ava hands both to me and goes to play with some of her other toys.
I comb the doll’s hair. That girl has me trained. Doesn’t have to say anything, and I do it.
Once Ava’s out of earshot, Nana says, “When y’all taking me back to my house?”
“What happened?” Momma asks.
“Keep your damn voice down!” Ironically, she’s not keeping hers down. “Yesterday morning, I took some catfish out for dinner. Was gonna fry it up with some hush puppies, fries, the whole nine. I left to run some errands.”
“What kinda errands?” I ask for the hell of it.
Nana cuts me “the look” and it’s like seeing Momma in thirty years, with a few wrinkles and gray hairs she missed when coloring her hair (she’d whoop my behind for saying that).
“I’m grown, li’l girl,” she says. “Don’t ask me what I do. Anyway, I come home and that
done covered my catfish in some damn cornflakes and baked it!”
“Cornflakes?” I say, parting the doll’s hair.
“Yes! Talking ’bout, ‘It’s healthier that way.’ If I want healthy, I eat a salad.”
Momma covers her mouth, and the edges of her lips are turned up. “I thought you and Pam got along.”
“We did. Until she messed with my food. Now, I’ve dealt with a lotta things since I’ve been here. But that”—she holds up a finger—“is taking it too damn far. I’d rather live with you and that ex-con than deal with this.”
Momma stands and kisses Nana’s forehead. “You’ll be all right.”
Nana waves her off. When Momma leaves, she looks at me. “You okay, li’l girl? Carlos told me you were in the car with that boy when he was killed.”
“Yes, ma’am, I’m okay.”
“Good. And if you’re not, you will be. We’re strong like that.”
I nod, but I don’t believe it. At least not about myself.
The doorbell rings up front. I say, “I’ll get it,” put Ava’s doll down, and go inside.
Crap. Chris is on the other side of the door. I wanna apologize to him, but dammit, I need time to prepare.
Weird though. He’s pacing. The same way he does when we study for tests or before a big game. He’s afraid to talk to me.
I open the door and lean against the frame. “Hey.”
“Hey.” He smiles, and despite everything I smile too.
“I was washing one of my dad’s cars and saw you guys pull up,” he says. That explains his tank top, flip-flops, and shorts. “Are you okay? I know you said you were in your text, but I wanted to be sure.”
“I’m okay,” I say.
“Your dad’s store didn’t get hit, did it?” he asks.
Staring and silence.
He sighs. “Look, if this is about the condom stuff, I’ll never buy one again.”
“Well, only when you want me to.” He quickly adds, “Which doesn’t have to be anytime soon. Matter of fact, you don’t have to ever sleep with me. Or kiss me. Hell, if you don’t want me to touch you, I—”
“Chris, Chris,” I say, my hands up to get him to slow down, and I’m fighting a laugh. “It’s okay. I know what you mean.”
Another round of staring and silence.
“I’m sorry, actually,” I tell him, shifting my weight from foot to foot. “For giving you the silent treatment. It wasn’t about the condom.”
“Oh . . .” His eyebrows meet. “Then what was it about?”
I sigh. “I don’t feel like talking about it.”
“So you can be mad at me, but you can’t even tell me why?”
“It has nothing to do with you.”
“Yeah, it does if you’re giving
the silent treatment,” he says.
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Maybe you should let me determine that myself?” he says. “Here I am, calling you, texting you, everything, and you can’t tell me why you’re ignoring me? That’s kinda shitty, Starr.”
I give him this look, and I have a strong feeling I look like Momma and Nana right now with their “I know you didn’t just say that” glare.
“I told you, you wouldn’t understand. So drop it.”
“No.” He folds his arms. “I came all the way down here—”
“All the way? Bruh, all
way? Down the street?”
Garden Heights Starr is all up in my voice right now.
“Yeah, down the street,” he says. “And guess what? I didn’t have to do that. But I did. And you can’t even tell me what’s going on!”
“You’re white, okay?” I yell. “You’re white!”
“I’m white?” he says, like he’s just hearing that for the first time. “What the fuck’s that got to do with anything?”
“Everything! You’re white, I’m black. You’re rich, I’m not.”
“That doesn’t matter!” he says. “I don’t care about that kinda stuff, Starr. I care about you.”
“That kinda stuff is part of me!”
“Okay, and . . . ? It’s no big deal. God, seriously? This is what you’re pissed about?
is why you’re giving me the silent treatment?”
I stare at him, and I know, I
, I’m straight up looking
like Lisa Janae Carter. My mouth is slightly open like hers when I or my brothers “get smart,” as she calls it, I’ve pulled my chin back a little, and my eyebrows are raised. Shit, my hand’s even on my hip.
Chris takes a small step back, just like my brothers and I do. “It just . . . it doesn’t make sense to me, okay? That’s all.”
“So like I said, you don’t understand. Do you?”
Bam. If I am acting like my mom, this is one of her “see, I told you” moments.
“No. I guess I don’t,” he says.
Another round of silence.
Chris puts his hands in his pockets. “Maybe you can help me understand? I don’t know. But I do know that not having you in my life is worse than not making beats or playing basketball. And you know how much I love making beats and playing basketball, Starr.”
I smirk. “You call that a line?”
He bites his bottom lip and shrugs. I laugh. He does too.
“Bad line, huh?” he asks.
We go silent again, but it’s the type of silence I don’t mind. He puts his hand out for mine.
I still don’t know if I’m betraying who I am by dating Chris, but I’ve missed him so much it hurts. Momma thinks coming to Uncle Carlos’s house is normal, but Chris is the kind of normal I really want. The normal where I don’t have to choose which
Starr to be. The normal where nobody tells you how sorry they are or talks about “Khalil the drug dealer.” Just . . . normal.
That’s why I can’t tell Chris I’m the witness.
I take his hand, and everything suddenly feels right. No flinching and no flashbacks.
“C’mon,” I say. “Uncle Carlos should have the burgers ready.”
We go into the backyard, hand in hand. He’s smiling, and surprisingly I am too.
We spend the night at Uncle Carlos’s house because the riots started again as soon as the sun went down. Somehow the store got spared. We should go to church and thank God for that, but Momma and I are too tired to sit through less than an hour of anything. Sekani wants to spend another day at Uncle Carlos’s, so Sunday morning we return to Garden Heights without him.
Right as we get off the freeway, we’re met by a police roadblock. Only one lane of traffic isn’t blocked by a patrol car, and officers talk to drivers before letting them pass through.
Suddenly it’s as if someone grabbed my heart and twisted it. “Can we—” I swallow. “Can we get around them?”
“Doubt it. They probably got these all around the neighborhood.” Momma glances over at me and frowns. “Munch? You okay?”
I grab my door handle. They can easily grab their guns and leave us like Khalil. All the blood in our bodies pooling on the street for everybody to see. Our mouths wide open. Our eyes staring at the sky, searching for God.
“Hey.” Momma cups my cheek. “Hey, look at me.”
I try to, but my eyes are filled with tears. I’m so sick of being this damn weak. Khalil may have lost his life, but I lost something too, and it pisses me off.
“It’s okay,” Momma says. “We got this, all right? Close your eyes if you have to.”
Keep your hands visible.
No sudden moves.
Only speak when spoken to.
The seconds drag by like hours. The officer asks Momma for her ID and proof of insurance, and I beg Black Jesus to get us home, hoping there won’t be a gunshot as she searches through her purse.
We finally drive off. “See, baby,” she says. “Everything’s fine.”
Her words used to have power. If she said it was fine, it was fine. But after you’ve held two people as they took their last breaths, words like that don’t mean shit anymore.
I haven’t let go of the car door handle when we pull into our driveway.
Daddy comes out and knocks on my window. Momma rolls it down for me. “There go my girls.” He smiles, but it fades into a frown. “What’s wrong?”
“You about to go somewhere, baby?” Momma asks, meaning they’ll talk later.
“Yeah, gotta run to the warehouse and stock up.” He taps my shoulder. “Ay, wanna hang out with your daddy? I’ll get you some ice cream. One of them big fat tubs that’ll last ’bout a month.”
I laugh even though I don’t feel like it. Daddy’s talented like that. “I don’t need all that ice cream.”
“I ain’t say you needed it. When we get back, we can watch that Harry Potter shit you like so much.”
“What?” he asks.
“Daddy, you’re the worst person to watch Harry Potter with. The whole time you’re talking about”—I deepen my voice—“‘Why don’t they shoot that nigga Voldemort?’”
“Ay, it don’t make sense that in all them movies and books, nobody thought to shoot him.”
“If it’s not that,” Momma says, “you’re giving your ‘Harry Potter is about gangs’ theory.”
“It is!” he says.
Okay, so it
a good theory. Daddy claims the Hogwarts houses are really gangs. They have their own colors, their own hideouts, and they are always riding for each other, like gangs.
Harry, Ron, and Hermione never snitch on one another, just like gangbangers. Death Eaters even have matching tattoos. And look at Voldemort. They’re scared to say his name. Really, that “He Who Must Not Be Named” stuff is like giving him a street name. That’s some gangbanging shit right there.
“Y’all know that make a lot of sense,” Daddy says. “Just ’cause they was in England don’t mean they wasn’t gangbanging.” He looks at me. “So you down to hang out with your old man today or what?”
I’m always down to hang out with him.
We roll through the streets, Tupac blasting through the subwoofers. He’s rapping about keeping your head up, and Daddy glances at me as he raps along, like he’s telling me the same thing Tupac is.
“I know you’re fed up, baby”—he nudges my chin—“but keep your head up.”
He sings with the chorus about how things will get easier, and I don’t know if I wanna cry ’cause that’s really speaking to me right now, or crack up ’cause Daddy’s singing is so horrible.
Daddy says, “That was a deep dude right there. Real deep. They don’t make rappers like that no more.”
“You’re showing your age, Daddy.”
“Whatever. It’s the truth. Rappers nowadays only care ’bout money, hoes, and clothes.”
“Showing your age,” I whisper.
“’Pac rapped ’bout that stuff too, yeah, but he also cared
’bout uplifting black people,” says Daddy. “Like he took the word ‘nigga’ and gave it a whole new meaning—Never Ignorant Getting Goals Accomplished. And he said Thug Life meant—”
“The Hate U Give Little Infants F---s Everybody,” I censor myself. This is my daddy I’m talking to, you know?
“You know ’bout that?”
“Yeah. Khalil told me what he thought it means. We were listening to Tupac right before . . . you know.”
“A’ight, so what do you think it means?”
“You don’t know?” I ask.
“I know. I wanna hear what
Here he goes. Picking my brain. “Khalil said it’s about what society feeds us as youth and how it comes back and bites them later,” I say. “I think it’s about more than youth though. I think it’s about us, period.”
“Us who?” he asks.
“Black people, minorities, poor people. Everybody at the bottom in society.”
“The oppressed,” says Daddy.
“Yeah. We’re the ones who get the short end of the stick, but we’re the ones they fear the most. That’s why the government targeted the Black Panthers, right? Because they were scared of the Panthers?”
“Uh-huh,” Daddy says. “The Panthers educated and empowered the people. That tactic of empowering the oppressed goes even further back than the Panthers though. Name one.”
Is he serious? He always makes me think. This one takes me a second. “The slave rebellion of 1831,” I say. “Nat Turner empowered and educated other slaves, and it led to one of the biggest slave revolts in history.”
“A’ight, a’ight. You on it.” He gives me dap. “So, what’s the hate they’re giving the ‘little infants’ in today’s society?”
“You gotta get a li’l more detailed than that. Think ’bout Khalil and his whole situation. Before he died.”
“He was a drug dealer.” It hurts to say that. “And possibly a gang member.”
“Why was he a drug dealer? Why are so many people in our neighborhood drug dealers?”
I remember what Khalil said—he got tired of choosing between lights and food. “They need money,” I say. “And they don’t have a lot of other ways to get it.”
“Right. Lack of opportunities,” Daddy says. “Corporate America don’t bring jobs to our communities, and they damn sure ain’t quick to hire us. Then, shit, even if you do have a high school diploma, so many of the schools in our neighborhoods don’t prepare us well enough. That’s why when your momma talked about sending you and your brothers to Williamson, I agreed. Our schools don’t get the resources to equip you like Williamson does. It’s easier to find some crack than it is to find a good school around here.
“Now, think ’bout this,” he says. “How did the drugs even
get in our neighborhood? This is a multibillion-dollar industry we talking ’bout, baby. That shit is flown into our communities, but I don’t know anybody with a private jet. Do you?”
“Exactly. Drugs come from somewhere, and they’re destroying our community,” he says. “You got folks like Brenda, who think they need them to survive, and then you got the Khalils, who think they need to sell them to survive. The Brendas can’t get jobs unless they’re clean, and they can’t pay for rehab unless they got jobs. When the Khalils get arrested for selling drugs, they either spend most of their life in prison, another billion-dollar industry, or they have a hard time getting a real job and probably start selling drugs again. That’s the hate they’re giving us, baby, a system designed against us. That’s Thug Life.”
“I hear you, but Khalil didn’t
to sell drugs,” I say. “You stopped doing it.”
“True, but unless you’re in his shoes, don’t judge him. It’s easier to fall into that life than it is to stay outta it, especially in a situation like his. Now, one more question.”
“Really?” Damn, he’s messed with my head enough.
“Yeah, really,” he mocks in a high voice. I don’t even sound like that. “After everything I’ve said, how does Thug Life apply to the protests and the riots?”
I have to think about that one for a minute. “Everybody’s pissed ’cause One-Fifteen hasn’t been charged,” I say, “but also because he’s not the first one to do something like this and get away with it. It’s been happening, and people will keep rioting
until it changes. So I guess the system’s still giving hate, and everybody’s still getting fucked?”
Daddy laughs and gives me dap. “My girl. Watch your mouth, but yeah, that’s about right. And we won’t stop getting fucked till it changes. That’s the key. It’s gotta change.”
A lump forms in my throat as the truth hits me. Hard. “That’s why people are speaking out, huh? Because it won’t change if we don’t say something.”
“Exactly. We can’t be silent.”
can’t be silent.”
Daddy stills. He looks at me.
I see the fight in his eyes. I matter more to him than a movement. I’m his baby, and I’ll always be his baby, and if being silent means I’m safe, he’s all for it.
This is bigger than me and Khalil though. This is about Us, with a capital U; everybody who looks like us, feels like us, and is experiencing this pain with us despite not knowing me or Khalil. My silence isn’t helping Us.
Daddy fixes his gaze on the road again. He nods. “Yeah. Can’t be silent.”
The trip to the warehouse is hell.
You got all these people pushing big flatbeds around, and them things are hard to push as it is, and you gotta maneuver it while it’s stacked with stuff. By the time we leave, I feel like Black Jesus snatched me from the depths of hell. Daddy does get me ice cream though.
Buying the stuff is only the first step. We unload it at the store, put it on the shelves, and we (scratch that,
) put price stickers on all those bags of chips, cookies, and candies. I should’ve thought about that before I agreed to hang out with Daddy. While I do the hard work, he pays bills in his office.
I’m putting stickers on the Hot Fries when somebody knocks on the front door.
“We’re closed,” I yell without looking. We have a sign, can’t they read?
Obviously not. They knock again.
Daddy appears in the doorway of his office. “We closed!”
Daddy disappears into his office and returns with his Glock. He’s not supposed to carry it since he’s a felon, but he says that technically he doesn’t carry it. He keeps it in his office.
He looks out at the person on the other side of the door. “What you want?”
“I’m hungry,” a guy says. “Can I buy something?”
Daddy unlocks the door and holds it open. “You got five minutes.”
“Thanks,” DeVante says as he comes in. His Afro puff has become a full-blown Afro. He has this wild look about him, and I don’t mean ’cause of his hair, but like in his eyes. They’re puffy and red and darting around. He barely gives me a nod when he passes.
Daddy waits at the cash register with his piece.
DeVante glances outside. He looks at the chips. “Fritos, Cheetos, or Dori—” His voice trails off as he glances again. He notices me watching him and looks at the chips. “Doritos.”
“Your five minutes getting shorter,” Daddy says.
“Damn, man. A’ight!” DeVante grabs a bag of Fritos. “Can I get something to drink?”
DeVante goes to the refrigerators. I join Daddy at the cash register. It’s so obvious something is up. DeVante keeps stretching his neck to look outside. His five minutes pass at least three times. It doesn’t take anybody that long to choose between Coke, Pepsi, or Faygo. I’m sorry but it doesn’t.
“A’ight, Vante.” Daddy motions him to the cash register. “You trying to get the nerve to stick me up or you running from somebody?”
“Hell nah, I ain’t trying to stick you up.” He takes out a wad of money and sets it on the counter. “I’m paid. And I’m a King. I don’t run from no-damn-body.”
“No, you hide in stores,” I say.
He glares at me, but Daddy tells him, “She right. You hiding from somebody. Kings or GDs?”
“It’s not those GDs from the park, is it?” I ask.
“Why don’t you mind your business?” he snaps.
“You came in my daddy’s business, so I am minding my business.”
“Ay!” Daddy says. “But for real, who you hiding from?”
DeVante stares at his scuffed-up Chucks that are beyond the help of my cleaning kit. “King,” he mumbles.
“Kings or King?” Daddy asks.
“King,” DeVante repeats louder. “He wants me to handle the dudes that killed my brother. I’m not trying to have that on me though.”
“Yeah, I heard ’bout Dalvin,” Daddy says. “I’m sorry. What happened?”
“We were at Big D’s party, and some GDs stepped to him. They got into it, and one of them cowards shot him in the back.”
Oh, damn. That was the same party Khalil and I were at. Those were the gunshots that made us leave.
“Big Mav, how’d you get out the game?” DeVante asks.
Daddy strokes his goatee, studying DeVante. “The hard way,” he eventually says. “My daddy was a King Lord. Adonis Carter. A straight up OG.”
“Yo!” DeVante says. “That’s your pops? Big Don?”
“Yep. Biggest drug dealer this city ever seen.”
“Yo! Man, that’s crazy.” DeVante’s seriously fangirling right now. “I heard he had cops working for him and everything. He pulled in big money.”
I heard my granddaddy was so busy pulling in big money that he didn’t have time for Daddy. There are lots of pictures of Daddy when he was younger wearing mink coats, playing with expensive toys, flashing jewelry, and Grandpa Don isn’t in any of the pictures.
“Probably so,” Daddy says. “I wouldn’t know too much ’bout that. He went to prison when I was eight. Been there ever since. I’m his only child, his son. Everybody expected me to pick up where he left off.