Authors: Angie Thomas
“It’s gon’ take ’bout fifteen minutes,” he says.
That means sit and wait till your number is called. We find a table next to some white guys. You rarely see white people in Garden Heights, but when you do they’re usually at Reuben’s. The men watch the news on the box TV in a corner of the ceiling.
I munch on some of Kenya’s Hot Cheetos. They would taste much better with cheese sauce on them. “Has there been anything on the news about Khalil?”
She pays more attention to her phone. “Yeah, like I watch the news. I think I saw something on Twitter, though.”
I wait. Between a story about a bad car accident on the freeway and a garbage bag of live puppies that was found in a park, there’s a short story about an officer-involved shooting that is being investigated. They don’t even say Khalil’s name. Some bullshit.
We get our food and head back to the store. Right as we cross the street, a gray BMW pulls up beside us, bass thumping inside like the car has a heartbeat. The driver’s side window rolls down, smoke drifts out, and the male, three-hundred-pound version of Kenya smiles at us. “What up, queens?”
Kenya leans in through the window and kisses his cheek. “Hey, Daddy.”
“Hey, Starr-Starr,” he says. “Not gon’ say hey to your uncle?”
You ain’t my uncle, I wanna say. You ain’t shit to me. And if you touch my brother again, I’ll— “Hey, King,” I finally mumble.
His smile fades like he hears my thoughts. He puffs on a cigar and blows smoke from the corner of his mouth. Two tears are tattooed under his left eye. Two lives he’s taken. At least.
“I see y’all been to Reuben’s. Here.” He holds out two fat rolls of money. “Make up for whatever y’all spent.”
Kenya takes one easily, but I’m not touching that dirty money. “No thanks.”
“Go on, queen.” King winks. “Take some money from your godfather.”
“Nah, she good,” Daddy says.
He walks toward us. Daddy leans against the car window so he’s eye level with King and gives him one of those guy handshakes with so many movements you wonder how they remember it.
“Big Mav,” Kenya’s dad says with a grin. “What up, king?”
“Don’t call me that shit.” Daddy doesn’t say it loudly or angrily, but in the same way I would tell somebody not to put onions or mayo on my burger. Daddy once told me that King’s parents named him after the same gang he later joined, and that’s why a name is important. It defines you. King became a King Lord when he took his first breath.
“I was just giving my goddaughter some pocket change,” King says. “I heard what happened to her li’l homie. That’s fucked up.”
“Yeah. You know how it is,” Daddy says. “Po-po shoot first, ask questions later.”
“No doubt. They worse than us sometimes.” King chuckles. “But ay? On some business shit, I got a package coming, need somewhere to keep it. Got too many eyes on Iesha’s house.”
“I already told you that shit ain’t going down here.”
King rubs his beard. “Oh, okay. So folks get out the game, forget where they come from, forget that if it wasn’t for my money, they wouldn’t have their li’l store—”
“And if it wasn’t for me, you’d be locked up. Three years, state pen, remember that shit? I don’t owe you nothing.” Daddy
leans onto the window and says, “But if you touch Seven again, I’ll owe you an ass whooping. Remember that, now that you done moved back in with his momma.”
King sucks his teeth. “Kenya, get in the car.”
“I said get your ass in the car!”
Kenya mumbles “bye” to me. She goes around to the passenger’s side and hops in.
“A’ight, Big Mav. So it’s like that?” King says.
Daddy straightens up. “It’s exactly like that.”
“A’ight then. You just make sure your ass don’t get outta line. Ain’t no telling what I’ll do.”
The BMW peels out.
That night, Natasha tries to convince me to follow her to the fire hydrant, and Khalil begs me to go for a ride with him.
I force a smile, my lips trembling, and tell them I can’t hang out. They keep asking, and I keep saying no.
Darkness crawls toward them. I try to warn them, but my voice doesn’t work. The shadow swallows them up in an instant. Now it creeps toward me. I back away, only to find it behind me. . . .
I wake up. My clock glows with the numbers: 11:05.
I suck in deep breaths. Sweat glues my tank top and basketball shorts to my skin. Sirens scream nearby, and Brickz and other dogs bark in response.
Sitting on the side of my bed, I rub my face, as if that’ll wipe the nightmare away. No way I can go back to sleep. Not if it
means seeing them again.
My throat is lined with sandpaper and aches for water. When my feet touch the cold floor, goose bumps pop up all over me. Daddy always has the air conditioning on high in the spring and summer, turning the house into a meat locker. The rest of us shiver our butts off, but he enjoys it, saying, “A li’l cold never hurt nobody.” A lie.
I drag myself down the hall. Halfway to the kitchen I hear Momma say, “Why can’t they wait? She just saw one of her best friends die. She doesn’t need to relive that right now.”
I stop. Light from the kitchen stretches into the hallway.
“We have to investigate, Lisa,” says a second voice. Uncle Carlos, Momma’s older brother. “We want the truth as much as anyone.”
“You mean y’all wanna justify what that pig did,” Daddy says. “Investigate my ass.”
“Maverick, don’t make this something it’s not,” Uncle Carlos says.
“A sixteen-year-old black boy is dead because a white cop killed him. What else could it be?”
“Shhh!” Momma hisses. “Keep it down. Starr had the hardest time falling asleep.”
Uncle Carlos says something, but it’s too low for me to hear. I inch closer.
“This isn’t about black or white,” he says.
“Bullshit,” says Daddy. “If this was out in Riverton Hills
and his name was Richie, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
“I heard he was a drug dealer,” says Uncle Carlos.
“And that makes it okay?” Daddy asks.
“I didn’t say it did, but it could explain Brian’s decision if he felt threatened.”
A “no” lodges in my throat, aching to be yelled out. Khalil wasn’t a threat that night.
And what made the cop think he was a drug dealer?
That’s One-Fifteen’s name?
“Oh, so you know him,” Daddy mocks. “I ain’t surprised.”
“He’s a colleague, yes and a good guy, believe it or not. I’m sure this is hard on him. Who knows what he was thinking at the time?”
“You said it yourself, he thought Khalil was a drug dealer,” Daddy says. “A
. Why he assumed that though? What? By looking at Khalil? Explain that, Detective.”
“Why was she even in the car with a drug dealer?” Uncle Carlos asks. “Lisa, I keep telling you, you need to move her and Sekani out of this neighborhood. It’s poisonous.”
“I’ve been thinking about it.”
“And we’re not going anywhere,” Daddy says.
“Maverick, she’s seen two of her friends get killed,” Momma says. “Two! And she’s only sixteen.”
“And one was at the hands of a person who was supposed
to protect her! What, you think if you live next door to them, they’ll treat you different?”
“Why does it always have to be about race with you?” Uncle Carlos asks. “Other races aren’t killing us nearly as much as we’re killing ourselves.”
“Ne-gro, please. If I kill Tyrone, I’m going to prison. If a cop kills me, he’s getting put on leave. Maybe.”
“You know what? There’s no point having this conversation with you,” Uncle Carlos says. “Will you at least consider letting Starr speak to the detectives handling the case?”
“We should probably get her an attorney first, Carlos,” Momma says.
“That’s not necessary right now,” he says.
“And it wasn’t necessary for that cop to pull the trigger,” says Daddy. “You really think we gon’ let them talk to our daughter and twist her words around because she doesn’t have a lawyer?”
“Nobody’s going to twist her words around! I told you, we want the truth to come out too.”
“Oh, we know the truth, that’s not what we want,” says Daddy. “
Uncle Carlos sighs. “Lisa, the sooner she talks to the detectives, the better. It will be a simple process. All she has to do is answer some questions. That’s it. No need to spend money to get an attorney just yet.”
“Frankly, Carlos, we don’t want anyone to know Starr
was there,” Momma says. “She’s scared. I am too. Who knows what’s gonna happen?”
“I get that, but I assure you she’ll be protected. If you don’t trust the system, can you at least trust me?”
“I don’t know,” says Daddy. “Can we?”
“You know what, Maverick? I’ve just about had it with you—”
“You can get out my house then.”
“It wouldn’t even be your house if it wasn’t for me and my mom!”
“Y’all stop!” Momma says.
I shift my weight, and goddamn if the floor doesn’t creak, which is like sounding an alarm. Momma glances around the kitchen doorway and down the hall, straight at me. “Starr baby, what you doing up?”
Now I have no choice but to go to the kitchen. The three of them are sitting around the table, my parents in their pajamas and Uncle Carlos in some sweats and a hoodie.
“Hey, baby girl,” he says. “We didn’t wake you up, did we?”
“No,” I say, sitting next to Momma. “I was already awake. Nightmares.”
All of them look sympathetic even though I didn’t say it for sympathy. I kinda hate sympathy.
“What are you doing here?” I ask Uncle Carlos.
“Sekani has a stomach bug and begged me to bring him home.”
“And your uncle was just getting ready to leave,” Daddy adds.
Uncle Carlos’s jaw twitches. His face has gotten rounder since he made detective. He has Momma’s “high yella” complexion, as Nana calls it, and when he gets mad, his face turns deep red, like it is now.
“I’m sorry about Khalil, baby girl,” he says. “I was just telling your parents how the detectives would like for you to come in and answer a few questions.”
“But you don’t have to do it if you don’t wanna,” Daddy says.
“You know what—” Uncle Carlos begins.
“Stop. Please?” says Momma. She looks at me. “Munch, do you wanna talk to the cops?”
I swallow. I wish I could say yes, but I don’t know. On one hand, it’s the cops. It’s not like I’ll be telling just anybody.
On the other hand,
it’s the cops
. One of them killed Khalil.
But Uncle Carlos is a cop, and he wouldn’t ask me to do something that would hurt me.
“Will it help Khalil get justice?” I ask.
Uncle Carlos nods. “It will.”
“Will One-Fifteen be there?”
“The officer, that’s his badge number,” I say. “I remember it.”
“Oh. No, he won’t be there. I promise. It’ll be okay.”
Uncle Carlos’s promises are guarantees, sometimes even more than my parents’. He never uses that word unless he absolutely means it.
“Okay,” I say. “I’ll do it.”
“Thank you.” Uncle Carlos comes over and gives me two kisses to my forehead, the way he’s done since he used to tuck me in. “Lisa, just bring her after school on Monday. It shouldn’t take too long.”
Momma gets up and hugs him. “Thank you.” She walks him down the hall, toward the front door. “Be safe, okay? And text me when you get home.”
“Yes, ma’am. Sounding like our momma,” he teases.
“Whatever. You just better text me—”
“Okay, okay. Good night.”
Momma comes back to the kitchen, pulling her robe together. “Munch, your father and I are visiting Ms. Rosalie in the morning instead of going to church. You’re welcome to come if you want.”
“Yeah,” Daddy says. “And ain’t no uncle pressuring you to go.”
Momma cuts him a quick glare, then turns to me. “So, you think you’re up for it, Starr?”
Talking to Ms. Rosalie may be harder than talking to the cops, honestly. But I owe it to Khalil to pay his grandmother a visit. She may not even know I was a witness to the shooting. If she somehow does and wants to know what happened, more
than anybody she has the right to ask.
“Yeah. I’ll go.”
“We better find her an attorney before she talks to the detectives,” Daddy says.
“Maverick.” Momma sighs. “If Carlos doesn’t think it’s necessary just yet, I trust his judgment. Plus I’ll be with her the entire time.”
“Good thing somebody trusts his judgment,” says Daddy. “And you really been thinking again ’bout moving? We discussed this already.”
“Maverick, I’m not going there with you tonight.”
“How we gon’ change anything around here if we—”
“Mav-rick!” she says through gritted teeth. Whenever Momma breaks a name down like that, you better hope it’s not yours. “I said I’m not going there tonight.” She side-eyes him, waiting for the comeback. There isn’t one. “Try and get some sleep, baby,” she tells me, and kisses my cheek before going to their room.
Daddy goes to the refrigerator. “You want some grapes?”
“Yeah. How come you and Uncle Carlos always fighting?”
“’Cause he a buster.” He joins me at the table with a bowl of white grapes. “But for real, he ain’t never liked me. Thought I was a bad influence on your momma. Lisa was wild when I met her though, like all them other Catholic school girls.”
“I bet he was more protective of Momma than Seven is with me, huh?”
“Oh, yeah,” he says. “Carlos acted like he was Lisa’s daddy. When I got locked up, he moved y’all in with him and blocked my calls. Even took her to a divorce attorney.” He grins. “Still couldn’t get rid of me.”
I was three when Daddy went in prison, six when he got out. A lot of my memories include him, but a lot of my firsts don’t. First day of school, the first time I lost a tooth, the first time I rode a bike without training wheels. In those memories, Uncle Carlos’s face is where Daddy’s should’ve been. I think that’s the real reason they’re always fighting.
Daddy drums the mahogany surface of the dining table, making a
beat. “The nightmares will go away after a while,” he says. “They’re always the worst right after.”
That’s how it was with Natasha. “How many people have you seen die?”
“Enough. Worst one was my cousin Andre.” His finger seems to instinctively trace the tattoo on his forearm—an
with a crown over it. “A drug deal turned into a robbery, and he got shot in the head twice. Right in front of me. A few months before you were born, in fact. That’s why I named you Starr.” He gives me a small smile. “My light during all that darkness.”
Daddy chomps on some grapes. “Don’t be scared ’bout Monday. Tell the cops the truth, and don’t let them put words in your mouth. God gave you a brain. You don’t need theirs. And remember that you didn’t do nothing wrong—the cop did.
Don’t let them make you think otherwise.”
Something’s bugging me. I wanted to ask Uncle Carlos, but I couldn’t for some reason. Daddy’s different though. While Uncle Carlos somehow keeps impossible promises, Daddy keeps it real with me. “You think the cops want Khalil to have justice?” I ask.
Thump-thump-thump. Thump . . . thump . . . thump.
The truth casts a shadow over the kitchen—people like us in situations like this become hashtags, but they rarely get justice. I think we all wait for that one time though,
that one time
when it ends right.
Maybe this can be it.
“I don’t know,” Daddy says. “I guess we’ll find out.”
Sunday morning, we pull up to a small yellow house. Bright flowers bloom below the front porch. I used to sit with Khalil on that porch.
My parents and I hop out the truck. Daddy carries a foil-covered pan of lasagna that Momma made. Sekani claims he’s still not feeling good, so he stayed home. Seven’s there with him. I don’t buy this “sick” act though—Sekani always gets some kinda bug right as spring break ends.
Going up Ms. Rosalie’s walkway floods me with memories. I have scars tattooed on my arms and legs from falls on this concrete. One time I was on my scooter, and Khalil pushed me off ’cause I hadn’t given him a turn. When I got up, skin was
missing from most of my knee. I never screamed so loud in my life.
We played hopscotch and jumped rope on this walkway too. Khalil never wanted to play at first, talking about how those were girls’ games. He always gave in when me and Natasha said the winner got a Freeze Cup—frozen Kool-Aid in a Styrofoam cup—or a pack of “Nileators,” a.k.a. Now and Laters. Ms. Rosalie was the neighborhood Candy Lady.
I was at her house almost as much as I was at my own. Momma and Ms. Rosalie’s youngest daughter, Tammy, were best friends growing up. When Momma got pregnant with me, she was in her senior year of high school and Nana put her out the house. Ms. Rosalie took her in until my parents eventually got an apartment of their own. Momma says Ms. Rosalie was one of her biggest supporters and cried at her high school graduation like it was her own daughter walking across the stage.
Three years later, Ms. Rosalie saw Momma and me at Wyatt’s—this was way before it became our store. She asked my mom how college was going. Momma told her that with Daddy in prison, she couldn’t afford daycare and that Nana wouldn’t take care of me ’cause I wasn’t her baby and therefore I wasn’t her problem. So Momma was thinking about dropping out. Ms. Rosalie told her to bring me to her house the next day and that she better not say a word about paying her. She babysat me and later Sekani the whole time Momma was in school.
Momma knocks on the door, rattling the screen. Ms.
Tammy answers in a head wrap, T-shirt, and sweatpants. She unhooks the locks, hollering back, “Maverick, Lisa, and Starr are here, Ma.”
The living room looks just like it did when Khalil and I played hide-and-seek in it. There’s still plastic on the sofa and recliner. If you sit on them too long in the summer while wearing shorts, the plastic nearly glues to your legs.