Authors: Angie Thomas
“What y’all bringing up in here?” Ms. Felicia asks at the front desk, stretching her neck to see.
Momma comes from the other hallway in her plain yellow scrubs, following a teary-eyed boy and his mom. The boy sucks on a lollipop, a reward for surviving a shot.
“There go my babies,” Momma says when she sees us. “And
they got my food too. C’mon. Let’s go in the back.”
“Save me some!” Ms. Felicia calls after us. Momma tells her to hush.
We set the food out on the break room table. Momma gets some paper plates and plastic utensils that she keeps in a cabinet for days like this. We say grace and dig in.
Momma sits on the countertop and eats. “Mmm-mm! This is hitting the spot. Thank you, Seven baby. I only had a bag of Cheetos today.”
“You didn’t have lunch?” Sekani asks, with a mouth full of fried rice.
Momma points her fork at him. “What did I tell you about talking with your mouth full? And for your information, no I did not. I had a meeting on my lunch break. Now, tell me about y’all. How was school?”
Sekani always talks the longest because he gives every single detail. Seven says his day was fine. I’m as short with my “It was all right.”
Momma sips her soda. “Anything happen?”
I freaked out when my boyfriend touched me, but—“Nope. Nothing.”
Ms. Felicia comes to the door. “Lisa, sorry to bother you, but we have an
“I’m on break, Felicia.”
“Don’t you think I know that? But she asking for you. It’s Brenda.”
My mom sets her plate down. She looks straight at me when she says, “Stay here.”
I’m hardheaded though. I follow her to the waiting room. Ms. Brenda sits with her face in her hands. Her hair is uncombed, and her white shirt is dingy, almost brown. She has sores and scabs on her arms and legs, and since she’s real light-skinned they show up even more.
Momma kneels in front of her. “Bren, hey.”
Ms. Brenda moves her hands. Her red eyes remind me of what Khalil said when we were little, that his momma had turned into a dragon. He claimed that one day he’d become a knight and turn her back.
It doesn’t make sense that he sold drugs. I would’ve thought his broken heart wouldn’t let him.
“My baby,” his momma cries. “Lisa, my baby.”
Momma sandwiches Ms. Brenda’s hands between hers and rubs them, not caring that they’re nasty looking. “I know, Bren.”
“They killed my baby.”
“They killed him.”
“Lord Jesus,” Ms. Felicia says from the doorway. Next to her, Seven puts his arm around Sekani. Some patients in the waiting room shake their heads.
“But Bren, you gotta get cleaned up,” Momma says. “That’s what he wanted.”
“I can’t. My baby ain’t here.”
“Yes, you can. You have Cameron, and he needs you. Your momma needs you.”
Khalil needed you, I wanna say. He waited for you and cried for you. But where were you? You don’t get to cry now. Nuh-uh. It’s too late.
But she keeps crying. Rocking and crying.
“Tammy and I can get you some help, Bren,” Momma says. “But you gotta really want it this time.”
“I don’t wanna live like this no more.”
“I know.” Momma waves Ms. Felicia over and hands Ms. Felicia her phone. “Look through my contacts and find Tammy Harris’s number. Call and tell her that her sister is here. Bren, when was the last time you ate?”
“I don’t know. I don’t—my baby.”
Momma straightens up and rubs Ms. Brenda’s shoulder. “I’m gonna get you some food.”
I follow Momma back. She walks kinda fast but passes the food and goes to the counter. She leans on it with her back to me and bows her head, not saying a word.
Everything I wanted to say in the waiting room comes bubbling out. “How come she gets to be upset? She wasn’t there for Khalil. You know how many times he cried about her? Birthdays, Christmas, all that. Why does she get to cry now?”
“She hasn’t acted like a mom to him! Now all of a sudden,
he’s her baby? It’s bullshit!”
Momma smacks the counter, and I jump. “Shut up!” she screams. She turns around, tears streaking her face. “That wasn’t some li’l friend of hers. That was her son, you hear me? Her son!” Her voice cracks. “She carried that boy, birthed that boy. And you have no right to judge her.”
I have cotton-mouth. “I—”
Momma closes her eyes. She massages her forehead. “I’m sorry. Fix her a plate, baby, okay? Fix her a plate.”
I do and put a little extra of everything on it. I take it to Ms. Brenda. She mumbles what sounds like “thank you” as she takes it.
When she looks at me through the red haze, Khalil’s eyes stare back at me, and I realize my mom’s right. Ms. Brenda is Khalil’s momma. Regardless.
My mom and I arrive at the police station at four thirty on the dot.
A handful of cops talk on phones, type on computers, or stand around. Normal stuff, like on
Law & Order
, but my breath catches. I count: One. Two. Three. Four. I lose count around twelve because the guns in their holsters are all I can see.
All of them. Two of us.
Momma squeezes my hand. “Breathe.”
I didn’t realize I had grabbed hers.
I take a deep breath and another, and she nods with each one, saying, “That’s it. You’re okay. We’re okay.”
Uncle Carlos comes over, and he and Momma lead me to his desk, where I sit down. I feel eyes on me from all around.
The grip tightens around my lungs. Uncle Carlos hands me a sweating bottle of water. Momma puts it up to my lips.
I take slow sips and look around Uncle Carlos’s desk to avoid the curious eyes of the officers. He has almost as many pictures of me and Sekani on display as he has of his own kids.
“I’m taking her home,” Momma tells him. “I’m not putting her through this today. She’s not ready.”
“I understand, but she has to talk to them at some point, Lisa. She’s a vital part of this investigation.”
Momma sighs. “Carlos—”
“I get it,” he says, in a noticeably lower voice. “Believe me, I do. Unfortunately, if we want this investigation done right, she has to talk to them. If not today, then another day.”
Another day of waiting and wondering what’s gonna happen.
I can’t go through that.
“I wanna do it today,” I mumble. “I wanna get it over with.”
They look at me, like they just remembered I’m here.
Uncle Carlos kneels in front of me. “Are you sure, baby girl?”
I nod before I lose my nerve.
“All right,” Momma says. “But I’m going with her.”
“That’s totally fine,” Uncle Carlos says.
“I don’t care if it’s not fine.” She looks at me. “She’s not doing this alone.”
Those words feel as good as any hug I’ve ever gotten.
Uncle Carlos keeps an arm around me and leads us to a small room that has nothing in it but a table and some chairs. An unseen air conditioner hums loudly, blasting freezing air into the room.
“All right,” Uncle Carlos says. “I’ll be outside, okay?”
“Okay,” I say.
He kisses my forehead with his usual two pecks. Momma takes my hand, and her tight squeeze tells me what she doesn’t say out loud—
I got your back.
We sit at the table. She’s still holding my hand when the two detectives come in—a young white guy with slick black hair and a Latina with lines around her mouth and a spiky haircut. Both of them wear guns on their waists.
Keep your hands visible.
No sudden moves.
Only speak when spoken to.
“Hi, Starr and Mrs. Carter,” the woman says, holding out her hand. “I’m Detective Gomez, and this is my partner, Detective Wilkes.”
I let go of my mom’s hand to shake the detectives’ hands. “Hello.” My voice is changing already. It always happens around “other” people, whether I’m at Williamson or not. I don’t talk like me or sound like me. I choose every word carefully and make sure I pronounce them well. I can never, ever let anyone think I’m ghetto.
“It’s so nice to meet you both,” Wilkes says.
“Considering the circumstances, I wouldn’t call it nice,” says Momma.
Wilkes’s face and neck get extremely red.
“What he means is we’ve heard so much about you both,” Gomez says. “Carlos always gushes about his wonderful family. We feel like we know you already.”
She’s laying it on extra thick.
“Please, have a seat.” Gomez points to a chair, and she and Wilkes sit across from us. “Just so you know, you’re being recorded, but it’s simply so we can have Starr’s statement on record.”
“Okay,” I say. There it is again, all perky and shit. I’m never perky.
Detective Gomez gives the date and time and the names of the people in the room and reminds us that we’re being recorded. Wilkes scribbles in his notebook. Momma rubs my back. For a moment there’s only the sound of pencil on paper.
“All right then.” Gomez adjusts herself in her chair and smiles, the lines around her mouth deepening. “Don’t be nervous, Starr. You haven’t done anything wrong. We just want to know what happened.”
I know I haven’t done anything wrong
, I think, but it comes out as, “Yes, ma’am.”
“You’re sixteen, right?”
“How long did you know Khalil?”
“Since I was three. His grandmother used to babysit me.”
“Wow,” she says, all teacher-like, stretching out the word. “That’s a long time. Can you tell us what happened the night of the incident?”
“You mean the night he was killed?”
Gomez’s smile dims, the lines around her mouth aren’t as deep, but she says, “The night of the incident, yes. Start where you feel comfortable.”
I look at Momma. She nods.
“My friend Kenya and I went to a house party hosted by a guy named Darius,” I say.
I drum the table.
Stop. No sudden moves.
I lay my hands flat to keep them visible.
“He has one every spring break,” I say. “Khalil saw me, came over, and said hello.”
“Do you know why he was at the party?” Gomez asks.
Why does anybody go to a party? To party.
“I assume it was for recreational purposes,” I say. “He and I talked about things going on in our lives.”
“What kind of things?” she questions.
“His grandmother has cancer. I didn’t know until he told me that evening.”
“I see,” Gomez says. “What happened after that?”
“A fight occurred at the party, so we left together in his car.”
“Khalil didn’t have anything to do with the fight?”
I raise an eyebrow. “Nah.”
Dammit. Proper English.
I sit up straight. “I mean, no, ma’am. We were talking when the fight occurred.”
“Okay, so you two left. Where were you going?”
“He offered to take me home or to my father’s grocery store. Before we could decide, One-Fifteen pulled us over.”
“Who?” she asks.
“The officer, that’s his badge number,” I say. “I remember it.”
“I see,” Gomez says. “Can you describe what happened next?”
I don’t think I’ll ever forget what happened, but saying it out loud, that’s different. And hard.
My eyes prickle. I blink, staring at the table.
Momma rubs my back. “Look up, Starr.”
My parents have this thing where they never want me or my brothers to talk to somebody without looking them in their eyes. They claim that a person’s eyes say more than their mouth, and that it goes both ways—if we look someone in their eyes and mean what we say, they should have little reason to doubt us.
I look at Gomez.
“Khalil pulled over to the side of the road and turned the ignition off,” I say. “One-Fifteen put his brights on. He
approached the window and asked Khalil for his license and registration.”
“Did Khalil comply?” Gomez asks.
“He asked the officer why he pulled us over first. Then he showed his license and registration.”
“Did Khalil seem irate during this exchange?”
“Annoyed, not irate,” I say. “He felt that the cop was harassing him.”
“Did he tell you this?”
“No, but I could tell. I assumed the same thing myself.”
Gomez scoots closer. Maroon lipstick stains her teeth, and her breath smells like coffee. “And why was that?”
The room isn’t hot. You’re nervous.
“Because we weren’t doing anything wrong,” I say. “Khalil wasn’t speeding or driving recklessly. It didn’t seem like he had a reason to pull us over.”
“I see. What happened next?”
“The officer forced Khalil out the car.”
“Yes, ma’am. He pulled him out.”
“Because Khalil was hesitant, right?”
Momma makes this throaty sound, like she was about to say something but stopped herself. She purses her lips and rubs my back in circles.
I remember what Daddy said—
“Don’t let them put words in your mouth.”
“No, ma’am,” I say to Gomez. “He was getting out on his own, and the officer yanked him the rest of the way.”
She says “I see” again, but she didn’t see it so she probably doesn’t believe it. “What happened next?” she asks.
“The officer patted Khalil down three times.”
Yeah. I counted.
“Yes, ma’am. He didn’t find anything. He then told Khalil to stay put while he ran his license and registration.”
“But Khalil didn’t stay put, did he?” she says.
“He didn’t pull the trigger on himself either.”
Shit. Your fucking big mouth.
The detectives glance at each other. A moment of silent conversation.
The walls move in closer. The grip around my lungs returns. I pull my shirt away from my neck.
“I think we’re done for today,” Momma says, taking my hand as she starts to stand up.
“But Mrs. Carter, we’re not finished.”
“I don’t care—”
“Mom,” I say, and she looks down at me. “It’s okay. I can do this.”
She gives them a glare similar to the one she gives me and my brothers when we’ve pushed her to her limit. She sits down but holds on to my hand.
“Okay,” Gomez says. “So he patted Khalil down and told him he would check his license and registration. What next?”
“Khalil opened the driver’s side door and—”
Tears crawl down my cheeks. I wipe them on my arm. “The officer shot him.”
“Do you—” Gomez starts, but Momma holds a finger toward her.
give her a second,” she says. It sounds more like an order than a question.
Gomez doesn’t say anything. Wilkes scribbles some more.
My mom wipes some of my tears for me. “Whenever you’re ready,” she says.
I swallow the lump in my throat and nod.
“Okay,” Gomez says, and takes a deep breath. “Do you know why Khalil came to the door, Starr?”
“I think he was coming to ask if I was okay.”
I’m not a telepath.
“Yes, ma’am. He started asking but didn’t finish because the officer shot him in the back.”
More salty tears fall on my lips.
Gomez leans across the table. “We all want to get to the bottom of this, Starr. We appreciate your cooperation. I understand this is hard right now.”
I wipe my face on my arm again. “Yeah.”
“Yeah.” She smiles and says in that same sugary, sympathetic tone, “Now, do you know if Khalil sold narcotics?”
What the fuck?
My tears stop. For real, my eyes get dry with the quickness. Before I can say anything, my mom goes, “What does that have to do with anything?”
“It’s only a question,” Gomez says. “Do you, Starr?”
All the sympathy, the smiles, the understanding. This chick was baiting me.
Investigating or justifying?
I know the answer to her question. I knew it when I saw Khalil at the party. He never wore new shoes. And jewelry? Those little ninety-nine-cent chains he bought at the beauty supply store didn’t count. Ms. Rosalie just confirmed it.
But what the hell does that have to do with him getting murdered? Is that supposed to make all of this okay?
Gomez tilts her head. “Starr? Can you please answer the question?”
I refuse to make them feel better about killing my friend.
I straighten up, look Gomez dead in her eyes, and say, “I never saw him sell drugs or do drugs.”
“But do you know if he sold them?” she asks.
“He never told me he did,” I say, which is true. Khalil never flat-out admitted it to me.
“Do you have knowledge of him selling them?”
“I heard things.” Also true.
She sighs. “I see. Do you know if he was involved with the King Lords?”
“The Garden Disciples?”
“Did you consume any alcohol at the party?” she asks.
I know that move from
Law & Order
. She’s trying to discredit me. “No. I don’t drink.”
“Whoa, wait one second,” Momma says. “Are y’all putting Khalil and Starr on trial or the cop who killed him?”
Wilkes looks up from his notes.
“I—I don’t quite understand, Mrs. Carter?” Gomez sputters.
“You haven’t asked my child about that cop yet,” Momma says. “You keep asking her about Khalil, like he’s the reason he’s dead. Like she said, he didn’t pull the trigger on himself.”
“We just want the whole picture, Mrs. Carter. That’s all.”
“One-Fifteen killed him,” I say. “And he wasn’t doing anything wrong. How much of a bigger picture do you need?”
Fifteen minutes later, I leave the police station with my mom. Both of us know the same thing:
This is gonna be some bullshit.