A special thanks to my princess and princes: T, CII, K, and J. Without your love, patience, guidance, and encouragement, my works wouldn't be or make it to completion. I love you all! Muaahâ> (me kissing you, individually and collectively).
JH, thanks for cheering me on, being in my corner, and never letting me down. CLP loves you completely and endlesslyâliterally, figuratively, and every other good word that ends with a
For my family and friends who so willingly overlook and forgive my missing-in-action while I'm writing, I thank you.
A huge kudos and many hugs to my dream team young adult consultants in New York, Atlanta, and Philadelphia: Rukiya “Kiki” Murray, Alakea Woods, Josh “UnconQUErable” Woods, Chris Ferreras, and Eligio “E.” (Zap) Bailey. You are all priceless!
Thanks to my fellow writers who offer wonderful teen readers an escape and entertainment. I am proud to be a part of the movement.
Selena James, you are a consummate professional, and I can't thank you enough. Your dedication and sharp eye are incredible and impeccable. Every writer should be so fortunate!
For my readers, I truly and humbly thank you with all of my heart. You're incredible, appreciated, and top of tops. Let's rock the world together!
“I don't sing, I sang. ”
exus and Mercedes, get off my feet before you get murked!” I warned my two sisters, shaking my legs one at a time, trying to break loose from their three- and four-year-old grips. It was too early for a foot ride, and I needed to get out the door and make tracks to get to school.
“Please, La-La,” they sang in unison. “Foot ride. Foot ride. Foot ride!” they chanted.
“I. Said. Get. Off.” I shuffled my feet one at a time, enunciating each word while alternately swinging my legs back and forth. Reaching down, I pressed my hand against Mercedes's forehead and pushed it with all my might.
“Boom-Kesha,” she yelled out to our mother. “La-La murked me!”
Her snitching really set my fire, so I swished my legs one at a time as if I were punting a football. Lexus was my first successful attempt. With a harder kick and powerful shake and swoop, I managed to break her grasp, then watched in semi-terror as she slid across the linoleum and connected with the painted concrete wall. The top of her head met the dent-proof wall first, colliding with a thump that I was sure would make her cry.
“Wee!” she shouted, surprising me, then jumped up and came back for another turn.
“Me too. Me too,” Mercedes pleaded. “Slide me, too.”
I pointed at Lexus like that Celie chick from that old
movie when she gave that ancient Mister dude that Hoodoo sign. Lexus froze in her tracks. Four out of six of my siblings were terrified of that hand gesture because they believed everything they saw on TV, and they were sure it was magic of some sorts. Well, I'd made them believe I had that power because it worked to my benefit whenever they rode my nerves. “âWhatever you done to me,' ” I threatened, parroting Celie's line from the movie, making my voice deep and stretching my eyes wide.
Lexus ran out screaming like she was on fire; then Mercedes started to cry, releasing her slob and nose mucus dams.
Her nose and the sides of her mouth were running with clear and yellow gook. “Now you better get up. I don't want your cooties on my clothes.”
She unwound herself from my leg, got off my foot, and whooshed away like a fire truck, screaming down the hall like a siren. “Cooties-cooties-cooties!”
“Henrietta!” my mother's voice carried into the room. “Henrietta?”
Lexus came back to the door, peeking her head in. Then Alize, Remi, and Queen showed up, followed by King, crawling his way through their legs. I shook my head. My siblings were beautiful and smart, though many would never know it because my mother had cursed them. She had named them after liquor and luxury cars, or given them aristocratic titles like we hailed from a monarchy instead of a New York housing project. But, the truth of the matter was, she'd done what so many others do: named her children after things she'd wanted but would never have.
“Henrietta! Heifer, I know you hear me,” Boom-Kesha'sâI mean Momma'sâraspy Newport voice floated into the room.
“You better answer her, La-La,” Remi warned. She was thirteen and ten months younger than me, but so much older than anyone else in the apartment. She'd been sick for months, diagnosed with cancer, and it was hellish, making her grow up faster than she should've. I would've done anything to take it away from her. Remi tightened up the headscarf she wore to hide her hair, which had begun to fall out in big clean patches. “Her panties have been in a twist ever since she woke up, something about the city cutting her benefits. Like we was gonna be able to get welfare forever.” She crossed her arms and sucked her teeth.
“You okay?” I asked, ignoring my mother calling me. I didn't like the coloring of Remi's skin. It was starting to gray like my grandfather's before he died.
Remi nodded. “I'm good. I just wish I had hair like yours. It seems too strong to fall out.”
“Henrietta!” Boom-Kesha boomed again.
I touched my head, wishing I could give it to Remi. “Well, I wish I had your teeth. They're so pretty and whiteâso straight.”
“Henrietta? Don't shu 'ear you mami talking to ju?” Paco, my mother's bootleg, pretending-to-be-Spanish boyfriend, poked his head into the bedroom and asked in his borrowed Spanglish. The man was crazy. Just because his skin was light and sun-kissed, his hair was straight black and silky, and people mistook him for Dominican, he'd reinvented himself as one. He even walked around with a Dominican flag wrapped around his head at the Puerto Rican Day parade, complaining that New York didn't give the Dominicans a holiday. But, I guessâfor himâit was cool. If he could pretend to be a real full-grown man and get away with it, he could lie about being anything else.
I looked at Paco, pointing to my ears.
I asked him
in Spanish, pretending to buy into his fabricated heritage.
“Oh. Ju ears stopped up this morning? Up giving singing lessons all night to get free tutoring, chica? No problemo. I splain to ju mami for ju.”
I pasted a fake smile on my face and smirked a thank-you. Everybody in the house had bought my lie. I had them all thinking that I was receiving tutoring so I could keep up in the fancy performing-arts school I'd been offered a full scholarship to after the director heard me singing on the train. The Harlem Academy of Creative and Performing Arts, aka CAPA. It was a school that was supposed to make me and my mother Boom-Kesha's dreams come true; it was going to help make me a star and help her milk some money from some bourgeois art society that dished out funds to kids like meâteenagers who showed talent and promise, and didn't mind extra training to get into highfalutin Julliard, the other It school for college students that had recently showed interest in my voice. My mother was undoubtedly going to smoke and drink up the “extra” money, or use it on whatever her real addiction was. All I wanted was to get my teeth fixed, which was the reason I'd told them the tutoring lie. Really, I'd been hanging out in the adult singing spots in Greenwich Village, scouting singers I could one day sing backup for and, hopefully, stack my money for an orthodontist. “Good lookin', Paco,” I said, grabbing my book bag and heading to the door.
“Henrietta!” my mom's voice stopped me before I could put my hand on the knob.
“La-La, La-La, La-La!” I sang to her. I don't know why I had to remind her of the name she crowned me with. She was the one who said I sang like a songbird and dubbed me La-La, as if I could've afforded one more reason for the kids to tease me. It was bad enough my teeth were raggedy, and I was so skinny the thick girls started calling me Annaâshort for anorexic. I'd been jonesed about my lack of weight forever, but not my grill because I kept my mouth closed as much as possible.
“Make sure you bring a weapon with you, and don't take the elevator because the gangs have it sowed up. I don't want you to be a victimâyou're my star.”
No, I'm your paycheck. Your ticket out of the projects.
“Me, Paco, Alize, Remi, Lexus, Mercedes, Queen, and King will be waiting outside when you get home. 'Cause if that wench, Nakeeda, from last year wants it, we'll give it to her. I ain't above dusting a kid, and her raggedy mother too.”
“Word, La-La,” Remi added from behind my mother. “I may be sick, but I can get it in. I won't even have to put my hair in a ponytail 'cause ain't enough left to pull out,” she teased, but I felt her pain.
I love you
to Remi, then feigned a smile and looked at my mother. Her intentions were good, but that's all they'd ever beâintentions. She really didn't have a desire to better herself or her family. We were living the project stereotype. I felt sorry for her and us, her children. It was sad that everyone, including my family, had started calling her Boom-Kesha, because every time someone looked upâBoom! Kesha was pregnant by a different man, then gave the child a ghetto first name and a different daddy's surname (except for meâI was named after my grandmother). What was worse was that my mother preferred to be called Boom-Kesha.
“I'm good. Cyd will be with me.”
Cyd was my girl, my sister from a different mother. We were beyond best friends, and we rocked outâboys, parties, dreams, it didn't matter. And together, we were going to rock Harlem Academy, show 'em what we were made of, just like I planned to show Ziggy, the cute dude I'd met in the admissions office.