Read The Color War Online

Authors: Jodi Picoult

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The Color War

BOOK: The Color War
The Color War
By Jodi Picoult


Copyright © 2013 by Jodi Picoult

All rights reserved

Cover: © Getty Images

ISBN: 978-1-61452-090-0

Byliner Inc.

San Francisco, California

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Table of Contents

The Color War

About the Author

About Byliner

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It wasn’t that Raymond Willis had anything against the Lord, but he knew as sure as he knew that he was nine years old that he wasn’t a child of God.
Made in His image
—that’s what they said at Sunday school, but it was a lie. Jesus was the Son of God, and Mary was his mother, and neither one of them had Raymond’s skin; or his eyes, which burned like coal.

“It ain’t necessarily that way, Raymond,” his grandmother had said when he told her this truth. “You been looking at the wrong pictures.” She got up off her chair and put aside the quilt she’d been patching forever because she got distracted by her game shows. She walked into the kitchen and crossed the linoleum floor, even the part that scared Raymond because it rose like a bubble of gas or maybe a ghost was trapped beneath it, and dug through a drawer. Finally she found what she was looking for. “See, child?” she said, holding out a framed illustration that looked as if it had been ripped from a book. In it, a man was being crucified—a black man with an Afro—and up above, floating in the vicinity of the sun, was the fading face of another figure, His brown skin standing out in relief from His snowy beard.

“That ain’t Jesus,” Raymond said. “Jesus got hair down to his shoulders.”

His grandmother had laughed. “When you ever seen a man like us that got hair down to his shoulders?”

Raymond had known better than to argue with his grandma, who was as old as the earth and who got to church an hour before the service, as if Pastor Dumont was going to be giving out the new iPhone instead of just another boring homily. So he kept going to Sunday school and church, knowing he understood something that everyone else seemed to have overlooked, waiting for his own personal opportunity to meet God and say, square in His eye, “I told you so.”

The only person he told about his hunch was Monroe. He and Monroe had grown up together in Dorchester, playing in the streets when the summer made the asphalt breathe and their laughter bounced like a tennis ball off the high brick walls of the apartment buildings. Monroe had been one for adventure, and Raymond always had his back. They’d spied on Monroe’s older brother, crawling through the HVAC system and eavesdropping through the heating vent. They’d hopped the turnstiles to get onto the T and had ridden it all the way to Wonderland, which did not live up to its name. They had gone gallon smashing at the grocery store.

But that was in April, when Monroe was still here. It was almost July now, and with school out, there was nothing for Raymond to do except wonder about the color of Jesus’ skin and watch his grandmother snore through
Wheel of Fortune.
What he needed was a new best friend; what he wanted was his old one.

“Raymond, baby?” At the sound of his mother’s voice, Raymond ran into the hallway. Most of the apartment was painted bright yellow, as if that could make up for the water stains on the ceiling and the rust ringing the pipes. Raymond’s mother had been born in this apartment, and as she said, she’d probably die there. She swept Raymond into her arms. Even though she was wearing her green cafeteria uniform, even though she smelled like the bubbling oil from the fryer, Raymond thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. She worked six days a week at the hospital, since her income was the only one in the household. If Raymond had a father, he’d never been mentioned, and—truth be told—he liked not having to share his mother with someone else.

“What did you do all day?” his mother asked, her smile as fragile as the crumbling edge of a cliff.

Raymond was afraid to tell her. Not because of what he’d done, but because of what he
He knew it made her sad, hearing that he didn’t go out to play basketball with the other kids—but how could he, when every time he dribbled the ball he remembered how he and Monroe once managed to sneak in a beautiful pass and a layup against the two biggest kids in the third grade? Still, he didn’t want to tell his mother that he spent most of the day in front of the window fan, repeating Pat Sajak’s words, because he liked the way his voice sounded as if it belonged to someone else.

Her smile flickered just the smallest bit, the way the TV did when too many people in the building were using their fans and air-conditioning units. But just as quickly, she turned to Raymond again. “I’ve got some news, little man,” she said, taking his hand and leading him to the living room, where his grandma was still watching television. She leaned down to kiss his grandmother on the cheek and toss her a pack of chewing tobacco—her only vice. Then she settled Raymond on the couch. “You,” she announced, “are going to summer camp.”

At this, Raymond went still. “Summer camp,” he repeated. The words felt like stones on his tongue. He didn’t know anyone who went to summer camp, not from his neighborhood or his school.

“Bible camp,” his mother said. “It’s like Sunday school, only better.” She didn’t tell him it was a Christian charities camp, run by a collection of MetroWest pastors and staffed by rich white kids looking to pad their college applications. She did not tell him how, those three weeks he was gone, she’d be staring out her window at night with her hands pressed to her mouth, willing her son to be thinking about her.

She cupped her hand around Raymond’s cheek. “You’ll get on a big bus,” his mother said. “And you’ll go out to the mountains with a bunch of other kids from the city. You’ll get to ride horses, Raymond. And play basketball, and swim.”

Horses scared Raymond, with their long yellow teeth; and he could play basketball right down the street in the empty lot, as long as the older kids weren’t meeting up there to do their business. “Swim where?” he asked.

“I don’t know, honey,” his mother said. “Some lake, I guess.”

Raymond thought about last summer, when he and Monroe had run through the streets and splashed in the spray of the fire hydrants the town had set gushing. Once, after begging his mother for weeks, he had gone to the metropolitan free pool, but it smelled like piss and he didn’t ask to be taken back.

“I like it here fine,” Raymond said.

His grandmother snorted. “That’s just why you ought to leave.”

“You’ll make so many new friends,” his mother pleaded.

Raymond looked around at the faded blue walls of the kitchen, at the wrinkles on the backs of his grandmother’s hands, at the way his mother’s eyes were asking a question, even though her words had just been a plain old sentence.

He thought of Black Jesus, reaching out his hand to Black God, almost touching. He thought of how, at one bodega, he had tossed two gallons of milk in the air like Monroe had taught him and pretended to take a whopping fall, smacking onto the floor. The store manager had rushed over to make sure he wasn’t hurt, and then had given him a candy bar to keep him from crying. He remembered that as he walked into the splintered sunshine, Monroe had been waiting, having seen the whole prank. “Eight-point-five,” Monroe had said. “You get points for the tears, but your technique needs work.” He remembered breaking the Snickers bar in two; giving Monroe the bigger half.

“All right,” Raymond said to his mother. “I’ll go.”

* * *

Camp Konoke was really a Christian retreat in the heart of the Berkshires, where—as one of the overseeing pastors said—God liked to come for His vacations. It might have been true—the velvet slopes of the mountains were dotted with wildflowers, and tucked into the valley was a lake as blue as a jewel. For three weeks each summer, kids from the inner city in Boston were given the blessings of fresh air and sunshine. With the exceptions of morning prayers and evening vespers, there was little to distinguish Camp Konoke from any other New England camp, except for the nearly uniform contrast of white counselors to the campers-of-color.

They weren’t all African American like Raymond. There were Latino kids and Hmong and Chinese, too. Raymond’s mother had dropped him off early at the Port Authority, with a package of oatmeal cookies and a picture of the two of them taken at Christmas to put next to his bunk. “Don’t you get poison ivy,” she warned, and she started to cry, although she was the one who had organized for Raymond to go in the first place. Raymond wanted to tell her he would be all right, but he couldn’t, because of the sadness swelling in his throat.

No one chose to sit with Raymond on the bus. Behind him were two Latino girls, twins, who were chewing their way through a Slim Pack of Juicy Fruit. When a piece of gum had lost its flavor, the twin would pull the wad from her mouth and toss it over Raymond’s head to land in the trash can next to the bus driver. Someone in the back of the bus was wearing Beats, his music turned up so loud that the hammer of rap music throbbed over the roll of the bus wheels.

The man sitting in the seat across from Raymond leaned over to ask his name, which made Raymond angry, because
remembered the man’s name—Reverend Helm—and it had only been ten minutes since they’d all had to go around the bus and say who they were and which church they went to. “Well, Raymond,” the pastor said, “I bet you’ve been looking forward to this for a long time.”

“No,” Raymond replied. “I only just found out I was going.”

The reverend was a thin man, completely bald, with a peeling sunburn on the bridge of his nose. “How lucky you are, then,” he said, not missing a beat.

“Luck is for sinners, not saints,” Raymond said, something he’d heard fall from his grandmother’s lips countless times. He thought of her smooth pink palms, running over the edges of her quilt as if she could measure just by touch. He thought of how, when he was out on the street, he would hear his grandma’s voice, swooping and diving like a kite, and he knew she was in the bathroom with the tiny window open, scrubbing the cracked porcelain sink and singing her psalms. Suddenly Raymond was seized by a cramp that snaked around his belly and crept north, taking root in his heart. He looked outside to see fields of wild daisies lining the highway, big open spaces crammed with nothing, and he knew without being told that this was the ache of leaving home.

Raymond slept for most of the ride. He dreamed about the best day of his life, which was really a night—last New Year’s Eve, when he and Monroe had sneaked onto the T and into the world that wasn’t theirs. You’d think, given that they were only a few miles from the Prudential Tower, that Boston was familiar, but to Raymond it was as faraway and exotic as Tibet. There were times when the gangs were out in Dorchester that he wouldn’t even walk a hundred feet down the block to visit Monroe, much less venture all the way to Copley Place. The people who lived and worked downtown worried aloud about things like the cost of parking and who was going to be elected mayor. Kids like Raymond knew that you only had time to worry if you weren’t busy actively trying to stay alive.

The night had been Raymond’s grand plan. He would tell his mom that he was sleeping at Monroe’s, and Monroe would tell his mother he was at Raymond’s. Instead, he and Monroe sneaked onto the Red Line and stared at the drunk prep-school kids, puffed up like rain clouds in their parkas, weaving back and forth as they passed bottles of Jägermeister. He poked Monroe when a bearded man wearing a dress and high heels sat down across from them. Finally, he pulled Monroe off the train into the glittering hum of the Park Street station, up the escalator that belched them into the slush of the Boston Common.

Surrounding Monroe and Raymond was a sea of people—more white folks in one place than Raymond had ever seen in his lifetime. A tangle of lights, red and emerald, were woven through naked branches. Off to the left was the huge Christmas tree that Raymond had seen lit on the news, and somewhere in the distance was a weird buzzing that made him think of being in the dentist’s chair. “We should go,” Monroe said, jerking his chin at the knot of cops that was standing a few feet away. Monroe had police radar; he always knew when they were coming and in fact sometimes acted as lookout for his sixteen-year-old brother when an Oxy deal was going down or when they were in T.J.Maxx and the cops followed them, as if it was only a matter of time before they did something bad.

Suddenly Raymond thought of his teacher from last year, Miss Jenkins, who brought in a real live chameleon as the class pet. She showed them how, when it wanted to pretend to be part of the forest, it turned green as the leaf it was sitting on. When it wanted to blend in with the desk, it turned brown. “I have a plan,” Raymond had said, and he drew Monroe into the throng of grown-ups, moving to their rhythm and laughing as if he understood their jokes.

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