Authors: Angie Thomas
I gape at him. “Leave my husband alone!”
husband. ‘Baby, you my everything, you all I ever wanted,’” Khalil sings in a whiny voice. I push him with
my shoulder, and he laughs, his drink splashing over the sides of the cup. “You know that’s what he sounds like!”
I flip him off. He puckers his lips and makes a kissing sound. All these months apart, and we’ve fallen back into normal like it’s nothing.
Khalil grabs a napkin from the coffee table and wipes drink off his Jordans—the Three Retros. They came out a few years ago, but I swear those things are so fresh. They cost about three hundred dollars, and that’s if you find somebody on eBay who goes easy. Chris did. I got mine for a steal at one-fifty, but I wear kid sizes. Thanks to my small feet, Chris and I can match our sneakers. Yes, we’re
couple. Shit, we’re fly though. If he can stop doing stupid stuff, we’ll really be good.
“I like the kicks,” I tell Khalil.
“Thanks.” He scrubs the shoes with his napkin. I cringe. With each hard rub, the shoes cry for my help. No lie, every time a sneaker is cleaned improperly, a kitten dies.
“Khalil,” I say, one second away from snatching that napkin. “Either wipe gently back and forth or dab. Don’t scrub. For real.”
He looks up at me, smirking. “Okay, Ms. Sneakerhead.” And thank Black Jesus, he dabs. “Since you made me spill my drink on them, I oughta make you clean them.”
“It’ll cost you sixty dollars.”
“Sixty?” he shouts, straightening up.
“Hell, yeah. And it would be eighty if they had icy soles.”
Clear bottoms are a bitch to clean. “Cleaning kits aren’t cheap. Besides, you’re obviously making big money if you can buy those.”
Khalil sips his drink like I didn’t say anything, mutters, “Damn, this shit strong,” and sets the cup on the coffee table. “Ay, tell your pops I need to holla at him soon. Some stuff going down that I need to talk to him ’bout.”
“What kinda stuff?”
“Grown folks business.”
“Yeah, ’cause you’re so grown.”
“Five months, two weeks, and three days older than you.” He winks. “I ain’t forgot.”
A commotion stirs in the middle of the dance floor. Voices argue louder than the music. Cuss words fly left and right.
My first thought? Kenya walked up on Denasia like she promised. But the voices are deeper than theirs.
A shot rings out. I duck.
A second shot. The crowd stampedes toward the door, which leads to more cussing and fighting since it’s impossible for everybody to get out at once.
Khalil grabs my hand. “C’mon.”
There are way too many people and way too much curly hair for me to catch a glimpse of Kenya. “But Kenya—”
“Forget her, let’s go!”
He pulls me through the crowd, shoving people out our way and stepping on shoes. That alone could get us some bullets.
I look for Kenya among the panicked faces, but still no sign of her. I don’t try to see who got shot or who did it. You can’t snitch if you don’t know anything.
Cars speed away outside, and people run into the night in any direction where shots aren’t firing off. Khalil leads me to a Chevy Impala parked under a dim streetlight. He pushes me in through the driver’s side, and I climb into the passenger seat. We screech off, leaving chaos in the rearview mirror.
“Always some shit,” he mumbles. “Can’t have a party without somebody getting shot.”
He sounds like my parents. That’s exactly why they don’t let me “go nowhere,” as Kenya puts it. At least not around Garden Heights.
I send Kenya a text, hoping she’s all right. Doubt those bullets were meant for her, but bullets go where they wanna go.
Kenya texts back kinda quick.
I see that bitch tho. Bout to handle her ass.
Where u at?
Is this chick for real? We just ran for our lives, and she’s ready to fight? I don’t even answer that dumb shit.
Khalil’s Impala is nice. Not all flashy like some guys’ cars. I didn’t see any rims before I got in, and the front seat has cracks in the leather. But the interior is a tacky lime green, so it’s been customized at some point.
I pick at a crack in the seat. “Who you think got shot?”
Khalil gets his hairbrush out the compartment on the door.
“Probably a King Lord,” he says, brushing the sides of his fade. “Some Garden Disciples came in when I got there. Something was bound to pop off.”
I nod. Garden Heights has been a battlefield for the past two months over some stupid territory wars. I was born a “queen” ’cause Daddy used to be a King Lord. But when he left the game, my street royalty status ended. But even if I’d grown up in it, I wouldn’t understand fighting over streets nobody owns.
Khalil drops the brush in the door and cranks up his stereo, blasting an old rap song Daddy has played a million times. I frown. “Why you always listening to that old stuff?”
“Man, get outta here! Tupac was the truth.”
“Yeah, twenty years ago.”
“Nah, even now. Like, check this.” He points at me, which means he’s about to go into one of his Khalil philosophical moments. “’Pac said Thug Life stood for ‘The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody.’”
I raise my eyebrows. “What?”
“Listen! The Hate U—the letter U—Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody. T-H-U-G L-I-F-E. Meaning what society give us as youth, it bites them in the ass when we wild out. Get it?”
“See? Told you he was relevant.” He nods to the beat and raps along. But now I’m wondering what he’s doing to “fuck everybody.” As much as I think I know, I hope I’m wrong. I need to hear it from him.
“So why have you really been busy?” I ask. “A few months ago Daddy said you quit the store. I haven’t seen you since.”
He scoots closer to the steering wheel. “Where you want me to take you, your house or the store?”
“Your house or the store?”
“If you’re selling that stuff—”
“Mind your business, Starr! Don’t worry ’bout me. I’m doing what I gotta do.”
“Bullshit. You know my dad would help you out.”
He wipes his nose before his lie. “I don’t need help from nobody, okay? And that li’l minimum-wage job your pops gave me didn’t make nothing happen. I got tired of choosing between lights and food.”
“I thought your grandma was working.”
“She was. When she got sick, them clowns at the hospital claimed they’d work with her. Two months later, she wasn’t pulling her load on the job, ’cause when you’re going through chemo, you can’t pull big-ass garbage bins around. They fired her.” He shakes his head. “Funny, huh? The
fired her ’cause she was sick.”
It’s silent in the Impala except for Tupac asking
who do you believe in?
I don’t know.
My phone vibrates again, probably either Chris asking for forgiveness or Kenya asking for backup against Denasia. Instead, my big brother’s all-caps texts appear on the screen. I don’t know why he does that. He probably thinks it intimidates
me. Really, it annoys the hell out of me.
WHERE R U?
U AND KENYA BETTER NOT BE @ THAT PARTY.
I HEARD SOMEBODY GOT SHOT.
The only thing worse than protective parents is protective older brothers. Even Black Jesus can’t save me from Seven.
Khalil glances over at me. “Seven, huh?”
“How’d you know?”
“’Cause you always look like you wanna punch something when he talks to you. Remember that time at your birthday party when he kept telling you what to wish for?”
“And I popped him in his mouth.”
“Then Natasha got mad at you for telling her ‘boyfriend’ to shut up,” Khalil says, laughing.
I roll my eyes. “She got on my nerves with her crush on Seven. Half the time, I thought she came over just to see him.”
“Nah, it was because you had the Harry Potter movies. What we used to call ourselves? The Hood Trio. Tighter than—”
“The inside of Voldemort’s nose. We were so silly for that.”
“I know, right?” he says.
We laugh, but something’s missing from it.
missing from it. Natasha.
Khalil looks at the road. “Crazy it’s been six years, you know?”
sound startles us, and blue lights flash in the rearview mirror.
When I was twelve, my parents had two talks with me.
One was the usual birds and bees. Well, I didn’t really get the usual version. My mom, Lisa, is a registered nurse, and she told me what went where, and what didn’t need to go here, there, or any damn where till I’m grown. Back then, I doubted anything was going anywhere anyway. While all the other girls sprouted breasts between sixth and seventh grade, my chest was as flat as my back.
The other talk was about what to do if a cop stopped me.
Momma fussed and told Daddy I was too young for that. He argued that I wasn’t too young to get arrested or shot.
“Starr-Starr, you do whatever they tell you to do,” he said. “Keep your hands visible. Don’t make any sudden moves. Only speak when they speak to you.”
I knew it must’ve been serious. Daddy has the biggest mouth of anybody I know, and if he said to be quiet, I needed to be quiet.
I hope somebody had the talk with Khalil.
He cusses under his breath, turns Tupac down, and maneuvers the Impala to the side of the street. We’re on Carnation where most of the houses are abandoned and half the streetlights are busted. Nobody around but us and the cop.
Khalil turns the ignition off. “Wonder what this fool wants.”
The officer parks and puts his brights on. I blink to keep from being blinded.
I remember something else Daddy said.
If you’re with somebody, you better hope they don’t have nothing on them, or both of y’all going down.
“K, you don’t have anything in the car, do you?” I ask.
He watches the cop in his side mirror. “Nah.”
The officer approaches the driver’s door and taps the window. Khalil cranks the handle to roll it down. As if we aren’t blinded enough, the officer beams his flashlight in our faces.
“License, registration, and proof of insurance.”
Khalil breaks a rule—he doesn’t do what the cop wants. “What you pull us over for?”
“License, registration, and proof of insurance.”
“I said what you pull us over for?”
“Khalil,” I plead. “Do what he said.”
Khalil groans and takes his wallet out. The officer follows his movements with the flashlight.
My heart pounds loudly, but Daddy’s instructions echo in my head:
Get a good look at the cop’s face. If you can remember his badge number, that’s even better.
With the flashlight following Khalil’s hands, I make out the numbers on the badge—one-fifteen. He’s white, midthirties to early forties, has a brown buzz cut and a thin scar over his top lip.
Khalil hands the officer his papers and license.
One-Fifteen looks over them. “Where are you two coming from tonight?”
“Nunya,” Khalil says, meaning none of your business. “What you pull me over for?”
“Your taillight’s broken.”
“So are you gon’ give me a ticket or what?” Khalil asks.
“You know what? Get out the car, smart guy.”
“Man, just give me my ticket—”
“Get out the car! Hands up, where I can see them.”
Khalil gets out with his hands up. One-Fifteen yanks him by his arm and pins him against the back door.
I fight to find my voice. “He didn’t mean—”
“Hands on the dashboard!” the officer barks at me. “Don’t move!”
I do what he tells me, but my hands are shaking too much to be still.
He pats Khalil down. “Okay, smart mouth, let’s see what we find on you today.”
“You ain’t gon’ find nothing,” Khalil says.
One-Fifteen pats him down two more times. He turns up empty.
“Stay here,” he tells Khalil. “And you.” He looks in the window at me. “Don’t move.”
I can’t even nod.
The officer walks back to his patrol car.
My parents haven’t raised me to fear the police, just to be smart around them. They told me it’s not smart to move while a cop has his back to you.
Khalil does. He comes to his door.
It’s not smart to make a sudden move.
Khalil does. He opens the driver’s door.
“You okay, Starr—”
One. Khalil’s body jerks. Blood splatters from his back. He holds on to the door to keep himself upright.
Two. Khalil gasps.
Three. Khalil looks at me, stunned.
He falls to the ground.
I’m ten again, watching Natasha drop.
An earsplitting scream emerges from my gut, explodes in
my throat, and uses every inch of me to be heard.
Instinct says don’t move, but everything else says check on Khalil. I jump out the Impala and rush around to the other side. Khalil stares at the sky as if he hopes to see God. His mouth is open like he wants to scream. I scream loud enough for the both of us.
“No, no, no,” is all I can say, like I’m a year old and it’s the only word I know. I’m not sure how I end up on the ground next to him. My mom once said that if someone gets shot, try to stop the bleeding, but there’s so much blood. Too much blood.
“No, no, no.”
Khalil doesn’t move. He doesn’t utter a word. He doesn’t even look at me. His body stiffens, and he’s gone. I hope he sees God.
Someone else screams.
I blink through my tears. Officer One-Fifteen yells at me, pointing the same gun he killed my friend with.
I put my hands up.
They leave Khalil’s body in the street like it’s an exhibit. Police cars and ambulances flash all along Carnation Street. People stand off to the side, trying to see what happened.
“Damn, bruh,” some guy says. “They killed him!”
The police tell the crowd to leave. Nobody listens.
The paramedics can’t do shit for Khalil, so they put me in the back of an ambulance like I need help. The bright lights spotlight me, and people crane their necks to get a peek.
I don’t feel special. I feel sick.
The cops rummage through Khalil’s car. I try to tell them to stop.
Please, cover his body. Please, close his eyes. Please, close his mouth. Get away from his car. Don’t pick up his hairbrush.
But the words never come out.
One-Fifteen sits on the sidewalk with his face buried in his hands. Other officers pat his shoulder and tell him it’ll be okay.
They finally put a sheet over Khalil. He can’t breathe under it. I can’t breathe.
Brown eyes with long eyelashes appear in front of me. They’re like mine.
I couldn’t say much to the cops, but I did manage to give them my parents’ names and phone numbers.
“Hey,” Daddy says. “C’mon, let’s go.”
I open my mouth to respond. A sob comes out.
Daddy is moved aside, and Momma wraps her arms around me. She rubs my back and speaks in hushed tones that tell lies. “It’s all right, baby. It’s all right.”
We stay this way for a long time. Eventually, Daddy helps us out the ambulance. He wraps his arm around me like a shield against curious eyes and guides me to his Tahoe down the street.
He drives. A streetlight flashes across his face, revealing how tight his jaw is set. His veins bulge along his bald head.
Momma’s wearing her scrubs, the ones with the rubber
ducks on them. She did an extra shift at the emergency room tonight. She wipes her eyes a few times, probably thinking about Khalil or how that could’ve been me lying in the street.
My stomach twists. All of that blood, and it came out of him. Some of it is on my hands, on Seven’s hoodie, on my sneakers. An hour ago we were laughing and catching up. Now his blood . . .
Hot spit pools in my mouth. My stomach twists tighter. I gag.
Momma glances at me in the rearview mirror. “Maverick, pull over!”
I throw myself across the backseat and push the door open before the truck comes to a complete stop. It feels like everything in me is coming out, and all I can do is let it.
Momma hops out and runs around to me. She holds my hair out the way and rubs my back.
“I’m so sorry, baby,” she says.
When we get home, she helps me undress. Seven’s hoodie and my Jordans disappear into a black trash bag, and I never see them again.
I sit in a tub of steaming water and scrub my hands raw to get Khalil’s blood off. Daddy carries me to bed, and Momma brushes her fingers through my hair until I fall asleep.
Nightmares wake me over and over again. Momma reminds me to breathe, the same way she did before I outgrew asthma. I
think she stays in my room the whole night, ’cause every time I wake up, she’s sitting on my bed.
But this time, she’s gone. My eyes strain against the brightness of my neon-blue walls. The clock says it’s five in the morning. My body’s so used to waking up at five, it doesn’t care if it’s Saturday morning or not.
I stare at the glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling, trying to recap the night before. The party flashes in my mind, the fight, One-Fifteen pulling me and Khalil over. The first shot rings in my ears. The second. The third.
I’m lying in bed. Khalil is lying in the county morgue.
That’s where Natasha ended up too. It happened six years ago, but I still remember everything from that day. I was sweeping floors at our grocery store, saving up for my first pair of J’s, when Natasha ran in. She was chunky (her momma told her it was baby fat), dark-skinned, and wore her hair in braids that always looked freshly done. I wanted braids like hers so bad.
“Starr, the hydrant on Elm Street busted!” she said.
That was like saying we had a free water park. I remember looking at Daddy and pleading silently. He said I could go, as long as I promised to be back in an hour.
I don’t think I ever saw the water shoot as high as it did that day. Almost everybody in the neighborhood was there too. Just having fun. I was the only one who noticed the car at first.
A tattooed arm stretched out the back window, holding a Glock. People ran. Not me though. My feet became part of the
sidewalk. Natasha was splashing in the water, all happy and stuff. Then—
Pow! Pow! Pow!
I dove into a rosebush. By the time I got up, somebody was yelling, “Call nine-one-one!” At first I thought it was me, ’cause I had blood on my shirt. The thorns on the rosebush got me, that’s all. It was Natasha though. Her blood mixed in with the water, and all you could see was a red river flowing down the street.
She looked scared. We were ten, we didn’t know what happened after you died. Hell, I still don’t know, and she was forced to find out, even if she didn’t wanna find out.
I know she didn’t. Just like Khalil didn’t.
My door creaks open, and Momma peeks in. She tries to smile. “Look who’s up.”
She sinks onto her spot on the bed and touches my forehead, even though I don’t have a fever. She takes care of sick kids so much that it’s her first instinct. “How you feeling, Munch?”
That nickname. My parents claim I was always munching on something from the moment I got off the bottle. I’ve lost my big appetite, but I can’t lose that nickname. “Tired,” I say. My voice has extra bass in it. “I wanna stay in bed.”
“I know, baby, but I don’t want you here by yourself.”
That’s all I wanna be, by myself. She stares at me, but it feels like she’s looking at who I used to be, her little girl with ponytails and a snaggletooth who swore she was a Powerpuff Girl.
It’s weird but also kinda like a blanket I wanna get wrapped up in.
“I love you,” she says.
“I love you too.”
She stands and holds her hand out. “C’mon. Let’s get you something to eat.”
We walk slowly to the kitchen. Black Jesus hangs from the cross in a painting on the hallway wall, and Malcolm X holds a shotgun in a photograph next to him. Nana still complains about those pictures hanging next to each other.
We live in her old house. She gave it to my parents after my uncle, Carlos, moved her into his humongous house in the suburbs. Uncle Carlos was always uneasy about Nana living by herself in Garden Heights, especially since break-ins and robberies seem to happen more to older folks than anybody. Nana doesn’t think she’s old though. She refused to leave, talking about how it was her home and no thugs were gonna run her out, not even when somebody broke in and stole her television. About a month after that, Uncle Carlos claimed that he and Aunt Pam needed her help with their kids. Since, according to Nana, Aunt Pam “can’t cook worth a damn for those poor babies” she finally agreed to move. Our house hasn’t lost its Nana-ness though, with its permanent odor of potpourri, flowered wallpaper, and hints of pink in almost every room.
Daddy and Seven are talking before we get to the kitchen. They go silent as soon as we walk in.
“Morning, baby girl.” Daddy gets up from the table and kisses my forehead. “You sleep okay?”
“Yeah,” I lie as he guides me to a seat. Seven just stares.
Momma opens the fridge, the door crowded with takeout menus and fruit-shaped magnets. “All right, Munch,” she says, “you want turkey bacon or regular?”
“Regular.” I’m surprised I have an option. We never have pork. We aren’t Muslims. More like “Christlims.” Momma became a member of Christ Temple Church when she was in Nana’s belly. Daddy believes in Black Jesus but follows the Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Program more than the Ten Commandments. He agrees with the Nation of Islam on some stuff, but he can’t get over the fact that they may have killed Malcolm X.
“Pig in my house,” Daddy grumbles and sits next to me. Seven smirks across from him. Seven and Daddy look like one of those age-progression pictures they show when somebody’s been missing a long time. Throw my little brother, Sekani, in there and you have the same person at eight, seventeen, and thirty-six. They’re dark brown, slender, and have thick eyebrows and long eyelashes that almost look feminine. Seven’s dreads are long enough to give both bald-headed Daddy and short-haired Sekani each a head full of hair.
As for me, it’s as if God mixed my parents’ skin tones in a paint bucket to get my medium-brown complexion. I did inherit Daddy’s eyelashes—and I’m cursed with his eyebrows
too. Otherwise I’m mostly my mom, with big brown eyes and a little too much forehead.
Momma passes behind Seven with the bacon and squeezes his shoulder. “Thank you for staying with your brother last night so we could—” Her voice catches, but the reminder of what happened hangs in the air. She clears her throat. “We appreciate it.”
“No problem. I needed to get out the house.”
“King spent the night?” Daddy asks.
“More like moved in. Iesha talking about they can be a family—”
“Ay,” Daddy says. “That’s your momma, boy. Don’t be calling her by her name like you grown.”
“Somebody in that house needs to be grown,” Momma says. She takes a skillet out and hollers toward the hall, “Sekani, I’m not telling you again. If you wanna go to Carlos’s for the weekend, you better get up! You’re not gonna have me late for work.” I guess she’s gotta work a day shift to make up for last night.
“Pops, you know what’s gonna happen,” Seven says. “He’ll beat her, she’ll put him out. Then he’ll come back, saying he changed. Only difference is this time, I’m not letting him put his hands on me.”
“You can always move in with us,” says Daddy.
“I know, but I can’t leave Kenya and Lyric. That fool’s crazy enough to hit them too. He don’t care that they’re his daughters.”
“A’ight,” Daddy says. “Don’t say anything to him. If he puts his hands on you, let me handle that.”
Seven nods then looks at me. He opens his mouth and keeps it open a while before saying, “I’m sorry about last night, Starr.”
Somebody finally acknowledges the cloud hanging over the kitchen, which for some reason is like acknowledging me.
“Thanks,” I say, even though it’s weird saying that. I don’t deserve the sympathy. Khalil’s family does.
There’s just the sound of bacon crackling and popping in the skillet. It’s like a “Fragile” sticker’s on my forehead, and instead of taking a chance and saying something that might break me, they’d rather say nothing at all.
But the silence is the worst.
“I borrowed your hoodie, Seven,” I mumble. It’s random, but it’s better than nothing. “The blue one. Momma had to throw it away. Khalil’s blood . . .” I swallow. “His blood got on it.”
“Oh . . .”
That’s all anybody says for a minute.
Momma turns around to the skillet. “Don’t make any sense. That baby—” she says thickly. “He was just a baby.”
Daddy shakes his head. “That boy never hurt anybody. He didn’t deserve that shit.”
“Why did they shoot him?” Seven asks. “Was he a threat or something?”
“No,” I say quietly.
I stare at the table. I can feel all of them watching me again.
“He didn’t do anything,” I say. “
didn’t do anything. Khalil didn’t even have a gun.”
Daddy releases a slow breath. “Folks around here gon’ lose their minds when they find that out.”
“People from the neighborhood are already talking about it on Twitter,” Seven says. “I saw it last night.”
“Did they mention your sister?” Momma asks.
“No. Just RIP Khalil messages, fuck the police, stuff like that. I don’t think they know details.”
“What’s gonna happen to me when the details do come out?” I ask.
“What do you mean, baby?” my mom asks.
“Besides the cop, I’m the only person who was there. And you’ve seen stuff like this. It ends up on national news. People get death threats, cops target them, all kinds of stuff.”
“I won’t let anything happen to you,” Daddy says. “None of us will.” He looks at Momma and Seven. “We’re not telling anybody that Starr was there.”
“Should Sekani know?” Seven asks.
“No,” Momma says. “It’s best if he didn’t. We’re just gonna be quiet for now.”
I’ve seen it happen over and over again: a black person gets killed just for being black, and all hell breaks loose. I’ve tweeted RIP hashtags, reblogged pictures on Tumblr, and signed every petition out there. I always said that if I saw it
happen to somebody, I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down.
Now I am that person, and I’m too afraid to speak.
I wanna stay home and watch
Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
, my favorite show ever, hands down. I think I know every episode word for word. Yeah it’s hilarious, but it’s also like seeing parts of my life on screen. I even relate to the theme song. A couple of gang members who were up to no good made trouble in my neighborhood and killed Natasha. My parents got scared, and although they didn’t send me to my aunt and uncle in a rich neighborhood, they sent me to a bougie private school.
I just wish I could be myself at Williamson like Will was himself in Bel-Air.
I kinda wanna stay home so I can return Chris’s calls too. After last night, it feels stupid to be mad at him. Or I could call Hailey and Maya, those girls Kenya claims don’t count as my friends. I guess I can see why she says that. I never invite them over. Why would I? They live in mini-mansions. My house is just mini.
I made the mistake of inviting them to a sleepover in seventh grade. Momma was gonna let us do our nails, stay up all night, and eat as much pizza as we wanted. It was gonna be as awesome as those weekends we had at Hailey’s. The ones we still have sometimes. I invited Kenya too, so I could finally hang out with all three of them at once.
Hailey didn’t come. Her dad didn’t want her spending the night in “the ghetto.” I overheard my parents say that. Maya came but ended up asking her parents to come get her that night. There was a drive-by around the corner, and the gunshots scared her.