Authors: Angie Thomas
“Hey, Tammy girl,” Momma says, and they hug long and hard. “How you doing?”
“I’m hanging in there.” Ms. Tammy hugs Daddy, then me. “Just hate that this is the reason I had to come home.”
It’s so weird looking at Ms. Tammy. She looks the way Khalil’s momma, Ms. Brenda, would look if Ms. Brenda wasn’t on crack. A lot like Khalil. Same hazel eyes and dimples. One time Khalil said he wished Ms. Tammy was his momma instead so he could live in New York with her. I used to joke and tell him she didn’t have time for him. I wish I never said that.
“Where you want me to put this lasagna, Tam?” Daddy asks her.
“In the refrigerator, if you can find room,” she says, as he heads toward the kitchen. “Momma said folks brought food all day yesterday. They were still bringing it when I got here last night. Seems like the whole neighborhood has stopped by.”
“That’s the Garden for you,” Momma says. “If folks can’t do anything else, they’ll cook.”
“You ain’t ever lied.” Ms. Tammy motions to the sofa.
“Y’all, have a seat.”
Momma and I sit down, and Daddy comes back and joins us. Ms. Tammy takes the recliner that Ms. Rosalie usually sits in. She gives me a sad smile. “Starr, you know, you sure have grown since the last time I saw you. You and Khalil both grew up so—”
Her voice cracks. Momma reaches over and pats her knee. Ms. Tammy a takes a deep breath and smiles at me again. “It’s good to see you, baby.”
“We know Ms. Rosalie gon’ tell us she fine, Tam,” Daddy says, “but how she really doing?”
“We’re taking one day at a time. The chemo’s working, thankfully. I hope I can convince her to move in with me. That way I can make sure she’s getting her prescriptions.” She sighs through her nose. “I had no idea Momma was struggling like she was. I didn’t even know she’d lost her job. You know how she is. Never wanna ask for help.”
“What about Ms. Brenda?” I ask. I have to. Khalil would’ve.
“I don’t know, Starr. Bren . . . that’s complicated. We haven’t seen her since we got the news. Don’t know where she is. If we do find her though . . . I don’t know what we’ll do.”
“I can help you find a rehab facility near you,” Momma says. “She’s gotta wanna get clean though.”
Ms. Tammy nods. “And that’s the problem. But I think . . . I think this will either push her to finally get help or push her over the edge. I hope it’s the former.”
Cameron holds his grandma’s hand as he leads her into the living room like she’s the queen of the world in a housecoat. She looks thinner, but strong for somebody going through chemo and all of this. A scarf wrapped around her head adds to her majesty—an African queen, and we’re blessed to be in her presence.
The rest of us stand.
Momma hugs Cameron and kisses one of his chubby cheeks. Khalil called him Chipmunk because of them, but he’d check anybody stupid enough to call his little brother fat.
Daddy gives Cameron a palm-slap that ends in a hug. “What’s up, man? You okay?”
A big, wide smile spreads across Ms. Rosalie’s face. She holds her arms out, and I walk into the most heartfelt hug I’ve ever gotten from somebody who’s not related to me. There’s not any sympathy in it either. Just love and strength. I guess she knows I need some of both.
“My baby,” she says. She pulls back and looks at me, tears brimming in her eyes. “Went and grew up on me.”
She hugs my parents too. Ms. Tammy lets her have the recliner. Ms. Rosalie pats the end of the sofa closest to her, so I sit there. She holds my hand and rubs her thumb along the top of it.
“Mmm,” she says. “Mmm!”
It’s like my hand is telling her a story, and she’s responding. She listens to it for a while, then says, “I’m so glad you came
over. I’ve been wanting to talk to you.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I say what I’m supposed to.
“You were the very best friend that boy ever had.”
This time I can’t say what I’m supposed to. “Ms. Rosalie, we weren’t as close—”
“I don’t care, baby,” she says. “Khalil never had another friend like you. I know that for a fact.”
I swallow. “Yes, ma’am.”
“The police told me you were the one with him when it happened.”
So she knows. “Yes, ma’am.”
I’m standing on a track, watching the train barrel toward me, and I tense up and wait for the impact, the moment she asks what happened.
But the train shifts to another track. “Maverick, he wanted to talk to you. He wanted your help.”
Daddy straightens up. “For real?”
“Uh-huh. He was selling that stuff.”
Something leaves me. I mean, I kinda figured it, but to know it’s the truth . . .
But I swear I wanna cuss Khalil out. How he could sell the very stuff that took his momma from him? Did he realize that he was taking somebody else’s momma from them?
Did he realize that if he does become a hashtag, some people will only see him as a drug dealer?
He was so much more than that.
“But he wanted to stop,” Ms. Rosalie says. “He told me, ‘Grandma, I can’t stay in this. Mr. Maverick said it only leads to two things, the grave or prison, and I ain’t trying to see either.’ He respected you, Maverick. A lot. You were the father he never had.”
I can’t explain it, but something leaves Daddy too. His eyes dim, and he nods. Momma rubs his back.
“I tried to talk some sense into him,” Ms. Rosalie says, “but this neighborhood makes young men deaf to their elders. The money part didn’t help. He was going around here, paying bills, buying sneakers and mess. But I know he remembered the things you told him over the years, Maverick, and that gave me a lotta faith.
“I keep thinking if only he had another day or—” Ms. Rosalie covers her trembling lips. Ms. Tammy starts for her, but she says, “I’m okay, Tam.” She looks at me. “I’m happy he wasn’t alone, but I’m even happier you were with him. That’s all I need to know. Don’t need details, nothing else. Knowing you were with him is good enough.”
Like Daddy, all I can do is nod.
But as I hold Khalil’s grandma’s hand, I see the anguish in her eyes. His little brother can’t smile anymore. So what if people end up thinking he was a thug and never care? We care.
Khalil matters to us, not the stuff he did. Forget everybody else.
Momma leans across me and sets an envelope in Ms. Rosalie’s lap. “We want you to have that.”
Ms. Rosalie opens it, and I catch a glimpse of a whole lot of money inside. “What in the world? Y’all know I can’t take this.”
“Yes, you can,” Daddy says. “We ain’t forgot how you kept Starr and Sekani for us. We weren’t ’bout to let you be empty-handed.”
“And we know y’all are trying to pay for the funeral,” Momma says. “Hopefully that’ll help. Plus, we’re raising money around the neighborhood too. So don’t you worry about a thing.”
Ms. Rosalie wipes a new set of tears from her eyes. “I’m gonna pay y’all back every penny.”
“Did we say you had to pay us back?” Daddy asks. “You focus on getting better, a’ight? And if you give us any money, we giving it right back, God’s my witness.”
There are a lot more tears and hugs. Ms. Rosalie gives me a Freeze Cup for the road, red syrup glistening on the top. She always makes them extra sweet.
As we leave, I remember how Khalil used to run up to the car when I was about to go, the sun shining on the grease lines that separated his cornrows. The glimmer in his eyes would be just as bright. He’d knock on the window, I’d let it down, and he’d say with a snaggletooth grin, “See you later, alligator.”
Back then I’d giggle behind my own snaggleteeth. Now I tear up. Good-byes hurt the most when the other person’s already gone. I imagine him standing at my window, and I smile for his sake. “After a while, crocodile.”
On Monday, the day I’m supposed to talk to the detectives, I’m crying out of nowhere, hunched over my bed as the iron in my hand spits out steam. Momma takes it before I burn the Williamson crest on my polo.
She rubs my shoulder. “Let it out, Munch.”
We have a quiet breakfast at the kitchen table without Seven. He spent the night at his momma’s house. I pick at my waffles. Just thinking about going into that station with all those cops makes me wanna puke. Food would make it worse.
After breakfast, we join hands in the living room like we always do, under the framed poster of the Ten-Point Program, and Daddy leads us in prayer.
“Black Jesus, watch over my babies today,” he says. “Keep them safe, steer them from wrong, and help them recognize
snakes from friends. Give them the wisdom they need to be their own people.
“Help Seven with this situation at his momma’s house, and let him know he can always come home. Thank you for Sekani’s miraculous, sudden healing that just so happened to come after he found out they’re having pizza at school today.” I peek out at Sekani, whose eyes and mouth are open wide. I smirk and close my eyes. “Be with Lisa at the clinic as she helps your people. Help my baby girl get through her situation, Lord. Give her peace of mind, and help her speak her truth this afternoon. And lastly, strengthen Ms. Rosalie, Cameron, Tammy, and Brenda as they go through this difficult time. In your precious name I pray, amen.”
“Amen,” the rest of us say.
“Daddy, why you put me on the spot like that with Black Jesus?” Sekani complains.
“He knows the truth,” Daddy says. He wipes crust from the corners of Sekani’s eyes and straightens the collar of his polo. “I’m trying to help you out. Get you some mercy or something, man.”
Daddy pulls me into a hug. “You gon’ be a’ight?”
I nod into his chest. “Yeah.”
I could stay like this all day—it’s one of the few places where One-Fifteen doesn’t exist and where I can forget about talking to detectives—but Momma says we need to leave before rush hour.
Now don’t get it wrong, I can drive. I got my license a week after my sixteenth birthday. But I can’t get a car unless I pay for it myself. I told my parents I don’t have time for a job with school and basketball. They said I don’t have time for a car then either. Messed up.
It takes forty-five minutes to get to school on a good day, and an hour on a slow one. Sekani doesn’t have to wear his headphones ’cause Momma doesn’t cuss anybody out on the freeway. She hums with gospel songs on the radio and says, “Give me strength, Lord. Give me strength.”
We get off the freeway into Riverton Hills and pass all these gated neighborhoods. Uncle Carlos lives in one of them. To me, it’s so weird to have a gate around a neighborhood. Seriously, are they trying to keep people out or keep people in? If somebody puts a gate around Garden Heights, it’ll be a little bit of both.
Our school is gated too, and the campus has new, modern buildings with lots of windows and marigolds blooming along the walkways.
Momma gets in the carpool lane for the lower school. “Sekani, you remembered your iPad?”
“Gym shorts? And you better have gotten the clean ones too.”
“Yes, Momma. I’m almost nine. Can’t you give me a little credit?”
She smiles. “All right, big man. Think you can give me some sugar?”
Sekani leans over the front seat and kisses her cheek. “Love you.”
“Love you too. And don’t forget, Seven’s bringing you home today.”
He runs over to some of his friends and blends in with all the other kids in khakis and polos. We get in the carpool lane for my school.
“All right, Munch,” Momma says. “Seven’s gonna bring you to the clinic after school, then you and I will go to the station. Are you absolutely sure you’re up for it?”
No. But Uncle Carlos promised it’ll be okay. “I’ll do it.”
“Okay. Call me if you don’t think you can make it the whole day at school.”
Hold up. I could’ve stayed home? “Why are you making me come in the first place?”
“’Cause you need to get out the house. Out that neighborhood. I want you to at least try, Starr. This will sound mean, but just because Khalil’s not living doesn’t mean you stop living. You understand, baby?”
“Yeah.” I know she’s right, but it feels wrong.
We get to the front of the carpool line. “Now I don’t have to ask if you brought some funky-ass gym shorts, do I?” she says.
I laugh. “No. Bye, Momma.”
I get out the car. For at least seven hours I don’t have to talk about One-Fifteen. I don’t have to think about Khalil. I just have to be normal Starr at normal Williamson and have a normal day. That means flipping the switch in my brain so I’m Williamson Starr. Williamson Starr doesn’t use slang—if a rapper would say it, she doesn’t say it, even if her white friends do. Slang makes them cool. Slang makes her “hood.” Williamson Starr holds her tongue when people piss her off so nobody will think she’s the “angry black girl.” Williamson Starr is approachable. No stank-eyes, side-eyes, none of that. Williamson Starr is nonconfrontational. Basically, Williamson Starr doesn’t give anyone a reason to call her ghetto.
I can’t stand myself for doing it, but I do it anyway.
I sling my backpack over my shoulder. As usual it matches my J’s, the blue-and-black Elevens like Jordan wore in
. I worked at the store a month to buy them. I hate dressing like everybody else, but
The Fresh Prince
taught me something. See, Will always wore his school uniform jacket inside out so he could be different. I can’t wear my uniform inside out, but I can make sure my sneakers are always dope and my backpack always matches them.
I go inside and scan the atrium for Maya, Hailey, or Chris. I don’t see them, but I see that half the kids have tans from spring break. Luckily I was born with one. Someone covers my eyes.
“Maya, I know that’s you.”
She snickers and moves her hands. I’m not tall at all, but Maya has to stand on her tiptoes to cover my eyes. And the chick actually wants to play center on the varsity basketball team. She wears her hair in a high bun because she probably thinks it makes her look taller, but nope.
“What’s up, Ms. I Can’t Text Anyone Back?” she says, and we do our little handshake. It’s not complicated like Daddy and King’s, but it works for us. “I was starting to wonder if you were abducted by aliens.”
She holds up her phone. The screen has a brand-new crack stretching from corner to corner. Maya’s always dropping it. “You haven’t texted me in two days, Starr,” she says. “Not cool.”
“Oh.” I’ve barely looked at my phone since Khalil got . . . since the incident. “Sorry. I was working at the store. You know how crazy that can get. How was your spring break?”
“Okay, I guess.” She munches on some Sour Patch Kids. “We visited my great-grandparents in Taipei. I ended up taking a bunch of snapbacks and basketball shorts, so all week long I heard, ‘Why do you dress like a boy?’ ‘Why do you play a boy sport?’ Blah, blah, blah. And it was awful when they saw a picture of Ryan. They asked if he was a rapper!”
I laugh and steal some of her candy. Maya’s boyfriend, Ryan, happens to be the only other black kid in eleventh grade,
and everybody expects us to be together. Because apparently when it’s two of us, we have to be on some Noah’s Ark type shit and pair up to preserve the blackness of our grade. Lately I’m super aware of BS like that.
We head for the cafeteria. Our table near the vending machines is almost full. There’s Hailey, sitting on top of it, having a heated discussion with curly-haired, dimpled Luke. I think that’s foreplay for them. They’ve liked each other since sixth grade, and if your feelings can survive the awkwardness of middle school you should stop playing around and go out.
Some of the other girls from the team are there too: Jess the co-captain and Britt the center who makes Maya look like an ant. It’s kinda stereotypical that we all sit together, but it worked out that way. I mean, who else will listen to us bitch about swollen knees and understand inside jokes born on the bus after a game?
Chris’s boys from the basketball team are at the table next to ours, egging Hailey and Luke on. Chris isn’t there yet. Unfortunately and fortunately.
Luke sees me and Maya and reaches his arms toward us. “Thank you! Two sensible people who can end this discussion.”
I slide onto the bench beside Jess. She rests her head on my shoulder. “They’ve been at it for fifteen minutes.”
Poor girl. I pat her hair. I have a secret crush on Jess’s pixie cut. My neck’s not long enough for one, but her hair is perfect. Every strand is where it should be. If I were into girls, I
would totally date her for her hair, and she would date me for my shoulder.
“What’s it about this time?” I ask.
“Pop Tarts,” Britt says.
Hailey turns to us and points at Luke. “This jerk actually said they’re better warmed up in the microwave.”
I say, instead of my usual “Ill,” and Maya goes, “Are you serious?”
“I know, right?” says Hailey.
“Jesus Christ!” Luke says. “I only asked for a dollar to buy one from the machine!”
“You’re not wasting my money to destroy a perfectly good Pop Tart in a microwave.”
“They’re supposed to be heated up!” he argues.
“I actually agree with Luke,” Jess says. “Pop Tarts are ten times better heated up.”
I move my shoulder so her head isn’t resting on it. “We can’t be friends anymore.”
Her mouth drops open, and she pouts.
“Fine, fine,” I say, and she rests her head on my shoulder with a wide grin. Total weirdo. I don’t know how she’ll survive without my shoulder when she graduates in a few months.
“Anyone who heats up a Pop Tart should be charged,” Hailey says.
“And imprisoned,” I say.
“And forced to eat uncooked Pop Tarts until they accept
how good they are,” Maya adds.
“It is law,” Hailey finishes, smacking the table like that settles it.
“You guys have issues,” Luke says, hopping off the table. He picks at Hailey’s hair. “I think all that dye seeped into your brain.”
She swats at him as he leaves. She’s added blue streaks to her honey-blond hair and cut it shoulder-length. In fifth grade, she trimmed it with some scissors during a math test because she felt like it. That was the moment I knew she didn’t give a shit.
“I like the blue, Hails,” I say. “And the cut.”
“Yeah.” Maya grins. “It’s very Joe Jonas of you.”
Hailey whips her head around so fast, her eyes flashing. Maya and I snicker.
So there’s a video deep in the depths of YouTube of the three of us lip-syncing to the Jonas Brothers and pretending to play guitars and drums in Hailey’s bedroom. She decided she was Joe, I was Nick, and Maya was Kevin. I really wanted to be Joe—I secretly loved him the most, but Hailey said she should have him, so I let her.
I let her have her way a lot. Still do. That’s part of being Williamson Starr, I guess.
“I so have to find that video,” Jess says.
“Nooo,” Hailey goes, sliding off the tabletop. “It must never be found.” She sits across from us. “Never. Ne-ver. If I remembered that account’s password, I’d delete it.”
“Ooh, what was the account’s name?” Jess asks. “JoBro Lover or something? Wait, no, JoBro
. Everybody liked to misspell shit in middle school.”
I smirk and mumble, “Close.”
Hailey looks at me. “Starr!”
Maya and Britt crack up.
It’s moments like this that I feel normal at Williamson. Despite the guidelines I put on myself, I’ve still found my group, my table.
“Okay then,” Hailey says. “I see how it is, Maya Jonas and Nick’s Starry Girl 2000—”
“So, Hails,” I say before she can finish my old screen name. She grins. “How was your spring break?”
Hailey loses her grin and rolls her eyes. “Oh, it was wonderful. Dad and Stepmother Dearest dragged me and Remy to the house in the Bahamas for ‘family bonding.’”
And bam. That normal feeling? Gone. I suddenly remember how different I am from most of the kids here. Nobody would have to drag me or my brothers to the Bahamas—we’d swim there if we could. For us, a family vacation is staying at a local hotel with a swimming pool for a weekend.
“Sounds like my parents,” says Britt. “Took us to fucking Harry Potter World for the third year in a row. I’m sick of Butter Beer and corny family photos with wands.”
Holy shit. Who the fuck complains about going to Harry Potter World? Or Butter Beer? Or wands?
I hope none of them ask about my spring break. They went to Taipei, the Bahamas, Harry Potter World. I stayed in the hood and saw a cop kill my friend.
“I guess the Bahamas wasn’t so bad,” Hailey says. “They wanted us to do family stuff, but we ended up doing our own thing the entire time.”
“You mean you texted me the entire time,” Maya says.
“It was still my own thing.”
“All day, every day,” Maya adds. “Ignoring the time difference.”
“Whatever, Shorty. You know you liked talking to me.”
“Oh,” I say. “That’s cool.”
Really though, it’s not. Hailey never texted me during spring break. She barely texts me at all lately. Maybe once a week now, and it used to be every day. Something’s changed between us, and neither one of us acknowledges it. We’re normal when we’re at Williamson, like now. Beyond here though, we’re no longer best friends, just . . . I don’t know.
Plus she unfollowed my Tumblr.
She has no clue that I know. I once posted a picture of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old black boy who was murdered for whistling at a white woman in 1955. His mutilated body didn’t look human. Hailey texted me immediately after, freaking out. I thought it was because she couldn’t believe someone would do that to a kid. No. She couldn’t believe I would reblog such an awful picture.
Not long after that, she stopped liking and reblogging my other posts. I looked through my followers list. Aww, Hails was no longer following me. With me living forty-five minutes away, Tumblr is supposed to be sacred ground where our friendship is cemented. Unfollowing me is the same as saying “I don’t like you anymore.”