Authors: Angie Thomas
I’ve never told anyone, but Khalil was my first crush. He unknowingly introduced me to stomach butterflies and later heartbreak when he got his own crush on Imani Anderson, a high schooler who wasn’t even thinking about fourth-grade him. I worried about my appearance for the first time around him.
But fuck the crush, he was one of the best friends I ever had, no matter if we saw each other every day or once a year. Time didn’t compare to all the shit we went through together. And now he’s in a casket, like Natasha.
Big fat tears fall from my eyes, and I sob. A loud, nasty, ugly sob that everybody hears and sees as I come up the aisle.
“They left me,” I cry.
Momma wraps her arm around me and presses my head onto her shoulder. “I know, baby, but we’re here. We aren’t going anywhere.”
Warmth brushes my face, and I know we’re outside. All of the voices and noises make me look. There are more people out here than in the church, holding posters with Khalil’s face on them and signs that say “Justice for Khalil.” His classmates have posters saying “Am I Next?” and “Enough Is Enough!” News vans with tall antennas are parked across the street.
I bury my face in Momma’s shoulder again. People—I don’t know who—pat my back and tell me it’ll be okay.
I can tell when it’s Daddy who’s rubbing my back without him even saying anything. “We gon’ stay and march, baby,” he tells Momma. “I want Seven and Sekani to be a part of this.”
“Yeah, I’m taking her home. How are y’all getting back?”
“We can walk to the store. I gotta open up anyway.” He kisses my hair. “I love you, baby girl. Get some rest, a’ight?”
Heels clack toward us, then someone says, “Hi, Mr. and Mrs. Carter, I’m April Ofrah with Just Us for Justice.”
Momma tenses up and pulls me closer. “How may we help you?”
She lowers her voice and says, “Khalil’s grandmother told me that Starr is the one who was with Khalil when this happened. I know she gave a statement to the police, and I want to commend her on her bravery. This is a difficult situation, and that must’ve taken a lot of strength.”
“Yeah, it did,” Daddy says.
I move my head off Momma’s shoulder. Ms. Ofrah shifts her weight from foot to foot and fumbles with her fingers. My parents aren’t helping with the hard looks they’re giving her.
“We all want the same thing,” she says. “Justice for Khalil.”
“Excuse me, Ms. Ofrah,” Momma says, “but as much as I want that, I want my daughter to have some peace. And privacy.”
Momma looks at the news vans across the street. Ms. Ofrah glances back at them.
“Oh!” she says. “Oh no. No, no, no. We weren’t—I wasn’t—I don’t want to put Starr out there like that. Quite the opposite, actually. I want to protect her privacy.”
Momma loosens her hold. “I see.”
“Starr offers a unique perspective in this, one you don’t get a lot with these cases, and I want to make sure her rights are protected and that her voice is heard, but without her being—”
“Exploited?” Daddy asks. “Pimped?”
“Exactly. The case is about to gain national media attention,
but I don’t want it to be at her expense.” She hands each of us a business card. “Besides being an advocate, I’m also an attorney. Just Us for Justice isn’t providing the Harris family with legal representation—someone else is doing that. We’re simply rallying behind them. However, I’m available and willing to represent Starr on my own. Whenever you’re ready, please give me a call. And I am so sorry for your loss.”
She disappears into the crowd.
Call her when I’m ready, huh? I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready for the shit that’s about to happen.
My brothers come home with a message—Daddy’s spending the night at the store.
He also leaves instructions for us—stay inside.
A chain-link fence surrounds our house. Seven puts the big lock on the gate, the one we use when we go out of town. I bring Brickz inside. He doesn’t know how to act, walking around in circles and jumping on the furniture. Momma doesn’t say anything until he gets on her good sofa in the living room.
“Ay!” She snaps her fingers at him. “Get your big behind off my furniture. You crazy?”
He whimpers and scurries over to me.
The sun sets. We’re in the middle of saying grace over pot roast and potatoes when the first gunshots ring out.
We open our eyes. Sekani flinches. I’m used to gunshots,
but these are louder, faster. One barely sounds off before another’s right behind it.
“Machine guns,” says Seven. More shots follow.
“Take your dinner to the den,” Momma says, getting up from the table. “And sit on the floor. Bullets don’t know where they’re supposed to go.”
Seven gets up too. “Ma, I can—”
“Seven, den,” she says.
“Se-ven.” She breaks his name down. “I’m turning the lights off, baby, okay? Please, go to the den.”
He gives in. “All right.” When Daddy isn’t home, Seven acts like he’s the man of the house by default. Momma always has to break his name down and put him in his place.
I grab my plate and Momma’s and head for the den, the one room without exterior walls. Brickz is right behind me, but he always follows food. The hallway darkens as Momma turns off the lights throughout the house.
We have one of those old-school big-screen TVs in the den. It’s Daddy’s prized possession. We crowd around it, and Seven turns on the news, lighting up the den.
There are at least a hundred people gathered on Magnolia Avenue. They chant for justice and hold signs, fists high in the air for black power.
Momma comes in, talking on the phone. “All right, Mrs. Pearl, as long as you sure. Just remember we got enough room
over here for you if you don’t feel comfortable being alone. I’ll check in later.”
Mrs. Pearl is this elderly lady who lives by herself across the street. Momma checks on her all the time. She says Mrs. Pearl needs to know that somebody cares.
Momma sits next to me. Sekani rests his head in her lap. Brickz mimics him and puts his head in my lap, licking my fingers.
“Are they mad ’cause Khalil died?” Sekani asks.
Momma brushes her fingers through his high-top fade. “Yeah, baby. We all are.”
mad that Khalil was unarmed. Can’t be a coincidence this is happening after Ms. Ofrah announced that at his funeral.
The cops respond to the chants with tear gas that blankets the crowd in a white cloud. The news cuts to footage inside the crowd of people running and screaming.
“Damn,” Seven says.
Sekani buries his face in Momma’s thigh. I feed Brickz a piece of my pot roast. The clenching in my stomach won’t let me eat.
Sirens wail outside. The news shows three patrol cars that have been set ablaze at the police precinct, about a five-minute drive away from us. A gas station near the freeway gets looted, and the owner, this Indian man, staggers around bloody, saying he didn’t have anything to do with Khalil’s death. A line of cops
guard the Walmart on the east side.
My neighborhood is a war zone.
Chris texts to see if I’m okay, and I immediately feel like shit for avoiding him, Beyoncé’ing him, and everything else. I would apologize, but texting “I’m sorry” combined with every emoji in the world isn’t the same as saying it face-to-face. I do let him know I’m okay though.
Maya and Hailey call, asking about the store, the house, my family, me. Neither of them mention the fried chicken drama. It’s weird talking to them about Garden Heights. We never do. I’m always afraid one of them will call it “the ghetto.”
I get it. Garden Heights is the ghetto, so it wouldn’t be a lie, but it’s like when I was nine and Seven and I got into one of our fights. He went for a low blow and called me Shorty McShort-Short. A lame insult now when I think about it, but it tore me up back then. I knew there was a possibility I was short—everybody else was taller than I was—and I could call myself short if I wanted. It became an uncomfortable truth when Seven said it.
I can call Garden Heights the ghetto all I want. Nobody else can.
Momma stays on her phone too, checking on some neighbors and getting calls from others who are checking on us. Ms. Jones down the street says that she and her four kids are holed up in their den like we are. Mr. Charles next door says that if the power goes out we can use his generator.
Uncle Carlos checks on us too. Nana takes the phone and
tells Momma to bring us out there. Like we’re about to go through the shit to get out of it. Daddy calls and says the store is all right. It doesn’t stop me from tensing up every time the news mentions a business that’s been attacked.
The news does more than give Khalil’s name now—they show his picture too. They only call me “the witness.” Sometimes “the sixteen-year-old black female witness.”
The police chief appears onscreen and says what I was afraid he’d say: “We have taken into consideration the evidence as well as the statement given by the witness, and as of now we see no reason to arrest the officer.”
Momma and Seven glance at me. They don’t say anything with Sekani right here. They don’t have to. All of this is my fault. The riots, gunshots, tear gas, all of it, are ultimately my fault. I forgot to tell the cops that Khalil got out with his hands up. I didn’t mention that the officer pointed his gun at me. I didn’t say something right, and now that cop’s not getting arrested.
But while the riots are my fault, the news basically makes it sound like it’s Khalil’s fault he died.
“There are multiple reports that a gun was found in the car,” the anchor claims. “There is also suspicion that the victim was a drug dealer as well as a gang member. Officials have not confirmed if any of this is true.”
The gun stuff can’t be true. When I asked Khalil if he had anything in the car, he said no.
He also wouldn’t say if he was a drug dealer or not. And he
didn’t even mention the gangbanging stuff.
Does it matter though? He didn’t deserve to die.
Sekani and Brickz start breathing deeply around the same time, fast asleep. That’s not an option for me with the helicopters, the gunshots, and the sirens. Momma and Seven stay up too. Around four in the morning, when it’s quieted down, Daddy comes in bleary-eyed and yawning.
“They didn’t hit Marigold,” he says between bites of pot roast at the kitchen table. “Looks like they keeping it mostly on the east side, near where he was killed. For now at least.”
“For now,” Momma repeats.
Daddy runs his hand over his face. “Yeah. I don’t know what’s gon’ stop them from coming this way. Shit, much as I understand it, I dread it if they do.”
“We can’t stay here, Maverick,” she says, and her voice is shaky, like she’s been holding something in this entire time and is just now letting it out. “This won’t get better. It’ll get worse.”
Daddy reaches for her hand. She lets him take it, and he pulls her onto his lap. Daddy wraps his arms around her and kisses the back of her head.
“We’ll be a’ight.”
He sends me and Seven to bed. Somehow I fall asleep.
Natasha runs into the store again. “Starr, come on!”
Her braids have dirt in them, and her once-fat cheeks are sunken. Blood soaks through her clothes.
I step back. She runs up to me and grabs my hand. Hers feels icy like it did in her coffin.
“Come on.” She tugs at me. “Come on!”
She pulls me toward the door, and my feet move against my will.
“Stop,” I say. “Natasha, stop!”
A hand extends through the door, holding a Glock.
I jolt awake.
Seven bangs his fist against my door. He doesn’t text normal, and he doesn’t wake people up normal either. “We’re leaving in ten.”
My heart beats against my chest like it’s trying to get out.
I remind myself.
It’s Seven’s stupid butt.
“Leaving for what?” I ask him.
“Basketball at the park. It’s the last Saturday of the month, right? Isn’t this what we always do?”
“But—the riots and stuff?”
“Like Pops said, that stuff happened on the east. We’re good over here. Plus the news said it’s quiet this morning.”
What if somebody knows I’m the witness? What if they know that it’s my fault that cop hasn’t been arrested? What if we come across some cops and they know who I am?
“It’ll be all right,” Seven says, like he read my mind. “I promise. Now get your lazy butt up so I can kill you on the court.”
If it’s possible to be a sweet asshole, that’s Seven. I get out of bed and put on my basketball shorts, LeBron jersey, and my Thirteens like Jordan wore before he left the Bulls. I comb my hair into a ponytail. Seven waits for me at the front door, spinning the basketball between his hands.
I snatch it from him. “Like you know what to do with it.”
“We’ll see ’bout that.”
I holler to let Momma and Daddy know we’ll be back later and leave.
At first Garden Heights looks the same, but a couple of blocks away at least five police cars speed by. Smoke lingers in the air, making everything look hazy. It stinks too.
We make it to Rose Park. Some King Lords sit in a gray Escalade across the street, and a younger one’s on the park merry-go-round. Long as we don’t bother them, they won’t bother us.
Rose Park occupies a whole block, and a tall chain-link fence surrounds it. I’m not sure what it’s protecting—the graffiti on the basketball court, the rusting playground equipment, the benches that way too many babies have been made on, or the liquor bottles, cigarette butts, and trash that litter the grass.
We’re right near the basketball courts, but the entrance to the park is on the other side of the block. I toss the ball to Seven and climb the fence. I used to jump down from the top, but one fall and a sprained ankle stopped me from doing that again.
When I get over the fence Seven tosses the ball to me and
climbs. Khalil, Natasha, and I used to take a shortcut through the park after school. We’d run up the slides, spin on the merry-go-round till we were dizzy, and try to swing higher than one another.
I try to forget all that as I check the ball to Seven. “First to thirty?”
“Forty,” he says, knowing damn well he’ll be lucky if he gets twenty points. He can’t play ball just like Daddy can’t play ball.
As if to prove it, Seven dribbles using the palm of his hand. You’re supposed to use your fingertips. Then this fool shoots for a three.
The ball bounces off the rim. Of course. I grab it and look at him. “Weak! You knew that shit wasn’t going in.”
“Whatever. Play the damn game.”
Five minutes in, I have ten points to his two, and I basically gave him those. I fake left, make a quick right in a smooth crossover, and go for the three. That baby goes in nicely. This girl’s got game.
Seven makes a
with his hands. He pants harder than I do, and I’m the one who used to have asthma. “Time out. Water break.”
I wipe my forehead with my arm. The sun glares on the court already. “How about we call it?”
“Hell no. I got some game in me. I gotta get my angles right.”
“Angles? This is ball, Seven. Not selfies.”
“Ay, yo!” some boy calls.
We turn around, and my breath catches. “Shit.”
There are two of them. They look thirteen, fourteen years old and are wearing green Celtics jerseys. Garden Disciples, no doubt. They cross the courts, coming straight for us.
The tallest one steps to Seven. “Nigga, you Kinging?”
I can’t even take this fool seriously. His voice squeaks. Daddy says there’s a trick to telling OGs from Young Gs, besides their age. OGs don’t start stuff, they finish it. Young Gs always start stuff.
“Nah, I’m neutral,” Seven says.
“Ain’t King your daddy?” the shorter one asks.
“Hell, no. He just messing with my momma.”
“It don’t even matter.” The tall one flicks out a pocket knife. “Hand your shit over. Sneakers, phones, everything.”
Rule of the Garden—if it doesn’t involve you, it doesn’t have shit to do with you. Period. The King Lords in the Escalade see everything going down. Since we don’t claim their set, we don’t exist.
But the boy on the merry-go-round runs over and pushes the GDs back. He lifts up his shirt, flashing his piece. “We got a problem?”
They back up. “Yeah, we got a problem,” the shorter one says.
“You sure? Last time I checked, Rose Park was King territory.” He looks toward the Escalade. The King Lords inside nod
at us, a simple way of asking if things are cool. We nod back.
“A’ight,” the tall GD says. “We got you.”
The GDs leave the same way they came.
The younger King Lord slaps palms with Seven. “You straight, bruh?” he asks.
“Yeah. Good looking out, Vante.”
I can’t lie, he’s kinda cute. Hey, just ’cause I have a boyfriend doesn’t mean I can’t look, and as much as Chris drools over Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé, and Amber Rose, I dare him to get mad at me for looking.
On a side note—my boyfriend clearly has a type.
This Vante guy’s around my age, a little taller, with a big Afro puff and the faint signs of a mustache. He has some nice lips too. Real plump and soft.
I’ve looked at them too long. He licks them and smiles. “I had to make sure you and li’l momma were okay.”
And that ruins it. Don’t call me by a nickname if you don’t know me. “Yeah, we’re fine,” I say.
“Them GDs helped you out anyway,” he tells Seven. “She was killing you out here.”
“Man, shut up,” Seven says. “This is my sister, Starr.”
“Oh yeah,” the guy says. “You the one who work up in Big Mav’s store, ain’t you?”
Like I said, I get that all. The. Time. “Yep. That’s me.”
“Starr, this is DeVante,” Seven says. “He’s one of King’s boys.”