How can a teenage girl vanish without anyone noticing she’s gone? That’s the question at the heart of MONDAY’S NOT COMING, the mesmerizing and haunting new read from from Tiffany D. Jackson—whose debut, ALLEGEDLY, left us with our jaws on the floor.
We can NOT stop talking about this book, so we’re SO glad we can finally start with you guys! Tiffany has written a story that kept us guessing all the way to the end. It’s a gripping mystery that shines a spotlight on so many real life issues we face today, including gentrification, mental health, and racial biases against missing children. It’s beautiful, heartbreaking, and, just like ALLEGEDLY, will have you wanting to re-read it from the start the second you finish.
MONDAY’S NOT COMING hits shelves May 22nd, but you can start reading it now!
This is the story of how my best friend disappeared. How nobody noticed she was gone except me. And how nobody cared until they found her… one year later.
I know what you’re thinking. How can a whole person, a kid, disappear and no one say a word? Like, if the sun just up and left one day, you’d think someone would sound an alarm, right? But Ma used to say, not everyone circles the same sun. I never knew what she meant by that until Monday went missing.
You wouldn’t think something like this could happen in Washington, DC, a city full of the most powerful people in the world. No one could imagine this happening in the president’s backyard. That’s the way us folks in Southeast felt too. If they say we live in the shadow of the nation’s capital, then how could one missing girl flip it inside out?
My doctor says I shouldn’t talk about this anymore. But then that podcast came around, re-examining all that happened, poking holes in a burnt cake to make sure it’s done. Like the color pink, somebody always sees the story different. Some see rose and magenta, and others see coral and salmon. When at the end of the day, it’s just regular old pink.
For me, the story started the day before the beginning of eighth grade. Our last year of middle school, what I thought would be the best year of our lives.
“Ma, have you seen Monday?” I asked the moment I walked out the gate at Reagan Washington National Airport, my hair still in fuzzy summer braids, skin browned by the southern sun.
“Sheesh! Can I get a hello first? I ain’t seen you all summer either,” Ma chuckled, her skinny arms stretched wide as I dove into a joy-filled hug.
Every summer, Ma sent me down to Georgia to stay with my grandmamma for two months. Monday and I would write letters to each other with funny drawings and ripped-out magazine articles, keeping up with the latest neighborhood gossip and music. But that summer was different. Monday never responded to any of my letters. Without them, the summer had crept by like a runaway turtle. I loved Grandmamma, but I missed my room, missed my TV, and most of all, I missed Monday.
Lights twinkled off the Anacostia River as we crossed the bridge onto Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, the Nationals baseball stadium in the distance. The moment we turned off on Good Hope Road, I noticed old posters still pasted to an abandoned building at the crossroads: “SAVE ED BOROUGH! It’s community! It’s home!”
Ma relocked the car doors, her back tensing. A true southerner, she never felt safe in the city, despite living here since I was born. As a distraction, I told her about my unanswered letters. She shrugged, more focused on the evening traffic, mumbling a “Maybe she couldn’t make it to the post office.” But that didn’t make much sense to me. We’d saved our money and bought enough stamps to make it through the eight weeks without each other, since Grandmamma don’t like the kids playing on her phone and my cousin already hogged up the line talking to her man. Monday knew I hated writing, but we promised to keep in touch, and you don’t just back out of promises. Not with your best friend since the first grade.
“I don’t know, Sweet Pea,” Ma said, stopped at a light by the liquor store and gave a nervous wave to someone she recognized outside. “She probably got caught up with something. But once she knows you’re back, I’m sure she’ll be by.”
The light turned green, and Ma slammed on the gas for two blocks before making a sharp left at the Anacostia Library, then a right onto U Place. Home. She parked on the street in front and I jumped out of the car with my book bag and sprinted for the door. I ain’t gonna lie—every summer I kind of hoped to come back to some miraculous transformation. Not that I don’t like our house, I just love surprises. Like, running down the stairs Christmas morning, I always expect to find a fresh coat of terra-cotta paint on the walls, a new couch to replace our beige sofa set, stainless steel appliances to replace our rusting white ones, and a new staircase banister, one that wouldn’t cry when you leaned on it.
As soon as I walked in and found nothing had changed, I dropped my bag and used the phone by the stairs to call Monday. Maybe she was too wrapped up in taking care of her little brother and sister this summer to write. Whatever the reason, I’d let it slide since I was about ready to bust I had so much to tell her. One ring in and some automatic lady told me I have the wrong number. I only knew two numbers by heart: Monday’s and my own.
“Girl, you on that phone already?” Ma huffed, dragging my suitcase in the house. “Why, you don’t let no grass grow under your feet!”
“Monday’s phone not working.”
“Probably off the hook or something,” she said, locking up the front door. “Now hurry up and get the comb. We need to start on this hair. Sheesh! I should have told Momma to take out these braids before you came.”
I took the stairs two at a time and opened the first door on the right. My room was exactly as I left it, a mess. I mean, my twin bed with its deep eggplant bedspread had been made, and the lavender walls where I hung all my artwork between music and movie posters were all still in place. But I hadn’t had time to clean up the tent Monday and I made with a bunch of old sheets and throw pillows during our last sleepover before I left. It still sat under the shelf near the window, facing the back of the library across the street.
“Claudia! Hurry up!” Ma shouted from downstairs.
I grabbed the comb off my white vanity, noticing a fresh coloring book and pencils sitting on my chair. Daddy must have left it before heading out on another delivery.
“Claudia, let’s go! We’ll be up all night!”
Ma and I spent the rest of the evening tackling my braids, then washing and straightening out my hair. Exhausted, I finally climbed into bed close to midnight, ignoring the gnawing in my stomach. Something wasn’t right, but I couldn’t put a finger on it.
* * *
“Claudia!” Ma yelled the next morning from the kitchen. “You’re gonna be late for your first day!”
Every year Ma would holler, wanting me to run down the stairs all crazy and be surprised by the big breakfast she always made for the first day of school: pancakes with a syrupy smiley face, scrambled eggs with cheese, grits, and beef sausage links.
So I played along, jumping off the last two steps and running into the kitchen dressed in my school uniform and new sneakers, greeted by the table laid out with my feast.
“Surprise!” Ma said, springing from her hiding spot, her short auburn hair still in pin curls. Sometimes in the light, little specks of gray peeked out behind her rose-gold highlights.
“Thanks, Ma,” I laughed, hopping into my seat.
“Lawd, I cannot believe you’re going to high school next year. I’m such an old woman now.”
“Ma, you don’t act no older than me.”
She grinned, cupping my face. “That’s no way to speak to your mother. Okay, Sweet Pea, hurry up and eat your breakfast. You don’t want to be late for school and keep Monday waiting.”
Ma knew the right words to light a match under my butt. What was I going to say when I finally saw Monday? I mean, how could she just leave me hanging all summer?
“Ma, can Monday come over after school today?” I asked between pancake bites.
She laughed. “Y’all waste no time. Okay, she can come. Just . . . check in with Ms. Paul first, okay?”
I dropped my fork onto my plate. “I thought you said I didn’t have to go to the library after school anymore. I don’t need no babysitter!”
“Not a babysitter,” Ma said, feigning innocence. “Just . . . want you to go say hi. Ain’t nothing wrong with you checking in so someone knows where you are. Breadcrumbs, Claudia. Always good to leave breadcrumbs.”
“I wouldn’t need to leave breadcrumbs if I had a cell phone,” I muttered into my lap.
Ma huffed. “Listen, I ain’t going down this road with you again. We agreed, once you start high school, then you can have one. Now, come on, let’s go.”
I strapped on my new book bag—navy with violet swirl designs. Monday had the same one except in pink, her favorite color. We picked them out right before I left for Georgia. I called her two more times before leaving, just to check. No answer.
Ma always drove me to school on the first day, taking off a few hours from the veterans’ canteen. They’d miss her for sure, leaving their kitchen a mess without her running it. But she always says, “You only get one shot at your kids, so you need to hit the bull’s-eye.”
We pulled up to Warren Kent Charter School, behind a line of other cars waiting to drop off at the big fenced-in yard where all the kids gathered by grade before the first bell. Pressing my greasy face against the glass, I scanned the sea of red-and-navy-plaid uniforms for my matching book bag.
“Ma, I don’t see Monday,” I said, trying to hide my panic. Monday always arrived first to school, sometimes two hours before anyone else even thought of showing up.
“I’m sure she’ll be here soon,” Ma said over the steering wheel, inching to the drop-off point. “Now, have a good day at school, Sweet Pea. Remember to call me as soon as you get home.”
An avalanche of uncertainty tumbled down, pinning me to my seat. I couldn’t step one foot out of the car without seeing Monday first. School didn’t seem real or possible without her. And the idea of walking out there alone, with all those kids . . . BEEP! BEEP! A horn blew behind us.
“Oh, shut up!” Ma yelled out the window before turning to the back seat. “Sweet Pea, what’s wrong? You’re not nervous, are you?”
When she used that squeaky, nasally voice, felt as if I was strapped in a car seat with a bottle rather than being a year away from high school. If I didn’t start acting like it, I thought, she’d never stop treating me like a baby.
I shook my head. “Naw, Ma. I’m good.”
Another horn blew, more aggravated than before. BEEEEEP! Ma rolled her eyes and smiled, looking straight through my act.
“Claudia, she’ll be here. She’s probably just running late or something. Now, look over there.” She pointed into the schoolyard at one of the lunch monitors holding up a sign that read “Eighth Graders.” “See, your class is right there. Why don’t you wait in line, and save her a spot? I’m sure you got a lot of catching up to do with your other friends too. Okay?”
The line of my classmates—my archenemies—stretched long. Without Monday by my side, I was jumping alone into shark-infested waters . . . dripping in blood. But Ma didn’t know Monday was my only friend.
She grinned. “Now, come give me a kiss.”
Clicking off my seat belt, I leaned forward, kissed her cheek, and she wrapped an arm around me in another tight squeeze. “I love you so much. Have a great first day!”
Squeezing back and not wanting to let go, I whispered, “Love you too,” and climbed out of the car with a brave face, but my lungs pinched shut.
Warren Kent ain’t a big school, around a thousand students, but when you put us all together, we sounded like a million. Shrieks of kindergartners blew out eardrums. The third and fourth graders ran circles. The sixth and seventh graders hugged and giggled, reunited after months apart. This will be Monday and me when she shows up, I reminded myself over and over again to keep from running back to the car. I peeked over my shoulder at Ma, who was still watching from her spot, cars beeping behind her.
She’s right, I thought, I’m tripping. Of course Monday would come. She never ever missed a day of school.
But I still gulped as I approached my class. Everyone looked older, more menacing, the boys taller and the girls had filled out. I wondered if I looked different too. Maybe Monday did and I didn’t recognize her. Shayla Green stood at the top of the line, an evil smirk growing across her pretty brown face. She whispered into Ashley Hilton’s ear, with her new mini gold hoops. They stared, giggling. I whipped around, ready to run back to the car, but Ma drove off, and all my bravery evaporated.
“Oh snap, dyke bitch is back,” Trevor Abernathy cackled, his white button-down shirt making his rich black skin glow. The others snickered—monsters in uniforms. I kept my head down and stood at the end of the line. Trevor skipped around and yanked at Shayla’s ponytail.
“Boy, I ain’t playing with you,” Shayla snapped.
He danced around, trying to escape her swinging arms as the others egged him on.
So immature, I thought. Look at them, a bunch of dummies. How they expect to get into any good high school acting like that? At least I know they won’t be following me nowhere. One more year, then it’ll just be me and Monday. But until then, Monday needed to hurry up and get here before the wolves closed in.
Seconds ticked by, the yard buzzing as everyone checked out each other’s hairstyles, cuts, fresh sneakers, jewelry, and book bags—accessories were the only way to set yourself apart. I flipped open my compact, smoothing down my edges and slicking on another layer of clear cherry lip gloss. I mean, I looked cute, but it was hard to relish in it when the one person I wanted to see me more than anyone wasn’t there.
Monday usually wore her hair in braids, but we’d decided that for the first week of school we’d try new styles—more grown-up looks. You know, to practice for high school. But without our regular catch-up, I worried she might have forgotten our plan. I stared at the gate, checking my watch.
The bell shrieked, and the lines of students began falling into the building, starting with the kindergartners, then the first graders. Monday’s brother, August, should have been with the fifth graders, but he was nowhere in sight. And her sister Tuesday—wasn’t she supposed to start kindergarten?
“Where are they?” I mumbled to myself.
My bony knees clapped together as they called our line and we trickled in slowly. I never took my eyes off the gate, hoping at any moment she’d come running through it, panicked and out of breath, her hair glistening with that coconut oil she loved. We would hug in relief and she’d be by my side again—the world back to normal. But the gates swept out of sight and were replaced by the beige brick walls of our school. The heavy dookie-brown doors slammed shut behind me like a period marking the end to that dream.
* * *
“Hello, class. My name is Ms. O’Donnell, and I will be your homeroom and first-period teacher for the school year,” she said as she wrote her name on the board. “First rule: attendance is taken only when you are in your seats before the second bell rings.”
Ms. O’Donnell, a name I would grow to hate over the year, taught eighth-grade English. She had short, curly graying-blond hair and a white face full of deep lines behind huge glasses. She was dressed in high-waist pants, a canary-yellow T-shirt, and ugly brown loafers. We’d met her last year on Move Up Day, and one of the older kids had said she was the meanest teacher in the school—maybe the whole planet.
“Now, when I call your name, raise your hand. Trevor Abernathy?”
Trevor finished snickering with his boys just in time. “Here.”
As she went through roll call, I noticed how packed the room was. Every seat taken—not a single empty desk left for Monday. Where would she sit when she showed up?
“Here,” I announced, raising my hand and wiggling my fingers so the light would catch off my new manicure, lilac with pink metallic stripes. I added the pink for Monday.
Wait, she didn’t call Monday Charles? Monday’s name always came before mine. Does she have the wrong list? Did they move Monday to another homeroom? Maybe, but, I mean, Monday would have told me. Wouldn’t she?
* * *
“Hey, Sweet Pea. How was your first day?” Ma said as soon as she walked in from her shift, carrying a few bags of groceries.
“Monday didn’t show up!”
After school, I called Monday’s number five times and the automatic lady told me once again that I was wrong. On a day we should have been comparing class schedules and locker assignments, I spent the afternoon watching reruns of Dance Machine, coloring in my new books, and trying to relax on a bed of sharp needles.
“Really?” Ma frowned. “Well, maybe she’ll be there tomorrow. Just be patient!”
I tried to be patient. After all, if I asked too many questions, I could draw attention to the fact that I had no friends, and it’d be open season for nonstop teasing. But Monday didn’t show up on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. By Friday, with my stomach clenched tight from all the knots it tied itself into, I mustered up enough courage to ask one of the kids that lived in her complex if he had seen her.
“Naw,” Darrell Singleton said, standing by his locker, packing his school lunch leftovers in his bag. “Haven’t seen her all summer.” Darrell was the biggest kid in the whole school, towering over everyone with a greasy, meaty face full of hills, valleys, and potholes. His uniform barely fit, and his locker forever smelled like the rotting food he squandered.
“All summer? You sure?”
“Yeah. Why, wasn’t she with you?”
Darrell has had a crush on Monday since the fourth grade, but she never paid him the time of day. Of all people, I was sure he would have been checking for her. I clutched my math textbook to my chest.
“I was away all summer.”
“Oh,” he mumbled, squirming more than usual. “Well, I saw her mom a couple days ago. She stopped by next door. . . .” His voice drifted, eyes darting away. Everyone knew the house next to Darrell’s was what Monday called the pit stop. Folks from New York to Florida stopped by, dropping off or picking up packages. Any drug you could ever think of, the pit stop had your twenty-one flavors.
“What about her brother or sisters?”
He scratched his head, thinking. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
* * *
Even though I wasn’t allowed to go over to Monday’s without an adult, I pedaled my purple bike down the sidewalk—not brave enough to ride in the busy street. With Ma wrapping up her double shift and Daddy on the way home from his last delivery, I had a short window of opportunity to disappear. A whole week and no word from Monday? Something was up, and I had to find out what, with or without them.
Maybe Monday had the flu again. She’d had it before, out of school a month. But why hadn’t she responded to any of my letters? And if she was sick, why hadn’t her brother shown up for school either? Could they all be sick? And what’s up with her phone?
Monday lived in Ed Borough Complex, one of DC’s biggest public housing areas—a village of identical cream row houses, stacked together like Monopoly houses, shaded by giant trees along the river, sectioned off by highways, about fifteen minutes away from my house. As Ma and Daddy would say, Ed Borough was the hood! I mean, no part of Southeast is a cakewalk, but Ed Borough… you don’t want to be caught there late at night.
In all the time I’d known Monday, I’d never been inside her house, not even once. Ma wouldn’t allow it, and neither would Monday, for reasons I wouldn’t know until much later. Whenever we dropped Monday at home, Ma would wait for her to walk inside, jittery, looking over her shoulder every second, triple-locking the car doors.
So I pedaled fast, past the Ed Borough apartment complex sign, up two blocks, past the famous basketball court that hosted the summer league tournament, and stopped at the path leading to Monday’s house. I leaned my bike against the tall tree shading over the building and walked up the cracked cement sidewalk. The dingy brown door of house number 804 had no doorbell. I knocked twice, my blood pumping. I had never been this close to her house before.
A television hammered through the door. Someone watching The Simpsons, so loud they could probably hear it in the White House. I knocked again, picking at my chipped nail polish as a thought leaped through my head: Monday hates The Simpsons.
“Who is it?” a woman barked, her voice punching through the door.
“Hi, Mrs. Charles? It’s Claudia.”
There was a pause, some shuffling and grumbling before the locks clicked and the door cracked open to a slit. A yellowish eye peered out.
“Um… C-Claudia,” I stammered.
She stared as if she didn’t recognize me—as if she hadn’t known me almost my entire life. My skin went cold, hands drenched in sweat. Mrs. Charles opened the door halfway, positioning herself in its frame so I couldn’t see inside. She was a tall woman, one of her boobs the size of my head. She stood in a man’s tank top, black sports bra, and red basketball shorts, her hair wrapped with bobby pins. I never noticed it, but she had the same paper-bag complexion as Monday.
“Claudia?” Her face scrunched up as if I stank. “What you doing here?”
I couldn’t think with the television blaring behind her. What am I doing here?
“Um… is Monday home?”
She blinked twice and shifted her stance, her hands on her hips. “She ain’t here.”
“Oh, um. Is she coming to school on Monday?”
Her blackened lips cocked to the side as she snarled. “Why you asking so many questions? I said she ain’t here. Now, go on! You know your bougie-ass mother don’t want you around here.”
The whole neighborhood could hear her yelling, but they couldn’t smell the liquor on her breath like I could. Every hair on my body stood up, calling to my bike. She had never talked to me like this before. Maybe I crossed a line by coming to look for Monday, asking her questions and talking fresh to grown-ups, as Ma would say. But I couldn’t just go. Not when the other half of me was missing.
“But . . . where’s Monday? Is something wrong?”
She lunged toward me. I stumbled back, tripping over a crack and landing hard on the concrete, scratching my thighs on some scattered pebbles without a moment to scream.
“I said, she ain’t here! NOW GO HOME!”
My throat closed as she stood over me, leaning so far down we could have bumped foreheads. Her hands balled into fists as her leg cocked back, ready to kick through my side. A siren went off in my head, but I couldn’t feel my feet or move. Frozen to the ground, I braced for the pain. But she stopped short, glancing past me. A curtain pulled back in the window of the house next door.
She sniffed and glared at me, as if still deciding what she wanted to do.
“Get your ass out of here,” she mumbled, slamming the door shut.
My elbows collapsed and I fell flat on my back, coughing out air, the TV sounding as if it was right beside me. On the ground, trembling, I stared up at the passing clouds, wondering how Monday could live with such a monster.
* * *
On Saturday, Daddy came home from what he called a short trip, down to Texas and back. A truck driver for a car factory, he drove brand-new shiny cars to dealerships around the country and could be gone weeks at a time, depending on the schedule.
“Hey, Sweet Pea!” he said, lifting me up as soon as he walked through the door, giving me a raspberry on my cheek.
“Daddy! Stop that! I’m not a baby anymore,” I said, trying to sound serious but giggling regardless.
He laughed. “You’re always gonna be my baby girl! You had dance class today?”
“Dance don’t start till next week.”
“Well, let me know what size leotard I need to join you.”
“Cut it out, Daddy!”
“I’m serious. I can at least fit in an extra large. Just got to lay off the chicken wings.”
“Daddy!” I laughed as we headed into the kitchen.
“Well, I hope you’ve been at least getting out the house some. Maybe take that bike around for a spin.”
I winced a smile, thinking of my long ride back from Monday’s house.
Ma stood at the stove, frying up some catfish. Hot corn bread and lima beans sat on the table. Daddy kissed her neck and she squirmed, shooing him away with a dish towel and a grin. Those two lovesick teenagers can make a whole room gag.
Ma and Daddy met at a truck stop outside Atlanta where Ma was flipping pancakes. Daddy says it was love at first sight, happily volunteering to take the long route down south just to see her. After six months, he asked her to marry him, bringing her home to DC. He was twenty-nine. Ma had just turned nineteen.
Daddy is a big, burly man with a shiny bald head and arms the size of toddlers. He played football in college, defense, before hurting his knee junior year. With no scholarship, he had to drop out. But Ma says college isn’t for everyone. Degrees don’t mean you’re smart, and Daddy’s the smartest man I know. He saved every dime he made as a truck driver before meeting Ma. Enough to buy our first home.
Ma pulled the mac and cheese out of the oven, and we sat at the table for dinner—our Saturday-night ritual.
“So,” Daddy said, his mouth full. “How was your first week of school?”
“Monday wasn’t there.”
“Really? Where she at?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“You try calling her?”
“Her phone don’t work.”
“Her phone does not work,” Ma corrected me, passing Daddy the hot sauce. “You’ve got to speak proper English, baby. I don’t want you going places and people thinking you don’t got no home training or nothing.”
Daddy smirked at her. “Listen to your mother, Sweet Pea. No matter how crazy she sounds.”
Ma gave him a look but blushed at his smile.
I gently wiggled in my seat, my butt still bruised from the fall outside Monday’s house. I didn’t tell Ma what had happened. She wouldn’t care how crazy Mrs. Charles acted—she’d be more upset that I was over there in the first place. But I couldn’t shake the look Mrs. Charles had given me or the sharp edge in her husky voice. Monday’s mom wasn’t the sweetest pie, but she wasn’t bitter greens either. And Monday never mentioned anything about her hot temper. Maybe she was just in a bad mood.
“Daddy, can you drive me to Monday’s tomorrow?” I figured if I brought some muscle as backup, Mrs. Charles would act right the next time I saw her.
Daddy sighed. “Aww, man, Sweet Pea, can’t I sleep in tomorrow? I’m tired as I don’t know what. Plus, I got practice with the fellas.”
Daddy played the congas in a go-go band called the Shaw Boyz with my uncle Robby. Go-go is music homegrown in Washington, DC. Bands like Junk Yard, Rare Essence, E.U., and the Godfather of Go-Go, Chuck Brown, helped put DC on the map for more than just politics. Daddy and Uncle Robby started their band in high school, back when chop-shop spots were packed for hours. They’re not super famous, but to people in Southeast, that didn’t matter if you’re cranking and shouting out their hood or block. Kids my age don’t listen to it like they used to. Monday used to say I was born in the wrong decade.
“And we have church tomorrow,” Ma jumped in. “Lest you forget.”
I sighed. “No, I didn’t forget.”
Ma chuckled. “Maybe she’s just sick. She probably will be there first thing Monday morning! You know how she do.”
The thought made me grin. “Right. Monday!”
Mondays were Monday’s favorite day of the week, and not just ’cause she was named after it. She loved the day itself. She’d be at school, early as ever, brighter than sunshine, even in the dead of winter with wind that could freeze our eyelids shut. She’d stand outside the gate, bundled in her thin coat and mismatched scarf, waiting for the doors to open.
“Why you so happy to go to school?” I would grumble, missing the warmth of my bed. “No one is happy to go to school. Especially on Mondays.”
She would shrug. “I love school.”
I’d roll my eyes. “School don’t love us.”
She’d laughed. “Mondays are the best days! Like, aren’t you excited about the start of a new week? It’s like a new chapter in a book. And the best part, even though we at school, we get to be together again—all day, all week.”
So on Monday morning, I hopped off the bus and waited by the gate with a slice of Ma’s pineapple upside-down cake snuck in my bag. Monday loved Ma’s cooking, and being sick for so long, I was sure she could use something sweet. I waited and waited until the bell rang. Monday never showed.
Back at home, I tried Monday’s number again, and the same automatic lady told me I was wrong. I slammed the phone down with a scream. I wasn’t wrong! We’ve been friends forever. I knew her more than I knew myself: her favorite color was pink, she loved crab legs and corn on the cob, hated running late, and was allergic to peanuts. Knowing all this, I couldn’t ignore that voice shouting in my ear.
Something was wrong.
I love the dusty particles a fresh colored pencil leaves behind with the first stroke, the sound it makes kissing the page when I’m done filling in voids. That first spot of rich color on a crisp white page, the start of something new. Feels like all I do is color since Daddy read in some article that it’s therapeutic for me. Glad he stopped buying those kiddie books and started buying ones with more intricate complex designs. Geometric and psychedelic shapes, mosaics, and mandalas . . . There is a calm in the chaos that most folks don’t see.
I take my time picking the right shade. There’s a distinct difference between periwinkle and cobalt blue. Has to be right or the whole picture will be ruined.
Without Monday, I felt ruined too.
“Don’t you have work to do?” Ma asked, holding a fresh load of laundry.
“It’s Saturday,” I said with a grin as I lay spread out on the sofa, coloring book in my lap, blasting music. I would watch TV, but Daddy ain’t fixed it yet. It sat on two old speaker boxes, untouched for who knows how long.
“That don’t mean you can’t do your work and get it out the way so you’re not rushing to do it after church tomorrow.”
“Ma, it’s just some . . .” The phone rang and I leaped off the sofa. “I’ve got it!”
Ma jumped out the way as I scrambled for the cordless. “Hello! Hello?”
“Hello? Claudia. Hi, there, it’s Sister Burke from church. How you doing? Is your mother around?”
My heart deflated faster than a pin in a balloon. “Hi, Ms. Burke. Hold on, she’s right here.”
My arm went limp as I passed the phone to Ma, and she gave me a sympathetic smile.
“Expecting somebody, Sweet Pea?”
I winced, shaking my head, and stomped back to the sofa.
“Hey, Sister Burke,” Ma said, balancing the basket on her hip. “Oh, she’s doing good. Real good. Being a lazy bum on my sofa but keep her in your prayers, okay? How you doing? And Mikey? Good, good. So you calling about that order, right? Yeah, I’ll have them pies for you tomorrow.”
Ma had a growing side catering business she’d started a few summers back. People loved her potato salad, chicken potpies, and most of all her BBQ spareribs.
“Dang it,” I grumbled. I’d chipped my pinkie nail running to catch the phone. I ran upstairs to grab polish remover out my kit. My kit was on point. Ask me for a color and I got you! Raspberry mocha, thin mint, stone gray… I’m so good at painting nails, I could open up my own shop. I told Ma this once and the next day she came home with college brochures.
The color was called devil’s plum, a deep matte purple that I accented with tiny lavender rhinestones—just like the color of the journal Monday gave me for Christmas last year. It had been sitting on the bookshelf next to the TV—untouched. Such a weird gift. I mean, Monday knew how much I hated English. And writing outside of school was straight-up torture. But I had so much to tell her. So much I needed her to know that without thinking twice I cracked it open. Gripping my pen with sweaty fingers, I attempted writing a few words, just to make sure I didn’t forget anything.
* * *
Were are you? I got a new bra wit Grandmmma. Are we the same sise now?
One Year Before the Before
“OMG, I can’t believe how cold it got. Like, overnight. And look how dark it is already. What’s that thing that happens—daylight saving time? When is that again?”
Monday wrapped a pilly red scarf around her neck, shivering in her jean jacket. Actually, it was my jacket that I let her borrow months ago. She didn’t have one, and it looked better on her anyways. The wind wrapped around our exposed thighs as cars drove by on our walk home from school. Time to change into winter tights.
“Girl, are you even listening to me? You heard what I said? Pastor wants me, ME, to read the scripture this Sunday. In front of ALL those people! I can’t! I’mma mess up and then…”
Monday’s eyes softened, scratching at her pretty fishtail braids, secured with a red headband. Monday could braid just about anyone’s hair and make it look hot. When she slept over on the weekends, she would braid my hair the same pattern so we’d look like twins at school.
“So, just fake sick,” she said with a shrug, sucking on a cherry Blow Pop while I unwrapped my green apple.
“I can’t. I’m also in dance ministry, and we have a performance. We’ve been practicing for weeks. Ma already hemmed my costume and everything.”
Monday smirked, her lips sticky red. “Dang, that church got you working hard for Jesus. They paying you or something? Maybe I should join.”
“Shut up,” I laughed, playfully pushing her.
“I can be in the dance ministry. Watch!”
She skipped ahead of me, exaggerating her steps with her long limbs and swaying hips. During the summer before seventh grade, Monday somehow started to grow a body without me. Her breasts pushed against her button-down and a little booty had popped under her plaid skirt. Twice that week the hall monitors made her do the fingertip test, checking the length of her skirt. I was a stick standing next to her.
She spun around, faking a stoic face, lifting her arms in staggered motions to the sky, then bowing into a prayer pose.
I laughed. “You better quit playing before Jesus strikes you dead!”
Monday jumped up, grinning. “Yo, that was kinda tuff, though. We should add that to the routine when we get home.”
“Bet,” I said as a low-rider Cadillac creeped by, engine purring.
“Hey, Claudia, what color is that?” Monday chuckled.
“Hmmm… it’s like a mix of rust and apricot with a yellow undertone.”
She laughed. “You so weird. Oooh! Let’s stop by the carryout. I’m starving.”
Monday dragged me into Mr. Chang’s Carryout—the Chinese food spot a few blocks away from home, our favorite Friday after-school snack.
“So, you really think I should just . . . play sick?” I asked as we waited in line.
“You can’t just play sick. You gonna have to drop out. That’s the only way to keep them from asking you again.”
“Drop out? Of church? You crazy! Ma would kill me!”
“Well, what other choice you got? You gonna get up and read in front of all them people? Read all them words?”
I gulped, gripping the straps on my book bag with sweaty hands. Monday was right. They would ask me again and I couldn’t risk being embarrassed in front of the entire congregation.
“How am I gonna drop out?” I mumbled to the floor.
She shrugged. “Tell your mom you don’t want to do it anymore. Say it’s corny.”
Monday lied with matter-of-fact precision, in a self-preservation type of way. I could never manage it, even to save my own ass.
“Dang, Ma’s gonna be so mad.” I hated the idea of disappointing her.
Monday grunted, staring off. “She never gets that mad.”
When we reached the counter, Monday stepped up to order for us. Being the voice of our duo, she always spoke up first while I hung back. I mean, I’m not really shy or nothing, but Monday was just better at talking to strangers. Folks were just drawn to her, and I hated the idea of sharing her.
“Let me get two chicken and mambo sauce, with extra salt on the fries.”
“All that salt ain’t good for you, you know,” I chided.
She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, Granny, I know. Oh dang, think I forgot my wallet at home. You got any money?”
I give her a look, pulling out the ten dollars Daddy had given me.
She grinned. “Thanks. I’ll get you back next time. And we have enough for some iced tea!”
The door swung open behind us and in piled a group of boys, thick ’fros, long black T-shirts and hoodies, one carrying a basketball. I huddled closer to Monday, as her eyes roamed over their gear quick, seeming unimpressed.
“Big news?” she whispered to me in the secret language we made up in the fifth grade. Are you okay?
“Noodles.” I’m cool.
She nodded, taking another look at the boys.
“If ten on the left not safe.” The one on the right is cute.
“Me right sane?” Are you crazy?
She smirked and turned back to the man behind the bulletproof glass. “Dang, what’s taking so long? We ain’t got all day, you know!”
One of the boys stared at the back of her exposed legs, muttering something to the others before chuckling. I moved closer to her, confused by the jealousy bubbling in my chest.
“Y’all twins or something?” one of the boys asked as the others laughed.
We loved questions like that, since we already walked around pretending to be twins. But we weren’t taking their weak bait. Monday cut her eyes as the man behind the glass handed her our food. She grabbed my hand and headed for the door right as one of the boys stepped in our path. She ran into him, chest first, bouncing back.
He smirked, looking her up and down. “My bad, shorty. Excuse me!”
A deer caught in headlights, she reeled with a gasp, backing into me. His bulky frame blocked the door while the rest of his friends trickled out of their seats and surrounded us. That trapped and cornered feeling slipped into my skin, and I quickly looped her arm. With a two-step dodge, I rushed his left side, and made an offensive play out the door.
We walked two blocks in silence before she exhaled. “He was cute, though.”
“Girl, he was like seventeen! They in high school! Ain’t got no business with us.”
She shrugged with a smirk. “So. He was still cute. And it’s not like we babies!”
That year, the conversation about boys had turned from hypothetical dreams of rappers and movie stars to realities of neighbors and classmates.
“You was feeling one of them, weren’t you?” she teased.
I sucked my teeth. “Ain’t nobody worried about them bammas. Smelling like they Momma’s kitchen grease. Don’t look like they had a proper shower in days.”
Monday laughed. “Whatever!”
We skipped through the doors of the Anacostia Library, where Ms. Paul sat at the information desk.
“Hi, Ms. Paul,” we said in unison.
“Hello, girls! Happy Friday!”
“We’re just checking in,” I said.
“Just like books,” Ms. Paul giggled. “Okay, I’ll let your mother know you stopped by.”
“Thanks, Ms. Paul!”
Every day after school I’d go to the library, where Ms. Paul would watch me until Ma came home. Ma slipped her a few dollars a week and plates of food at church on Sundays. It was kind of cool. I spent hours in the media center watching movies or flipping through magazines. At least three days a week, Monday would hang with me, and we would use the computers to watch music videos on YouTube. Ma would let us hang out at home, but only if we stopped by first. Breadcrumbs.
We took our to-go plates back to my house, washing down our sauce-soaked fried chicken with super-sweet iced tea in my room. Monday had the stomach of a grown man—she could eat enough for three people some days. As I cleaned up our mess, since Ma hated when we ate in my room, Monday grabbed two of my Barbie dolls off the shelf.
“You think them boys would’ve tried to get with us? Like, for real?” She plopped down on my bed, Ken and Barbie dancing in front of her.
“Yeah. Seems like it.”
Monday grinned, her face lighting up as she kicked her legs.
“Hey, girl!” she said, her voice deep like Ken’s. “What yo’ name is?” She switched voices for Barbie. “My name is Claudia. Hm. Claudia? Nice! How old are you? Ha, old enough. Alright, well, let’s get it!”
She shoved the dolls together, making kissing noises and moans.
“Cut it out!” I giggled, swatting her away. “And stop being fresh with Barbie.”
“Yes, Grandma,” she laughed. “Aight. It’s time for rehearsal!” She hopped up to turn on my iPod hooked up to a speaker.
I took my position next to her. “Ready.”
“Okay, first, when the music drops, we’ll do this!” Monday popped out of a crouching pose, throwing her hands in the air. “Then we’ll spin, and break into this.” She posed and vogued, her arms motioning like an air traffic controller. Boom. Beat, beat, step, step. I recognized the move from a YouTube video of a Texas dance team.
Most afternoons were spent making up routines to songs we’d listen to over and over until I could hear every beat in my head like a pulse. Monday could dance her ass off. Ain’t no other way to describe it. I mean, she only had to watch Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” three times before knowing the whole routine. Mrs. Charles couldn’t afford dance school. My parents could barely afford it, so I would teach her turns and leaps, and she’d end up doing them better than me.
I followed her lead, adding my own spin to it. We liked talking out our choreography, counting out the steps, and naming our crazy dances—the hot oil and flour, the butt pinch, and the pumpkin patch.
“Girl, loosen up! Why you so stiff?” Monday laughed.
“I am loose!”
This was us, in our own world, with our own language and customs. We lived inside a thick, shiny bubble that no needle was sharp enough to pop.
“Hey! You know what?” Monday said, out of breath as she turned down the music. “Maybe we should go to them cheerleading tryouts!”
I stopped dead in my tracks. “What?”
“I heard Ms. Valente talking to Shayla and Ashley about it. Ms. Valente used to be a cheerleader and said it was fun. We should do it too!”
I nibbled at my bottom lip. When did she talk to Ms. Valente without me?
“I thought we were going to wait until high school and try out for the dance team.”
“We can do both!”
She shrugged, not meeting my eye. “I don’t know. It’d be cool, though. And we better dancers than them anyways.”
We had enough problems with Shayla and Ashley that we really didn’t need to go crouching on their territory to add to them. “Naw, I don’t want to.”
“What? You scared or something? Come on, they’d love us! Especially you, you know all them flips and stuff.”
She was right about one thing: they would love Monday. Love her enough to steal her away from me.
“Naw, it’s just… well, we should be working on our routines. Not wasting our time cheering for some stupid boys who always losing games. And I heard America’s Dance Challenge is probably going to have auditions in DC soon.”
Monday straightened, her eyes sparkling. “For real? They coming to DC? When?”
I shrugged, innocently playing it off. “I don’t know. Probably soon, though, so we should be ready.”
She grinned, nodding her head. “Yeah. I guess you’re right. Anyways, let’s start with homework before your mom gets home. I have to read that packet to you.”
I blew out a sigh of relief. “Probably be easier if I just copied yours.”
* * *
Folks in Southeast talk about crack often.
How crystallized powder turned DC into a city of zombies during the ’80s and ’90s, hitting Southeast the hardest. Crack led to desperation, desperation led to crime, and crime led to murders and destruction. Everybody knew somebody affected by it: Daddy’s family, Monday’s family, church congregations, the Mayor, even teachers at school. Over time, folks rebuilt, families healed, but the evidence remained like a funny-shaped cloud that hung above our heads, occasionally blocking the sun with its memories.
“Hey, Dre! Turn that up!”
DJ Dre from WKYS volunteered to DJ at the Ed Borough Recreation Center annual block party every year. He grew up in Ed Borough and was proud of it. The block party was held by the courts and the whole community comes out to have fun. Balloons, face paint, clowns, barbecue, games, and music. Daddy’s band was booked for the closing entertainment. Ma sold her pies, Mrs. Charles played cards with neighbors, while Monday and I ran around, eating hot dogs, dancing by the DJ booth, and playing in the bouncy house with August.
That’s the thing, people remember the past and hold on to the rumors. Folks think all of Southeast is so dangerous and ghetto. But we just like everybody else. We love a good cookout, some crankin’ go-go, family and friends. You can pick up this block party and put it anywhere in the world.
The Capitol Housing Authority built the Edward Borough housing projects during World War II on land originally given to freed slaves during the 1800s. It was meant to be a place of community, a place to start again, a place for the American dream.
Later on, developers realized how valuable the land was, sitting right on the river, with easy access to the city. Too valuable for black folks to have.
How convenient that crack would ravish the area developers wanted most.
Everyone’s afraid of Ed Borough, while Ed Borough should have been afraid of everyone else.
Dancing by the DJ booth, a stray bee made its way from the trash can to the back of my ear.
“Ah,” I screamed, running in circles trying to escape it.
“Girl, what kind of dance is that? Relax! It’s just a bug.”
“Naw, those things kill folk!”
“Buzzzzzzzzz.” Monday circled me with that mischievous grin that always cut through my butter-leather skin.
“Quit playing,” I laughed, swatting her away.
We buzzed around each other, trying to out-buzz each other with fits of laughter in between until we grabbed hands and started spinning, spinning until the world blurred and we fell into the grass, staring up at the passing clouds.
“Girls,” Ma called from a table near the grill. “Y’all want some pie?”
“Yes!” we said in unison, and scrambled to our feet.
“Wait now,” Mrs. Charles said, lightly jogging over from a card game with a grin. “Let me bring a couple of slices over to the fellas first. Kids don’t need all this sugar.”
Monday giggled, reaching for a slice Ma had already cut before Mrs. Charles slapped her hand away.
“I said wait!” Mrs. Charles growled. “Damn! Little fast ass won’t listen! Fast since the day she was born, I swear.”
Monday backed away from her in a frantic panic, crashing into the table behind us. Ma blinked, her brows pinching together. Monday’s teary eyes glanced between Ma and me a thousand times before she gulped. No longer buzzing, she rushed to my side and we linked pinkie fingers, her chin trembling.
“Big news?” I whispered. You okay?
Monday only nodded.
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