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Get an Extended Look at ‘On the Come Up,’ the Next Must-Read Book from Angie Thomas!

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Get an Extended Look at ‘On the Come Up,’ the Next Must-Read Book from Angie Thomas!

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Can you believe we’re less than a month away from the release of On the Come Up? We certainly cannot. And we definitely cannot wait for you all to meet Bri Jackson and love her like we do. She’s smart and talented, with as much heart and drive as you can possibly imagine.

So yeah, let’s get one thing straight: This is definitely not a sophomore slump. In fact, we might even say we’re a little (read: VERY) obsessed. Angie Thomas’ amazing follow up to the one and only The Hate U Give is everything we could have hoped for—and more. Just watch this video to see Angie talk about her inspiration for Bri—a character that “represent[s] what it’s like to be young and black in America, when so often the world is against you”—as well hip-hop and Bri’s goal of becoming one of the greatest rappers of all time.

Update: We have a preview of the incredible audiobook! Take a listen now:

If that and Angie somehow don’t get you pumped, maybe this will: you can read the first five chapters of On the Come Up right freaking now! Scroll on down, enjoy this exclusive sneak peek, and don’t miss On the Come Up when it hits shelves on February 5th!

 

PART ONE

ONE

I might have to kill somebody tonight.

It could be somebody I know. It could be a stranger. It could be somebody who’s never battled before. It could be somebody who’s a pro at it. It doesn’t matter how many punch lines they spit or how nice their flow is. I’ll have to kill them.

First, I gotta get the call. To get the call, I gotta get the hell out of Mrs. Murray’s class.

Some multiple-choice questions take up most of my laptop, but the clock though. The clock is everything. According to it, there are ten minutes until four thirty, and according to Aunt Pooh, who knows somebody who knows somebody, DJ Hype calls between four thirty and five thirty. I swear if I miss him, I . . .

Won’t do shit ’cause Mrs. Murray has my phone, and Mrs. Murray’s not one to play with.

I only see the top of her Sisterlocks. The rest of her is hidden behind her Nikki Giovanni book. Occasionally she goes “Mmm” at some line the same way my grandma does during a sermon. Poetry’s Mrs. Murray’s religion.

Everyone else cleared out of Midtown School of the Arts almost an hour ago, except for us juniors whose parents or guardians signed us up for ACT prep. It’s not guaranteed to get you a thirty-six, but Jay said I better get close since she “paid these folks a light bill” for this class. Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, I drag myself into this classroom and hand my phone over to Mrs. Murray.

Usually I’m cool with an entire hour of not knowing what the president tweeted. Or getting texts from Sonny and Malik (sometimes about shit the president tweeted). But today, I wanna go up to that desk, snatch my phone from the pile, and run out of here.

“Psst! Brianna,” someone whispers. Malik’s behind me, and behind him Sonny mouths, Anything yet?

I tilt my head with a How am I supposed to know, I don’t have my phone eyebrow raise. Yeah, that’s a lot to expect him to get, but me, Sonny, and Malik have been tight since womb days. Our moms are best friends, and the three of them were pregnant with us at the same time. They call us the “Unholy Trinity” because they claim we kicked in their bellies whenever they were together. So nonverbal communication? Not new.

Sonny shrugs with an I don’t know, I’m just checking, mixed in with Damn, you ain’t gotta catch an attitude.

I narrow my eyes at his little light-skinned Hobbit-looking behind—he’s got the curly hair and the big ears. I don’t have an attitude. You asked a dumb question.

I turn around. Mrs. Murray eyes us over the top of her book with a little nonverbal communication of her own. I know y’all not talking in my class.

Technically we’re not talking, but what I look like telling her that, verbally or nonverbally?

4:27.

Three minutes and that phone will be in my hand.

4:28.

Two minutes.

4:29.

One.

Mrs. Murray closes her book. “Time’s up. Submit your practice test as is.”

Shit. The test.

For me, “as is” means not a single question is answered.

Thankfully, it’s multiple choice. Since there are four choices per question, there’s a 25 percent chance that I’ll randomly choose the right one. I click answers while everyone else collects their phones.

Everyone except Malik. He towers over me as he slips his jean jacket over his hoodie. In the past two years, he went from being shorter than me to so-tall-he-has-to-bend-to-hug-me. His high-top fade makes him even taller.

“Damn, Bri,” Malik says. “Did you do any of the—”

“Shhh!” I submit my answers and sling my backpack over my shoulder. “I did the test.”

“Long as you’re prepared to take an L, Breezy.”

“An L on a practice test isn’t really an L.” I throw my snapback on, pulling the front down enough so it can cover my edges. They’re a little jacked at the moment and will stay jacked until Jay braids my hair.

Sonny beat me getting to Mrs. Murray’s desk. He goes for my phone like the true ride-or-die he is, but Mrs. Murray grabs it first.

“That’s okay, Jackson.” She uses his real name, which happens to be my last name. His momma named him in honor of my grandparents, her godparents. “I need to talk to Brianna for a second.”

Sonny and Malik both look at me. What the hell did you do?

My eyes are probably as wide as theirs. Do I look like I know?

Mrs. Murray nods toward the door. “You and Malik can go. It’ll only take a moment.”

Sonny turns to me. You’re fucked.

Possibly. Don’t get me wrong; Mrs. Murray is sweet, but she does not play. One time, I half-assed my way through an essay about Langston Hughes’s use of dreams. Mrs. Murray went in on me so bad, I wished Jay would’ve gone in on me instead. That’s saying something.

Sonny and Malik leave. Mrs. Murray sits on the edge of the desk and sets my phone beside her. The screen is dim. No call yet.

“What’s going on, Brianna?” she asks.

I look from her to the phone and back. “What you mean?”

“You were extremely distracted today,” she says. “You didn’t even do your practice test.”

“Yes, I did!” Kinda. A little. Sorta. Not really. Nah.

“Girl, you didn’t submit any answers until a minute ago. Honestly? You haven’t been focused for a while now. Trust me, when you get your report card next week, you’ll see proof. Bs don’t turn to Cs and Ds for nothing.”

Shit. “Ds?”

“I gave you what you earned. So what’s going on? It’s not like you’ve been missing class lately.”

Lately. It’s been exactly a month since my last suspension, and I haven’t been sent to the principal’s office in two weeks. That’s a new record.

“Is everything okay at home?” Mrs. Murray asks.

“You sound like Ms. Collins.” That’s the young, blond counselor who’s nice but tries too hard. Every single time I get sent to her, she asks me questions that sound like they came from some “How to Talk to Statistical Black Children Who Come to Your Office Often” handbook.

How is your home life? (None of your business.)

Have you witnessed any traumatic events lately, such as shootings? (Just because I live in the “ghetto” doesn’t mean I dodge bullets every day.)

Are you struggling to come to terms with your father’s murder? (It was twelve years ago. I barely remember him or it.)

Are you struggling to come to terms with your mother’s addiction? (She’s been clean for eight years. She’s only addicted to soap operas these days.)

What’s good with you, homegirl, nah’mean? (Okay, she hasn’t said that, but give her time.)

Mrs. Murray smirks. “I’m just trying to figure out what’s up with you. So what’s got you so distracted today that you wasted my time and your momma’s hard-earned money?”

I sigh. She’s not giving me that phone until I talk. So fine. I’ll talk. “I’m waiting on DJ Hype to tell me I can battle in the Ring tonight.”

“The Ring?”

“Yeah. Jimmy’s Boxing Ring. He has freestyle battles every Thursday. I submitted my name for a chance to battle tonight.”

“Oh, I know what the Ring is. I’m just surprised you’re going in it.”

The way she says “you’re” makes my stomach drop, as if it makes more sense that anyone else in the world would go in the Ring except for me. “Why are you surprised?”

She puts her hands up. “I don’t mean anything by it. I know you’ve got skills. I’ve read your poetry. I just didn’t know you wanted to be a rapper.”

“A lot of people don’t know.” And that’s the problem. I’ve been rapping since I was ten, but I’ve never really put myself out there with it. I mean yeah, Sonny and Malik know, my family knows. But let’s be real: Your mom saying you’re a good rapper is like your mom saying you’re cute when you look a hot mess. Compliments like that are part of the parental responsibilities she took on when she evicted me from her womb.

Maybe I’m good, I don’t know. I’ve been waiting for the right moment.

Tonight may be the perfect time, and the Ring is the perfect place. It’s one of the most sacred spots in Garden Heights, second only to Christ Temple. You can’t call yourself a rapper until you’ve battled in the Ring.

That’s why I gotta kill it. I win tonight, I’ll get a spot in the Ring’s lineup, and if I get a spot in the lineup, I can do more battles, and if I do more battles, I’ll make a name for myself. Who knows what could happen then?

Mrs. Murray’s expression softens. “Following your dad’s footsteps, huh?”

It’s weird. Whenever other people mention him, it’s like they’re confirming that he’s not some imaginary person I only remember bits and pieces of. And when they call him my dad and not Lawless, the underground rap legend, it’s like they’re reminding me that I’m his and he’s mine.

“I guess. I’ve been preparing for the Ring for a minute now. I mean, it’s hard to prepare for a battle, but a win could jumpstart my career, you know?”

“Let me get this straight,” she says, sitting up.

Imaginary alarms go off in my head. Warning: Your teacher is about to gather you, boo.

“You’ve been so focused on rapping that your grades have dropped drastically this semester. Forget that junior-year grades are vital for college admissions. Forget that you once told me you want to get into Markham or Howard.”

“Mrs. Murray—”

“No, you think about this for a second. College is your goal, right?”

“I guess.”

“You guess?”

I shrug. “College isn’t for everyone, you know?”

“Maybe not. But a high school education? Critical. It’s a D now, but that D will turn to an F if you keep this up. I had a similar conversation with your brother once.”

I try not to roll my eyes. It’s nothing against Trey or Mrs. Murray, but when you have an older brother who did great before you, if you don’t at least match his greatness, people have something to say.

I’ve never been able to match Trey here at Midtown. They still have the programs and newspaper clippings on display from when he starred in A Raisin in the Sun. I’m surprised they haven’t renamed Midtown “The Trey Jackson School of the Arts Because We Love His Ass That Much.”

Anyway.

“He once went from As to Cs,” Mrs. Murray says, “but he turned it around. Now look at him. Graduated from Markham with honors.”

He also moved back home this summer. He couldn’t find a decent job, and as of three weeks ago, he makes pizzas for minimum wage. It doesn’t give me much to look forward to.

I’m not knocking him. At all. It’s dope that he graduated. Nobody in our mom’s family has a college degree, and Grandma, our dad’s mom, loves to tell everyone that her grandson was “magnum cum laude.” (That is so not how you say it, but good luck telling Grandma that.)

Mrs. Murray won’t hear that though.

“I’m gonna improve my grades, I swear,” I tell her. “I just gotta do this battle first and see what happens.”

She nods. “I understand. I’m sure your mom will too.”

She tosses me my phone.

Fuuuuuck.

I head to the hallway. Sonny and Malik lean against the lockers. Sonny types away on his phone. Malik fiddles with his camera. He’s always in filmmaker mode. A few feet away, the school security guards, Long and Tate, keep an eye on them. Those two are always on some mess. Nobody wants to say it, but if you’re black or brown, you’re more likely to end up on their radar, even though Long himself is black.

Malik glances up from his phone. “You okay, Bri?”

“Go on now,” Long calls. “Don’t be lollygagging around here.”

“Goddamn, can’t we talk for a second?” I ask.

“You heard him,” says Tate, thumbing toward the doors. He’s got stringy blond hair. “Get outta here.”

I open my mouth, but Sonny goes, “Let’s just go, Bri.”

Fine. I follow Sonny and Malik toward the doors and glance at my phone.

It’s 4:45, and Hype still hasn’t called.

A city bus ride and a walk home later, nothing.

I get to my house at exactly 5:09.

Jay’s Jeep Cherokee is in our driveway. Gospel music blares in the house. It’s one of those upbeat songs that leads to a praise break at church and Grandma running around the sanctuary, shouting. It’s embarrassing as hell.

Anyway, Jay only plays those kinda songs on Saturdays when it’s cleaning day to make me and Trey get up and help. It’s hard to cuss as somebody sings about Jesus, so I get up and clean without a word.

Wonder why she’s playing that music now.

A chill hits me soon as I step in the house. It’s not as cold as outside—I can take my coat off—but my hoodie’s gonna stay on. Our gas got cut off last week, and with no gas, we don’t have heat. Jay put an electric heater in the hallway, but it only takes a bit of the chill out of the air. We have to heat water in pots on the electric stove if we wanna take hot baths and we sleep with extra covers on our beds. Some bills caught up with my mom and Trey, and she had to ask the gas company for an extension. Then another one. And another one. They got tired of waiting for their money and just cut it off.

It happens.

“I’m home,” I call from the living room.

I’m about to toss my backpack and my coat onto the couch, but Jay snaps from wherever she is, “Hang that coat up and put that backpack in your room!”

Goddamn, how does she do that? I do what she said and follow the music to the kitchen.

Jay takes two plates out of a cabinet—one for me, one for her. Trey won’t be home for a while. Jay’s still in her “Church Jay” look that’s required as the church secretary—the ponytail, the knee-length skirt, and the long-sleeved blouse that covers her tattoos and the scars from her habit. It’s Thursday, so she’s got classes tonight as she goes after that social work degree— she wants to make sure other people get the help she didn’t back when she was on drugs. For the past few months, she’s been in school part-time, taking classes several nights a week. She usually only has time to either eat or change, not both. Guess she chose to eat tonight.

“Hey, Li’l Bit,” she says all sweet, like she didn’t just snap on me. Typical. “How was your day?”

It’s 5:13. I sit at the table. “He hasn’t called yet.”

Jay sets one plate in front of me and one beside me. “Who?”

“DJ Hype. I submitted my name for a spot in the Ring, remember?”

“Oh, that.”

That, like it’s no big deal. Jay knows I like to rap, but I don’t think she realizes that I want to rap. She acts like it’s the latest video game I’m into.

“Give him time,” she says. “How was ACT prep? Y’all did practice tests today, right?”

“Yep.” That’s all she cares about these days, that damn test.

“Well?” she says, like she’s waiting for more. “How’d you do?”

“All right, I guess.”

“Was it hard? Easy? Were there any parts you struggled through?”

Here we go with the interrogation. “It’s just a practice test.”

“That will give us a good idea of how you’ll do on the real test,” Jay says. “Bri, this is serious.”

“I know.” She’s told me a million times.

Jay puts pieces of chicken on the plates. Popeyes. It’s the fifteenth. She just got paid, so we’re eating good. Jay swears though that Popeyes isn’t as good here as it is in New Orleans. That’s where she and Aunt Pooh were born. I can still hear New Orleans in Jay’s voice sometimes. Like when she says “baby,” it’s as if molasses seeped into the word and breaks it down into more syllables than it needs.

“If we want you to get into a good school, you gotta take this more seriously,” she says.

If we want? More like if she wants.

It’s not that I don’t wanna go to college. I honestly don’t know. The main thing I want is to make rapping happen. I do that, it’ll be better than any good job a college degree could give me.

I pick up my phone. It’s 5:20. No call.

Jay sucks her teeth. “Uh-huh.”

“What?”

“I see where your head is. Probably couldn’t focus on that test for thinking about that Ring mess.”

Yes. “No.”

“Mm-hmm. What time was Hype supposed to call, Bri?”

“Aunt Pooh said between four thirty and five thirty.”

Pooh? You can’t take anything she says as law. She’s the same one who claimed that somebody in the Garden captured an alien and hid it in their basement.”

True.

“Even if he does call between four thirty and five thirty, you’ve still got time,” she says.

“I know, I’m just—”

“Impatient. Like your daddy.”

Let Jay tell it, I’m stubborn like my daddy, smart-mouthed like my daddy, and hotheaded like my daddy. As if she’s not all those things and then some. She says Trey and I look like him too. Same smile, without the gold grill. Same dimpled cheeks, same light complexions that make folks call us “red bones” and “light brights,” same dark, wide eyes. I don’t have Jay’s high cheekbones or her lighter eyes, and I only get her complexion when I stay out in the summer sun all day. Sometimes I catch her staring at me, like she’s looking for herself. Or like she sees Dad and can’t look away.

Kinda how she stares at me now. “What’s wrong?” I ask.

She smiles, but it’s weak. “Nothing. Be patient, Bri. If he does call, go to the gym, do your li’l battle—”

Li’l battle?

“—and come straight home. Don’t be hanging out with Pooh’s rough behind.”

Aunt Pooh’s been taking me to the Ring for weeks to get a feel for things. I watched plenty of YouTube videos before that, but there’s something about being there. Jay was cool with

me going—Dad battled there, and Mr. Jimmy doesn’t tolerate any nonsense—but she wasn’t crazy about me going with Aunt Pooh. She definitely wasn’t crazy about Aunt Pooh calling herself my manager. According to her, “That fool ain’t no manager!”

“How you gon’ shade your sister like that?” I ask her.

She scoops Cajun rice onto the plates. “I know what she’s into. You know what she’s into.”

“Yeah, but she won’t let anything happen—”

Pause.

Jay puts fried okra on the plates. Then corn on the cob. She finishes them off with soft, fluffy biscuits. Say what you want about Popeyes’ biscuits, but they’re neither soft nor fluffy.

This is Popkenchurch.

Popkenchurch is when you buy fried chicken and Cajun rice from Popeyes, biscuits from KFC, and fried okra and corn on the cob from Church’s. Trey calls it “pre–cardiac arrest.”

But see, Popkenchurch is problematic, and not because of digestive drama that may ensue. Jay only gets it when something bad happens. When she broke the news that her aunt Norma had terminal cancer a couple of years ago, she bought Popkenchurch. When she realized she couldn’t get me a new laptop last Christmas, Popkenchurch. When Grandma decided not to move out of state to help her sister recover from her stroke, Jay bought Popkenchurch. I’ve never seen anybody take their aggression out on a chicken thigh quite like she did that day.

This isn’t good. “What’s wrong?”

“Bri, it’s nothing for you to worry a—”

My phone buzzes on the table, and we both jump.

The screen lights up with a number I don’t recognize.

It’s five thirty.

Jay smiles. “There’s your call.”

My hands shake down to my fingertips, but I tap the screen and put the phone to my ear. I force out the “Hello?”

“Is this Bri?” an all-too-familiar voice asks.

My throat is dry all of a sudden. “Yeah. This is she . . . her . . . me.” Screw grammar.

“What’s up? It’s DJ Hype! You ready, baby girl?”

This is the absolute worst time to forget how to speak. I clear my throat. “Ready for what?”

“Are you ready to kill it? Congratulations, you got a spot in the Ring tonight!”

 

TWO

I texted Aunt Pooh three words: I got in.

She shows up in fifteen minutes, tops.

I hear her before I see her. “Flash Light,” by Parliament, blasts out front. She’s beside her Cutlass, getting it in. Milly Rocking, Disciple Walking, all of that, like she’s a one-woman Soul Train line.

I go outside and throw my hoodie over my snapback—it’s colder than a polar bear’s butt crack out here. My hands are freezing as I lock the front door. Jay left for class a few minutes ago.

Something’s happened, I know it. Plus, she didn’t say it was nothing. She said it’s nothing for me to worry about. Difference.

“There she go!” Aunt Pooh points at me. “The Ring legend-in-the-making!”

The ponytail holders on her braids clink as she dances. They’re green like her sneakers. According to Garden Heights Gang Culture 101, a Garden Disciple’s always gotta wear green.

Yeah, she’s ’bout that life. Her arms and neck are covered in tattoos that only GDs can decipher, except for those red lips tatted on her neck. Those are her girlfriend’s, Lena’s.

“What I tell you?” She flashes her white-gold grill in a grin and slaps my palm with each word. “Told. You. You’d. Get. In!”

I barely smile. “Yeah.”

“You got in the Ring, Bri! The Ring! You know how many folks around here wish they had a shot like this? What’s up with you?”

A whole lot. “Something’s happened, but Jay won’t tell me what.”

“What makes you think that?”

“She bought Popkenchurch.”

“Damn, for real?” she says, and you’d think that would set off alarms for her, too, but she goes, “Why you ain’t bring me a plate?”

I narrow my eyes. “Greedy ass. She only gets Popkenchurch when something’s wrong, Aunt Pooh.”

“Nah, man. You reading too much into this. This battle got you all jittery.”

I bite my lip. “Maybe.”

Definitely. Let’s get you to the Ring so you can show these fools how it’s done.” She holds her palm to me. “Sky’s the limit?”

That’s our motto, taken from a Biggie song older than me and almost as old as Aunt Pooh. I slap her palm. “Sky’s the limit.”

“We’ll see them chumps on top.” She semi-quotes the song and pecks my forehead. “Even if you are wearing that nerdy-ass hoodie.”

It’s got Darth Vader on the front. Jay found it at the swap meet a few weeks ago. “What? Vader’s that dude!”

“I don’t care, it’s nerd shit!”

I roll my eyes. When you have an aunt who was only ten when you were born, sometimes she acts like an aunt and sometimes she acts like an annoying older sister. Especially since Jay helped raise her—their mom was killed when Aunt Pooh was one and their dad died when she was nine. Jay’s always treated Pooh like her third kid.

“Um, nerd shit?” I say to her. “More like dope shit. You need to expand your horizons.”

“And you need to stop shopping off the Syfy channel.”

Star Wars technically isn’t sci—never mind. The top’s down on the Cutlass, so I climb over the door to get in. Aunt Pooh pulls her sagging pants up before she hops in. What’s the point of letting them sag if you’re just gonna pull them up all the time? Yet she wants to criticize my fashion choices.

She reclines her seat back and turns the heat all the way up. Yeah, she could put the top up, but that combination of cold night air and warmth from the heater is A1.

“Let me get one of my shits.” She reaches into the glove compartment. Aunt Pooh gave up weed and turned to Blow Pops instead. Guess she’d rather get diabetes than get high all the time.

My phone buzzes in my hoodie pocket. I texted Sonny and Malik the same three words I texted Aunt Pooh, and they’re geeking out.

I should be geeking out too, or at least getting in the zone, but I can’t shake the feeling that the world has turned upside down.

At any second, it may turn me upside down with it.

Jimmy’s parking lot is almost filled up, but not everybody is trying to get in the building. The “let out” has already started. That’s the party outside that happens every Thursday night after the final battle in the Ring. For almost a year now, folks have been using Jimmy’s as a party spot, kinda like they do Magnolia Ave on Friday nights. See, last year a kid was murdered by a cop just a few streets away from my grandparents’ house. He was unarmed, but the grand jury decided not to charge the officer. There were riots and protests for weeks. Half the businesses in the Garden were either intentionally burned down by rioters or were casualties of the war. Club Envy, the usual Thursday nightspot, was a casualty.

The parking lot club’s not really my thing (partying in the freezing cold? I think not), but it’s cool to see people showing off their new rims or their hydraulics, cars bouncing up and down like they don’t know a thing about gravity. The cops constantly drive by, but that’s the new normal in the Garden. It’s supposed to be on some “Hi, I’m your friendly neighborhood cop who won’t shoot you” type shit, but it comes off as some “We’re keeping an eye on your black asses” type shit.

I follow Aunt Pooh to the entrance. Music drifts from in the gym, and the bouncers pat people down and wave metal-detector wands around. If somebody’s got a piece, security puts it in a bucket nearby and returns it once the Ring lets out.

“The champ is here!” Aunt Pooh calls as we approach the line. “Might as well crown her now!”

It’s enough to get me and Aunt Pooh palm slaps and nods. “What’s up, Li’l Law,” a couple of people say. Even though we’re technically cutting the line, it’s all good. I’m royalty thanks to my dad.

I get a couple of smirks too though. Guess it’s funny that a sixteen-year-old girl in a Darth Vader hoodie thinks she’s got a shot in the Ring.

The bouncers slap palms with Aunt Pooh. “What’s up, Bri?” the stocky one, Reggie, says. “You finally getting on tonight?”

“Yep! She gon’ kill it too,” Aunt Pooh says.

“A’ight,” the taller one, Frank, says, waving the wand around us. “Carrying the torch for Law, huh?”

Not really. More like making my own torch and carrying it. I say, “Yeah,” though, because that’s what I’m supposed to say. It’s part of being royalty.

Reggie motions us through. “May the force beam you up, Scotty.” He points at my hoodie, then does the Vulcan salute.

How the hell do you confuse Star Trek and Star Wars? How? Unfortunately to some people in the Garden it’s “nerd shit,” or as some fool at the swap meet said, “white shit.”

Folks need to get their space opera life right.

We go inside. As usual it’s mostly guys in here, but I see a few girls too (which is reflective of the small ratio of women to men in hip-hop, which is total misogynistic fuckery, but anyway . . .). There are kids who look like they came straight from Garden Heights High, folks who look like they were alive when Biggie and Tupac were around, and old heads who look like they’ve been coming to the Ring since the Kangol hats and shell-toe Adidas days. Weed and cigarette smoke linger in the air, and everybody crowds around the boxing ring in the center.

Aunt Pooh finds us a spot beside the Ring. “Kick in the Door,” by Notorious B.I.G., plays above all of the chatter. The bass pounds the floor like an earthquake, and B.I.G.’s voice seems to fill up the entire gym.

A few seconds of Biggie makes me forget everything else. “That flow though!”

“That shit is fire,” Aunt Pooh says.

Fire? That shit is legendary! Biggie single-handedly proves that delivery is key. Everything isn’t an exact rhyme, but it works. He made ‘Jesus’ and ‘penis’ rhyme! C’mon! ‘Jesus’ and ‘penis.’” Okay, it’s probably offensive if you’re Jesus, but still. Legendary.

“A’ight, a’ight.” Aunt Pooh laughs. “I hear you.”

I nod along, soaking up every line. Aunt Pooh watches me with a smile, making that scar on her cheek from that time she got stabbed look like a dimple. Hip-hop’s addictive, and Aunt Pooh first got me hooked. When I was eight, she played Nas’s Illmatic for me and said, “This dude will change your life with a few lines.”

He did. Nothing’s been the same since Nas told me the world was mine. Old as that album was back then, it was like waking up after being asleep my whole life. It was damn near spiritual.

I fiend for that feeling. It’s the reason I rap.

There’s a commotion near the doors. This guy with short dreadlocks makes his way through the crowd, and people give him dap along the way. Dee-Nice, aka one of the best-known rappers from the Ring. All of his battles went viral. He recently retired from battle rapping. Funny he’d retire from anything, young as he is. He graduated from Midtown last year.

“Yo, did you hear?” Aunt Pooh asks. “Ol’ boy just got a record deal.”

“For real?”

“Yep. Seven figures, up front.”

Goddamn. No wonder he retired. A million-dollar deal? Not just that, but someone from the Garden got a million-dollar deal?

The music fades out, and the lights dim. A spotlight shines directly on Hype, and the cheers start.

“Let’s get ready to battle!” Hype says, like this really is a boxing match. “For our first battle, in this corner we got M-Dot!”

This short, tatted guy climbs into the Ring to a mix of cheers and boos.

“And in this corner, we got Ms. Tique!” Hype says.

I scream loud as this dark-skinned girl with hoop earrings and a short curly cut climbs into the Ring. Ms. Tique is around Trey’s age, but she spits like an old soul, as if she’s lived a couple of lifetimes and didn’t like either one of them shits.

She’s goals to the highest degree.

Hype introduces the judges. There’s Mr. Jimmy himself, Dee-Nice, and CZ, an undefeated Ring champion. Hype flips a coin, and Ms. Tique wins it. She lets M-Dot go first. The beat starts up. “A Tale of Two Citiez,” by J. Cole.

The gym goes nuts, but me? I watch the Ring. M-Dot paces, and Ms. Tique keeps her eyes on him like a predator watching prey. Even when M-Dot goes at her, she doesn’t flinch, doesn’t react, just stares at him like she knows she’s gonna destroy him.

It’s a thing of beauty.

He has some good lines. His flow is okay. But when it’s Ms. Tique’s turn, she hits him with punch lines that give me goose bumps. Every line gets a reaction out of the crowd.

She wins the first two battles, hands down, and it’s over.

“A’ight, y’all,” Hype says. “It’s time for Rookie Royale! Two rookies will battle it out for the first time in the Ring.”

Aunt Pooh bounces on her heels. “Yeeeeah!”

All of a sudden, my knees feel weak.

“Two names have been drawn,” Hype says, “so without further ado, our first MC is—”

He plays a drumroll. People stomp their feet along with it, rattling the floor, so I’m not completely sure if my legs shake as much as I think.

“Milez!” Hype says.

Cheers go up on the other side of the gym. The crowd parts, and this brown-skinned boy with zigzags cut into his hair makes his way toward the Ring. He looks around my age. A big cross pendant hangs from a chain on his neck.

I know him, but I don’t, if that makes sense. I’ve seen him somewhere.

A slim guy in a black-and-white tracksuit follows him. Dark shades hide his eyes, although the sun’s down. He says something to the boy, and two gold fangs glisten in his mouth.

I nudge Aunt Pooh. “That’s Supreme.”

“Who?” she says around her Blow Pop.

“Supreme!” I say, like she’s supposed to know. She should.

“My dad’s old manager.”

“Oh yeah. I remember him.”

I don’t remember him. I was a toddler when he was around, but I’ve memorized my dad’s story like a song. He recorded his first mixtape at sixteen. People still used CDs back then, so he made copies and passed them out around the neighborhood. Supreme got one and was so blown away that he begged Dad to let him manage his career. Dad agreed. From there, my dad became an underground legend, and Supreme became a legendary manager.

Dad fired Supreme right before he died. Jay claims they had “creative differences.”

The boy with Supreme climbs into the Ring. Soon as Hype hands him a mic, he says, “It’s your boy Milez with a z, the Swagerific prince!”

The cheers are loud.

“Ooh, he the one with that stupid-ass song,” Aunt Pooh says.

That’s how I know him. It’s called “Swagerific,” and I swear to God, it’s the dumbest song ever. I can’t go around the neighborhood without hearing his voice go, “Swagerific, so call me terrific. Swag-erific. Swag-erific. Swag, swag, swag . . .”

There’s a dance that goes with it called the “Wipe Me Down.” Little kids love it. The video’s got like a million views online.

“Shout-out to my pops, Supreme!” Milez says, pointing at him.

Supreme nods as people cheer.

“Well, shit,” Aunt Pooh says. “You going up against your pops’s manager’s son.”

Damn, I guess so. Not just that, but I gotta go up against a somebody. Stupid as that song is, everybody knows Milez and they’re already cheering for him. I’m a nobody in comparison.

But I’m a nobody who can rap. “Swagerific” has lines like, “Life ain’t fair, but why should I care? Why should I care? I got dollars in the air. I got dollars, I got dollars, I got dollars . . .”

Um. Yeah. This won’t be hard. But it also means that losing isn’t an option. I’d never live that down.

Hype plays a drumroll again. “Our next MC is . . . ,” he says, and a couple of people shout out their own names, as if that’ll make him call them. “Bri!”

Aunt Pooh raises my arm high and leads me to the Ring. “The champ is here!” she shouts, like I’m Muhammad Ali. I’m definitely not Ali. I’m scared as hell.

I climb into the Ring anyway. The spotlight beams in my face. Hundreds of faces stare at me and phones point in my direction.

Hype hands me a mic.

“Introduce yourself,” he says.

I’m supposed to hype myself up, but all I get out is, “I’m Bri.”

Some of the crowd snicker.

Hype chuckles. “Okay, Bri. Ain’t you Law’s daughter?”

What’s that got to do with it? “Yeah.”

“Aw, damn! If baby girl is anything like her pops, we ’bout to hear some heat.”

The crowd roars.

Can’t lie, I’m a tad bit annoyed that he mentioned my dad. I get why, but damn. Whether I’m good or not shouldn’t have a thing to do with him. He didn’t teach me to rap. I taught myself. So why does he get the credit?

“Time to flip the coin,” Hype says. “Bri, you get to call it.”

“Tails,” I mutter.

Hype tosses the coin and slaps it onto the back of his hand. “Tails it is. Who’s first?”

I nod toward Milez. I can hardly speak. No way I can go first.

“A’ight. Y’all ready out there?”

For the crowd, it’s basically a hell yes. For me? A hell no.

But I don’t have a choice.

 

THREE

The beat starts—“Niggas in Paris” by Jay-Z and Kanye.

My heart pounds harder than the bass in the song. Milez comes up to me, waaay too close. It gives me a chance to size him up. He talks a lot of shit, but damn, there’s fear in his eyes.

He starts rapping.

I ball so hard, you wish you was like me.
I’m fresh down to my Nikes.
Spend one hundred K in a day,
The boy don’t play,
Going broke ain’t likely.
I ball hard, this hood life crazy.
But I’m a G, it don’t faze me.
Ferrari gassed, Glock in back,
Ready to pop if paparazzi chase me.

Okay, I’ll give props. Those lines are better than anything in “Swagerific,” but this boy can’t be serious. He’s not an uppercase G, a lowercase g, or any kind of G, so why is he claiming that life? He doesn’t even live in the hood. Everybody knows Supreme lives in the suburbs now. Yet his son is ’bout that life?

Nah.

I gotta call him out. Maybe something like, “Your career? I end it. Your G status as authentic as them gems in your pendant.”

Ha! That’s a good one.

He’s still rapping about being such a gangster. I smirk, waiting for my turn. Until—

I ball hard, so why bother?
This ain’t a battle, more like slaughter.
I murder this chick in cold blood,
Like someone did her whack-ass father.

 The.

Fuck?

I advance on Milez. “What the hell you say?”

Hype cuts off the music and I hear, “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” as a couple of people rush into the Ring. Aunt Pooh pulls me back.

“You li’l asshole!” I shout. “Say it again!”

Aunt Pooh drags me to the corner. “The hell is wrong with you?”

“You heard that shit?”

“Yeah, but you handle him with your bars, not your fists! You trying to get disqualified before you start?”

I breathe extra hard. “That line—”

“Got you like he wanted it to!”

She’s right. Damn, she’s right.

The crowd boos. You don’t make digs about my dad to them either.

“Ay! Y’all know the rules. No holds barred,” Hype says. “Even Law is fair game in the Ring.”

More boos.

“A’ight, a’ight!” Hype tries to calm everyone down. “Milez, that was a low blow, fam. C’mon, now.”

“My bad,” Milez says into the mic, but he smirks.

I’m shaking, that’s how much I wanna hit him. Just makes it worse that my throat is all tight, and now I’m almost as pissed at myself as I am at Milez.

“Bri, you ready?” Hype asks.

Aunt Pooh pushes me back to the center of the Ring.

“Yeah,” I bite out.

“A’ight then,” Hype says. “Let’s get it!”

The beat starts again, but all the lines in my head suddenly don’t exist.

“I . . .”

Murder this chick in cold blood.

I can still hear the gunshots that took him from us.

“He . . .”

Like someone did her whack-ass father.

I can still hear Jay wailing.

“I . . .”

Murder . . . Whack-ass father.

I can still see him in the coffin, all cold and stiff.

“Choked!” someone shouts.

Shit.

It becomes contagious and turns into a chant. Milez’s smirk becomes a grin. His dad chuckles.

Hype stops the beat.

“Damn,” he says. “Round one automatically goes to Milez.”

I stumble over to my corner.

I blanked.

I fucking blanked.

Aunt Pooh climbs up on the ropes. “What the hell? You let him get to you?”

“Aunty—”

“You know how much you got on the line right now?” she says. “This is it. Your chance to blow up, and you gon’ hand this battle over to him?”

“No, but . . .”

She pushes me back into the Ring. “Shake that shit off!”

Milez gets palm slaps and fist bumps over in his corner. His dad laughs proudly.

I wish I had that. Not an asshole for a dad, but my dad. At this point I’d settle for good memories. Not just from the night he was murdered.

It happened in front of our old house. He and Jay were going out for date night. Aunt Pooh lived with us back then and agreed to babysit me and Trey while they were gone.

Dad kissed us goodbye as we started a game of Mario Kart, and he and Jay walked out the front door. The car cranked up outside. Just as my Princess Peach gained on Trey’s Bowser and

Aunt Pooh’s Toad, five shots went off. I was only four, but the sound hasn’t left my ears. Then Jay screaming, wailing really, in a way that didn’t sound human.

Word is, a Crown pulled the trigger. The Crowns are the largest King Lord set here on the east side. They may as well be their own gang, big as they are. Dad wasn’t a gangbanger, but he was so close to so many Garden Disciples that he got caught up in their drama. The Crowns took him out.

From everything I’ve heard, he wouldn’t have let anybody make him blank like this. I can’t either.

“Round two!” Hype announces. “Milez, since you won round one, you decide who goes first.”

He cheeses. “I got this.”

“Let’s take it old school then!” says Hype.

He scratches the records and the beat starts. “Deep Cover,” by Snoop and Dre. He wasn’t kidding about the old school. That was the first song Snoop ever did.

The old heads in the gym go crazy. Some of the young ones seem confused. Milez doesn’t look at me when he raps, like I’m no longer relevant.

Yo, they call me the prince,
I ain’t new to this game.
Been plotting for years
And I can’t be tamed.
You can call me a G,
Your son wish he was me,
And every girl with a pulse
Falls inevitably.
I get money,
Like it’s going out of style.
All my whips brand new.
I got Jordan on the dial.

Rule numero uno of battling? Know your opponent’s weakness. Nothing he’s spit this round is directed at me. That may not seem like a red flag, but right now it’s a huge one. I blanked. A real MC would go for the kill because of that. Hell, I’d go for it. He’s not even mentioning it. That means there’s a 98 percent chance this is prewritten.

Prewritten is a no-no in the Ring. A bigger no-no? Prewritten by someone else.

I don’t know if he wrote those lines, maybe he did, but I can make everyone think he didn’t. Dirty as hell? Absolutely. But since my dad isn’t off-limits, not a damn thing is off-limits.

Rule number two of battling—use the circumstances to your advantage. Supreme doesn’t look too worried, but trust: He should be.

That goes in my arsenal.

Rule number three—if there’s a beat, make sure your flow fits it like a glove. Flow is the rhythm of the rhymes, and every word, every syllable, affects it. Even the way a word is pronounced can change the flow. While most people know Snoop and Dre for “Deep Cover,” one time I found a remake of it by this rapper named Big Pun on YouTube. His flow on this song was one of the best I’ve ever heard in my life.

Maybe I can mimic it.

Maybe I can wipe that dumb smirk off Milez’s face.

Maybe I can actually win.

Milez stops, and the beat fades off. He gets a couple of cheers, but not many. The Ring loves punch lines, not weak lines about yourself.

“Okay, I hear you,” Hype says. “Bri, your go!”

My ideas are spread out like puzzle pieces. Now I gotta put them all together into something that makes sense.

The beat starts again. I nod along. There’s nothing but me, the music, and Milez.

The words have strung themselves together into rhymes and into a flow, and I let it all come tumbling out.

Ready for war, Milez? Nah, you fucked up this time.
Should address this cipher to the writer,
The biter, who really wrote them rhymes.
Come at Brianna, you wanna get buried?
Spit like a legend, feminine weapon,
I reckon your own father’s worried.
Bow down, baby, get down on your knees.
You got paper, but I’m greater.
Ask your clique, and while you at it ask Supreme.
Straight from the Garden where people dearly
departin’.
Screw a pardon, I’m hardened,
And Milez’s heart is on back of milk cartons.
It’s MIA, and this is judgment—

 I stop. The crowd is going bananas. B-a-n-a-n-a-s.

“What?” Hype shouts. “What?”

Even the rough-and-tough-looking dudes bounce up and down with their fists at their mouths going, “Ohhhh!”

“What?” Hype shouts again, and he plays a siren. The siren. The one he uses when an MC spits something dope.

I, Brianna Marie Jackson, got the siren.

Holy shit.

“She came with the pun flow!” Hype says. “Somebody get a water hose! We can’t handle the heat! We can’t handle it!”

This is magical. I thought the reactions I’d get when I freestyled for Aunt Pooh’s friends were something. This is a new level, like when Luke went from being just Luke to Jedi-ass Luke.

“Milez, I’m sorry, but she murdered you in a couple of bars,” Hype says. “Call the DA! This is a homicide scene! Judges, what y’all think?”

All of them lift signs with my name on it.

The crowd goes wilder.

“Bri wins it!” Hype says.

Milez nervously rubs the peach fuzz on his chin.

I grin. Got him.

“Let’s get to the final round,” Hype says. “We’re at a tie, and whoever wins this one wins it all. Bri, who goes first?”

“Him,” I say. “Let him get his garbage out the way.”

A bunch of oohs echo around us. Yeah, I said it.

“Milez, you better come correct,” Hype says. “Let’s get it!”

The beat starts—“Shook Ones,” by Mobb Deep. It’s slower than “Deep Cover,” but it’s perfect for freestyling. In every YouTube battle I watched, shit got real whenever that beat dropped.

Milez glares at me as he raps. Something about how much money he has, how many girls like him, his clothes, his jewelry, the gangster life he’s living. Repetitive. Stale. Prewritten.

I gotta go for the kill.

Here I am, going at him as if I don’t have any manners. Manners. A lot of words rhyme with that if I deliver them right. Cameras. Rappers. Pamper. Hammer—MC Hammer. Vanilla Ice. Hip-hop heads consider them pop stars, not real rappers. I can compare him to them.

I gotta get my signature line in there—you can only spell “brilliant” by first spelling Bri. Aunt Pooh once pointed that out right before teasing me about being such a perfectionist.

Perfection. I can use that. Perfection, protection, election. Election—presidents. Presidents are leaders. Leader. Either. Ether, like that song where Nas went in on Jay-Z.

I need to get something in there about his name too. Milez. Miles per hour. Speed. Light speed. Then I need to end with something about myself.

Milez lowers the mic. There are a couple of cheers. Supreme claps, yet his face is hard.

“Okay, I see you, Milez!” Hype says. “Bri, you better bring the heat!”

The instrumental starts up again. Aunt Pooh said I only get one chance to let everybody and their momma know who I am.

So I take it.

My apologies, see, I forgot my manners.
I get on the mic ’cause it’s my life. You show off for girls and cameras.
You a pop star, not a rapper. A Vanilla Ice or a Hammer.
Y’all hear this crap he dumping out? Somebody get him a Pamper.
And a crown for me. The best have heard about me.
You can only spell “brilliant” by first spelling Bri.
You see, naturally, I do my shit with perfection.
Better call a bodyguard ’cause you gon’ need some protection,
And on this here election, the people crown a new leader.
You didn’t see this coming, and your ghostwriters didn’t either.
I came here to ether. I’m sorry to do this to you.
This is no longer a battle, it’s your funeral, boo.
I’m 
murdering you.
On my corner they call me coroner, I’m warning ya.
Tell the truth, this dude is borin’ ya.
You confused like a foreigner. I’ll explain with ease:
You’re just a casualty in the reality of the madness of Bri.
No fallacies, I spit maladies, causin’ fatalities,
And do it casually, damaging rappers without bandaging.
Imagining managing my own label, my own salary.
And actually, factually, there’s no MC that’s as bad as me.
Milez? That’s cute. But it don’t make me cower.
I move at light speed, you stuck at per hour.
You spit like a lisp. I spit like a high power.
Bri’s the future, and you Today like Matt Lauer.
You coward. But you’re a G? It ain’t convincing to me.
You talk about your clothes, about your shopping sprees.
You talk about your Glock, about your i-c-e.
But in this here ring, they all talking ’bout me, Bri!

 The crowd goes nuts.

“I told y’all!” Aunt Pooh shouts as she stands on the ropes. “I told y’all!”

Milez can’t look at me or his dad, who seems to glare at him. He could be glaring at me, too. Hard to tell behind those shades.

“A’ight, y’all.” Hype tries to calm everyone down as he comes from behind the turntables. “It’s down to this vote. Whoever takes this one is the winner. Judges, who y’all got?”

Mr. Jimmy raises his sign. It says Bri.

Dee-Nice raises his sign. Bri.

CZ raises his sign. Li’l Law.

Holy shit.

“We have a winner!” Hype says to thunderous cheers. He raises my arm into the air. “Ladies and gentlemen, the winner of tonight’s Rookie Royale, Bri!”

 

FOUR

Hours after my battle, I dream my nightmare.

I’m five years old, climbing into my mom’s old Lexus. Daddy went to heaven almost a year ago. Aunt

Pooh’s been gone a couple of months. She went to live with her and Mommy’s aunty in the projects.

I lock my seat belt in place, and Mommy holds my overstuffed backpack toward me. Her arm has all

these dark marks on it. She once told me she got them because she wasn’t feeling well.

“You’re still sick, Mommy?” I ask.

She follows my eyes and rolls her sleeve down. “Yeah, baby,” she whispers.

My brother gets in the car beside me, and Mommy says we’re going on a trip to somewhere special. We end up in our grandparents’ driveway.

Suddenly, Trey’s eyes widen. He begs her not to do this. Seeing him cry makes me cry.

Mommy tells him to take me inside, but he won’t. She gets out, goes around to his side, unlocks his seat belt, and tries to pull him out the car, but he digs his feet into the seat.

She grabs his shoulders. “Trey! I need you to be my little man,” she says, her voice shaky. “For your sister’s sake. Okay?”

He looks over at me and quickly wipes his face. “I’m . . . I’m . . . I’m okay, Li’l Bit,” he claims, but the

cry-hiccups break up his words. “It’s okay.”

He unlocks my seat belt, takes my hand, and helps me out the car.

Mommy hands us our backpacks. “Be good, okay?” she says. “Do what your grandparents tell you to do.”

“When are you coming back?” I ask.

She kneels in front of me. Her shaky fingers brush through my hair, then cup my cheek. “I’ll be back later. I promise.”

“Later when?”

“Later. I love you, okay?”

She presses her lips to my forehead and keeps them there for the longest. She does the same to Trey, then straightens up.

“Mommy, when are you coming back?” I ask again.

She gets in the car without answering me and cranks it up. Tears stream down her cheeks. Even at five, I know she won’t be back for a long time.

I drop my backpack and chase the car down the driveway. “Mommy, don’t leave me!”

But she goes into the street, and I’m not supposed to go into the street.

“Mommy!” I cry. Her car goes, goes, and soon, it’s gone. “Mommy! Mom—”

“Brianna!”

I jolt awake.

Jay’s sitting on the side of my bed. “Baby, are you okay?”

I try to catch my breath as I wipe the dampness from my eyes. “Yeah.”

“Were you having a nightmare?”

A nightmare that’s a memory. Jay really did leave me and Trey at our grandparents’ house. She couldn’t take care of us and her drug habit, too. That’s when I learned that when people die, they sometimes take the living with them.

I saw her in the park a few months later, looking more like a red-eyed, scaly-skinned dragon than my mommy. I started calling her Jay after that—there was no way she was my mom anymore. It became my own habit that was hard to break. Still is.

It took three years and a rehab stint for her to come back. Even though she was clean, some judge decided that she could only have me and Trey every other weekend and on some holidays. She didn’t get us back full-time until five years ago, after she got her job and started renting this place.

Five years back with her, and yet I still dream about her leaving us. It hits me out of nowhere sometimes. But Jay can’t know I dream about it. It’ll make her feel guilty, and then I’ll feel guilty for making her feel guilty.

“It was nothing,” I tell her.

She sighs and pushes up off the bed. “Okay. Go ahead and get up. We need to have a little talk before you head to school.”

“About what?”

“How you could tell me you won in the Ring, but you couldn’t tell me your grades are dropping faster than Pooh’s sagging-ass pants.”

“Huh?”

“Huh?” she mocks, and shows me her phone. “I got an email from your poetry teacher.”

Mrs. Murray.

The conversation in ACT prep.

Aw, hell.

Honestly? I forgot. I was floating after my battle, for real. That feeling when the crowd cheered for me is probably what getting high is like, and I’m addicted.

I don’t know what to say to my mom. “I’m sorry?”

“Sorry nothing! What’s your main responsibility, Bri?”

“Education over everything,” I mumble.

“Exactly. Education over everything, including rapping. I thought I made that clear?”

“It’s not that big of a deal though, dang!”

Jay raises her eyebrows. “Girl,” she says in that slow way that sends a warning. “You better check yourself.”

“I’m just saying, some parents wouldn’t make a big deal out of this.”

“Well gosh golly darn, I’m not some parents! You can do better, you’ve done better, so do better. Only Cs I wanna see are pictures of seas, the only Ds I better see are deez grades improving. We clear?”

I swear she’s so hard on me. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Thank you. Get ready for school.”

She leaves.

“Goddamn,” I mutter under my breath. “Killing my vibe, first thing in the morning.”

“You ain’t got no vibe!” she hollers from the hall.

I can’t ever say shit in this house.

I get up, and almost immediately I wanna get back under my covers. That first feel of the chill in the air is always the hardest. Moving around helps.

The ladies of hip-hop watch from the wall beside my bed. I’ve got some of everybody, from MC Lyte to Missy Elliott to Nicki Minaj to Rapsody . . . the list goes on and on. I figure if I wanna be a queen, queens should watch over me when I sleep.

I throw my Vader hoodie back on and slip on my Not-Timbs.

Nah, they’re not the real deal. The real deal costs a water bill.

These cost twenty bucks at the swap meet. I try to pull them off like they are Timbs except—

“Shit,” I hiss. Some of the black “leather” on one has rubbed off, revealing white cloth. This happened to the other last week. I take a black Sharpie and go to work. Ratchet, but I gotta do what I gotta do.

Soon I’m getting some real Timbs though. I’ve been saving the money I make from my snack dealing. Aunt Pooh buys my stock and lets me keep the profits. It’s the closest Jay will let her get to giving me money. Thanks to the kids at Midtown, I’m about halfway to a pair of brand-new Timbs. Technically, we’re not supposed to sell stuff on school campus, but I’ve gotten away with it so far. Shout-out to Michelle Obama. That health kick of hers made the school take the good stuff from the vending machines and made my business very lucrative.

A horn blows outside. It’s seven fifteen, so it’s gotta be Mr. Watson, the bus driver. He claims that even when he’s dead, he’ll be on time. If his zombie ass pulls up in the bus one day, I am not climbing on board.

“I’m gone,” I call to Jay. Trey’s bedroom door is closed.

He’s probably knocked out. He gets home from work when I’m almost gone to bed, and he leaves for work when I’m at school.

A short yellow bus waits out front. Midtown-the-school is in Midtown-the-neighborhood, where people live in nice condos and expensive historic houses. I live in Garden High’s zone, but Jay says there’s too much bullshit and not enough people who care there. Private school’s not in our budget, so Midtown School of the Arts is the next best thing. A few years ago, they started busing students in from all over the city. They called it their “diversity initiative.” Jay calls it their “they needed grant money and wouldn’t nobody give it to them for just a bunch of white kids initiative.” You’ve got rich kids from the north side, middle-class kids from downtown and Midtown, and hood kids like me. There’s only fifteen of us from the Garden at Midtown. So they send a short bus for us.

Mr. Watson wears his Santa hat and hums along with the Temptations’ version of “Silent Night” that plays on his phone. Christmas is less than two weeks away, but Mr. Watson has been in the holiday spirit for months.

“Hey, Mr. Watson,” I say.

“Hey, Brianna! Cold enough for you?”

Too cold.”

“Aw, ain’t no such thing. This the perfect weather!”

For what, freezing your ass off? “If you say so,” I mumble, and head toward the back. I’m his third pickup. Shana’s dozing up front, her head just barely touching the window. She’s not about to mess up her bun, nap or not. All the eleventh-grade dancers look exhausted these days.

Deon nods at me from his seat in the very back, his saxophone case propped up beside him. Deon’s a junior too, but since he’s in the music program, I only ever see him on the bus.

“Hey, Bri. Let me get a Snickers.”

I sit a couple of rows ahead of him. “You got Snickers money?”

He tosses me a balled-up dollar. I toss the candy bar back to him.

“Thanks. You killed it in the Ring.”

“You know about that?”

“Yeah. Saw the battle on YouTube. My cousin texted it to me. He said you got next.”

Dang, I got folks talking like that? I definitely had the Ring talking. I could barely get out of there last night without somebody telling me how dope I was. It was the first time I realized I can do this.

I mean, it’s one thing to wanna do something. It’s another to think it’s possible. Rapping has been my dream forever, but dreams aren’t real. You wake up from them or reality makes them seem stupid. Trust, every time my fridge is almost empty, all of my dreams seem stupid. But between my win and Dee-Nice’s deal, anything feels possible right now. Or I’m that desperate for things to change.

The Garden passes by my window. Older folks water their flowers or bring out their trash cans. A couple of cars blast music on high. Seems normal, but things haven’t been the same since the riots. The neighborhood doesn’t feel nearly as safe. Not that the Garden was ever a utopia, hell no, but before I only worried about GDs and Crowns. Now I gotta worry about the cops too? Yeah, people get killed around here, and nah, it’s not always by the police, but Jay says this was like having a stranger come in your house, steal one of your kids, and blame you for it because your family was dysfunctional, while the whole world judges you for being upset.

Zane, a senior with a nose ring, gets on the bus. He’s stuckup as hell. Sonny says Zane thinks he’s fine, but Sonny and I also agree that he is fine. It’s an internal struggle, being annoyed by his ass and being mesmerized by his face.

And if I’m real, being mesmerized by his ass. Boy’s got a donk.

He never speaks to me, but today he goes, “Your battle was fire, ma!”

Well, goddamn. “Thanks.”

How many people have seen it?

Aja the freshman saw it. She gives me props soon as she gets on. So do Keyona, Nevaeh, and Jabari, the sophomores. Before I know it, I’m the talk of the short bus.

“You got skills, Bri!”

“I was geeking the whole time!”

“Bet she couldn’t beat me in a battle. On God, bruh.”

That little dig is from Curtis Brinkley, this short, wavy-haired, brown-skinned boy who puts a lot of lies on God, bruh. In fifth grade, he claimed that Rihanna was his cousin and that his mom was on the road with her, working as her hairstylist. In sixth grade, he said his mom was on tour with Beyoncé as her hairstylist. Really, his mom was in prison. She still is.

Mr. Watson pulls up at Sonny’s and Malik’s houses. They live next door to each other, but they both come out of Malik’s front door.

I take off my snapback. My edges still need help, but I laid them as best as I could earlier. I put on some lip gloss, too. It’s stupid as hell, but I’m hoping Malik notices.

I notice way too much about him. Like the way his eyes sometimes get this glint about them that makes me think he knows every secret there is about me, and he’s cool with them all. Like the fact that he’s fine, and the fact that he doesn’t realize he’s fine, which somehow makes him even finer. Like the way my heart speeds up every time he says “Breezy.” He’s the only one who calls me that, and when he says it, he stretches it slightly, in a way that nobody else can really imitate. Like he wants the name to only belong to him.

All these feelings started when we were ten. I have this real clear memory of us wrestling in Malik’s front yard. I was the Rock and he was John Cena. We were obsessed with wrestling videos on YouTube. I pinned Malik down, and while sitting on top of him in his front yard, I suddenly wanted to kiss him.

It. Freaked. Me. Out.

So I punched him and said in my best the Rock voice, “I’m laying the smackdown on your candy ass!”

Basically, I tried to ignore my sexual awakening by imitating the Rock.

I was so weirded out by the whole thing. Those feelings didn’t go away either. But I told myself over and over again that he’s Malik. Best friend extraordinaire, Luke to my Leia.

Yet here I am, using my phone to check my Pink Pursuit lip gloss (who comes up with these names?), hoping he’ll see me some kinda way, too. Pathetic.

“Why won’t you admit I whooped that ass?” Sonny asks him as they climb on board.

“Like I said, my controller was acting funny,” Malik claims. “We gotta rematch.”

“Fine. I’ll still whoop your—Briiii!”

Sonny dances down the aisle to a beat nobody hears. When he gets close, he bows like he’s worshipping me. “All hail the Ring queen.”

I laugh. “Queen I am not.”

“Well, you killed it, Yoda.” We slap palms and end with the Wakanda salute. Wakanda forever.

Malik shrugs. “I won’t say I told you so. But I won’t won’t say I didn’t tell you so, either.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” I tell him.

Sonny sits on the seat in front of me. “Nope!”

Malik plops down beside me. “It’s a double negative.”

“Um, no, Mr. Film Major,” I say. “As a literary arts major, I can assure that’s just a mess. You basically said that you won’t say you told me so.”

His eyebrows meet and his mouth drops slightly open. Confused Malik is so damn cute. “What?”

“Exactly. Stick with filmmaking, boo.”

“Agreed,” says Sonny. “Anyway, that battle was ridiculous, Bri. Except when you just stood there that first round. I was about to pull a Mariah Carey ‘I don’t know her’ on you.”

I punch his arm. Troll.

“But seriously, you killed it,” Sonny says. “Milez, on the other hand, needs to stop rapping.”

Malik nods. “He Jar Jar Binksed that.” Malik insists that Jar Jar Binks should be a verb, adjective, and an adverb to describe whack stuff because Jar Jar Binks is the worst character in the Star Wars universe.

“Bruh, you know that’s never gonna catch on, right?” Sonny asks him.

“But it makes sense! Wanna say something is whack? Call it a Jar Jar Binks.”

“Okay. You’re a Jar Jar Binks,” Sonny says. “Got it.”

Malik thumps Sonny’s forehead. Sonny punches Malik’s shoulder. They go back and forth, punching and swatting at each other.

Totally normal. In fact, a Sonny and Malik fight is one of the few things guaranteed in life, right up there with death, taxes, and Kanye West rants.

Sonny’s phone buzzes, and suddenly Malik no longer exists. His face lights up almost as bright as the screen.

I sit up a little and stretch my neck. “Who you texting?”

“Dang, bish. Nosy ass.”

I stretch some more to try and see the name on the screen, but Sonny dims it so I can’t. I only catch the heart-eyes emoji next to the name. I raise my eyebrows. “Is there someone you’d like to tell me about, sir?”

Sonny glances around, almost like he’s afraid somebody heard me. Everybody’s having their own conversations though. Still he says, “Later, Bri.”

Considering how he’s on edge, there must be a guy. When we were eleven, Sonny came out to me. We were watching Justin Bieber perform at some awards show. I thought he was cute, but I wasn’t obsessed with him like Sonny was. Sonny turned to me and blurted out, “I think I only like boys.”

It was out of nowhere. Sorta. There were little things here and there that made me wonder. Like, how he’d print out pictures of Bieber and secretly carry them around. How he acted around my brother—if Trey liked something, Sonny suddenly loved it; if Trey spoke to him, Sonny blushed; and if Trey got a girlfriend, Sonny acted like it was the end of the world.

But I can’t lie; I didn’t really know what to say at the time. So I just told him, “Okay,” and left it at that.

He told Malik not long after and asked if they could still be friends. Apparently, Malik was like, “Long as we can still play PlayStation.” Sonny told his parents, too, and they’ve always been cool with it. But I guess sometimes he’s afraid of how other people will act if they know.

The bus pulls up at an intersection, beside a cluster of bleary-eyed kids. Their breath turns to smoke around them as they wait for the bus to Garden High.

Curtis lets his window down. “Ay, Basics! Talk that shit you were saying yesterday!”

School pride turns us into gangs. We call the kids from Garden Heights Basics ’cause we say they’re “basic as hell.” They call us short-bus nerds.

“Man, fuck your li’l lollipop-head-looking ass,” a boy in a bubble vest says. “Bet you won’t get off that bus and say shit to my face.”

I smirk. Keandre tells no lies.

He looks at me. “Ay, Bri! You did your thing in the Ring, baby girl!”

I let my window down. Some of the other kids nod or say, “Whaddup, Bri?”

If school pride makes us gangs, I’m neutral thanks to my dad. “You saw the battle?” I ask Keandre.

“Hell yeah! Props, queen.”

See? Around the neighborhood, I’m royalty. Everybody shows love.

But when the bus pulls up at Midtown, I’m nothing.

At Midtown you have to be great for anyone to notice you. Brilliant, actually. And it’s like everybody’s trying to outdo everyone else. It’s all about who got the lead in this play or that recital. Who won that award for their writing or their art. Whose vocal range is the best. It’s a popularity contest on steroids.

If you’re not exceptional, you’re a nobody.

I’m the exact opposite of exceptional. My grades are so-so. I don’t win awards. Nothing I do is enough. I’m not enough. Except for when I’m too much for my teachers to handle and they send me to the principal’s office.

On the school steps, a couple of boys do the “Wipe Me Down” dance as Milez goes “Swag, swag, swag” on one of their phones. Don’t know why they’re torturing themselves with that garbage.

“So . . .” I grip my backpack straps. “What are y’all doing at lunch?”

“I’ve got SAT prep,” Sonny says.

“Damn, you’re doing both?” I ask. Sonny’s more obsessed with this college stuff than Jay is.

He shrugs. “Gotta do what I gotta do.”

“What about you?” I ask Malik, and suddenly, my heart beats super fast at the idea of lunch alone with him.

But he frowns. “Sorry, Bri. Gotta go to the lab and work on this documentary.” He holds up his camera.

Welp, so much for my idea. I probably won’t see either of them until we get back on the bus. See, Sonny and Malik have their groups at Midtown. Unfortunately for me, Sonny and Malik are my group. When they’re with their groups, I have nothing on top of being nobody. They’re both pretty damn brilliant, too. Everybody in visual arts loves Sonny’s graffiti pieces. Malik’s won a couple of awards for his short films.

I just gotta get through one more year in this place. One more year of being quiet, unassuming Bri who stays to herself as her friends get their glow-ups.

Yeah.

We get in line for security. “Think Long and Tate have calmed down since yesterday?” Sonny asks.

“Probably not.” They’re always power tripping. Last week, they put Curtis through an extra security screening, even though the metal detector didn’t beep when he went through.

They claimed they wanted to be “sure.”

“I’m telling y’all, the way they do security is not normal,” Malik says. “My mom doesn’t do people like this, and she deals with criminals.”

Malik’s mom, Aunt ’Chelle, is one of the security guards at the courthouse.

“Y’all do realize they’ve gotten worse since last year, right?” says Malik. “Seeing that cop get away with murder probably made them think they’re invincible too.”

“You might be on to something, Malik X,” says Sonny.

That’s been our nickname for Malik since the riots. The whole situation shook him up. It shook me up too, can’t lie, but Malik’s been on another level, always talking about social justice and reading up on stuff like the Black Panthers. Before the riots, the only Black Panther he cared about was T’Challa.

“We need to do something,” he says. “This isn’t okay.”

“Just ignore them,” says Sonny. “They’re more talk than anything.”

Curtis goes through the metal detector with no problems.

Then Shana, Deon, the three sophomores, Zane. Next it’s Sonny, followed by Malik. I stroll through after him.

The metal detector doesn’t beep, but Long puts his arm out

in front of me. “Go back.”

“Why?” I ask.

“Because he said so,” says Tate.

“But it didn’t beep!” I say.

“I don’t care,” Long says. “I told you to go back through.”

Fine. I go through the metal detector again. No beep.

“Hand over the bag,” Long says.

Oh, shit. My candy stash. If they find it, I could get suspended for selling on campus. Considering how much I’ve been suspended over other stuff, shit, I may get expelled.

“Hand. Over. The. Bag,” Long says.

I swallow. “I don’t have to—”

“Oh, you got something to hide?” Long says.

“No!”

“Put that camera away!” Tate tells Malik.

He’s got it out and pointed at us. “I can record if I want!”

“Hand over the bag!” Long tells me.

“No!”

“You know what—”

He reaches for my backpack strap, but I snatch it away. By the look that flashes across his eyes, I shouldn’t have done that.

He grabs my arm. “Give me that backpack!”

I yank away. “Get your hands off me!”

Everything happens in a blur. He grabs my arm again and pulls it behind me. The other one goes behind me too. I try to yank and tug away, which only makes his grip tighter. Before I know it, my chest hits the ground first, then my face is pressed against the cold floor. Long’s knee goes onto my back as Tate removes my backpack.

“Yo! What the fuck!” Sonny shouts.

“Get off of her!” Malik says, camera pointed at us.

“You brought something in here, huh?” Long says. He wraps plastic around my wrists and pulls it tight. “That’s why you didn’t want us to see it, huh? You li’l hoodlum! Where’s all that mouth you had yesterday?”

I can’t say a word.

He’s not a cop.

He doesn’t have a gun.

But I don’t wanna end up like that boy.

I want my mom.

I want my dad.

I wanna go home.

 

FIVE

I end up in Principal Rhodes’s office.

My arms are tied behind me. Long dragged me in here and made me sit down a few minutes ago. He’s in Dr. Rhodes’s office now. She told her secretary, Ms. Clark, to call my mom and keep an eye on me, like I’m the one who needs to be watched.

Ms. Clark looks through my files on her computer for Jay’s work number. Surprised she doesn’t know it by heart by now.

I stare straight ahead. The office has inspirational posters on every wall. One is a complete lie: “You can’t control what other people do. You can only control the way that you react.”

No, you can’t. Not when your arm is jerked behind you, or you’re lying on the floor with a knee in your back. You can’t control shit then.

Ms. Clark picks up her phone and dials. After a couple of seconds, she goes, “Hi, this is Midtown School of the Arts. May I speak to Mrs. Jayda Jackson, please?”

Jay answers the phones at Christ Temple, so I expect Ms. Clark to go right into explaining the situation to her. But she frowns. “Oh. I see. Thank you.”

She hangs up.

Weird. “What did my mom say?”

“I was told that your mother doesn’t work there anymore. Is there another way to reach her?”

I sit up as best as I can. “What?”

“Should I try her cell phone or her home phone?”

“Are you sure you called Christ Temple Church?”

“Positive,” Ms. Clark says. “Cell phone or home phone?”

My heart stops.

The Popkenchurch.

Jay only gets it when something bad happens.

Did she . . . did she lose her job?

She couldn’t have. Ms. Clark’s got it wrong somehow. She probably called the wrong place and just doesn’t realize it.

Yeah. That’s it.

I tell Ms. Clark to try Jay’s cell phone. About fifteen minutes later, the office door flies open, and Jay storms in. She’s in her work clothes, so she must’ve left the church.

“Brianna, what in the world happened?”

She kneels in front of me and looks me over, almost like she did when she came back from rehab. Her eyes couldn’t get enough of me. Now they examine every inch of me . . . except my hands. She whirls around on the secretary. “Why the hell is my daughter handcuffed?”

Dr. Rhodes appears in her doorway. Her glasses take up most of her face, and her curly red hair is in a bun. She was the principal back when Trey went here, too. I met her at his Freshman Welcome Night. She gave me this sugary-sweet smile and said, “Hopefully in a few years, you’ll join us too.”

She didn’t say there would be a security guard ranting in her office about “those kids” bringing “that stuff” into “this school.” The door was closed, but I heard him.

Those kids. This school. Like one doesn’t belong with the other.

“Mrs. Jackson,” Dr. Rhodes says, “may we please have a word in my office?”

“Not until my daughter is released.”

Dr. Rhodes looks back over her shoulder. “Mr. Long, would you please release Brianna?”

He lumbers out and removes the little scissors hanging from a clip on his waist. He grumbles, “Stand up.”

I do, and with one little snip my hands are uncuffed.

Jay immediately cups my cheeks. “Are you okay, baby?”

“Mrs. Jackson, my office, please?” Dr. Rhodes says. “You too, Brianna.”

We follow her in. The look she gives Long tells him to stay outside.

My backpack sits on top of her desk. It’s unzipped, revealing every pack of candy I had.

Dr. Rhodes points at the two chairs in front of her. “Please, have a seat.”

We do. “Are you going to tell me why my daughter was handcuffed?” Jay asks.

“There was an incident—”

“Obviously.”

“I will be the first to admit that the guards used excessive force. They put Brianna on the floor.”

“Threw,” I mumble. “They threw me on the floor.”

Jay’s eyes widen. “Excuse me?”

“We’ve had issues with students bringing illegal drugs—”

“That doesn’t explain why they manhandled my child!” says Jay.

“Brianna was not cooperative at first.”

“It still doesn’t explain it!” Jay says.

Dr. Rhodes takes a deep breath. “It will not happen again, Mrs. Jackson. I assure you that there will be an investigation and disciplinary action will take place if the administration sees fit. However, Brianna may have to face disciplinary action as well.” She turns to me. “Brianna, have you been selling candy on campus?”

I fold my arms. I’m not answering that shit. And let her turn this around on me? Hell no.

“Answer her,” Jay tells me.

“It’s only candy,” I mumble.

“Maybe so,” says Dr. Rhodes, “but it’s against school policy to sell contraband on campus.”

Contraband? “The only reason y’all found out about it is because Long and Tate like to go after the black and Latinx kids!”

“Brianna,” Jay says. It’s not a warning. It’s an “I got this.” She turns to Rhodes. “Since when is candy contraband? Why did they come after my daughter in the first place?”

“The security guards have the right to conduct random searches. I can assure you that Brianna was not ‘targeted.’”

“Bullshit!” I don’t even bite my tongue. “They always harass us.”

“It may seem that way—”

“It is that way!”

“Brianna,” Jay says. That’s a warning. She turns to the principal. “Dr. Rhodes, my son told me that the guards picked on certain kids more than others when he was here. I don’t think my children are making this up. I’d hate to think you’re saying that.”

“There will be an investigation,” Dr. Rhodes says so calmly, it pisses me off. “But I stand by what I said, Mrs. Jackson. The guards treat all of the students the same.”

“Oh,” says Jay. “They throw them all on the floor, huh?”

Silence.

Dr. Rhodes clears her throat. “Again, Brianna was not cooperative. I was told she was argumentative and aggressive. This is not the first time we’ve had behavioral issues with her.”

Here we go.

“What are you trying to say?” Jay asks.

“Today’s behavior follows a pattern—”

“Yes, a pattern of my daughter being targeted—”

“Again, no one is targeting—”

“Do the white girls who make slick comments get sent to your office every other week too?” Jay asks.

“Mrs. Jackson, Brianna is frequently aggressive—”

Aggressive. One word, three syllables. Rhymes with excessive.

I’m so excessive,
that I’m aggressive.

“Aggressive” is used to describe me a lot. It’s supposed to mean threatening, but I’ve never threatened anybody. I just say stuff that my teachers don’t like. All of them except Mrs. Murray, who happens to be my only black teacher. There was the time in history class during Black History Month. I asked Mr. Kincaid why we don’t ever talk about black people before slavery. His pale cheeks reddened.

“Because we’re following a lesson plan, Brianna,” he said.

“Yeah, but don’t you come up with the lesson plans?” I asked.

“I will not tolerate outbursts in class.”

“I’m just saying, don’t act like black people didn’t exist before—”

He told me to go to the office. Wrote me up as being “aggressive.”

Fiction class. Mrs. Burns was talking about the literary canon, and I rolled my eyes because all the books sounded boring as shit. She asked if there was a problem, and I told her exactly that, just without saying “as shit.” She sent me to the office. I mumbled something under my breath on the way out, and she wrote me up for aggressive behavior.

Can’t forget the incident in my theater elective. We’d done the same scene one hundred times. Mr. Ito told us to start from the top yet again. I sucked my teeth and went, “Oh my God,” throwing my hands at my sides. My script flew from my grasp and hit him. He swore I intentionally threw it. That got me a two-day suspension.

That’s all from this year. Freshman year and sophomore year were full of incidents, too. Now I’ve got another under my belt.

“Per school policy, Brianna will have to serve a three-day suspension for selling banned items on school property without permission,” Dr. Rhodes says. She zips up my backpack and

hands it to me.

We go into the hallway just as the bell for second period rings. Classroom doors open, and it seems like everybody and their momma pour into the halls. I get second glances I’ve never gotten before, and stares and whispers.

I’m no longer invisible, but now I wish I was.

I’m quiet on the ride home.

Hoodlum. One word, two syllables. Can be made to rhyme with a lot of things. Synonyms: thug, delinquent, hooligan, lowlife, gangster, and, according to Long, Brianna. 

Can’t no good come,
From this hoodlum.

Nah. Fuck that word.

Fuck that school.

Fuck all of this.

I stare at what’s left of the Garden. We’re on Clover Street, which used to be one of the busiest streets in Garden Heights, but ever since the riots, there’s a bunch of charred rubble and boarded-up buildings. The Mega Dollar Store was one of the first to get hit. Cellular Express got looted first and then burned down. Shop ’n Save burned down to the frame, and now we have to go to the Walmart on the edge of the Garden or the little store over on the west if we wanna get groceries.

I’m a hoodlum from a bunch of nothing.

“Doubt they’ll ever fix this mess,” Jay says. “It’s like they want us to remember what happens when we step out of line.” She glances over at me. “You okay, Bookie?”

According to my granddaddy, Jacksons don’t cry—we suck it up and deal with it. Doesn’t matter how much my eyes burn. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“No, you didn’t,” Jay says. “You had every right to keep your backpack. But Bri . . . Promise me, if that ever happens again, you’ll do what they tell you to do.”

“What?”

“Bad things can happen, baby. People like that sometimes abuse their power.”

“So I don’t have any power?”

“You have more than you know. But in moments like that, I—” She swallows. “I need you to act as if you don’t have any. Once you’re safely out of the situation, then we’ll handle it. But I need you safely out of the situation. Okay?”

This is like that talk she gave me about the cops. Do whatever they tell you to do, she said. Don’t make them think you’re a threat. Basically, weaken myself and take whatever’s thrown

at me so I can survive that moment.

I’m starting to think it doesn’t matter what I do. I’ll still be whatever people think I am. “They’re always on my case at that school.”

“I know,” Jay says. “And it’s not fair. But you only have to get through two more years, baby. All these incidents . . . we can’t risk you getting expelled, Bri. If that means keeping your mouth shut, I need you to do it.”

“I can’t speak up for myself?”

“You pick your battles,” she says. “Not everything deserves a comment or an eye roll or an attitude—”

“I’m not the only one who does that stuff!”

“No, but girls like you are the only ones getting hits on their permanent record!”

The car goes quiet.

Jay sighs out of her nose. “Sometimes the rules are different for black folks, baby,” she says. “Hell, sometimes they’re playing checkers while we’re in a complicated-ass chess game. It’s an awful fact of life, but it’s a fact. Midtown is unfortunately one of those places where you not only gotta play chess, but you gotta play it by a different set of rules.”

I hate this shit. “I don’t wanna go back there.”

“I understand, but we don’t have any other options.”

“Why can’t I go to Garden High?”

“Because your daddy and I swore that you and Trey would never step foot in that school,” she says. “You think the guards are bad at Midtown? They have actual cops at Garden High, Bri. The damn school is treated like a prison. They don’t set anybody up to succeed. Say what you want about Midtown, but you’ve got a better chance there.”

“A better chance at what? Getting tossed around like a rag doll?”

“A better chance at making it!” She’s louder than me. She takes a deep breath. “You’re gonna face a whole lot of Longs and Tates in your life, baby. More than I’d like. But you never let their actions determine what you do. The moment you do, you’ve given them the power. You hear me?”

Yeah, but does she hear me? Neither of us speaks for the longest.

“I wish . . . I wish I could give you more options, baby. I do. We don’t have any. Especially right now.”

Especially right now. I look over at her. “Did something happen?”

She shifts in her seat a little. “Why you say that?”

“Ms. Clark called the church. They said you don’t work there anymore.”

“Brianna, let’s not talk about—”

Oh, God. “You lost your job?”

“This is temporary, okay?”

“You lost your job?”

She swallows. “Yes, I did.”

Oh no.

No.

No.

No.

“The church daycare got damaged during the riots, and the insurance company isn’t covering the damages,” she says. “Pastor and the elders board had to adjust the budget in order to pay for repairs, so they let me go.”

Shit.

I’m not stupid. Jay tries to act like everything’s all good, but we’re struggling. We already don’t have gas. Last month, we got an eviction notice. Jay used most of her check to cover the rent, and we ate sandwiches until her next payday. But if she lost her job, she won’t have a payday.

If she doesn’t have a payday, we might not ever have gas again.

Or food.

Or a house.

What if—

“Don’t worry, Bri,” Jay says. “God’s got us, baby.”

The same God who let her get laid off from a church?

“I’ve been going on interviews,” she says. “Left one to pick you up, actually. Plus, I’ve already filed for unemployment. It’s not a lot, but it’s something.”

She’s already filed? “How long have you been away from the church?”

“That’s not important.”

“Yes, it is.”

“No, it’s not,” she says. “Trey and I are taking care of things.”

“Trey knew?”

She opens and closes her mouth a couple of times. “Yes.”

Figures. When the gas got cut off, Trey knew it was gonna happen. I found out when I woke up in a cold house. The eviction notice? Trey knew. I found out when I overheard them talking about it. I wish it didn’t bother me, but it does. It’s like Jay doesn’t trust me enough to tell me the important stuff. Like she thinks I’m too young to handle it.

I handled her being gone for years. I can handle more than she thinks.

She parks in our driveway behind Trey’s old Honda Civic, then turns toward me, but I look out my window.

Okay, maybe I am a little bit immature. Whatever.

“I know you’re worried,” she says. “Things have been tough for a while. But it’s gonna get better. Somehow, someway. We gotta believe that, baby.”

She reaches for my cheek.

I move away and open my door. “I’m going for a walk.”

Jay grabs my arm. “Brianna, wait.”

I’m shaking. Here I am, worried about real problems, and she wants me to “believe”? “Please, let me go.”

“No. I’m not letting you run instead of talk to me. Today’s been a lot, baby.”

“I’m fine.”

She runs her thumb along my arm, like she’s trying to coax the tears out of me. “No, you’re not. It’s okay if you’re not. You do know you don’t have to be strong all the time, right?”

Maybe not all the time, but I have to be right now. I tug away from her. “I’m fine.”

“Brianna—”

I throw my hoodie over my head and march down the sidewalk.

Sometimes I dream that I’m drowning. It’s always in a big, blue ocean that’s too deep for me to see the bottom. But I tell myself I’m not going to die no matter how much water gets in my lungs or how deep I sink, I am not going to die. Because I say so.

Suddenly, I can breathe underwater. I can swim. The ocean isn’t so scary anymore. It’s actually kinda cool. I even learn how to control it.

But I’m awake, I’m drowning, and I don’t know how to control any of this.

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