Authors: Angie Thomas
For Grandma, who showed me
there can be light in the darkness
I shouldn’t have come to this party.
I’m not even sure I
at this party. That’s not on some bougie shit, either. There are just some places where it’s not enough to be me. Either version of me. Big D’s spring break party is one of those places.
I squeeze through sweaty bodies and follow Kenya, her curls bouncing past her shoulders. A haze lingers over the room, smelling like weed, and music rattles the floor. Some rapper calls out for everybody to Nae-Nae, followed by a bunch of “Heys” as people launch into their own versions. Kenya holds up her cup and dances her way through the crowd. Between the headache from the loud-ass music and the nausea from the weed odor, I’ll be amazed if I cross the room without spilling my drink.
We break out the crowd. Big D’s house is packed wall-to-wall. I’ve always heard that everybody and their momma comes to his spring break parties—well, everybody except me—but damn, I didn’t know it would be this many people. Girls wear their hair colored, curled, laid, and slayed. Got me feeling basic as hell with my ponytail. Guys in their freshest kicks and sagging pants grind so close to girls they just about need condoms. My nana likes to say that spring brings love. Spring in Garden Heights doesn’t always bring love, but it promises babies in the winter. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of them are conceived the night of Big D’s party. He always has it on the Friday of spring break because you need Saturday to recover and Sunday to repent.
“Stop following me and go dance, Starr,” Kenya says. “People already say you think you all that.”
“I didn’t know so many mind readers lived in Garden Heights.” Or that people know me as anything other than “Big Mav’s daughter who works in the store.” I sip my drink and spit it back out. I knew there would be more than Hawaiian Punch in it, but this is way stronger than I’m used to. They shouldn’t even call it punch. Just straight-up liquor. I put it on the coffee table and say, “Folks kill me, thinking they know what I think.”
“Hey, I’m just saying. You act like you don’t know nobody ’cause you go to that school.”
I’ve been hearing that for six years, ever since my parents put me in Williamson Prep. “Whatever,” I mumble.
“And it wouldn’t kill you to not dress like . . .” She turns up her nose as she looks from my sneakers to my oversized hoodie. “
. Ain’t that my brother’s hoodie?”
brother’s hoodie. Kenya and I share an older brother, Seven. But she and I aren’t related. Her momma is Seven’s momma, and my dad is Seven’s dad. Crazy, I know. “Yeah, it’s his.”
“Figures. You know what else people saying too. Got folks thinking you’re my girlfriend.”
“Do I look like I care what people think?”
“No! And that’s the problem!”
“Whatever.” If I’d known following her to this party meant she’d be on some
Extreme Makeover: Starr Edition
mess, I would’ve stayed home and watched
reruns. My Jordans are comfortable, and damn, they’re new. That’s more than some people can say. The hoodie’s way too big, but I like it that way. Plus, if I pull it over my nose, I can’t smell the weed.
“Well, I ain’t babysitting you all night, so you better do something,” Kenya says, and scopes the room. Kenya could be a model, if I’m completely honest. She’s got flawless dark-brown skin—I don’t think she ever gets a pimple—slanted brown eyes, and long eyelashes that aren’t store-bought. She’s the perfect height for modeling too, but a little thicker than those toothpicks on the runway. She never wears the same outfit twice. Her daddy, King, makes sure of that.
Kenya is about the only person I hang out with in Garden
Heights—it’s hard to make friends when you go to a school that’s forty-five minutes away and you’re a latchkey kid who’s only seen at her family’s store. It’s easy to hang out with Kenya because of our connection to Seven. She’s messy as hell sometimes, though. Always fighting somebody and quick to say her daddy will whoop somebody’s ass. Yeah, it’s true, but I wish she’d stop picking fights so she can use her trump card. Hell, I could use mine too. Everybody knows you don’t mess with my dad, Big Mav, and you definitely don’t mess with his kids. Still, you don’t see me going around starting shit.
Like at Big D’s party, Kenya is giving Denasia Allen some serious stank-eye. I don’t remember much about Denasia, but I remember that she and Kenya haven’t liked each other since fourth grade. Tonight, Denasia’s dancing with some guy halfway across the room and paying no attention to Kenya. But no matter where we move, Kenya spots Denasia and glares at her. And the thing about the stank-eye is at some point you feel it on you, inviting you to kick some ass or have your ass kicked.
“Ooh! I can’t stand her,” Kenya seethes. “The other day, we were in line in the cafeteria, right? And she behind me, talking out the side of her neck. She didn’t use my name, but I know she was talking ’bout me, saying I tried to get with DeVante.”
“For real?” I say what I’m supposed to.
“Uh-huh. I don’t want him.”
“I know.” Honestly? I don’t know who DeVante is. “So what did you do?”
“What you think I did? I turned around and asked if she had a problem with me. Ol’ trick, gon’ say, ‘I wasn’t even talking about you,’ knowing she was! You’re so lucky you go to that white-people school and don’t have to deal with hoes like that.”
Ain’t this some shit? Not even five minutes ago, I was stuck-up because I go to Williamson. Now I’m lucky? “Trust me, my school has hoes too. Hoedom is universal.”
“Watch, we gon’ handle her tonight.” Kenya’s stank-eye reaches its highest level of stank. Denasia feels its sting and looks right at Kenya. “Uh-huh,” Kenya confirms, like Denasia hears her. “Watch.”
That’s why you begged me to come to this party? So you can have a tag team partner?”
She has the nerve to look offended. “It ain’t like you had nothing else to do! Or anybody else to hang out with. I’m doing your ass a favor.”
“Really, Kenya? You do know I have friends, right?”
She rolls her eyes. Hard. Only the whites are visible for a few seconds. “Them li’l bougie girls from your school don’t count.”
“They’re not bougie, and they do count.” I think. Maya and I are cool. Not sure what’s up with me and Hailey lately. “And honestly? If pulling me into a fight is your way of helping my social life, I’m good. Goddamn, it’s always some drama with you.”
“Please, Starr?” She stretches the
extra long. Too long. “This what I’m thinking. We wait until she get away from DeVante, right? And then we . . .”
My phone vibrates against my thigh, and I glance at the screen. Since I’ve ignored his calls, Chris texts me instead.
Can we talk?
I didn’t mean for it to go like that.
Of course he didn’t. He meant for it to go a whole different way yesterday, which is the problem. I slip the phone in my pocket. I’m not sure what I wanna say, but I’d rather deal with him later.
“Kenya!” somebody shouts.
This big, light-skinned girl with bone-straight hair moves through the crowd toward us. A tall boy with a black-and-blond Fro-hawk follows her. They both give Kenya hugs and talk about how cute she looks. I’m not even here.
“Why you ain’t tell me you was coming?” the girl says, and sticks her thumb in her mouth. She’s got an overbite from doing that too. “You could’ve rode with us.”
“Nah, girl. I had to go get Starr,” Kenya says. “We walked here together.”
That’s when they notice me, standing not even half a foot from Kenya.
The guy squints as he gives me a quick once-over. He frowns for a hot second, but I notice it. “Ain’t you Big Mav’s daughter who work in the store?”
See? People act like that’s the name on my birth certificate. “Yeah, that’s me.”
“Ohhh!” the girl says. “I knew you looked familiar. We were in third grade together. Ms. Bridges’s class. I sat behind you.”
“Oh.” I know this is the moment I’m supposed to remember her, but I don’t. I guess Kenya was right—I really don’t know anybody. Their faces are familiar, but you don’t get names and life stories when you’re bagging folks’ groceries.
I can lie though. “Yeah, I remember you.”
“Girl, quit lying,” the guy says. “You know you don’t know her ass.”
“‘Why you always lying?’” Kenya and the girl sing together. The guy joins in, and they all bust out laughing.
“Bianca and Chance, be nice,” Kenya says. “This Starr’s first party. Her folks don’t let her go nowhere.”
I cut her a side-eye. “I go to parties, Kenya.”
“Have y’all seen her at any parties ’round here?” Kenya asks them.
“Point made. And before you say it, li’l lame white-kid suburb parties don’t count.”
Chance and Bianca snicker. Damn, I wish this hoodie could swallow me up somehow.
“I bet they be doing Molly and shit, don’t they?” Chance asks me. “White kids love popping pills.”
“And listening to Taylor Swift,” Bianca adds, talking around her thumb.
Okay, that’s somewhat true, but I’m not telling them that. “Nah, actually their parties are pretty dope,” I say. “One time, this boy had J. Cole perform at his birthday party.”
“Damn. For real?” Chance asks. “Shiiit. Bitch, next time invite me. I’ll party with them white kids.”
“Anyway,” Kenya says loudly. “We were talking ’bout running up on Denasia. Bitch over there dancing with DeVante.”
“Ol’ trick,” Bianca says. “You know she been running her mouth ’bout you, right? I was in Mr. Donald’s class last week when Aaliyah told me—”
Chance rolls his eyes. “Ugh! Mr. Donald.”
“You just mad he threw you out,” Kenya says.
“Anyway, Aaliyah told me—” Bianca begins.
I get lost again as classmates and teachers that I don’t know are discussed. I can’t say anything. Doesn’t matter though. I’m invisible.
I feel like that a lot around here.
In the middle of them complaining about Denasia and their teachers, Kenya says something about getting another drink, and the three of them walk off without me.
Suddenly I’m Eve in the Garden after she ate the fruit—it’s like I realize I’m naked. I’m by myself at a party I’m not even supposed to be at, where I barely know anybody. And the
person I do know just left me hanging.
Kenya begged me to come to this party for weeks. I knew I’d be uncomfortable as hell, but every time I told Kenya no she said I act like I’m “too good for a Garden party.” I got tired of hearing that shit and decided to prove her wrong. Problem is it would’ve taken Black Jesus to convince my parents to let me come. Now Black Jesus will have to save me if they find out I’m here.
People glance over at me with that “who is this chick, standing against the wall by herself like an idiot?” look. I slip my hands into my pockets. As long as I play it cool and keep to myself, I should be fine. The ironic thing is though, at Williamson I don’t have to “play it cool”—I’m cool by default because I’m one of the only black kids there. I have to earn coolness in Garden Heights, and that’s more difficult than buying retro Jordans on release day.
Funny how it works with white kids though. It’s dope to be black until it’s hard to be black.
“Starr!” a familiar voice says.
The sea of people parts for him like he’s a brown-skinned Moses. Guys give him daps, and girls crane their necks to look at him. He smiles at me, and his dimples ruin any G persona he has.
Khalil is fine, no other way of putting it. And I used to take baths with him. Not like
but way back in the day when we would giggle because he had a wee-wee and I had what his
grandma called a wee-ha. I swear it wasn’t perverted though.
He hugs me, smelling like soap and baby powder. “What’s up, girl? Ain’t seen you in a minute.” He lets me go. “You don’t text nobody, nothing. Where you been?”
“School and the basketball team keep me busy,” I say. “But I’m always at the store. You’re the one nobody sees anymore.”
His dimples disappear. He wipes his nose like he always does before a lie. “I been busy.”
Obviously. The brand-new Jordans, the crisp white tee, the diamonds in his ears. When you grow up in Garden Heights, you know what “busy” really means.
Fuck. I wish
wasn’t that kinda busy though. I don’t know if I wanna tear up or smack him.
But the way Khalil looks at me with those hazel eyes makes it hard to be upset. I feel like I’m ten again, standing in the basement of Christ Temple Church, having my first kiss with him at Vacation Bible School. Suddenly I remember I’m in a hoodie, looking a straight-up mess . . . and that I actually
a boyfriend. I might not be answering Chris’s calls or texts right now, but he’s still mine and I wanna keep it that way.
“How’s your grandma?” I ask. “And Cameron?”
“They a’ight. Grandma’s sick though.” Khalil sips from his cup. “Doctors say she got cancer or whatever.”
“Damn. Sorry, K.”
“Yeah, she taking chemo. She only worried ’bout getting a wig though.” He gives a weak laugh that doesn’t show his
dimples. “She’ll be a’ight.”
It’s a prayer more than a prophecy. “Is your momma helping with Cameron?”
“Good ol’ Starr. Always looking for the best in people. You know she ain’t helping.”
“Hey, it was just a question. She came in the store the other day. She looks better.”
“For now,” says Khalil. “She claim she trying to get clean, but it’s the usual. She’ll go clean a few weeks, decide she wants one more hit, then be back at it. But like I said, I’m good, Cameron’s good, Grandma’s good.” He shrugs. “That’s all that matters.”
“Yeah,” I say, but I remember the nights I spent with Khalil on his porch, waiting for his momma to come home. Whether he likes it or not, she matters to him too.
The music changes, and Drake raps from the speakers. I nod to the beat and rap along under my breath. Everybody on the dance floor yells out the “started from the bottom, now we’re here” part. Some days, we
at the bottom in Garden Heights, but we still share the feeling that damn, it could be worse.
Khalil is watching me. A smile tries to form on his lips, but he shakes his head. “Can’t believe you still love whiny-ass Drake.”