Formats and Prices
- Trade Paperback $14.99 $19.99 CAD
- ebook $7.99 $9.99 CAD
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around June 5, 2012. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
This story is inspired by the real lives of Matthew Boger and Timothy Zaal, who have shared their story on The Oprah Winfrey Show and NPR.
Table of Contents
In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author's intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for your support of the author's rights.
SEVEN YEARS BEFORE
LOS ANGELES COUNTY, CALIFORNIA
"Stupid kid. Stupid, stupid, stupid kid."
My dad: muttering, pacing, dark, starting to swell, making my heart beat even faster than it already does from running. Mom's nowhere in sight, even though it was her that called us. Henry's dad watches from the lawn. He reminds me of a rabbit caught in headlights.
"Are we in trouble?" Henry whispers to the back of my ear. We stand at the edge of his driveway, trying to catch our breath, both of us clutching our action figures.
"Shhhh." I poke him with my David Steele.
"I told you we'd get caught."
He tries to take my hand but I cross my arms in front of my chest. This isn't like when we were little, before he moved, when we did Indian Guides together. We're ten now, I'll be eleven in a couple of months. Boys don't hold hands.
My dad snaps his head toward us. I hold my breath, back up into Henry. Why didn't I listen? Why did I make Henry go down to those old wells anyway? Was it that great to have David Steele and Big Jim be able to smash up all that dirt?
Yeah, it was. The dirt sods were the best I ever saw. Just right for action figures, just like Henry said. I pushed the button on David Steele's back and THWACK—his arm swung over and slammed his iron pipe into the dirt, HARD. Henry's guy did the same with his axe. But we snuck down, nobody saw us go. How did they know we were there?
Without warning, my dad turns and stomps toward the car.
"What's wrong with him?" my friend whispers.
I glance over. Can Henry see him swelling up?
"He gets like this sometimes."
Now he's in the car, backing it toward us, fast, the rear tires sliding back and forth on the dirt. Henry's dad grabs our shoulders, edges us up onto the grass. Our moms come out on the porch. Mine holds my pirate suitcase and her big red leather one. What's going on?
"I thought you were staying till Sunday," Henry says. I shrug.
His mom whispers something to mine, who shakes her head no, and then smiles that stupid frozen smile she gets when she's scared or doesn't know what to do. My stomach cramps up. Something bad has happened. Something way worse than us two guys playing down by the wells.
"Both of you," my father barks, pointing first at Mom, then at me, "in the car."
I take two steps and remember my sleeping bag spread out on the floor in Henry's room, the brand new expensive sleeping bag I begged for and almost didn't get because my dad said I'd mess it up. I dash to the house, slide down the wood floor in the hallway to Henry's room, and snatch up the bag. I'll be in that car before my mom even crosses the yard. With a grin on my face, I fly out the door, right into my huge glaring pissed-off father.
"WHAT. DID. I. SAY." The words come from the back of his throat, low and scary, like a pit bull growling. Henry hears and his eyes bug out.
My dad vice-grips my arm and drags me stumbling backwards across the yard. I drop the bag and almost lose David Steele. He tosses me into the backseat of the car and slams the door. Of course I land on my bad hip, but I manage not to cry out. Henry's mom scurries to pick up the bag and Mom opens the front car door to receive it. Too late—we're moving, leaving Henry and his parents in a haze of dust. Mom just manages to close her door before we turn onto the street. I look back through the rear window. I wave to Henry, but he doesn't wave back.
Tucking David Steele under my arm, I fasten my seat belt, not easy to do with my dad lurching around corners. My hip hurts from landing on it. Nobody's telling me anything. Dad runs a red light, then another, making the tires squeal as we zoom onto the ramp and over to the freeway.
"Please slow down, Roger," my mom begs. She's got that same frozen smile. I hate that smile. I hate how her voice changes, how her back slumps. If I said something now, she wouldn't hear it—she's only hearing him.
"You want out?" Dad growls.
"No, I just—"
"Maybe you wanna walk home?"
"No. But, Roger—" Her voice creeps even higher.
"Shut up then, okay? Can you shut up for once?" He cuts across three lanes of traffic and the back of a big blue car materializes in front of us, maybe two feet away. Mom makes a funny little sound and Dad brakes, throwing us both forwards. Mom bashes her head on the window frame. I grunt as I smack my face into the back of her seat. Dad guns it and I slam back, hard. I peek at the speedometer: eighty-five. My mom doesn't talk again.
* * *
"He's stupid," my dad blurts, loudly, suddenly, startling me. "Just plain stupid." It seems we've been driving for hours. My gut and my heart both clench up. Does he mean me?
"He didn't know," Mom says.
"The kid's seventeen years old, Mary. I told him to stay away from there. He knew. Okay?" He snorts, shakes his head. "Serves him right, getting shot. Maybe now he'll listen."
Something happens to the air around me; it shimmers like the air off sidewalks on hot days, and suddenly there isn't enough of it to breathe.
My brother is shot?
I hear the words. I can't seem to put together what they mean.
"He'll be all right," Mom says.
"Yeah? Who died and made you God?"
Mom starts crying, whimpering really, her shoulders bouncing up and down, her hand covering her face. Every little while, she blows her nose.
My brother is shot.
Is he dead?
Can Carl be dead?
I imagine bullets flying, hitting Carl, then whizzing through the air, looking for the rest of us. If Carl can be shot, so can we. If Carl can die, anyone can. Even us. My dad weaves and cusses. Mom cries. My hands shake, then my arms. Then my whole body. I taste vomit in the back of my throat and I swallow it back down. Better that than face my dad if I puke in his car. He's swelled so big now I don't know how he fits in the seat.
I hold David Steele as tight as I can and pray for him to turn life-size. I want him to be huge, bigger even than my dad. He can slide over and sit next to me, right behind my dad's seat. Except my dad won't be able to see him. Just me. We'll wait. When the time's right, David Steele will turn his head and we'll smile at each other. Both of us will know exactly what's coming next. We'll wait a bit more, until Dad pulls off the freeway and maybe stops at the stoplight or even until he turns into our driveway.
David Steele will look over again and this time he'll wink.
I'll nod and wink back.
I won't even need to push the button.
"Don't let him be dead, don't let him be dead," Grams mutters over and over, pacing the living room. It took three and a half hours for us to get back from Henry's ranch. My head feels weird, like there's a motor running inside it. Everybody else is at the hospital: Mom, Dad, Grandpa, my sister, Chelsea, and of course, Carl. I'm not allowed because I'm too young. Grams has to stay with me. The TV's on, but I'm not watching, just staring in that general direction. I'm listening to my grandma. I want to know what's going on.
The phone rings. Grams stops moving and her face goes pale. I hold David Steele close to my chest, like he could make my heart stop pounding. With a glance at me, Grams ignores the phone on the table and lumbers into the kitchen to take the call. I know it's my mom. I gulp in air and blow it out.
"Hello?" Grams says. Her voice sounds crackly. I'd get up and turn the TV down, but then she'd know I'm listening.
"Here's the story of a man named Brady…"
I turn my ear toward the kitchen. It doesn't help: she's whispering.
"Please don't let him be dead," I echo.
* * *
It feels like forever until Grams comes back in. Her face is worse, gray and tight. Looking at her makes my stomach clench. When I breathe, inside me is an earthquake.
"A nigger shot him," she mumbles.
She's not talking to me, I know that. She doesn't look at me; it's like I'm not there. She wipes her mouth hard, sighs, plops down on the couch with a groan, and reaches for the wine bottle. It's empty. "Damn it," she growls and now looks in my direction. "Get my bottle from the fridge," she orders. I jump up and dash for the kitchen. I bring both the wine and the opener.
She's holding David Steele. I set the bottle down and reach for him. She smirks as she hands him off, with the exact same face my grandpa gets when he's talking to Dad. She stabs the corkscrew into the top of the cork, twists like she wants to hurt someone. "You're ten years old, Douglas. Does your father know you play with dolls?"
"He's not a doll. He's an action figure. I don't play with dolls." I whisper it, but it wouldn't matter if I yelled. She isn't listening.
"What's this world coming to?" She pulls out the cork. "I don't know anymore. I just don't know." Grams fills her glass to the top. "Decent people getting shot." She downs it.
I slip off the couch with David Steele and scoot on my butt around the corner, leaning against the side. I hate Grams when she drinks. I hate having to be alone with her—she always makes fun of me. I hate that she said that word. It makes me think we're still not safe. It's a bad word. When my father says it, Mom makes him shush.
I push David Steele's button—thwack!!
Is Carl dead? No, then she'd be crying.
I push again. Thwack!!!
But he's shot. My brother is shot. A bad guy shot him, right over by my old school. Exactly where I used to cross the street with Larry, the crossing guard. I don't want to think about it but I don't know how to stop. My brain plays it over and over: A bad guy shot my brother, a bad guy shot my brother. I look behind me; I'm not sure why except now I know bad guys are everywhere. They find you even when you move.
We're supposed to be safe in this house. There aren't supposed to be cholas here, like in Pomona. No black people, either. A few Orientals, but they don't bother anybody. Good thing my father could see the handwriting on the wall, that's what Mom said. Things were changing where we used to live. White people had to look out for themselves. Cholas were everywhere.
Cholas are like Mexicans, but worse. They hate white people. I never saw one, but I heard my sister talk about them, and I figured out that they're probably a lot like Medusa from Sinbad and the Seven Seas, which I used to watch all the time when I was little. Except, instead of snakes for hair, they've got sharp shiny razorblades hanging onto long black strands.
When we lived in Pomona, they took over Chelsea's high school. Me and Mom found this out when Chels came home crying. She never cried, so I knew right off that it was bad. Really bad. I listened to her tell Mom how she almost got beat up. How her friend did get smacked, right in the head. How Chels never wanted to go back. I could just see it: cholas standing up on top of the lockers in the girls' gym room, like Medusa on the cliffs, waiting for the white girls to come by.
I peek around the couch. Grams is sitting up, head lolling to the side, snoring. Her glass is tipped; drops of wine look like blood on the couch. What will happen now? Will we move again? Will Carl be okay? Will more black guys try to shoot more white people? Will the cholas come and take over our schools here too?
What if they come to our house?
Pomona isn't far. Carl goes back there all the time to hang out with friends. At least he used to. He might not anymore, not after being shot. But what if he wasn't careful what he said to people? Maybe the bad guys found out where we live. My dad has a gun. Will he shoot them? I look around. Where will I hide? I check the windows. What will I do?
I start to shiver on the outside too, even though it's not at all cold. I want to cry or have my mom here to tell me a story or sing one of the songs she used to make up when I was a little kid. But Mom's taking care of Carl. Who could die, all because of a…
I try it out in the lowest of all whispers, then hold my breath, in case God or someone strikes me down.
My lips don't even have to move, only my tongue pushing off behind my teeth. I like how the word feels in my mouth, how the sound is clear, hard. It's like pushing the button on David Steele's back.
It makes me feel strong.
It makes me feel like I know what to do.
FIVE YEARS BEFORE
LOS ANGELES COUNTY
Mom and Carl are both in the kitchen when I get home from school. Mom's grinning. Carl isn't.
"They caught him, Dougie," Mom says. "They got the bastard that shot our Carl. Finally." She hands me the Tribune. "Look. It's all right there."
Carl doesn't seem all that happy about his name being in the newspaper, but Mom sure is. She rubs his shoulders and musses his hair, gives him a kiss on the back of his neck. He rolls his eyes and tries to shrug her away. She doesn't notice. He got his name in the newspaper. They caught the bad guy. This is what counts. She picks up the phone to call Chelsea. Carl ambles off to his room. I go to mine.
The only good thing about my sister moving out is that both us boys now have our own room. Carl put a black light up in his, with posters of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin that change when it's on. He locks himself in there whenever he's home, to play guitar or hang out with his friends. They smoke pot when Mom and Dad are out of the house, and won't ever let me in. He ignores me when his friends are around. I'm just his stupid little brother. He makes fun of how tall and skinny I got. I don't care. Let him do what he wants, I can take care of myself. I have friends. Well, two. Besides, in seventh grade, you can get your own pot.
I miss Chels, but she likes living with her boyfriend better, anyway.
Turns out everybody at school saw the article. My homeroom teacher mentions it to me after class, asks if Carl's okay. Kids are looking at me weird, though, so I try to get ready to stick up for him, if I have to. At snack, I wait to know which way it's gonna go, when Evelyn Anderson and her friends crowd around.
Evelyn has tits already. Big ones.
"Did he really get shot?" she asks.
"Uh-huh. Right by the heart."
"Oh! Is he okay?"
"Yeah. He's fine now. But he still has the bullet in him."
I like how the word makes a little explosion in my mouth as it comes out, how the sound of it makes people stand very still. "Too close to his spine to operate."
I like the general "ooooh" that ripples through the group.
"Oh my God," Evelyn Anderson says.
"Yep," I answer. I'm having a hard time keeping my eyes on her face. "Now he has to go testify. In court."
"Is he scared?" her friend asks.
"Nah, not my brother."
"What if the guy gets off and comes after him again?" Evelyn asks.
"The guy who shot him? No way. He'll be doing some hard time." I heard my mom say this to my grandma, on the phone. She didn't know I was listening. "It's not his first arrest, you know. That nigger's got a record as long as your arm."
No one speaks. The air sizzles briefly and seems to take form around us; it feels heavier than a second ago. Evelyn's eyes get real big; she looks back over her shoulder. I feel my cheeks get warm.
"What?" I challenge.
"Nothing," she says, but she doesn't look in my eyes now.
"You shouldn't say that word," whispers her friend.
"What word? Nigger? Why not?"
"Because." Evelyn looks around. Who does she expect to see? Only white people go to this school. She whispers too. "You just shouldn't. It's not a nice word."
"He's not a nice guy."
"So what should I call him?"
"I don't know, but not that."
"Yeah, well, just wait till somebody shoots your brother. See how you feel then."
I don't know what else to do, so I walk away, my face red, feeling stupid, like I should've just kept my mouth shut. In math class, a couple of guys look at me funny, like they know something. Nobody else asks about Carl. At lunch, when I come around the corner to the picnic area with my buddy Glenn, a whole bunch of girls start giggling. Evelyn Anderson is one of them.
"Just ignore them," Glenn tells me.
Easy for him to say. He's not the one being laughed at.
After school, we go to Glenn's but his grandma comes home early and makes me leave. Fine. Nobody wants me around, what do I care. I don't feel like going home—Carl's probably there—so I head over to Caroline's house.
Caroline Tuttle was the first person I met when we moved here. She's one of my best friends even though she goes to Catholic school and lives down almost by Pomona. I'm not supposed to hang around with her because her mom's never home, just her big brother, Evan, who dropped out of school. We lounge around on their front lawn while he works on his motorcycle. Carl'd be jealous.
"Want to go inside?" Caroline asks. Usually, this means we can make out on the bed in her mom's room.
I tell her. She gets it.
"I would have said exactly the same thing," she says. "What do those stupid girls know, anyway? Huh?"
"Yeah. Their brother didn't get shot."
"That's right. They're just bitches." She leans over and kisses me right in front of Evan. He whistles.
"Shut up!" she says to him, but she's smiling. She kisses me again. "Hey, you want me to make you a tattoo?"
"You know—a tattoo. You said you wanted one."
That's true, I had been talking about it for a while now. "Shit yeah. I do."
"Hey, Evan?" she says.
"Gotcha covered, Babygirl."
Evan's got even more tattoos than Carl. He designs his own. He does all his friends. He got all the stuff, including the India ink. We go into the house. He boils a needle to sterilize it, and shows us how to strap it to a pencil with thread. You wind the thread around both the pencil and the needle, up to the tip almost, real tight.
"It can't wobble, or you mess up," he says, then smiles and holds it up. "Your rig." He sticks the point in a lighter flame, then wipes it with rubbing alcohol. "No fun if it gets infected."
Evan hands me a Coors and tells me to chug it. I tried my first beer way back in fifth grade, so this is no big deal, but I usually don't drink this fast. I don't really like the taste. I get dizzy immediately. He hands me another. This one goes down real smooth.
"You got a design?" he asks.
"Yep." I burp. "Sorry. I want a '13' right here." I point to the top of my forearm.
"Oh, perfect, Doug," says Caroline, "exactly where your dad can see it. And your teachers." I was actually thinking of Evelyn Anderson, but I get her point.
Evan explains it'll hurt less where it's fleshy, though after that second beer, I doubt I could even feel pain. I decide across my stomach'd be good. I lie down on an air mattress in the garage and Caroline draws a 13 in pen, right near my belly button. It looks fine and I nod. She takes her rig and dips the needle and the top of the thread wrap into the bottle of India ink. She pokes a hole. Then another. Evan watches, coaching her. She has to get under the top layer of skin but not go too deep or the ink could poison me. She dips and pokes again.
I'm wrong about the beer. The needle hurts like hell, but with Evan standing there, grinning down at me, I just suck it up. Every few punctures, Caroline wipes off the blood. Tattoos bleed A LOT. It kinda makes me sick to my stomach.
"Hey. Don't puke on the mattress," Evan says.
Caroline finally finishes and pours rubbing alcohol directly on it.
Evan or not, I yell. He laughs.
"It's done, little man," Evan announces. "Now you just got to take care of it."
I look down at a red, swollen mess of skin; I can't see the tattoo itself. Evan smiles. "It takes a couple of weeks." He peers closely. "She did good, don't worry about it."
The beers wear off. I get home and rummage through Mom's bathroom cabinet for anything that might help, but she's either hidden it all or used it up. I dab on the alcohol like I'm supposed to, get woozy from the pain. I can't get near the liquor cabinet when my parents are home, so I take a bunch of aspirin. Dinner comes, and I somehow manage to shovel in food without anyone noticing that every time I move, I catch my breath. It's like razorblades slicing.
Dad's actually in a good mood tonight—everybody at work saw the article and now he's a big shot. Even Mom's into the conversation about justice and how sometimes good guys do win, and all that crap. Carl keeps glancing at me. Oh, now he wants to be my friend? Like I could do anything? I ignore him. After dinner, I escape to my room, pleading homework. A few minutes later, Carl comes in.
"Okay. What's wrong?" he asks.
"Nothing." I won't cry to my brother. He'll just tell his friends.
"Bullshit. You look dead, like when that car hit you. Remember? Remember that?"
"No, really? I got hit by a car? Wow. I forgot." I make a face at him. I have a fricking metal pin in my hip, what does he think? He opens my window and lights a cigarette, blows the smoke outside. "Do that in your own room." I want him gone; I need to lie down.
He holds out the cigarette pack. "Want one?"
"I don't smoke."
"Yeah you do. You also get pretty busy in the liquor cabinet."
How did he know? "What do you want, anyway?"
"Nothing. Can't a guy hang out with his brother?"
"You must want something."
"Why are you so weird tonight?" He puts the cigarette out on the windowsill, tucks the butt of it in his pocket.
"I got a tattoo, okay? It hurts."
His whole face changes. "My little brother, damn. Show me." I lift my shirt to show; I've already undone my pants.
"Is it a '13'?" He peers close. "I got one of those." He grins at me. "Who did yours?"
"Not bad. It's not too clear yet, but it'll probably get better."
"Sure as hell hope so."
"Got anything for it?" When I shake my head no, he winks. "I do. Bourbon and Coke. You bring the Coke."
I go downstairs for a couple of cans. Mom and Dad are so busy talking about Carl they barely notice me. I go to my brother's room. His black light's on and Jimi Hendrix looks amazing. He puts on "Purple Haze" and gulps down half of one of the Cokes. He fills the can with bourbon, sloshes it around.
"Check it out," he says, handing it to me and fixing one for himself. It burns going down, but that's okay. I like being here. I drink more. We shoot the shit. I tell him about Evelyn Anderson's tits.
"Yeah? Wait till you hear about Lucy," he says, taking a gulp of his own drink, then proceeds to give me a blow-by-blow of this girl he just slept with. My brother is so cool.
Sometime later, he walks me upstairs to my room. Good thing too, I'm pretty wobbly. Lying down on my bed is the last thing I remember until morning.
I survived that night because I didn't yet understand about love or families or how life is supposed to go.
Or maybe I survived so I could tell my story. Whatever, Doug's right—apologies don't change things.
FIVE YEARS BEFORE
SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA, CALIFORNIA
- On Sale
- Jun 5, 2012
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers