Read by Zeno Robinson
Read by Wayne Carr
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ALI CROSS, WHERE are you???
When I saw that text from my great-grandmother, Nana Mama, I got a bad feeling in my gut. Something told me my perfect day was about to come to a very imperfect end.
“Yo, I think I might have a problem here,” I said, and showed my phone to Cedric.
He gave a low, bad-news kind of whistle. “Uh-oh,” he said. “Tropical storm Nana Mama, moving in quick.”
“Right?” I said. “If she finds out where I am, I’m toast.”
The thing was, I’d told Nana Mama that I was going to be working on a report for school at Cedric’s house that day. But it wasn’t true. I mean, I was with Cedric. We just weren’t anywhere near his house.
We were at the Anacostia Park Music Festival, having an awesome time with our friends. Ruby, Mateo, and Gabe were there, along with Ruby’s best friend, Zoe. And if I’m being honest, I’d say Zoe was about 90 percent of the reason I’d gone AWOL in the first place.
I mean, I’d had crushes on other girls before, but this was the first time I’d ever thought one of them might actually like me back. That’s what you call a miracle. So you could say there was a lot on the line.
We’d already stuffed our faces with cheesesteaks and fried dough, checked out a bunch of different acts, gotten our picture taken in this giant ANACOSTIA ROCKS photo frame, and even sat in on a steel drum lesson.
But none of that was the main event.
“You can’t go now,” Zoe said. “We’re just getting started.”
“I’m working on it,” I told her, as we pushed through the crowd toward the main stage. “What time’s your mom go on?”
Zoe looked at her phone. “Supposedly like an hour ago. But you know how it is.”
I just nodded, like I knew exactly how it was to be the kid of a famous musician. Washington famous, anyway. People kept saying Zoe’s mom, Vanessa “Dee-Cee” Knight, was going to hit the big time any day now. They called her the Queen of Go-Go, which is a homegrown Washington DC kind of music—a little funk, a little R&B, and a little old school hip-hop. It’s not my usual jam, but again, I wasn’t there for the music. I was there for Zoe.
So I doubled down with Nana Mama, and tried to buy a little more time.
Still working on my report at Cedric’s, I texted back. I’ll be home for dinner!
And don’t get it twisted, by the way. I love my great-grandma, big time. But I’m not allowed to cross the Anacostia River without an adult. Not even to go to the park. Which was crazy. I mean, even Ruby and Mateo were allowed to be there, and their family’s way stricter than mine. It was time for Nana to start figuring out I wasn’t a little kid anymore.
“Let me see if I can find out what’s up with my mom’s show,” Zoe said. “Give me five minutes. She’s got to be back there somewhere.”
Zoe pointed to the parking lot behind the stage. It was full of trailers, semis, and RVs, which I think were the dressing rooms. But it was also a restricted area. They had a long line of bike racks set up like a temporary fence to keep people out.
Not that it was going to stop Zoe. Already, she had her hands on that fence like she was ready to sneak over, no problem.
“Why don’t you just go that way?” Ruby asked, and pointed at the actual backstage entrance, where a couple of uniformed dudes were checking IDs. “Just tell them your mom’s headlining. They’ll let you in.”
“Yeah, no,” Zoe said. “I’m allergic to cops.”
The “cops” were really just security guards, but I didn’t bother to correct her. I also didn’t mention that my dad was a detective with the Metropolitan Police Department. Hopefully that wouldn’t mean Zoe was allergic to me, too.
“I got this,” she said. Then she started rapping, right there on the spot.
“Dee-Cee hanging back don’t know where but gonna find out.
“Once she hits the stage gonna rage and blow your mind out.
“Watch me slip the line right on time here I go, yo.
“Quick as that there and back coming at you like a yo-yo.”
“That was awesome,” Mateo said, which it totally was. Zoe had a reputation at school for writing some dope poetry, and she could obviously freestyle, too. I guess it was in her blood, considering what her mom did for a living. Kind of like the way I’m always thinking about police procedure and crime scene investigation. (What can I say? I’m a cop’s kid.)
“Don’t leave before I get back,” Zoe said, and pointed right at me in a way that made my stomach jump. A second later, she’d slipped that fence like it wasn’t even there, cut up between two of those big semitrucks, and disappeared.
I just stood there, watching the spot where she’d been, thinking about that sweet and salty smile of hers. And those gold box braids mixed in with the black ones. And the pink kicks she always wore. Let’s just say Zoe Knight wasn’t the type of girl you could easily miss in a crowd.
“I think someone likes you,” Ruby said, as soon as Zoe was gone. “And I think their name starts with a Z.”
“You think?” Cedric said, and he and Mateo fell on me, knocking me around and giving me a hard time. Not that I minded. Those two are my boys.
“She’s super nice,” Gabe said. “And really pretty, too.”
Gabe’s a little different, but I like how chill he can be, even if he is a typical gamer slash space cadet slash computer genius.
“I just hope Zoe gets back soon,” I told them, because I knew the Nana clock was ticking.
And then sure enough, we’d barely been waiting two minutes before the next text from my great-grandma dinged into my phone.
If you’re at Cedric’s house, why doesn’t his mother know where he is???
“Aw, man,” Cedric said, reading over my shoulder. “That’s what you call bad timing.”
Nana wasn’t playing, either. A second after that, my phone started ringing, with her name on the caller ID. I could practically feel the heat coming off the screen, just looking at it.
Mateo put his arms out, zombie style, and stumbled a few steps. “Nana… calls… must… obey…”
He wasn’t wrong. But I also knew that if I had to leave before Zoe got back, I could kiss my chances with her good-bye. Which was probably the only thing I’d be kissing anytime soon.
“You going to answer that?” Gabe asked.
“Yeah,” I said. I was just putting it off for as long as possible.
But then… everything changed.
I was just about to pick up Nana’s call when a loud bang came from somewhere in that backstage parking lot.
It wasn’t the kind of soft pop you hear sometimes. More like a hammer coming down on a piece of metal, which meant it was close by. Maybe four hundred feet, if I was guessing.
And in any case, I knew exactly what I’d just heard.
It was the sound of a single gunshot.
WHEN MY HEAD snapped in the direction of that sound, I was staring almost exactly the direction Zoe had gone a few minutes ago. But there was nothing to see, really. With all those trucks in the way, it was impossible to know what was going on. All we could know for sure was that Zoe was still back there—somewhere.
I felt like I’d just been wired with a thousand-volt current. I couldn’t move, and my friends’ faces looked like they were just as scared as I was. Not for ourselves, but because I think we were all wondering the same thing.
“What about Zoe?” Ruby asked.
People on our side of the fence weren’t doing much, but everyone from the backstage area was coming our way. A couple of truckers knocked down a big piece of the barrier and kept moving, past us toward the river.
“Let’s just make sure she comes back,” Gabe said.
“She might be with her mom,” Mateo said.
“And she might not,” Ruby said, already working her phone. “She’s not picking up, either.”
We all stood there like statues, trying to make a decision about what direction to move in. But then Cedric decided for us.
“Come on,” he said. He stepped over the place where the barrier was down. “We have to make sure she’s okay. Watch your step.”
There hadn’t been any more gunshots, anyway. Just the one. The only banging now was inside my chest. My heart was going so fast it hurt. Still, there was no way we’d be splitting up. If I were Zoe in that situation, I’d want to know that my friends had my back.
A second later, we were following Cedric between the same two semis where she’d gone. It was like a canyon made out of trucks, and I couldn’t see anything except what was straight ahead and straight behind.
“Where are those trailers?” Cedric asked.
“Maybe over there?” Mateo said, pointing. “Just keep going.”
“And everyone stick together,” I said. “No matter what.”
When we came out of that truck canyon, there was a wide lane for driving, and then another row of vehicles and trailers. The whole place was like a giant maze, with no sign of Zoe.
“Zoe!” Ruby yelled.
“Zoe Knight!” Gabe added.
“Where are you?” Mateo yelled. But there was no answer.
We cut up between two more semis and kept going. So far, we hadn’t seen anyone at all. As far as I could tell, nobody was back here anymore.
“Maybe we should turn around,” Ruby said.
Except then I got one more idea. “Hang on,” I said. I dropped flat to the ground and put my cheek down sideways. If I couldn’t see through all those trucks, I could at least try to see under them.
Looking left, there was nothing but more parking lot. So I pivoted one-eighty, while the cement chewed into my hands and knees. That didn’t matter, though, because as soon as I’d turned around, I spotted Zoe.
I couldn’t see her face, but I recognized those pink J’s on her feet right away. She was kneeling on the cement, a couple of rows over. And she wasn’t alone.
Someone was standing there, facing her. A man, I’d guess, but I couldn’t tell. All I could see were some heavy black work boots and the bottom of a long tan coat. I didn’t know if they were talking to each other, or if something terrible was about to happen.
“ZOE!” I yelled as loud as I could.
“What is it?” Mateo asked. Everyone dropped to get a look for themselves. At the same time, whoever was in those black boots turned real quick, and moved off in another direction, out of sight—leaving Zoe behind.
What was going on?
The fastest way to her now was in a straight line. I didn’t even think about it. I just stayed low and half crawled, half rolled under that big truck, then kept going, underneath the one next to it. Everyone else was right behind me.
When we all came out from under that second truck, Zoe was there, next to one of those dressing room RVs. It might have been her mom’s, I didn’t know, but there was no sign of anyone else. Zoe was still on her knees, looking dazed like she barely even knew we were there.
And that’s when I noticed the blood.
It was dripping down her arm, over her hand, and making big red dots on the concrete. There was also an ugly black hole in the sleeve of her jacket, just above the wrist.
“You’re hurt!” Ruby said. “Omigod… Zoe, are you shot?”
I could feel my breath coming up short while I tried not to panic.
“You guys?” Zoe’s voice sounded weird, like it was coming from farther away than it was. Then she looked down at her arm, just before she collapsed the rest of the way to the ground.
I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t even imagine this was actually happening.
And the only people around to help Zoe right then were us.
“ZOE? ZOE?” I yelled. “Can you hear me?”
Zoe looked around at us with this weird expression, like she was sorry for something. Her right hand was gripping her left wrist. The blood was still soaking her sleeve, and she had a splatter of it on her cheek, too.
“Ali?” She reached out like she wanted to get up, but I put a hand at the back of her head and got her to lie down instead.
“Call 911!” I said.
“I already am!” Ruby said. She had a hand pressed over her ear so she could hear. “Hello? Hello? Are you there?”
“Where’s your mom?” Gabe asked.
“I dunno,” she said. “Couldn’t find her…” She was mumbling, and working just to get the words out. I wondered if she was in shock. Was that even a thing for a wound like this?
Cedric and Mateo were flanking us on either side. Gabe looked like he was going to be sick, but he hung in next to me, cradling Zoe’s head while I moved down to her arm.
My heart was thundering. I knew I had to keep Zoe calm. Even more important, though, I had to stop her bleeding.
“Put your hand up,” I told her, and helped her slowly raise the wounded arm. “That’s it. Just keep it above your heart.”
It was like my brain had gone into autopilot. The words coming out of my mouth felt like they were coming from someone else. But the fact was, I knew what to do. I’d been absorbing this stuff all my life, watching two zillion episodes of Law & Order, reading like crazy about detectives and emergency responders, and surfing YouTubes on crime scenes and first aid for as long as I could remember.
Still, there’s YouTube and then there’s real life. I just prayed I wouldn’t mess this up, because it didn’t get any realer than this.
“Hello?” I heard Ruby again behind me. “My friend’s been shot! We need an ambulance right away. We’re at the Anacostia Park Music Festival, in the parking lot behind the main stage! Please, please hurry!”
Meanwhile, I needed something for a bandage to put some pressure on the wound. I couldn’t just use my hands.
“Cedric, hold her arm for a second,” I said.
He grabbed on and I yanked my DC NATIVE sweatshirt over my head as fast as I could.
“Okay, let me back in there,” I said.
I wrapped one of the sleeves three times around Zoe’s wrist. Then I put my hands around the whole thing and squeezed as tightly as I could.
“You’re hurting her!” Mateo said.
“I’m sorry!” I said. “It’s how you’re supposed to do it.”
“Just… do what… you need to…” Zoe gutted out, taking a breath every couple of words. I couldn’t believe how strong she was. If it were me, I think I would have passed out by then. Even now, I felt like I was going to blow my lunch.
“We got you, Zoe,” Gabe said. He had his hands on her feet, and he sounded calm enough, but I could tell he was just as scared as me. Everyone was either crying or trying not to.
“Where’s that ambulance?” Ruby asked. She was looking around, but the two trucks on either side of us were making it just as impossible to see as ever. So Cedric and Mateo took off in both directions, to try and get a wider lookout. Ruby stayed on the phone with 911, while Gabe and I stuck with Zoe. It had only been a minute but it already felt like forever.
“Zoe,” I said, leaning close now. “Who was that I saw?”
“Huh?” she asked.
“Someone was standing right here with you a second ago,” I said.
“Don’t know… what you mean,” she said.
I looked at Gabe, but he was looking over his shoulder, trying to figure out what was going on.
“Someone in a long coat,” I started to say, but she cut me off.
“No!” she said, and tried to sit up again. It was intense, the way she was looking in my eyes now. Not like before.
“Lie back,” I told her, and made her put her head down again. Then I leaned in close and put my ear where I could hear her.
She only whispered this time. Her voice was rough, and I could tell she was scared.
“Whatever you thought you saw, you’re wrong. Okay?”
I glanced at Gabe, but he just looked confused. I had no idea what was going on, if she was lying for some reason, or if I’d made some kind of mistake about what I thought I saw.
Except, no. It wasn’t that. I knew what I saw.
The only other thing I could tell for sure was that Zoe was in a bad way. Not just because she’d been shot. Something else was part of the picture here, and she was desperate not to talk about it.
I had a million things running through my head, but Zoe didn’t need me agitating her right now.
“Okay?” she said again, like she really needed an answer.
“Yeah, okay,” I told her. I didn’t feel like I had a choice.
“Good,” she said, and seemed to ease up just a little bit.
“Just hang in there,” I said. “Help’s coming. It won’t be long now.”
“Nah,” she said, and gave me a tiny smile with her eyes closed. “Help’s here. Thanks for looking out for me.”
“You got it,” I said, and smiled back even though I felt tears burning in the corners of my eyes. I could hear sirens now, coming closer. Lots of sirens, in fact.
Hopefully, at least one of them was for us.
“OUT OF THE way, kid!” someone said.
I didn’t even realize a police officer had gotten there until I was making room for him to take over the compression on Zoe’s arm.
“The ambulance is here, too!” Cedric yelled out.
“We got you, Zoe!” Ruby said. “You’re gonna be okay!”
“Hi, Zoe, I’m Officer Weyland,” the uniformed cop told her. “Can you hear my voice?”
“Mm-hm,” Zoe said. Her eyes were still closed, and she sounded almost sleepy or something.
“Okay, good job, sweetheart. I just need you to hang in there another few seconds for me—”
“I ain’t your sweetheart,” Zoe grunted out, and the cop laughed like she was joking, even though I don’t think she was.
“That’s the spirit,” he said. “Good job. Just stay with me.”
“What about your mom?” Ruby asked her. “Where do you think she is?”
“Don’t know,” Zoe said. “Couldn’t find her. Wasn’t picking up.”
“Everyone’s being evacuated,” the cop said. “Don’t worry, we’ll track her down. You’ll see her at the hospital.”
Everything felt like it was rushing by and moving in slow motion at the same time. I watched the EMTs move in, and felt Gabe’s hand pulling on my arm as Officer Weyland started telling us to step back.
“Can I go with her?” Ruby asked, but the cop shook his head.
“Family only,” he told us. All we could do was watch as they loaded her into the back of the ambulance.
“We love you, Zoe!” Ruby shouted after her, but I don’t know if she heard. A second later, they’d closed the doors and Zoe was on her way to the hospital. I didn’t even know which one.
It was all too much to think about at once. None of this felt real—the gunshot, the chaos in the park, all of it. But mostly, I couldn’t even start to figure out why Zoe had reacted the way she did when I mentioned the person I’d seen. The one who may or may not have been the shooter, but definitely walked away from her after she’d been shot.
It made no sense. Then again, a lot of crimes seem that way at first. Sometimes, the things that don’t add up are just pieces of a bigger puzzle and you need to find the other pieces before you can start to see the whole picture.
That’s what I was counting on, anyway.
We were standing in a tight group now. Ruby and Mateo were holding hands, and Cedric had his arms around Gabe’s and my shoulders. We needed to be strong for Zoe and for each other, too.
“You kids see anything?” Officer Weyland asked us. He had a little pad and a pen out, like the kind my dad carries to crime scenes. I knew it was Weyland’s job as first responder to start asking questions right away, and that MPD detectives would take over once they got there.
In the meantime, I had to decide how much to say. We all did. And from the way Gabe kept looking at me, I still couldn’t tell if he’d heard what Zoe had told me. Either way, nobody spoke up.
“Listen, guys,” the cop said. “I need your help, and I need to know what happened to your friend.”
“We didn’t see anything,” Gabe said then.
I didn’t correct him, either. There had to be a reason Zoe was so desperate for me to keep my mouth shut. But what was it? The only thing I knew for sure was that if I spilled the truth now, I couldn’t take it back. And Zoe was the victim here. Not anyone else. She deserved the benefit of the doubt. For all I knew, she was still in some kind of danger.
“Come on guys, think,” the cop said. “Let’s start with what you were doing when that gunshot went off. Where were each of you?”
“Excuse me, sir,” I said. “But are we required to answer your questions?”
“Pardon?” the cop said.
“Are we being detained?” I asked. I knew our rights, and I knew that the cop did, too. He could ask everything he wanted, but unless he was taking us into custody, there was nothing in the law that said we had to talk, or even stick around.
After a long pause and a deep breath, he finally answered me.
“No,” he said. “You’re not being detained.”
Meanwhile, Ruby, Gabe, Mateo, and Cedric were all looking at me like this was some game of follow-the-leader and I was at the front of the line. None of them were saying a word.
“So are we free to go?” I asked. My heart was picking up speed again. I could hear my voice, confident on the outside even though I felt like a bowl of cherry Jell-O on the inside.
The officer looked me in the eye one more time. And when he looked away, I knew we were in the clear. For now.
“Go on then,” he said.
I wasn’t trying to make trouble. It felt more like I was trying to do the same thing he was—protect the victim. And if I was making a huge mistake right now, at least I was going to make it in the name of doing what was right for Zoe.
- On Sale
- Jun 28, 2021
- Hachette Audio