By Jay Coles
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A young man searches for answers after the death of his brother at the hands of police in this striking debut novel, for readers of The Hate U Give.
When Marvin Johnson’s twin, Tyler, goes to a party, Marvin decides to tag along to keep an eye on his brother. But what starts as harmless fun turns into a shooting, followed by a police raid.
The next day, Tyler has gone missing, and it’s up to Marvin to find him. But when Tyler is found dead, a video leaked online tells an even more chilling story: Tyler has been shot and killed by a police officer. Terrified as his mother unravels and mourning a brother who is now a hashtag, Marvin must learn what justice and freedom really mean.
Tyler Johnson Was Here is a powerful and moving portrait of youth and family that speaks to the serious issues of today–from gun control to the Black Lives Matter movement.
• 1 •
Here’s what goes down:
It’s just the four of us. My best friends, Ivy and Guillermo (G-mo), my brother, Tyler, and me. We’re just strolling through the aisles of a corner convenience store, rapping aloud to my favorite Kendrick Lamar song, “Feel,” taking turns rapping verses out loud.
We each choose a bag of chips and a candy bar. For me, I pick salt and vinegar Lay’s, something I could toss a mint in my mouth after and still be fine, and then a king-sized Kit Kat bar.
We go up to the register and pay for our stuff. I’m mostly excited to satisfy my growling stomach over a binge marathon of A Different World, at my and Tyler’s place.
Tyler wouldn’t normally be hanging around me and my geek friends, but this is his way of bonding with me. His way of saying I love you, bro, even though those words never fall out of his mouth. When we walk out the store, now singing the theme song to A Different World, Tyler rolling his eyes and grinning, we realize that we spent too long strolling through the aisles of packaged goods, and by the time we’re out the door, the sun has left the sky, the world darkened.
This gets Tyler a little irritated. He checks our shared phone furiously, as if he’s expecting an important message or phone call.
Our hood is called Sterling Point. Streetlights smoldering in a fog of cannabis smoke, potholes mazing the roads, gravel driveways, and garden gnomes with bullet holes. Everything is just ugly as shit, except the murals painted out on the sides of walls, black African queens holding their heads high, Tupac staring out with a small smile. But even the ugliness, I guess, is its own kind of beautiful. So I’ve learned to embrace it.
Tyler, G-mo, and I get on our bikes, and Ivy flips her skateboard right side up. We clutch our snacks to our sides, like they’ll somehow get stolen from us on the way back. And when we’re a block away from my place, we see a guy walking up our way down the block, turning from Ninth Street. He’s dragging his legs, a backpack under his arm.
I slow, and then pump on my handle brakes.
I recognize him. He looks like every other white guy at Sojo High. Skinny. Sad, like he constantly feels out of place. I think I know him from a music theory class I took freshman year. We never talk much outside of class, but we’ve shared notes.
I’ve heard all the horror stories of people walking all alone at night ending up missing or something, so I’m about to wave him down—maybe even invite him over to join us for some geeking out over A Different World—but all of a sudden, coming out of nowhere, is the striking sound of gunshots. Pop! Pop! Pop!
They come in fast and piercing blasts. Again and again.
The skinny white dude drops to the ground, shielding his head.
“What the fuck?” G-mo shouts.
And I fall on my side, my bike slamming down on top of me, crushing my chest on impact with one quick punch.
Everything starts blurring and fading like someone drugged the Kool-Aid I’ve been sipping on all day from a water bottle. As I lift the bike off me, I feel this huge pang in my head, like I got some sort of goddamn concussion from colliding with the concrete sidewalk.
My next instinct is to stay quiet, to internalize all my cussing and fear, to make sure Ivy, G-mo, and Tyler do the same. It’s hard, but I’ve gotten a lot of training.
I turn over to check on Tyler. Hot Fries are littering his chest, and first they have me thinking they’re bloodstains. I furiously search his body for any wounds, almost about to rip off all of his clothing before I finally realize.
He’s okay. I’m okay.
G-mo and Ivy are okay.
Their faces are frozen with fear, like the gunshots released all the fear chemicals in their brains. But they’re still here.
Man, what the fuck. This shit’s straight up got on my last nerve. Why’d they choose tonight for a gang shoot-out?
Then, like, out of nowhere again, I see a cop waddling toward us, and my worst nightmare has started to come true. It isn’t a gang shoot-out.
The cop is really pale, skin like a snowfall foreign to Sterling Point—the toilet of America, where shit really goes down. He has a bald head and eyes like the most chilling emeralds. Eyes that scream shitty things at me. We shouldn’t be here.
He’s dragging a boy wearing an all-black hoodie whose hands are being held behind his back—the boy screams in excruciating pain, calling out that he wants to get back home, wailing for the cop to let go of him, that he’s unarmed, that he doesn’t want to die, and reminding the cop that he’s innocent until proven guilty. But the cop isn’t hearing that shit.
And so, just ten feet away, he slams the boy on the ground. Suddenly, I’m a little kid again, watching my first body drop from a single bullet, feeling an overwhelming surge of adrenaline. Heart pounding in my chest. Cold sweats sending me shaking.
The cop keeps bashing the poor kid into the sidewalk, smashing his face onto the surface, screaming hate into the back of his head, screaming that he forgot his place in the world, screaming that his wide nose had it coming. All I can see—all I can focus on—is the cop as he pulls out his baton.
And the air I swallow is like Novocain. I go numb all over, adrenaline rising within me. My heart is doing more than beating in my chest—it’s rhythmically shredding me. I wonder if I’ll return home again. I struggle to remember the last thing I told my mother. Was it something really fucked up? I can’t think straight.
The cop’s head remains angled down for a while, his baton rising in the air and coming down in rapid, brutal strikes to the back of the poor boy’s head. My chest gives in and out, constricting tighter and tighter as each bloody second slips by. I’m stricken with fear.
“What the fuck?!” Ivy screams, hiding her face from the horror that’s going on in front of us. And it’s in this moment that the police officer looks over and notices us.
After cuffing the boy underneath him, the cop clutches his gun holster—gives us a glare. “Stay where you are,” he says. “Don’t fucking move.”
I’m thinking to myself: Holy shit. Oh, God. Holy shit. Oh, God.
G-mo slowly tries to reach for his bike. I can hear all the panic in his deep, gasping breaths.
“Where’re you coming from?” the cop asks. “You came from robbing the store? Bunch of thugs just ran in this direction. You one of them, huh?”
My thoughts start to run a marathon, so long and far, going miles away from this city, as hot tears streak my cold face, drying beneath my nose. “No—no, we didn’t rob anyone!”
The cop shows his hands, his knee in the boy’s back, and clutched neatly in his fist is his gun, aimed at us.
“Hold up, hold up! What’re you doing?” Tyler says.
“Hands up!” the cop shouts, foaming at the mouth from the anger inside him. The darkness kind of covers his face, but not his hatred. “Do not fucking move!”
“Ohshit,” Ivy says all as one word, her arms shaking while raised. I hear a low scream.
“Oh fuck, oh fuck,” G-mo goes, like he knows this is going to be the end of the road for us. We’ve heard too many stories and seen too many things not to feel like this could be it for us, that it could be a white police officer signing our death certificates tonight.
A yelp emerges from the void in my gut. The air suddenly feels rough against my skin. In that moment, I replay the time when Mama got pulled over for speeding with Tyler and me in the back seat when we were eleven. “Keep your head down,” she said to us. “Breathe right. Breathe easy.” Mama and Dad didn’t teach Tyler and me to be afraid of the cops—only to listen to their orders.
G-mo, Ivy, and I have our hands in the air like we’re reaching up to touch the sky and collect all the stars. Mama taught me that listening is as important as breathing. That it can save your life. And I’m telling myself that right now is the best time for me to listen to her. Listen to this cop. Comply. Don’t make a move. Keep my hands up. But Tyler doesn’t.
“The fuck he gon’ do,” Tyler mutters as he stands up.
I jump to my feet and push Tyler behind me, stretching out my arms as if I’m a shield. “Stop moving,” I say, giving him a worried look, seeing the reflection of a streetlight in his brown eyes. He pushes past me anyway.
“He ain’t gon’ do anything,” Tyler says. “We ain’t do nothing to begin with.”
The cop shouts, “Don’t fucking move!”
I make sure not to move. “Sir, what did we do?” I ask, trying not to sound as terrified as I really am.
The officer doesn’t say anything, just breathes heavy and keeps his gun pointed at us, wanting us to move, as if waiting for us to give him a reason to shoot, a way to get away with murder.
And it’s like he doesn’t even notice that there’s a white boy there with his face buried in the concrete sidewalk like it’s a pillow.
“What happened, officer?” G-mo asks, his voice moving slow like molasses—sounding heavy like it, too. “I’m sure this is some sort of misunderstanding.”
“Shut the hell up,” the cop barks.
“We deserve to know. We’re innocent. We’re kids. And you have a gun pointed at us. What’s going on?” Ivy chimes in, her voice filled with defeat.
Silence. I breathe out the air I’m holding in.
“Look, man,” Tyler goes, his voice not even cracking, “you’ve got a fucking gun pointed at us and shit, and we just wanna know why. We were just trying to get home.”
Tyler breaks it. “A’ight, y’all need—”
“Tyler, be quiet!” I shout.
“No, he out here acting like—”
“Say one more goddamn word,” the officer says, “and I’ll shoot. I swear to God, I’ll do it.”
I look over at Tyler and see his face completely change, as if he’s backpedaling in his thoughts, remembering: Keep your head down. Breathe right. Breathe easy.
“Don’t fucking play with me,” the cop yells. “I’m sick and tired of fucking responding to calls because some thugs are terrorizing the poor businesses around here. Do you even know how lucky y’all are?” he asks, his hands shaking around the butt of his gun. “How lucky y’all are to have white-owned businesses in this area? Those poor people have made sacrifices, and this is the way y’all treat them? I’m sick and tired.”
“Please, officer,” I mumble, my arms looking like noodles. “Please, don’t shoot. Don’t kill us. Please let us go!”
“Boy, I swear, I’ll pull this trigger!” the officer barks. “Shut. The. Fuck. Up!” And he’s not lying. His trigger finger starts shaking.
And it’s in this moment that I realize that 1) the cop has definitely confused us for some other kids, 2) he is racist, and 3) we’re going to die.
“Sir, we were just heading home, I swear,” I say, pleading, taking huge gulps of air in between words. “We didn’t… do… anything. You have… the wrong people. We were just… heading home.” I try and try and try so hard to explain, but nothing, no remorse, no sympathy, no second thoughts, no step back, no removal of the gun from innocent kids’ faces, absolutely fucking nothing.
My arms start to feel numb from being raised so high, so straight, so still. But I keep telling myself over and over again that if I move a single muscle in my arms, it’d be the end of me. I’m not ready to die, so I keep still even though my arms burn.
And then out of nowhere, the white kid lunges up from the ground and tackles the cop like an ass-kicking prodigy or something.
A shot is fired, but I don’t see where it came from and I don’t know where it landed. But I move. And that means I’m fucked one way or another. And I keep cussing myself under my breath, saying I just gave the cop a reason to shoot me, to just fucking kill me, no further questions or commands.
The skinny white boy screams, “Run!”
It takes me a minute to realize that he’s talking to us.
And as the cop has another problem on his hands, the four of us grab our bikes and skateboard and cut out, shouting “Oh fuck” too many times for a single lifetime.
I look up at the moon as I pedal, pedal, pedal the fuck out of my bike toward home, and I force myself to believe that I’m okay, that I’m still whole.
I’ve never felt so terrified in my life, and stepping foot inside my house has never given me so much relief.
When I get in, Mama isn’t expecting me to be crying and struggling to catch my breath, words flying out of my mouth at warp speed.
I tell her everything that happened. And she has a hard time believing me at first. Even though G-mo, Ivy, and Tyler are telling her the same story, she finds a way to say things like “What the hell?! This can’t be for real!” I think it’s more for her own sanity. She likes to pretend that her sons are safe in a world where they really aren’t, so she tries to force oblivion.
Mama calls the local police department to file a complaint anyway, tears streaming from her eyes—like it finally sinks in that she almost lost both her sons because of a mix-up and a crooked officer.
But the lady on the other end of the landline tells Mama that she has to wait thirty days and then file a complaint in person. So Mama hangs up, cussing under her breath, a pissed look on her face that I’m too familiar with, eyes watering and everything. For the longest while, I watch her chest heave as she rests her head in her palms.
Ivy and G-mo call their mothers to pick them up and take them home, and I watch their faces as they explain in full detail what just went down—anxious looks and tears falling from their eyes.
I can’t stop thinking about what happened, my thoughts trailing off into the details, replaying it all like a movie, my face getting hotter.
Two seemingly racist cops.
An unconscious black boy.
A near-death experience.
A second chance to live.
• 2 •
It’s the middle of the night, and someone’s pounding on the front door.
“Police!” I hear. The pounding gets louder, faster.
I curse under my breath, my heart skipping beats, and I feel around in the darkness to turn on my nightstand lamp. I cut it on with one tug of a string.
My alarm clock blinks at me: 2:47 AM.
“Oh my God,” I whisper-yell to myself. “Three o’clock in the fucking morning.”
And then I hear some movement outside my bedroom door, and I see the red and blue flashing lights illuminating everything. Tyler comes into my room, wearing a tight white tank and some basketball shorts, a black do-rag on his head.
“Don’t get the door,” Tyler says, sitting down on the edge of my bed. “Mama said not to open it.”
Mama’s wise—a bit too wise when it comes to random police visits to the house. She’s become familiar with them over the years. I mean, it’s routine, the way they come banging up on your door in our neighborhood for literally anything. Crackhead found dead. Some white kid from Sojo High ran away. The car outside our house has a flat tire. Some white woman down the road says she saw a suspicious black man.
And for Mama and Tyler and me, we worry more about police visits to our house than the gang-infested streets. And Mama has already started crafting a plan for how to get out of being pinched by the po-po just because of who my dad was, if that time ever comes, a time we all pray never does.
The pounding goes on for a whole ten minutes, and I end up slipping out into the hallway, taking step after tiny step, making sure I’m not breathing too hard. But Mama is already standing at the end of the hallway, arms crossed, side-eyeing Tyler and me for being hardheaded and trying to go to the door anyway. It’s like we can’t ever get anything past her.
She does one of her famous eye-rolls and then exhales in frustration before walking to the front.
“What y’all want?” Mama yells to the police through the door, keeping her distance. She closes her bathrobe tightly, like she feels too exposed. “Stay away from the door,” Mama whispers to me.
“Ma’am, we are here to talk about an incident that happened earlier tonight. Could we come in?”
“No, I’m not dressed,” she shouts back, signaling me to get back. I step away, taking slow steps, feeling some of the iron burns in the carpet underneath my bare feet since Mama can’t afford an ironing board. Tyler sneaks up behind me, catching me off guard.
“Please, ma’am, put clothes on. We’d like to speak with you about what happened.”
“I don’t know nothing about what happened, and I got to go to work early tomorrow. Please leave! I ain’t asking y’all again.”
“Ma’am, two boys died tonight.”
“I said leave!”
“Ma’am, please!” an officer begs, his voice deep and low.
She sighs and then looks through the peephole. She opens the door a crack, letting some of the moonlight wash inside, and then all the way, filling big empty spaces in all of the dark corners with light. They walk in and Mama flips on the light switch.
There are two cops, both of them black. One has hair; the other doesn’t. They nod at Tyler and me in a friendly manner, like they come in peace. Mama closes the door behind them.
“What’s this about two boys dead?” Mama’s lips tremble a bit.
“On the corner of Ninth Street and Elm, two boys were shot dead. One looks to be an accident. The other appears to be in self-defense, ma’am,” the officer with hair says.
“Oh my Lord. God, help us all,” Mama says, shocked, holding her face. “What happened?”
“There’ve been several robberies and reports of vandalism in the area. Tonight there was yet another incident where we had vandals running away from an armed store owner. The vandals were vaguely described. So, once our officer responded to the call, he apparently got the wrong guys.”
I swallow hard, realizing that he’s talking about what happened to us.
I give a glance to Tyler, and he wears anxiety like his do-rag, his chest heaving and his eyes bloodshot and wide—so wide.
Mama looks back at us, concern on her face, like she’s unsure if she should tell them that her sons were the ones who were wrongly accused, but we’re alive.
The other cop chimes in, putting a hand on his chest. “The scene ended with an accidental shot landing in the back of an African-American male graduate of Sojo High, killing him on impact, and a self-defense shot being fired into the chest of a Caucasian male whose name we’re still trying to figure out. Apparently, some others got away, unharmed, but might be suspects.”
I feel a lump in my throat, and it gets so hard to breathe. My hands get clammy. I forget to blink.
Tyler takes a step backward, his chest heaving harder.
“Those kids can’t be suspects,” Mama says.
“Well, why’s that, ma’am?” the bald officer asks.
“Because…” She trails off, glancing at Tyler and me, like she’s about to tell them that we were those suspects who got away. “Because… they were just kids in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The officers look at each other and then back at Mama, like they think she’s hiding something, but then they give her a nod.
“Well, if you get information about them or you hear anything, please don’t hesitate to give us a call. Okay? You may even win a reward of some kind.”
“All right.” Mama sighs.
“Thank you for your time,” the bald officer says, walking out the door.
“Wait,” I call after them.
“Yeah? What can I help you with, son?” the bald officer asks.
“Did that cop get in trouble? Or is he hurt?”
They look at each other again. “I’m afraid some are calling for his suspension. He did his job but didn’t do it carefully enough. He put innocent kids in some real danger.”
“Could’ve killed more than just two,” I say, and then they’re gone.
After I hear Mama lock the door, I breathe in and out for what feels like the first time.
“Y’all don’t say nothing to nobody,” Mama says. “Do you understand me?”
“Yes, ma’am,” we say in unison, looking each other in the eye.
She walks around us toward her room. “Tell Ivy and G-mo what I said, too.”
Finally, I’m able to make it back to my room and get a couple more hours of sleep before starting another day of my chaotic life, returning to Sojo High.
Two weeks ago, I wrote my dad a letter:
Is today a good day for me to give up on life?
Is right now in this very moment a good time to cry?
Hey. Dad. How is it where you are?
I miss you.
So much love,
I would kill to have him back, and this now occupies my mind as I listen to Tupac rap about his father, who was never really there.
Nine years ago today, when I was just eight years old, my dad was sent to jail for a crime he did not commit. The memories are like scars on my brain. The police pounding on the door until the door fell inward. The screaming from Mama and Tyler. The hollering in my heart. And then blackness and arms everywhere, dragging my dad out like he was a monster to be sent back to hell. I erupted inward, feeling like I was falling apart. I screamed my eight-year-old lungs out, became a disaster, and then in a flash, I was hit over the head with one of those batons that the local Sterling Point police have. “For my own good,” they said.
Writing to him helps me see past it, past the shame, even past his absence sometimes. That helps me stop crying, because one thing I still remember from him—one thing I still replay in my head—is that men don’t cry, and every day I try to remember that. But, man, sometimes that’s just too hard to live by.
He’s five hours away, in a rusty, moldy building halfway across the state, a place that exists in the shadows and mist and ash of the world called Montgomery Correctional Facility, and I haven’t been able to visit him yet. Because Mama doesn’t want me to see him. And on top of that, we can’t even afford the trip. To Mama, the trip to Montgomery Correctional Facility is the distance of Sterling Point to, like, Russia or some shit because it’s a few hours away.
He should be here with us. He didn’t do what they say he did. But because he hung around the men who did, he got the same fate.
DATE: SEPTEMBER 19, 2018
TO: MARVIN D. JOHNSON (MY SON)
FROM: JAMAL P. JOHNSON
PRISON NUMBER: 2076-14-5555
Yo-yo-yo. It’s Daddy.
I miss you more than the stars miss hanging in the sky after nightfall. I hope this letter finds you in a good place, my boy. I take back what I told you about not crying. Crying can free you, son. Crying can make you see past it, past the pain that hurts your growing heart.
The best time to cry is, weird enough, at nighttime—when all the lights are out, and it’s dark, when no one is around to see.
I don’t like it where I am—duh. Haha! Every morning I wake, I’m shocked to be here and saddened that I’m not there… with you and Moms and Ty-Ty. But they say you get used to it by your ninth year. Maybe they’re right. I’ll be in here for at least ten more years, and I can’t wait to see your smile again, son.
I won’t ever get used to the names, the words, the hitting, or the fact that they call me a bad man, a monster. I’ll stain this paper with a tear, so you’ll know I’m there with you, even when we can’t see each other.
Keep writing to me, sonny.
Daddy loves you. Always.
Jamal D. Johnson
Montgomery Correctional Facility
I change into my I DIDN’T CHOOSE THE HOOD LIFE; THE HOOD LIFE CHOSE ME polo and some joggers, and I go to do my chores before it’s time for school. And, man, I’m just too excited to have heard from him to cry right now, but I know I will later. At nighttime.
• 3 •
Tyler is my somewhat troubled, somewhat gullible twin brother. We were born on June 16 (a day that broke the record as the hottest day of the year), just two minutes apart from each other—Tyler being first. It was a sticky and miserable Saturday, Mama tells us. Dad was there for Tyler’s birth, but he got sick and left before it was my turn. And sometimes, I think maybe that’s just a metaphor for my entire life.
There are two types of twins in the world: identical and fraternal. Tyler and I are in the middle. We look alike in the face but are not identical. I’m slim; he’s not. I’m on the darker side of the spectrum; he’s not as dark. I look a lot like Dwayne Wayne from my favorite show, A Different World, except he had a box cut and I have a low fade, but I even own a replica of Dwayne’s sunglasses; Tyler does not. Tyler and I are synonyms and we go together like salt and pepper, but we’re not at all the same.
Really, though, out of all the shades of black, I got one of the darkest of the family. Tyler got a medium-brown complexion, like Dad and G-mo. But everybody always says we look more like Mama. We got her long, curly eyelashes and her hair that always curls up after a shower. Only thing we got from our dad was his nose. It’s a curse that we used to make fun of each other about over Thanksgiving and other holiday dinners.
An Entertainment Weekly Most Anticipated Book of the Year
"Exploring the current climate of police brutality and viral culture, this harrowing YA effort is based on its author's own experiences with tragedy and loss, a personal touch felt across every page."—Entertainment Weekly
"An unflinching look at police brutality and systemic racism in America."—Bustle
* "This well-written, fast-paced story eloquently addresses how to grieve, plan, and participate in the burial of a loved one....[A] standout debut."—School Library Journal, starred review
* "Unforgettable....Coles' exploration of brotherhood, grief, friendship, and familial ties is as moving and relevant as its exploration of racism."—Booklist, starred review
"Coles...pens an immersive and uncompromising look at systemic police violence in the U.S., effectively dramatizing the human experience and ethical questions underpinning today's Movement for Black Lives."—Kirkus Reviews
"A distressing yet empowering portrait of a black teenager confronting relentless racism, brutality, and tragedy."—Publishers Weekly
"Clear-eyed, authentic, and heartfelt, Tyler Johnson Was Here is a captivating must-read."—Karen M. McManus, New York Times bestselling author of One of Us Is Lying
"Jay Coles' powerful, anguished debut novel...garners worthy comparisons to 2017's award-winning The Hate U Give."—BookPage
"Coles's contemporary novel addresses real issues facing black teens in the U.S. today, and is a powerful story full of heart, packing a deep emotional punch."—VOYA
"An impactful story....Stirring and heartbreaking."—The Bulletin
"Uncompromising and intense, this heart-wrenching novel sends out an anguished cry for justice to all who are willing to hear."—Shelf Awareness
"Riveting...Coles evaluates self-identity in African Americans, police brutality, stereotypes, prejudice, social justice, education, poverty and more. At times endearing, and at times, excruciating to read, it is a very important novel."—The Washington Missourian
"Gripping from the very first scene, Tyler Johnson Was Here is a powerful and vulnerable immersion into the lives of people who are too rarely given a voice."—Adi Alsaid, author of Let's Get Lost and Never Always Sometimes
"Tyler Johnson Was Here refuses to pull its punches. Marvin's story will remake you. The careful prose, the heartbreaking story, but also the triumph of a young man in the face of an often lightless world. Jay Coles delivers the first book in what will be an illuminating career."—Scott Reintgen, author of Nyxia
- On Sale
- Mar 20, 2018
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers