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By Sharon Flake
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Mann is only thirteen, yet he has already had to deal with more than most go through in a lifetime. His family is still reeling from the tragic shooting death of his little brother, Jason, each person coping with grief in his or her own way. Mann’s mother has stopped eating and is obsessed with preserving Jason’s memory, while his father is certain that presenting a hard edge is the only way to keep his remaining son from becoming a statistic. Mann used to paint and ride horseback, but now he’s doing everything he can to escape his emotions: getting involved in fights at school, joyriding at midnight, and much worse. His father, at his wit’s end, does the only thing he thinks will teach his son how to be a man he abandons him and his friend Kee Lee in the woods, leaving them to navigate their way home, alone.
Also by Sharon G. Flake
The Skin I’m In
Who Am I Without Him?
You Don’t Even Know Me
Begging for Change
Copyright © 2005 by Sharon G. Flake
Cover design by Christian Fuenfhausen
Cover photo © Shutterstock/Diversity Studio
All rights reserved. Published by Disney • Jump at the Sun, an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information address Disney • Jump at the Sun, 125 West End Avenue, New York, New York 10023.
For Alvera Johnson,
and several of the men in their lives:
To Cassandra Allen
and the man in her life, Ryan
For Suzanne Davis and her men, Chuckie and Little Chuck
And to Francine Taggert and her two fine men,
Charles and Charles Ross
It has been a pleasure having you in my life and
witnessing the fruit of your love.
Boys ain’t men … yet.
They are sneakers with strings untied
Broken bikes and blackened eyes
Fast footraces and dirty faces
But they ain’t men, not yet.
Boys ain’t men … yet.
They are stolen kisses from a young girl’s cheek
Sagging pants strutting up the street
Homework turned in two days late
Video wizards and basketball greats
But they ain’t men, not yet.
Boys ain’t men … yet.
They are skirt chasers and moneymakers
Late-night rides, muscles and pride
Prom dates handing out flowers and grins
Ready to take on the world and win
But they ain’t men, not yet.
Boys ain’t men … yet.
They are tall, giant reeds, trying to survive
Strong arms pushing trouble aside
Corner sitters, watchers and seekers
On the lookout for men willing to lead ’em.
—Sharon G. Flake
THEY KILL PEOPLE WHERE I live. They shoot ’em dead for no real reason. You don’t duck, you die. That’s what happened to my brother Jason. He was seven. Playing on our front porch. Laughing. Then some man ran by yelling, “He gonna kill me. He’s gonna—”
Before the man finished saying what he had to say, a boy no older than me chased him up our front porch steps. The man yelled for Jason to get out the way. But Jason just stood there crying. Right then, the boy pulls out a gun and starts shooting.
Bang! Guns really sound like that, you know. Bang! And people bleed from everywhere and blood is redder than you think. Bang! And little kids look funny in caskets. That’s ’cause they ain’t meant to be in one, I guess.
My brother died two years ago. But I can’t stop thinking about him. And I can’t walk in the house through the front door no more because of the blood. My mother says it’s gone. “See?” she says, pointing to the porch floor and the gray wooden chairs. “Long gone.” But I can still see it. I can. So I come into the house through the back way. Stepping over the missing stoop Jason used to put his green plastic soldiers on. Opening the iron gate that my dad put up to keep trouble out. Going inside the house and not looking at my brother’s room, because if I even see his door, I cry. And a thirteen-year-old boy ain’t supposed to cry, is he?
The day Jason died I was with Journey—a horse. She stays at Dream-a-Lot Stables, not far from where I live. It’s a broke-down stable where kids hit her with rocks and try to make her eat sticks. But my father, he taught me and Jason to ride Journey, and brush her good. So even though she ain’t ours, Journey likes us best. The man who owns the stables and rents out broke-down horses for five bucks an hour would let us ride for almost free, long as we cleaned Journey’s stable first. So that morning, after my mom and dad went to work, I left Jason home by hisself. I walked to the stables and brushed the flies and dirt off Journey’s blond coat. I swept up turds as big as turtles, and rode Journey all the way home—up the avenue and past Seventh Street, between honking cars, slow buses, and grown-ups who patted her butt, then got mad when she broke wind in their faces.
When I got home, Jason was on the porch. He asked me to play toy soldiers with him. I wouldn’t. Journey was thirsty. So I went around back to get a hose so she could drink. That’s when I heard the man yelling, and Jason screaming my name. I ran to the front of the house. The boy chased the man up our steps and onto our porch. Journey shook her head and stomped her feet on the pavement. The gun went off. The hose in my hand soaked the porch, squirted the dead man and splashed blood everywhere. Neighbors tried to pull it away from me, but I wouldn’t turn it loose. That’s what they say anyhow.
After Jason was gone, I saw a psychologist for six months. But my father didn’t like that, so I quit going. “You a man, not no sissy baby girl,” he said when he found me one day behind the couch, crying.
My mother got mad at him. “I’m gonna cry over my baby boy till I die,” she said, hugging me. “Guess Mann here’s gonna cry awhile too.”
My father used to be in the army, so he don’t cry much. And he don’t want no boy crying all the time neither. That’s what he tells me anyhow.
A week ago my mother told my father I needed help. “We all do,” she said, sitting down on the living-room floor next to me. “It’s been nearly two years since Jason died, and it hurts like it happened this morning.”
My father stood behind his favorite brown leather chair. “I don’t need no help. And him,” he said, pointing to me, “ain’t nothing that momma’s boy needs but a good old-fashioned butt-kicking.”
I am not a momma’s boy, but since Jason died, that’s what my dad calls me. “People die,” he said. “Little people die too. Get over it.”
My mother jumped up. Her knee knocked me in the chin. I held my mouth, because I bit my tongue and I didn’t want her feeling bad about that. “So you’re over it, huh?” she said, running up to the window and pulling back the white curtains. “Yeah, right,” she said, holding on to the heavy, iron bars that cover every window and door in our house.
My mother walked past my father and unlocked the drawer to his desk. She picked up his .38 and stuck her arm high in the air like she does when she’s hailing a cab. Then she reached in the drawer with her other hand and pulled out a rusty hunting knife big enough to cut your arm off. “He cries,” she said, looking at me and pointing the gun at my father, “but you, you—”
“Shut up, Grace. I’m warning you.”
My mother kept talking. Next thing I knew my father was pulling his gun and knife out her hands and locking them back in the drawer. She hugged him from behind. “He didn’t deserve to die. He was sweet and smart and gave hugs when you—”
My dad covered his ears with his hands. “Grace!”
She ran to the window and yelled out. “You killed us too! We look like we still alive but we dead. Rotten inside.” She punched her flat stomach. Bit down on her arm. “Ja … Ja …”
My father shook her. “Don’t say his name! Don’t ever—”
My mother’s eyes are big red circles with black bags under ’em that won’t go away since Jason died. “He’s gonna be nine in a few months,” she said. “We have to make a cake. Buy him something special.”
My dad spit at the trash can. Some made it in. The rest stuck to the outside like a slug. “A dead boy don’t need no presents. I told you that last year.”
We always get cakes on our birthdays. And we always sing songs and make the day extra special, not just for me and Jason, but for my mom and dad too. My mother says it wouldn’t be right to leave Jason out now. So she gets him presents he can’t open and makes him cakes he can’t eat.
My dad said what my mother never wants to hear. “Grace. He’s gone. And he ain’t never coming back.”
I watched her, ’cause I knew them words were gonna get her too sad to make supper, or laugh when the funny shows came on TV tonight.
My mother went to the front door and opened it wide. Then she ran onto the porch and yelled for Jason. My dad ran after her. But by the time he got there, she was on her knees picking up little green soldiers we find on the porch sometimes but can’t figure out just how they get there. She stomped her feet. “Jason. You come home. Come home right now!”
My father kneeled down beside her. He rubbed her lips, then covered up the rest of her words with his fingers. And then he cried, right along with her.
THREE DAYS LATER MY father apologized. He said he was sorry for making my mother so upset. Sorry for saying all them things about Jason. She was glad he said it. After that, they got dressed and went to the movies. I went to my room and tried to figure out why she couldn’t figure out that tomorrow he was gonna say them same things all over again.
“He can’t help it,” she says all the time. “He just doesn’t know what to do with all the things he’s feeling inside.”
I know she’s right. Only I get tired of him being mean. He used to be different. He used to take us to the park. Slide down snow hills with us and lie in bed between me and Jason and make up stories about two boys walking from here to China. Then Jason died and so did my dad, kinda.
One time, when my mother and him were arguing about the way he treated me, she made me go get some of Jason’s things. I walked over to the middle bookshelf and picked up Jason’s lunch box—the one he had in his hand that day he got killed.
“Give it here,” my mother said. She opened it. Took out the note. “‘Daddy loves you.’”
My father snatched the napkin out her hand and tore it up.
My mother pointed to a Buster Brown shoe box sitting way on top of the bookshelf. “I still got the rest,” she said, talking about the other notes my dad had put in Jason’s lunch box. Have a nice day, they’d say. Meet me after school for coffee, he’d write. Only he never gave Jason real coffee—just grape juice in a coffee mug. “Us men have to have something strong now and then,” he’d say. That always made Jason laugh.
I got notes every day too, when I was Jason’s age. But when I turned nine, they stopped. My father took me to the yard right after my birthday party that year, and burned them. “What’s between a father and his son,” he said, putting one hand on his heart and the other on mine, “can’t be burned by fire, washed away by water, or destroyed with human hands.” He squeezed me so hard, I couldn’t breathe. Then he gave me a note—the same note he gives me every year on my birthday. What we have is forever it says. When I was ten, I got to hold on to the note for ten hours. At thirteen, I kept it for thirteen hours. When my time’s up, I give it back to him until my next birthday. I always liked getting that note. But I don’t believe it no more.
I DON’T WANT TO GO to school no more. But I go. And I put out the trash every Wednesday night, shovel the pavement when it snows, walk my mom to the corner store when it’s dark out, and clean up the house without nobody even asking. I started doing everything right once Jason died, ’cause my mom couldn’t take no more trouble. Only the closer it gets to his birthday, or the day he was shot, the more I can’t do like I promised her—make it so she never got a reason to cry over me too.
The only one who knows how I really feel about stuff is Kee-lee. We walk to school together. We tease Keisha, a girl Kee-lee likes, and get on our teachers’ nerves asking questions that don’t have nothing to do with the classes they’re teaching.
“I ain’t going,” Kee-lee says when I get to his house. He lives up the street from me. We supposed to be headed to school, like every morning. He takes a smoke from behind his ear and lights up. “I’m tired of school.”
I sit down on the new rocker his mother bought off a man driving a truck full of frozen chicken and steaks, gold chains, hats, and porch furniture. “You always saying that.”
Kee-lee can hold smoke in his mouth a long time, so it takes him a while to answer. “My mom says I can quit school if I want.” He walks past me with no shirt on and sits on the front steps in his horse-head pajama bottoms. “Hey, Keisha,” he says, calling to her across the street. “Want some of this?” He shows her his tongue.
Her middle finger goes up. “Brush your rotten teeth, stank mouth.” She goes back into her house. Kee-lee laughs and says he knows she likes him.
When Kee-lee smiles you see green sitting right next to yellow, and thick white clumps packed close to the gums like hard sugar. Girls don’t say hi when he walks up to them. They say, “Ill. Brush your teeth.” He brushes them now. But it’s too late. The stuff won’t come off. Him and me tried. We used a fingernail file once. It made his gums swell up and bleed.
We get back to talking about school, and Kee-lee says he’s dropping out for sure. That’s when the triplets—Mary, Martin, and Moses—come out the house. “Me too,” they say, lining up like they in school, opening the door up wide and going back inside. Kee-lee’s got seven brothers and sisters.
I wait for the triplets to come back out. They don’t. I tell Kee-lee he better make them go to school. “Or your mother’s gonna be mad.”
“Who’s gonna tell?”
I would never tell on Kee-lee, because he would never tell on me. And he knows stuff about me too. Like how on the day Jason died I ran to his place and cut my wrist with a knife. It was a little knife, but it drew blood. And one time I got so mad over Jason dying that I took rocks to the cocker spaniel in Mrs. Seymour’s yard. Almost killed it. Only Kee-lee knows that. And he ain’t telling.
Right when I get up to leave, Mary comes outside with a needle and thread. She hands ’em to Kee-lee, then sits in his lap, hugging him around the middle. He licks the thread. Sticks it through the needle hole. Knots it. Then sews up the square hole in the side of the shorts she handed him.
She jumps off his lap. “Thanks.”
He smacks her butt, yelling after her, “Y’all don’t make no mess in there.”
Kee-lee’s mom works in the factory way across town. She takes three buses and works double shifts sometimes. So even if he wanted, he couldn’t get to school every day nohow. Some days he stays home with a sick kid or washes and irons their clothes for school the next day. His mom dropped out in the ninth grade. So did his grandmother and grandfather. So when Kee-lee says he’s quitting, it’s not that big a deal, I guess.
“Listen. I gotta go.”
Kee-lee covers his mouth when he talks, so I don’t think I really hear what I’m hearing when he tells me that they killed Moo Moo last night. Moo Moo is his cousin, and like a brother to me.
“He was sitting in his friend’s ride, minding his own business.” Kee-lee’s got this funny look in his eye. “The guy next door told us first. He saw it on the eleven o’clock news.”
Bang! The gun goes off in my head.
“I didn’t hear about it,” I tell him. “We don’t watch the news no more.”
Kee-lee and me say it at the same time. “We is the news.”
It’s a joke. Him and me used to say we were gonna be reporters. Take a camera through the neighborhood and show people what it’s really like living here, being us. We were gonna call it We Is the News—Life in the ’Hood. But then we didn’t have a camera. And anyhow, nobody would pay us for stuff they see every night on the TV for free.
“So I figure,” Kee-lee says, “if I’m gonna die, why I gotta waste the time I do got sitting in school learning stuff I won’t use?”
I need to get to school, but I don’t move. I’m hoping Kee-lee’s gonna say he was lying about Moo Moo. So I sit and remember how good he was to me. How him and me painted the porch up the block and made fifty bucks each. He would do stuff like that. Come and get me and Kee-lee. Take us on a job. Let us make some dough sweeping up or washing walls. He talked to me about my dad, too. He always said, “Mann. Give him time. It takes a while to get used to having a piece of you die.”
I stand up. Walk down the steps and turn back Kee-lee’s way. “Why’d he have to die?”
Moo Moo was twenty-eight. He wasn’t all good, but he wasn’t all bad neither. But around here, it don’t matter. People get killed, good or bad, big or little.
Kee-lee’s eyes tear up. I ask the question again, but I don’t expect no answer. “Why … Why’d Moo Moo have to die?”
“That’s just how it goes around here,” Kee-lee says. “You get killed. Just ’cause.”
I WALK UP THE Street, past my house, heading for school. And even though I don’t look at my front porch, I hear gunshots anyhow. Bang! Jason’s gone. Bang! Kee-lee’s cousin’s gone. Bang! “You gonna be gone soon too,” I say, turning around and heading back to Kee-lee’s place.
Before I get to his house, my dad’s first cousin stops me. He’s a grown-up. His name is Semple, but we just call him Cousin. He lifts weights, so it’s like he’s always got his chest stuck out and his muscles tight. “Where you going, boy? School’s that-a-way.” He points.
I turn around. We stop in front of my house. I close my eyes because I know what’s coming: a hug. A big long hug, like I’m some girl he likes. “Hey, Cousin,” I say.
Cousin is always in a hurry. Talking and moving fast. Rushing even when he don’t have to. He puts one foot on the steps and asks how my mom and dad are. I back up.
“Listen, Mann. The family …”
They say I look like Cousin, high yellow and gray-eyed. Only I’m short. Cousin’s a big man with a big mouth. When he laughs, people turn around and look. When he talks, you wanna hold your ears. When you tell him a secret though, it stays secret. Like I told him about my dad being different since Jason died. And now Cousin comes by a couple times a month. “Just checking.”
I stay a minute and tell him about Moo Moo. He’s shaking his head, saying we’re picking one another off faster than hard scabs. I don’t know what that means. I don’t care. “I gotta go to school,” I lie.
He waves for me to come up the steps with him. I shake my head no. “Just this once,” he says, ringing the doorbell. He tells me I won’t ever get over Jason till I can walk on the porch. He pulls at the black bars, like he can rip ’em off with his bare hands. “Your father and these bars!” He shakes ’em. “This ain’t no house! It’s a prison! Before I’d live like this, I’d … I’d …”
My dad comes to the door and unlocks the iron gate. Cousin hugs him too. Then he gives him the book that’s in his hand. “This the one?”
My dad walks past him and stands next to me on the pavement. “Yeah, this is it.” He stares at the cover. There’s two African boys holding spears on it. Then he gives me this How come you ain’t in school? look, and I start walking.
The reason my father ain’t full-out crazy is because of his family. They talk to him. Take us out, fix us food, and make sure we getting by okay. They always saying what Cousin says—move from around here. But we ain’t got it as good as the rest. Most of them went to trade school or college. My dad went in the army and learned to fix tanks. Now he’s a guard at a downtown store. “I’ll move when I want to,” he tells them. “Not because somebody’s got a gun to my head.”
My father tells me to get my butt to school, then they both go inside and lock the door behind them. I head for Kee-lee’s.
Kee-lee is like me. He paints. He can take collardgreen juice and make tree leaves or use tomato paste for blood.
“You do this?”
“Don’t touch. It’s wet.”
He’s got my front porch painted on his blue bedroom wall. Jason’s there too. I turn away from the blood running out the side of his mouth. I check out Kee-lee’s cousin instead. He’s an angel. He’s got on orange baggy jeans and see-through wings shaped like guitars. He’s sitting on the roof of his car, looking over at Jason and pointing up to the sky.
Kee-lee opens a paint set as big as my desk in school. There’s, like, thirty tubes of paint, chalk, charcoal, and a dozen brushes in it.
“Who stole it?”
He smiles. I figure it would be cool if he could paint his teeth white.
“I put it down my pants and walked out the store.”
I wet a paintbrush. Dip it in Brown Bronze. Touch up Jason’s skinny arms and legs. Dip the brush in paint and draw more charcoal-black naps on Moo Moo’s head.
“I stayed up all night painting it.”
The painting takes up half the wall. And it looks so real, I can’t stop staring. Kee-lee’s even got the Good Time bar that’s up the street from us on the wall. There’s trash on the ground and girls jumping rope, and Keisha braiding Kee-lee’s hair. Right next to Jason’s elementary school, there’s a hoop game going on, with me, Kee-lee, Moo Moo, and Jason—all grown up. My eyes water. My fingers touch Jason’s wet cheek. For a minute, I think about smearing his picture; wiping the whole wall clean. But even if I did, they’d still be dead. Still be gone for good. “You ever wanna hurt somebody, Kee-lee? Mess ’em up real bad?”
He smiles. His green teeth look gray.
“Ever get tired of doing what you supposed to do? Making everybody happy instead of you?”
He hands me a blunt. “You smoke, you no worry, Mann.”
Kee-lee’s been smoking up his allowance money ever since his boy Kelvin got killed last year walking out of school with his arm around somebody else’s girl. Moo Moo stayed on his back about smoking weed. But he did it anyhow. It’s gonna get worse now, I think.
I pick up another brush. “You know I don’t smoke.”
He finishes the rest, then gets down on the floor and starts eating sunflower seeds. “You need to smoke something, Mann. You can’t stay regular in a house like yours. Too many crazy people. Too much drama.”
I watch him shaking his leg like he does when he gets nervous or he’s got something on his mind.
“Moo Moo shoulda—” I say.
Shells fly by my head. The trash can gets kicked over and next thing I know I’m pulling Kee-lee off me. “Shut up about Moo Moo! Shut up about dead people and dead stuff!”
I keep quiet, but not ’cause I’m scared. I’m thinking. Remembering. Wondering who gonna die next.
AIN’T NO FUN PLAYING
- On Sale
- Oct 28, 2009
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers