By Sharon Flake
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Also by Sharon G. Flake
The Skin I’m In
Who Am I Without Him?
You Don’t Even Know Me
Copyright © 2003 by Sharon G. Flake
Cover design by Christian Fuenfhausen
Cover photo © Getty Images
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 Myra Kim Smith Flake, who blessed us
with love, laughter, and a well-lived life.
You are much missed.
for Garen Thomas, my editor.
You are GOOD,
very, very good….
Thanks much for all you’ve done.
THEY NEVER CALL ME OVER the intercom at school.
But I can tell by the way the secretary is saying my name over that thing—I’m in trouble.
“Raspberry Hill,” she says real slow, with a crack in her voice. “Come, come to the office, please.”
Kids start teasing me. Saying I must be in big trouble. On my way outta English class, one girl looks at me and says, “You lucky. You probably get to go home for doing something stupid. Wish it was me.”
No way would that girl wanna be me right now, sitting in the hospital hoping my mother don’t die. Mad at God and everyone else who shoulda looked out for her, but didn’t.
In school, there ain’t never a good reason to cry. If you accidentally cut your hand off in wood shop, you better hold back them tears. ’Cause if you let ’em loose, somebody gonna say you a punk, and you won’t never live that down. But it’s okay to cry in this place. And that’s just what I do. I cry all the while I’m in the waiting room. Cry some more when I see how really bad off Momma is.
The newscaster on the TV in the hospital waiting room said Momma was jumped in broad daylight right out front of our place. Wasn’t no stranger who whacked her over the head, neither. It was Shiketa Nixon, the girl who lives two buildings up from us. She’s seventeen, but she looks twenty-five. And she don’t know nothing ’bout picking up her own mess, or telling her no-good friends to stop waking up the whole neighborhood at three and four in the morning with loud music, crap games, and fights.
Momma called the cops on Shiketa three times last week. Called the fire department once too when one of Shiketa’s friends set an old mattress on fire just for fun.
I told Momma to leave that girl be. But you know Momma. She can’t leave good enough alone. This morning she said she was gonna have another talk with Shiketa. And she wasn’t gonna be nice about it neither. I guess Shiketa had enough of Momma. The newscaster said she took a metal pipe to her head. Right in front of everybody.
When the evening nurse comes on duty, she thumps the IV line running from the clear plastic bag right into Momma’s smooth, brown arm. Then she frowns at the patch of missing hair they shaved from Momma’s head so they could stitch up the hole that Shiketa put there. I hold my breath when she wipes the blood away and puts a new bandage on.
“Excuse me,” I say, making a run for the bathroom. Flushing the toilet so the nurse don’t hear me throwing up the pudding and creamed chicken they left Momma earlier, even though a blind man could see she can’t eat nothing.
“You all right, honey?” the nurse says, knocking on the door.
I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. “Yeah.”
Through the closed door, I hear the nurse trying to wake Momma up. They do that every hour to make sure she’s okay. That she ain’t in a coma or hemorrhaging on the brain. Momma tells the nurse her name, address, and the day of the week. I crack open the bathroom door, walk over to the bed.
“My head hurts,” Momma says, reaching for my hand. Yawning. Turning her back on me and the nurse and going back to sleep.
The nurse’s voice feels like a warm washcloth on my face. “My shift is just about over, honey. I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”
I nod my head up and down.
“Can I call somebody for you? You too young to be here by yourself,” she says, pulling the covers up over Momma.
I tell the nurse that I ain’t here by myself. My girlfriend Zora and her dad are with me. He’s a doctor. I called him when the school said something bad happened to Momma. He closed down his practice for the day. Picked me and Zora up and drove us here. Zora went to the gift shop to buy me some tissues. “Nice ones. Not the cheap, rough ones they have here,” she said, pointing to a tissue box in Momma’s room. That was an hour and fifteen minutes ago.
“You take care, okay? Your momma looks bad, but the doctors say she’ll be all right,” the nurse says, walking out.
I lay down beside Momma. Stare at dry blood caked around the edge of her hair and the tip of her left ear. I wet a tissue. Drag it along her hairline. Wet it again and wipe her ear inside and out. I lean over to get a good look at her head again, then lay my head down and cry. That’s why I don’t see my father walk into the room. All I know is, something stinks real bad. When I lift my head up, there he is. Standing by the door.
“Raspberrrry,” he says, dragging my name out like he did when I was little and he couldn’t find me nowhere. His short red hair is knotty and matted to his head like it ain’t been combed in months. He’s wearing a T-shirt, ripped at the collar, that’s got more dirt on it than Shiketa’s front steps.
“Oh, Daddy,” I say, squeezing Momma’s fingers.
“Girl. Come give me a hug,” he says, wiggling his lips, and poking ’em out, like I’m supposed to kiss him.
I shake my head from side to side, push the button by Momma’s bed so the nurse will come. I’m sorry as soon as I do that, ’cause they just might throw Daddy out. Or lock him up. ’Cause anybody can see that he’s drunk, maybe high on crack right now too.
Daddy’s eyes are half open. And he can’t stand still unless he’s holding on to something, or sitting down on Momma’s bed, like he’s doing now.
“I saw the news. They said what happened to her,” he says real low. “I was at McDonald’s. Trying to come down, you know,” he says. “Got ahold of some bad stuff. Been up for four days straight.”
I buzz the nurse again. Cover my face with my hands. Pray to God that nothing happens to Momma, ’cause Daddy can’t take care of hisself, let alone me.
“Somebody buzz?” the nurse says over the intercom. She sounds busy, like I’m interrupting her.
Daddy looks at me. His eyes are bloodshot, but I can still see the hurt in ’em.
“No,” I say. “I sat on the buzzer. Accidentally.”
Daddy smiles. Pushes the hair outta Momma’s face. Takes a tissue and wets it with his spit and wipes something off her chin.
“It should be me here with my head bashed in,” he says, rubbing her arm, then standing up, walking over to me, and asking if I need anything. “I got maybe five dollars in change,” he says, digging into his pocket with one hand. Holding on to the bed with the other.
I look down at the floor. “No. I’m okay.”
“Good,” he says. “’Cause I ain’t do so well on the corner today. Folks was cheap with their cash. You know sometimes it’s like that,” he says, walking over to the window and staring into the night. “Some days they make you beg for every penny they give you. Other times they throw a buck or two in your cup like they made of money.”
After a while, Daddy and me ain’t got nothing more to say. So I’m glad when Zora walks in the room. Only she don’t see him at first, and before I can stop her she’s holding her nose closed and saying, “It stinks in here!”
I don’t say a word. I just point to where he is, and listen to Zora apologize over and over again. Daddy acts like she never said a word. But a few minutes later, he’s at the door saying it’s time for him to go.
“Give me some sugar, baby girl,” he says, walking over to me, pressing his hard, dry lips to my cheek, and kissing me good-bye. Then he walks out the door, whistling and jingling change in his pocket, like he ain’t got a care in the world.
I DON’T WANT TO GO TO ZORA’S house tonight. I want to sleep in my own bed. That’s what I tell her dad when he comes to check on Momma, and to take me and Zora back to their place for the night. But he ain’t having it. So I kiss Momma good night. Get in the backseat of their car and slam the door shut.
When Dr. Mitchell’s Lexus pulls outta the lot, I look out the back window. Check out the bums sitting on the curb and digging through trash bins in the alley across the street. Then I close my eyes, hoping I don’t see Daddy.
It’s hot out. But inside, I feel like the cold, crusty stuff you scrape off ice cream that’s been in the freezer too long. I wanna cry, but I ain’t got no more tears left.
“Want some air?” Dr. Mitchell asks, leaning over the seat and staring down at me.
“No,” I say.
“Yeah. It’s hot,” Zora says, fanning herself.
The windows go up and the air comes on. “We’ll compromise,” her dad says, “and put the air on low.”
I lie across the backseat. Put Dr. Mitchell’s hospital jacket over my face and pretend I’m asleep, so nobody will try to talk to me.
“You all right, Raspberry?” he asks.
I keep my mouth closed.
“Raspberry?” he says again. “You all right back there?”
The words fly out my mouth. “Would you be all right,” I say, with his jacket still covering my head, “if your mother got hit in the head with a pipe and your father was high as a kite?”
Dr. Mitchell takes his time answering.
“No. I guess I wouldn’t,” he says, stepping on the gas. “I’d be mad, sad, too. Just like you, sweetie.”
I stick my fingers in my ears and tell myself not to listen to nothing Dr. Mitchell’s saying, ’cause people like him ain’t got no worries. They got big bucks and big houses. Nice rides and tight jobs. And then there’s me and Momma. Bad luck and hard times is all we know.
“You want pizza?” Zora says, reaching back and pulling her father’s jacket off my face.
I cover myself back up. “No.”
She pulls the jacket off again. “I didn’t eat all day. Just M&M’s.”
Dr. Mitchell says there’s nothing cooked at their place. So we need to eat before we go home. “What about going through the drive-thru and picking up some chicken?”
I don’t want chicken. I don’t want pizza. I want my mother. But I keep that to myself, ’cause I don’t want them thinking I’m being a baby. “Pizza,” I say, covering myself up again. Wishing I could just go home.
Zora tells her dad to stop at the ATM machine too, ’cause tomorrow’s the last day to pay on the class trip to Canada.
I dig in my pockets and pull out a ten-dollar bill and four quarters. Take my fingernails and run ’em all the way down the back of Dr. Mitchell’s lemon yellow seats. I was gonna go on the trip too, I say to myself, but I guess that ain’t gonna happen.
I don’t say nothing to Zora and her dad when we get to the pizza shop. I don’t even look at ’em. I stare down at the floor. Listen to the reporter on TV talk about what happened to Momma and ignore Dr. Mitchell when he says that it’s a shame somebody as nice as her got hurt for trying to make the community better.
Shut up! I want to say. ’Cause he ain’t in the community. He’s in a really nice neighborhood where people like me and Momma ain’t wanted. Where he don’t have to worry ’bout people trying to knock his head off for doing the right thing.
“Say something,” Zora says, blowing the wrapper off her straw right into my plate.
I look at her. Ball up the paper and flick it back. Don’t talk to me, I say in my head. Don’t be so happy when I’m so sad inside.
Soon as the pizza comes, Zora takes a sip of soda and excuses herself so she can go to the bathroom. “Watch my purse,” she says.
Dr. Mitchell moves closer to me. Covers my hand with his and says his life wasn’t much different from mine when he was growing up in the projects. “A neighbor went after my mother, too—with a knife. She had to get twenty-one stitches. But she made it through. Your mom will, too. I promise,” he says, patting my cheek, then wolfing down his pizza.
I don’t mind Dr. Mitchell telling me how things were when he was young, ’cause I wanna be like him when I grow up. A doctor—or somebody that makes a whole lot of money.
The waitress refills the glasses. She smiles and asks Dr. Mitchell real nice if we want anything else. I wanna tell her to get up outta his face, ’cause that’s my mother’s man. When she’s gone, I look at him myself. He’s nice-looking. Tall and thin with thick curly black hair and my color skin—pretty brown with a lot of red to it. He ain’t got no mustache or sideburns, and he always wears the same color pants—tan. Momma likes him a whole lot. Me too, most times.
“Excuse me, sweetie. I need to use the bathroom,” he says, knocking Zora’s purse on the floor when he gets up to go.
I throw the purse back in the seat. Pick gray sausage balls off my pizza and flick ’em onto Zora’s plate and chair. The waitress walks by and asks if everything is okay with my food. Her eyes roll when she sees the mess I made. I give her a fake smile and reach for Zora’s purse. I wipe the grease off and keep it in my lap while the waitress heads for another table.
The door to the men’s room opens right when I pull back the thick, gold zipper on Zora’s red purse. I swallow hard. Tell myself to put the purse back where I got it. I don’t. I feel around inside for cash when I see Dr. Mitchell ain’t the one coming out. I take the money—a lot of it. Smell it. Put it away quick when the girls’ room door opens. It’s Zora. She’s smiling at me from way across the room. My fingers shake. I almost drop the purse. By the time she and her dad get to the table, it’s like nothing ever happened.
“Here,” Dr. Mitchell says, putting eighty dollars down in front of me. Eighty more in front of Zora.
I look at him like he’s crazy.
“For the class trip,” he says. “You’re going, right? The money’s due tomorrow.”
My feet itch from the money I put in my sock. And my heart hurts. But I ain’t sure if it’s from the greasy sausage pizza, or ’cause I know how sad Momma would be if she saw what I just did.
“Take it,” Zora says, handing me half the money, and putting the rest in her purse.
I take the money. Crumple it up like used tissue and stuff it deep, down in my pocket. I don’t look at them the rest of the time we sit there. I pick the meat off the pizza. Smash the little balls with my thumb, and wonder what Zora’s gonna think when she figures out what I done.
I PUT UP SUCH A FUSS on the way back to the car that Dr. Mitchell gives in and takes me back to our place. He says I can’t stay there alone, but I can grab a few things and make sure the place is all right.
Zora says none of this woulda happened if Momma and me had gotten that Section Eight house in Pecan Landings. Momma tried. But the neighbors went to court to keep us out. They think people living in Section Eight housing are poor, dirty, and bad for the neighborhood. We got a lawyer fighting for us to be able to move in there. But I ain’t so sure that place will ever be ours.
There’s like ten people on the steps of our apartment building when Dr. Mitchell drives up to our place. About six more on Shiketa’s porch, smoking weed and drinking forties. They’re acting like they’re waiting for somebody or something. Dr. Mitchell presses a button and locks all the doors. Then clears his throat and says, “We’ll come back for your things some other time.”
I wrap my hand around the money he gave me, and think about the money I got stashed in our apartment. “You was raised in the projects, Dr. Mitchell. Don’t you know how to fight?”
“You don’t know how to fight yourself,” Zora says.
She’s right. But after all I been through today, I feel like I can beat the crap outta everybody in the whole wide world.
Dr. Mitchell’s trying to prove he ain’t no punk, I guess. He unlocks the door and gets out the car. “You two wait here,” he says, locking us in.
I roll down the window. Lean out and listen to Shiketa’s friends tell Dr. Mitchell he better get back in his ride if he know what’s good for him. A tall girl wearing a burgundy weave way past her shoulders calls my name and heads for the car like we friends. Dr. Mitchell tries to keep his eyes on her and watch the other kids too. He tells the girl that I can’t talk to nobody right now.
“I just wanna see her. Dag,” she says, giving him the finger.
I seen her before. She’s friends with Shiketa.
“Hey, Raspberry,” she says, getting up in my face. Trying to sound like we best friends. “Tell your mother to chill and lay off Shiketa.”
Zora and me don’t say a word.
Weave Girl bangs her fist on the roof of the car. “You hear me, girl?”
“Everybody saw what Shiketa did,” I say, checking out the girl’s faded silver tongue ring when she opens her mouth to tell me off again.
“Your mother was always picking on her. So she got what she got,” the girl says, ducking when a bottle smashes against the tire and glass flies everywhere.
Zora opens the door wide. “Daddy!” she yells. “Let’s go!”
Something else hits the car, hard. Dr. Mitchell runs over to us. “Shut the windows. Lock the doors. Now!” he says, pulling open the trunk and heading back for my place with a big, black bat. “You hit her…with a pipe. And now you’re threatening me and my kids?” he says, running after them.
It feels so good having Dr. Mitchell take up for me—like a real father should. But I can’t think on that too long. Zora’s dialing 911 on her dad’s cell, trying to get us some help. “My dad’s a cop. I mean, a doctor,” she says, “and he needs help.” She looks back at me and asks what my address is.
Kids are running all over the place. Some are laughing. Others cussing, saying what they gonna do to Dr. Mitchell if he touches them with that thing.
“Get ’em, Dr. Mitchell!” I yell. “Make ’em pay for what happened to Momma!”
Zora’s blue eyes look clear and cold when she looks back at me. “It should be your father out here taking up for you and your mother. Not mine.”
She’s right. Her father should be home watching TV maybe, or doing bills, not out here ready to bust somebody’s head open. “If the cops see your father with that bat, he’s gonna get in trouble,” I say, looking over at her dad.
Zora rolls down the window and begs her dad to get back in the car. I call him too. I tell him I don’t need my stuff right now. I can get it later. Good thing, too. ’Cause ain’t no way we’re getting into my place tonight. Three big boys are chasing Dr. Mitchell back to the car.
“Get the windows up. Put your seat belts on,” he says, throwing the bat in the backseat with me, slamming the door shut.
Dr. Mitchell’s ride makes a fast, crooked line up our street, rolling over the curb and running over a plastic trash can. The car is smooth and fast, and flies through the next three red lights like it’s got wings instead of tires.
I lie across the backseat—with Dr. Mitchell’s jacket covering my face—hoping the car never stops.
“YOUR FAMILY IS CURSED,” Ja’nae says, throwing the basketball at the hoop. Making a face when it bounces off the rim and rolls into the bushes. Her short, fat arms look funny. But she makes the shot the next time.
It’s four days after Shiketa jacked Momma up. Momma’s still in the hospital, so I don’t want to hear all this stuff Ja’nae is talking. Zora knows that, I guess. She says for Ja’nae to be quiet and play. She’s over by the fence polishing her toes. Ain’t mentioned nothing yet ’bout missing no money.
We at our girl Mai’s house. She ain’t here. “She made a run with her dad to the market,” her mother said, “for more chicken backs and collards.”
PRAISE FOR BEGGING FOR CHANGE:"Flake's strength . . . lies in developing genuine, believable adults and children who continue to grow and change through their relationships with each other."—BCCB, starred review
- "Flake's charged, infectious dialogue will sweep readers through the first-person story."—Booklist, starred review
- On Sale
- Feb 5, 2019
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers