Read a Free Excerpt of Dear Justyce by Nic Stone

Dear Justyce is the stunning sequel to the #1 New York Times bestseller Dear Martin. Through a series of flashbacks, vignettes, and letters to Justyce—the protagonist of Dear Martin—Quan’s story takes form. Troubles at home and misunderstandings at school give rise to police encounters and tough decisions. But then there’s a dead cop and a weapon with Quan’s prints on it. What leads a bright kid down a road to a murder charge? Not even Quan is sure. Start reading this highly anticipated sequel now...

 

PART ONE:

The End

Snapshot: Two Boys on a Brand- New Playground (2010)

It didn’t take much for Quan to decide he was leaving this time. He feels a little bit bad, yeah: knowing Dasia and Gabe are still in the house makes his stomach hurt the way it always does when he finds himself faced with grown- people problems he can’t fix. But Quan’s only nine. Running away alone will be hard enough. Trying to bring a four- year- old sister and a two- year- old brother just isn’t gonna work.He’s glad spring has sprung early. Didn’t have time to grab a jacket as he fled. He’s pretty sure there was too much commotion for anybody to notice, but he takes a few unnecessary turns en route to his destination in case Olaf— that’s what Quan calls his mama’s “duck- ass boyfriend” (which is what Quan’s dad calls the guy)— did notice Quan’s exit.What Quan is sure of? He couldn’t stay there. Not with dude yelling and throwing things the way he was.

Quan knows what comes next, and he couldn’t watch again. It was hard enough seeing the aftermath bloom in the funny-looking bluey-purple blotches that made Mama’s arms and legs look like someone had tossed water balloons full of paint all over her. He couldn’t really do anything anyway. Though Olaf (Dwight is the guy’s actual name) isn’t too, too big, he’s a whole heck of a lot stronger than Quan. The one time Quan did try to intervene, he wound up with his own funky- colored blotch. Across his lower back from where he hit the dining room table when dude literally threw Quan across the room.

Hiding that bruise from Daddy was nearly impossible. And Quan had to hide it because he knew if Daddy found out what really happened when Olaf/Dwight came around . . . well, it wouldn’t be good.

So. He made sure Dasia and Gabe were safe in the closet. That was the most he could do.

As Wynwood Heights Park looms up on his left, Quan lifts the hem of his shirt to wipe his face. It’s the fourth time he’s done it, so there’s a wet spot now. He wonders if there will be any dry spots left by the time he gets the tears to stop. Good thing there’s no one around to see. He’d never hear the end of it.He bounces on his toes as his feet touch down on the springy stuff the new playground is built on. There’s a sign that says it’s ground- up old tires, that the play structures are made from “recycled water bottles and other discarded plastics,” and that the entire area is “green,” but as Dasia pointed out the last time Mama brought them all here, whoever built the thing didn’t know their colors because everything is red, yellow, and blue.

The thought of his sass- mouthed little sister brings fresh tears to Quan’s eyes.

He makes a beeline for the rocket ship. It sits off in a corner separate from everything else, tip pointed at the sky like it could blast off at any moment. Inside the cylindrical base, there are buttons to push and dials to turn and a ladder that leads up to an “observation deck” with a little window. It’s Quan’s favorite spot in the world— though he’d never admit that to anyone.

When he gets inside, he’s so relieved, he collapses against the rounded wall and lets his body slide to the floor like chocolate ice cream down the side of a cone on a hot summer day. His head drops back, and he shuts his eyes and lets the tears flow freely.But then there’s a sound above him. A cough.

The moonlight through the deck window makes the face of the boy staring down at Quan look kinda ghostly. In fact, the longer dude stares without speaking, the more Quan wonders if maybe he is a ghost.“Uhhh . . . hello?”

Dude doesn’t reply.

Now Quan is starting to get creeped out. Which makes him mad. This is supposed to be the one place in the world he can relax. Where he’s not looking over his shoulder or being extra cautious. Where he can close his eyes and count down from ten and imagine shooting into space, far, far away from everything and everyone.

“Yo, why you lookin’ at me like that?” Quan spits, each word sharp- tipped and laced with the venom of his rage.

“Oh, umm . . .” The other boy’s eyes drop to his hands.

He picks at the skin around his thumbs. Something Quan does sometimes that gets him yelled at.

Hmm.

The boy goes on: “I’m sorry. I just . . . I wasn’t expecting anybody else to come in here.”

“Oh.”

The boys are quiet for a minute and then: “I’m Justyce, by the way.”

Justyce. Quan’s heard that name before . . . “You that smart kid they was talking about on the morning announcements at school? Won some contest or something?”
Justyce again doesn’t reply.

“Hellooooo?” Quan says.

“You gonna make fun of me now?”

“Huh?”

Now Justyce looks out the observation window. Quan wonders what he’s seeing.

“I wish they would’ve never made that announcement. Winning an academic bowl isn’t ‘cool.’ Everybody just makes fun of me.”

Quan shrugs. “Maybe they just jealous cuz they ain’t never won nothin’.”

Silence falls over the boys again, but this time, it’s not so uncomfortable. In fact, the longer Quan sits there with Justyce above him, the better he feels. Kinda nice not being totally alone. Which makes him wonder . . .

“You’re a fifth grader, right? You not gonna get in trouble for being out this late?”

“Oh, I will,” Justyce says.

It makes Quan laugh.“I snuck out,” Justyce continues. “But it’s not the first time, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. I think my mama knows I’ll always come back.”

“Wish I didn’t have to go back . . .” It slips out, and at first Quan regrets it. But then he realizes his chest is a little looser. This one time at Daddy’s house, Quan watched a movie about this big ship that hit an iceberg and sunk, and there was this one scene where the main lady was being tied into this thing that went around her stomach and laced up the back like a sneaker. He later learned it was called a corset, but that’s what comes into Quan’s head when he thinks about his life. “My mom’s boyfriend is a asshole,” he continues.

The laces loosen a little more.“He’s my little brother and sister’s dad, so like I kinda get why my mama keeps dealing with him. . . .” Little looser. “But I hate him. Every time he come around, he mad about somethin’, and he takes it out on my mom.”

“Sounds familiar,” Justyce says.

“And I be wanting to stick around for my brother and sister but— wait.” Quan looks up at Justyce, whose chin is now propped in his hand.

All eyes (and ears) on Quan.

“What’d you say?” Quan asks.

“Hmm?”

“Just a second ago.”

“Oh. I said that sounds familiar.”

“Whatchu mean?”

Justyce sighs. “My dad was in the military and went to Afghanistan. Ever since he came back, he’s been . . . different. He drinks a lot and sometimes has these ‘episodes,’ my mom calls them. Out of nowhere he’ll start yelling and throwing stuff.” Now Justyce isn’t looking at Quan anymore. “He hits her sometimes.” Justyce swipes at his eyes.

Quan stands up. “You ever come here during the day?”

“Occasionally.” Jus sniffles. “Sorry for crying.”

“Man, whatever. Now I see how you won that ‘academic’ thingy.”

“Huh?”

“What kinda fifth grader says occasionally?” Quan shakes his head. “I’m gonna head home and check on my brother and sister,” he says. “You should go check on your mom.”

The boys meet eyes, and understanding passes between them.

“I’ll see you around.” Quan ducks and slips through the rocket’s arched entryway.

He’s almost back at the edge of the rubber- floored play-ground when— “Hey! Hold up!”

Quan turns around to find Justyce is headed in his direction.

“You didn’t tell me your name,” Justyce says, out of breath.

Quan smiles— “Vernell LaQuan Banks Jr.”— and lifts his hand. “Call me Quan.”

“It was real nice to meet you, Quan,” Justyce says, smacking his palm against Quan’s and then hooking fingers. “Even, uhh . . . despite the circumstances.”

Now Quan laughs. “You’re ten years old, man. Loosen up.”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be.” Quan shoves his fists in his pockets. It’s gotten cooler. “Nice to meet you too, Justyce.”

Quan turns on the heel of his well- worn Jordans and heads home.

1

Doomed

Vernell LaQuan Banks Jr. remembers the night everything changed. He’d fallen asleep on the leather sectional in Daddy’s living room while watching Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (the movie), and was dreaming about Count Olaf—who’d gotten a tan, it seemed, and looked suspiciously like his mama’s “boyfriend,” Dwight—falling into a pit of giant yellow snakes like the one from Montgomery Montgomery’s reptile room. Screaming bloody murder as he got sucked down into the scaly, slithery quicksand.

Quan’s pretty sure he was smiling in his sleep.

But then there was a BOOM that startled him so bad, he jolted awake and fell to the floor.

Which wound up being a good thing.

Next thing Quan knew, more police officers than he could count were pouring into the house with guns drawn.

He stayed down. Hidden.

Wouldn’t’ve been able to get up if he tried, he was so scared.

There was a commotion over his head—Daddy’s room.

Lots of thumping. Bumping. A yell (Daddy’s?). Muffled shouting.

Get down! Put your hands in the air—

Oww, man! Not so tight, you tryna break my arm?

Wham. BAM!

Walls shaking.

Was the ceiling gonna fall?

Then the tumult shifted to the left. He heard Daddy’s door bang against the wall, then what sounded like eight tons of giant bricks tumbling down the stairs.

Slow down, man! Damn—

Keep your mouth shut!

Quan closed his eyes.

Chill out, man! I’m not resisti—

There was a sharp pain in Quan’s shoulder as his arm was suddenly wrenched in a direction he was sure it wasn’t supposed to go. A thick arm wrapped around his midsection so tight it squeezed all the air out of him . . . or maybe it all flew out because of the speed with which his body left the ground. He couldn’t even scream. Looking back, that was the scariest part. That his voice was gone. That he couldn’t cry out. That he’d lost all control of his body and surroundings and couldn’t even make a sound to let the world know he wasn’t feelin’ it.

It’s how he feels now as he jolts awake in his cell at the Fulton Regional Youth Detention Center, unable to breathe.

Quan tries to inhale. And can’t. It’s like that cop’s still got him wrapped up and is squeezing too tight. No space for his lungs to expand.

Can’t.

Breathe.

The darkness is so thick, he feels like he’s drowning in it. Maybe he is. Maybe Quan can’t draw breath because the darkness has solidified. Turned viscous, dense and sticky and heavy. That would also explain why he can’t lift his arms or swing his legs over the edge of this cotton-lined cardboard excuse for a “bed” that makes his neck and back hurt night after night.

What Quan wouldn’t give to be back in his queen-sized, memory foam, personal cloud with crazy soft flannel sheets in his bedroom at Daddy’s house. If he’s going to die in a bed—because he’s certainly about to die—he wishes it could be that bed instead of this one.

He shuts his eyes and more pieces of that night fly at him: Daddy yelling

Don’t hurt my son!

before being shoved out the front door.

The sound of glass breaking as the unfinished cup of ginger ale Quan left on the counter toppled to the floor. His foot hit it as the officer with his dumb, muscly arm crushing Quan’s rib cage carried Quan through the kitchen like Quan was some kind of doll baby.

The sudden freezing air as Quan was whisked outside in his thin Iron Man pajamas with no shoes or jacket . . . and the subsequent strange warmth running down Quan’s legs when he saw Just. How. Many.

Police cars. There were. Outside.

Barking dogs, straining against leashes. A helicopter circling overhead, its spotlight held steady on the team of men dragging Daddy toward the group of cop vehicles parked haphazardly and blocking the street.

Quan had counted six when his eyes landed on the van  no less than five officers were wrestling his dad into.

Wrestling because Daddy kept trying to look back over his shoulder to see what was happening with Quan. He was shouting.

It’s gonna be okay, Junior!

Get in the goddam van!

It’ll all be fi—

One of the officers brought an elbow down on the back of Daddy’s head. Quan watched as Daddy’s whole body went limp.

That’s when Quan started

Screaming.

Two of the officers climbed into the back of the van and dragged Daddy’s body inside the way Quan had seen Daddy drag the giant bags of sand he’d bought for the sandbox he built in the backyard when Quan was younger.

Kicking.

Cut it out, kid!

Wait . . . are you wet?

They rolled Daddy to his back, and one of the officers knelt beside him and put two fingers up under his jaw. He nodded at the other officer, who then hopped down from the back of the van and shut the doors.

Flailing. Screaming. Kicking.

The taillights of the van glowed red and Quan wished everything would STOP. He was sobbing and twisting, and the officer holding him squeezed tighter and locked Quan’s arms down.

As the van pulled off, Quan screamed so loud, he was sure his mama would hear him back home some twenty miles away. She would hear him and she would come and she would stop the van and she would get Daddy out and she would get Quan. All the blue-suited Dad-stealing monsters and blue-lit cars would POOF! disappear and everything would go back to normal.

Better yet, Mama would bring Dwight-the-black-Olaf, and she’d toss him in the back of the van in Daddy’s place. And they’d lock him up in a snake-filled cell and throw away the key.

Quan screamed until all the scream was outta him. Then he inhaled. And he screamed some more.

His own voice was all he could hear until—

“Hey! You put that young man down! Have you lost your ever-lovin’ mind?!”

Then the officer holding him was saying

Ow! Hey!

And And

Hey! Stop that!

Ma’am, you are assaulting a police officer—

“I said put him DOWN. Right now!”

Ma’am, I can’t—

All right! All right!

The grip on Quan’s body loosened. His feet touched down on the porch floor just as a wrinkled hand wrapped around his biceps and a thin arm wrapped around his lower back, a sheet of paper in hand. “You come on here with me, Junior,” a familiar voice said.

Ma’am, he can’t go with you. Until further notice, he’s a ward of the state—

“Like hell he is! You can call his mama to come get him,

but until she arrives, he’ll be staying at my house.” The woman shoved the paper into the officer’s face. “You see this? This is a legally binding document. Read it aloud.”

Ma’am—

“I said read it aloud!”

Okay, okay!

(The officer cut his eyes at Quan before beginning. Then sighed.)

“In the event of the arrest of Vernell LaQuan Banks Sr., Mrs. Edna Pavlostathis is named temporary guardian of Vernell LaQuan Banks Jr. until . . .

But that was all Quan needed to hear. (Did Daddy know he would be snatched away from his son in the dead of night?) “Come on, honey,” she said, and as she ushered Quan away from the tornado of blue—lights, cars, uniforms, eyes— that’d ripped through everything he knew as normal, everything clicked into place.

Mrs. Pavlostathis. The fireball old lady who lived next door to Daddy.

“Let’s head inside and I’ll go over to your dad’s to grab you some fresh clothes so you can get cleaned up. How dare those so-called officers treat you that way. The nerve of those whites—”

She trailed off. Or at least Quan thinks  she  did.  He  can’t remember her saying anything else. He does remember thinking that under different circumstances, that last statement would’ve made him smile. He’d known Mrs. Pavlostathis since he was seven years old—she was close to eighty and used to babysit him when Daddy had to make “emergency runs” on weekends Quan was there. Despite her skin tone, Mrs. P let everyone know she was Greek, not white.

She was also one of Daddy’s clients (“A little ganja’s good for my glaucoma, Junior”) and, Quan had noticed over the years, the only neighbor who didn’t look at him funny—or avoid looking at all—when Quan would play outside or when he and Daddy would drive through the neighborhood in Daddy’s BMW.

It was something Mama always grumbled about when she’d drive the forty minutes out into the burbs  to  drop Quan off. I don’t know why your daddy wants to live way out here with all these white folks. They’re gonna call the cops on his ass one day, and it’ll be over. . . .

As he and Mrs. P made their way over to her house, Quan wondered if her prediction was coming true.

And in that moment: he hated his mama.

For saying that. Wishing the worst on Daddy.

For staying with duck-ass Dwight. Putting up with his antics.

For working so much. For not being there.

Especially  right then.

“I’ll run ya a salt bath,” Mrs. P said as they stepped into her house, and fragrant warmth wrapped around him like a hug from a fluffy incense stick with arms. “I know you’re not a little kid anymore, but it’ll do ya some good. I just made some dolmas, and there’s some of those olives you like, the ones with the creamy feta inside, in the fridge. Put something in your belly. I’m sure you’re starving.”

In truth,  food  was  the  furthest  thing  from  Quan’s mind . . . but one didn’t say no to Mrs. P. So he did as he was told. He stuffed himself with Mrs. P’s world-famous (if you let her tell it) dolmas—a blend of creamy lemon-ish rice and ground lamb rolled up into a grape leaf. He ate his weight in giant feta-filled olives.

And when the salt bath was ready, he stripped down and climbed into the fancy claw-foot tub in Mrs. P’s guest bathroom.

Quan closed his eyes.

Swirling police lights and Daddy’s collapsing body flashed behind them.

Van doors shutting. Taillights disappearing.

Would Daddy go to prison? For how long?

What would happen now?

Quan wasn’t sure he wanted to find out. So he sank.

It was easy at first, holding his breath and letting the water envelop him completely. Even felt nice.

But then his lungs started to burn. Images of Dasia and Gabe popped into his head. He remembered telling Gabe he’d teach him how to play Uno when he got back from Daddy’s house this time. Little dude was four now and ready to learn.

Quan’s head swam.

Dasia would be waiting for Quan to polish her toenails purple. That was the prize he’d promised her if she aced her spelling test. And she did.

His chest felt on the verge of bursting, and everything in his head was turning white.

And Mama . . . Dwight—

Air came out of Quan’s nose with so much force, he’d swear it shot him up out of the water. As his senses returned to normal, he heard water hit tile and the bathroom at  Mrs. P’s house swam back into focus.

He took a breath.

Well, more like a breath took him. He gasped as air flooded his lungs, shoving him back from the brink of No Return.

It’s the same type of breath that’s overtaking him now. Here.

In his cell.

And as oxygen—a little stale from the cinder block walls and laced with the tang of iron—surges down his throat and kicks the invisible weight off him, Quan knows:

He won’t die now just like he didn’t die then.

He can breathe.

January 12

Dear Justyce,

Look, I’m not even gonna lie: this shit is weird. I don’t write letters to my mama, but I’m writing one to you?

Smh.

(Wait, can I even write that? This ain’t a text message . . .)

(See? Weird.)

(You better not tell nobody I wrote this.)

Anyway, I had this dream last night and when I woke up, the first thing I saw was that notebook you gave me with all the Martin Luther King letters in it.

Sidenote: I really do appreciate you popping by to see ya boy before you headed back to that fancy college you go to. Ol’ smarty pants ass. But for real, it was good to see you. It, uhh . . . did a lot for me. Gets more than a little lonely in here, and I don’t get many visitors, so you coming through was— well, that was real nice of you, dawg.

Now back to this notebook you left. At first I thought it was wack (“THOSE” black guys, huh?), but the more I read, the more interested I got. Like it was a lot of shit in there about Manny—my own cousin!—that I didn’t know because I ain’t really KNOW him, know him. That was kinda wild.

And YOU! Man, we got way more in common than I woulda thought.

It was one letter in the notebook that made me wanna write this one to you. Not sure what happened (you mentioned doing the “wrong thing”), but there’s a line you wrote: “These assholes can’t seem to care about being offensive, so why should I give a damn about being agreeable?”

I don’t know what it is, but that shit really got me.

I’ve never told anybody about the night my dad got arrested. It was a couple years after you and me met in the rocket ship. I was eleven. Cops busted up in the house in the dead of night like they owned the place and just . . . took him.

And I haven’t seen him since. They gave him 25 years in prison.

It’s only one other time in my life I ever been that scared,

It all happened too fast for me to figure out what I could do. I think deep down, I knew he was prolly going away for a long-ass time—I was fully aware of his “occupation,” and while I was sure the cops wouldn’t find any contraband in his actual house (he was real careful about that), he dealt in more than just green, and the net was wide, so it was only a matter of time.

I really miss him, though.

I dream about the whole scenario a lot. Did last night, in fact. And when I woke up and looked at the date? Today is the sixth anniversary.

Shit hit me harder than it usually does. Probably because it also means I’ve been up in here for almost sixteen months. It’s the longest stretch I’ve ever done, and I don’t even have a trial date yet. I do my best to just cruise—not really think about where I am and what it’s actually like to be here. But today I couldn’t help but notice how bad the food is. How heavy the giant iron doors are, and how . . . defeated, I guess, everyone up in here seems, even though a few of the others talk a good game about getting out.

I keep thinking, like: What would my dad say if he could see me now? How disappointed would he be?

Yeah, what he did for a living wasn’t exactly “statutory,” as he used to say. But if there’s one thing he was hell-bent on, it was me NOT ending up like him. We talking about a dude who used to drop my ass at the library when he had to make some of his runs. (Head librarian had real bad anxiety and was one of Dad’s clients so she took good care of me.) Don’t nobody know this, but I used to eat up the Lemony Snicket “Unfortunate Events” joints like they were Skittles. (Bruh,

you ever read those? Them shits go hard. Kinda wish I had my collection here.)

Anyway, that was all him. Vernell LaQuan Banks Sr. He’s the reason they tested me for Accelerated Learners and I wound up in that Challenge Math class with you.

He wanted me to do good. To go far and be better.

But then he was just . . . gone.

(Sorry for getting sentimental, but like I said before: you better not tell nobody I wrote all this. Or that I used to read books about little rich white kids.)

That night he got arrested turned everything upside down.

I knew things were about to get bad because my dad had been like the duct tape holding our raggedy shit together.

He paid for a lot and gave my mom money, and he really was the reason I stayed out of trouble. The minute that van drove away with him in it, I felt . . . doomed.

It’s why I stopped talking to you. Everybody else too, but especially you. I woulda never admitted this (honestly don’t know why I’m admitting it now . . .), but I kinda looked up to you. Yeah, you were only a year older and you were dorky as hell, but you had your shit together in a way I wanted mine to be.

I knew if I could just be like you, my dad would be proud of me.

Seeing what you wrote in that post-whatever-the-hell- set-you-off letter . . . I dunno, man. If YOU felt that way, maybe everything my dad tried to push me toward really was pointless.

Don’t really matter now anyway. Unless my dudes come through with this lawyer, I’m gettin’ WAY more time than my dad did.

Guess it’s whatever.

I don’t even know if Imma send this. Maybe I should. You better write back, though. Cuz otherwise I ain’t never writing you another letter again.

Got me over here pouring my heart out and shit.

Smh.

(There I go again!)

Later,

Vernell LaQuan Banks Jr. QUAN

P.S.: I know you already knew my government name, but don’t ever call me by it.

P.S.S. (or is it P.P.S.? Yo, you ever heard that song “O.P.P.”? I love that song.): REMINDER: Don’t tell NOBODY I wrote this!

2

Downhill

It’s not like Quan didn’t try to keep it together at first. He really did.

Yeah, he kinda withdrew into himself a little bit. Didn’t talk or interact with people as much. But that’s because he was trying to stay focused.

It was the only way he knew how to cope: control what he could, ignore what he couldn’t. So for a while, he did his homework. Kept his and Gabe’s room straight—even though sharing space with a little kid meant cleaning every single day. Played Connect 4 with Dasia. Took both of them to the playground as often as possible. And even there, he was working: keeping the rocket ship cleaned out. He knew some of the stuff he found inside it suggested some not-so- playground-appropriate activities, but he did his best to make sure at least that part of the play area stayed kid-friendly.

Weekends he was supposed to be at Daddy’s, he spent with his nose buried in books. No matter what else he strayed to, he always returned to A Series of Unfortunate Events. Something about watching those kids escape by the skin of their teeth over and over again helped Quan keep his head above water even when everything around him seemed to be crashing down.

Because everything did.

Seem to be crashing down.

Crashing and tumbling downhill like good ol’ Jack and Jill.

Shortly after Daddy’s arrest, Dwight moved in. Which Quan figured would happen eventually: the only reason he wasn’t living with them already was because Daddy told Mama he’d stop giving her money if she

let that piece of shit occupy the same space as my son.

With Daddy gone, though, money was getting tight. And Olaf-ass Dwight used that to his advantage. Told Mama he’d help with the bills—

But I can only do that if I don’t have my own rent to pay.

(Quan overheard the whole conversation. When it was

over, he climbed down from his hiding place up on the high shelf in the coat closet where Mama kept the extra bed comforters and went straight to his rocket ship, kicking the hypodermic needle he found inside it right out the entrance even though he knew a little kid might find it.)

(He used a discarded Takis bag to pick it up and put it in the trash can later.)

Even at twelve, it didn’t escape Quan’s notice that the men in his mama’s life—Daddy included—used money to get her to do what they wanted her to. It bothered him no end. But he wasn’t sure what he could do about it.

Which became a running theme: not knowing what he could do about anything.

So he stayed focused.

Nights Dwight would come “home” smashed out of his mind—and smashing things as a result—Quan would stay focused.

Mornings Quan would wake up and find Mama’s bedroom door locked, but a note from her asking him to get Dasia and Gabe “clothed and fed and on the bus” because she wasn’t “feeling too hot,” Quan stayed focused.

When the light would hit Mama’s face just right and he’d see the bruises beneath her caked-on makeup, Quan stayed focused.

And it paid off. Mama might’ve been a mess, but Dasia and Gabe were just fine. Despite their daddy being a human garbage disposal, they laughed and smiled and were doing good in school . . .

All because Quan stayed focused.

Quan was also kicking academic ass and taking names. Because despite Daddy’s absence, Quan was determined (maybe now even more determined) to make the old man proud. Become the upstanding dude Daddy wanted him to be. Quan even considered going out for football once he hit ninth grade.

Daddy had played in high school and even been offered  a scholarship to college, but then Mama got pregnant and Vernell Sr. decided to stick around, take care of the son he’d helped create. Unlike my dad did, he told Quan once. What better way to pay Daddy back than to achieve the dream Daddy didn’t get to live—because of Quan?

So Quan stayed focused.

Then there was The Math Test.

It’d been a little over a year since Dad’s arrest. Quan was the only seventh grader in the Algebra I Challenge Math class, and he’ll admit: the shit really was a challenge. He was averaging high Bs but was determined to do better.

A week before The Math Test, Ms. Mays, Quan’s favorite teacher on earth, went on maternity leave. (Quan still hasn’t forgiven that damn baby for taking her away at such a critical point in his life.)

Before she left, she held Quan after class one day and told him how much she believed in him. That she couldn’t wait to hear how well he did on the upcoming test. She knew he’d been struggling with the material, but, “I know you aren’t gonna let this stuff get the best of you. You, Quan Banks, are gonna show those letters and numbers who’s boss, am I right?”

And she smiled.

Even though it made him feel like a little-ass kid, Quan nodded. Because with her looking at him that way, like he  could do anything, Quan wanted to prove her right.

It was the same way Daddy looked at Quan when Quan showed him that 100 percent he got on his contraction test in first grade.

Quan missed his dad.

Quan wanted to—had to—ace that damn algebra test. So he studied. Hard.

Harder than he’d ever studied for anything in his life. And you know what happened?

98%.

Quan almost lost his twelve-year-old MIND, he was so excited.

He floated through the rest of the day. Anticipating the moment he would show the test to Mama. The pride that would overtake her face. He’d show it to Dasia and Gabe and tell them it represented what could happen if they worked real hard and did their very best. Then he’d write Daddy a letter and he’d put it—with the test—in an envelope and he’d mail it to the address Daddy’s lawyer gave Mama when he dropped by a few nights ago.

Yeah, the impromptu visit had really set Dwight off—

Your punk-ass son is enough of a reminder—tell that nigga’s attorney not to come by here no more

—but getting to send The Math Test to Daddy would make it all worth it.

As soon as Quan was off the bus, he broke into a sprint. Wanted to get home as fast as possible. He knew Mama would be home. She didn’t leave the house when her body carried visible evidence of Dwight’s “anger issues,” and when Quan had left that morning, her wrist was in a brace and she could barely open her hand.

The test would lift her spirits too. Quan was sure of it. She’d see what he’d accomplished, and it would give her hope that things could get better. That he’d eventually be able to take care of her and Dasia and Gabe.

When he walked in the door, she was waiting for him. “Ma, you’ll never believe it—”

“You damn right I won’t!”

The tiniest hole appeared in Quan’s joy balloon as his mind kicked into gear, trying to figure out what she could   be upset about. Had he left the bathroom light on again? He sometimes accidentally did that on mornings he had to get his siblings and himself ready for school and out the door on time. Their bus came thirteen minutes before his, so it was    a lot to do.

But he remembered turning it off.

He hadn’t put the milk in the fridge door—Dwight hated when he did that. And he’d made sure all of his socks were in the laundry basket.

So what could it be?

“I’m so disappointed in you, Junior,” Mama continued, furious. “What do you have to say for yourself? Did you think they wouldn’t call me?”

“Mama, I don’t—”

“You had an algebra test yesterday, yes? Got it back today?”

Things were looking up! Quan straightened. “Yes, ma’am, I did, and I—”

“Cheated!”

The word was like a sucker punch. “Huh??”

“You heard me! Your teacher called. Told me you cheated on the test!”

“I didn’t cheat, Ma!”

“Don’t give me that BS, Junior! The man told me he saw

you looking on a classmate’s paper!”

Which . . . Quan couldn’t deny. There was a point when he’d looked up and seen the brawny, neckless white man who looked more familiar with loaded-down barbells than linear inequalities glaring at him. But the sub had it all wrong. Said classmate was actually trying to cheat off Quan. He was an eighth-grade dude named Antwan Taylor. Bruh flat out whispered to ask Quan what answer he’d gotten for number six and then turned his paper so Quan could see the (wrong) answer Antwan had written.

“I really didn’t cheat, Ma! I promise you!” “Lemme see the test,” she said.

Quan removed it from his bag. Held it out to her. “Ninety-eight percent, huh?” She looked him right in

the eye. “You really expect me to believe you didn’t cheat, LaQuan?”

Quan couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Are you serious?”

“You ain’t never brought nothin’ higher than an eighty- seven percent up in here. I’m supposed to buy this sudden improvement hook, line and sinker, huh?”

“I studied—”

“Yeah. Your neighbor’s paper.”

“The MATERIAL, Ma! I studied the MATERIAL!” “They gave you two days of in-school suspension. And you have to retake the test.” “But I didn’t cheat, Ma!”

“Yeah, and my ass ‘fell down the stairs.’ ” She held up her injured arm, and all Quan’s other rebuttals got snatched right out of his throat.

His mouth snapped shut. Jaw clenched to keep it that way.

“If I ever hear about you cheating again, you can forget about this football shit you been on recently. Your ass will be on lockdown, you hear me?”

Quan’s teeth ground into each other so hard, he wondered if they would break.

“I said DO YOU HEAR ME, LaQuan?” Quan gulped. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Get your ass outta my face and go ‘study’ for real this time.”

Quan turned to head to his room, but her next words were like being shot with arrows from behind:

“And best believe your father is gonna hear about this. Might even send him the evidence of your indiscretion.” Quan could hear the paper crinkle as she surely held it up in the air. “Cheating. I can’t even believe you—”

And that was all he heard. Because in that moment everything crystallized for Vernell LaQuan Banks Jr.

It didn’t matter what he did.

Staying focused didn’t give Quan any control at all.

Snapshot: One Boy Alone in a Library (2012)

The discovery that his favorite librarian is no longer at the branch—that she retired—is what pushes Quan over the edge. His last (relatively) safe place gone.

And he knows it’s gone because the lady now standing behind the main desk frowned at him when he came in, and a different lady has walked past the castle nook in the children’s section where he’s balled up with Unfortunate Events #13— The End—three times since he started chapter four.

And like . . . why? She think he’s gonna steal damn library books? Stuff ’em in ziplock baggies and sell ’em outta his middle school locker for $10 a pop or something? Get your dime-bag literature here!

He turns a page.

This isn’t a welcoming place. Not anymore. It sucks.

He closes the book and grabs his backpack. Walks out without a backward glance.

If nothing else, now they have a reason to give him dirty looks:

He left the book on the floor instead of putting it on the reshelving cart.

February 8

Dear Justyce,

First: yo, thanks for them graphic novel joints you sent.

Them things have made me the coolest dude on the (cell)block. Everybody is especially into the black girl Iron Man ones. And the black Batman and black Robin one is also a hit.

I got your other “gift” as well. Bruh, what kinda dude sends a whole-ass teacher to his incarcerated homie like it’s a box of commissary snacks? You clearly need to be president.

Anyway, I do have to admit: your boy Dr. Dray—“Doc,” he said you call him (and I call him now too)—is pretty dope. He got on my nerves a little bit the first few times he came,

asking all them damn questions and making me think about shit I didn’t really want to. (Who the hell wants to sit around pondering all the ways this wack-ass country “is currently failing to uphold the standards set forth in its foundational documents”? That was a for-real question on one of the homework sheets!)

But then today he noticed your Martin notebook in my stack of stuff, and he started smiling. That’s when he told me the truth: he’d been you and Manny’s teacher, and you talked to him about me. About my other tutor deciding to quit on me.

I was mad at first knowing you told homeboy something I shared with you in confidence. But then I started really thinking about it, and I decided to write this letter. To thank you.

Well, partially to thank you.

The other part has to do with something Doc and I talked about in our class session today (and the fact that he said I should write to you about it).

Last time he was here, Doc brought this book for me to read. Native Son, it’s called, and it’s about this black dude who accidentally kills this white girl and then shoves her dead body in a furnace and starts a whole plot to try and blame her white boyfriend (shit’s brutal, but roll with me). When he gets found out, he runs and tells HIS girl, but then panics and winds up killing her too.

They catch him, of course, and he’s eventually convicted of murder and sentenced to death. (Bloop! SPOILER ALERT!) But the wildest part was even though it’s set in like the 1930s or something, I really felt like I was reading a book about NOW.

Dude had all these obstacles he couldn’t seem to get past no matter how hard he tried, and it was almost as though falling into the life of crime everybody expected from him was (sorta) unavoidable? I know it probably sounds crazy

to an upstanding young gentleman such as yourself, but for real: based on the systems in place—the “institutions of oppression,” as my former mentor, Martel, would say— homie’s situation and how he ended up kinda seemed like destiny.

(Don’t tell nobody I used the word “destiny.”)

As I was telling Doc today, I could relate for real. I look back at my life, and though people like my former wack-ass counselor think I’m making excuses, I can’t really see where I could’ve just “made different choices.”

It’s not like I didn’t try. I remember this one time a teacher accused me of cheating because I got a good grade on a test. And my mama believed HIM. I know I also told you about that one prosecutor who called me a “career criminal” the second time I got arrested. I’d stolen one of this white dude’s TWO phones. And only because I hoped to sell it so I could get my brother and sister some new shoes for school.

I reread your response to my very first letter where you admitted to busting up on some white boys at a party, and it made me wonder if that felt inevitable to you. I flipped back through the Martin journal, and there was even a reference to my cuzzo, may he rest in peace, using his fists at one point. Were these “incidents” bound to happen?

Anyway, I told Doc all this, and he goes, “Hmm,” and rubbed his beardy chin all scholarly-like. Then he says, “So considering all that, would you say Bigger Thomas” (that’s bruh from the book) “is a killer?”

“I mean, he definitely did some killing,” I said, mulling it over, “but ‘killer’ just sounds so . . . malintentioned. Like it’s something dude decided to do after giving it some serious thought.”

Then he got me, J. Locked me in with them weird green-ass eyes and said: “What about you, Quan? Are YOU a killer?”

Thing is, I couldn’t really answer. Part of me wanted to flat out say “No, I’m not,” but there was still this other voice saying “What if you are, LaQuan? What if it’s inevitable?”

And of course “inevitability” isn’t an excuse, and the consequences are (obviously) still the consequences, but I dunno. In a weird way, the whole shit makes me feel kinda better about my situation and how I got in it.

But it also makes me wonder: How did YOU do it, Justyce? I still remember when we met in that rocket ship (MY rocket ship that YOU invaded, by the way). We’d both left our houses after the streetlights were on because of stuff going on with our mamas. We grew up in the same area. Went to the same elementary and middle school. Even had a class or two together.

Why’d we turn out so different?

Was it “pure choice” like that counselor would say?

These questions are probably pointless now, but that’s what’s been going through my head.

Imma get back to this World of Wakanda joint you sent. I’ll tell you one thing that’s inevitable: pretty sure Ayo and Aneka are gonna hook up.

Looking forward to your next letter. (But you better not tell anybody I said that.)

Holler back at me, Quan

3

Disrespect

Quan was hungry the First Time he did it. So were Dasia and Gabe.

It’d been a good year and a half since Dwight moved in, and Mama hadn’t worked in four of those months. She said she’d been laid off, but Quan wasn’t stupid. He knew one could only take so many “sick days” before a company decided to tell them to take off permanently.

In addition to taking his frustrations out on Mama, the COAN had started withholding access to money in response to “disrespect.” Anything could qualify: disagreeing with him in any way (this was the offense Mama was most often guilty of); moving something from where he’d left it (Quan’s cardinal sin—which he couldn’t seem to help after years of Mama drilling that “everything has a place” and “if you take it out, put it back!”); even failing to step over the groaning spot in the living room floor when he was watching TV.

Quan hated Dwight with every ounce of his being.

 

And Quan couldn’t just take Dasia and Gabe and leave the house anymore: Dwight suddenly decided he didn’t want

my damn kids spending too much time with Delinquent Junior.

(Clearly Quan wasn’t the only one in the house capable of negative nicknaming.)

Of course, if Quan disappeared by himself for too long, Dwight also felt disrespected. Which is how everything that led up to that First Time got started.

Mama had applied for assistance (she always said the word like she was trying not to gag on it as it left her throat), and they got a special debit card they could use at grocery stores—EBT, it was called. Electronic Benefits Transfer. Apparently back in the day, the system involved actual slips of money-sized paper everyone referred to as food stamps.

But she made the mistake of sending Dwight to the store with the card on one of the days she was incapacitated.

And he’d refused to give it back.

It was probably the Olaf-est thing he’d ever done at that point. In fact, Quan had taken to secretly calling Dwight “the COAN” (Count Olaf-Ass Negro). He was controlling. Conniving. And based on something Quan overheard Dwight say that day—

I know you know where that son of a bitch was keepin’ all his shit!

—Quan was convinced Dwight thought Mama had access to some treasure trove of cash and jewels that belonged to Daddy.

He needed a break, Quan did. From the shiver of unease that permeated the whole house like some awful supersonic vibration. From Dasia’s newfound grown-ness to Gabe’s insistence on being a baby brother-barnacle, gluing himself to Quan’s side as often as possible. From Mama’s anger-cloaked weariness. From Dwight’s . . .

existence.

So he told Mama—who for the first time in weeks wasn’t actively healing from a COAN encounter—that he was going out.

And he headed to his former favorite playground place.

Stepping over the latest evidence of unsavory activity inside his rocket ship (at least there wouldn’t be any babies or diseases?), Quan climbed up to the observation deck. Largely to hide himself from anyone who might take issue with/make fun of an almost-thirteen-year-old hanging out in the grounded space vessel.

But once he got up there, Quan relaxed so much, he fell asleep.

And by the time he woke up— the

sun

had

gone

down.

It was a cloudy night, so the streetlights—the ones that worked anyway—were his only source of illumination as he sprinted home. He wished they would all go out. That he could run straight into a darkness so thick and complete, it would swallow him whole.

Dwight wasn’t there when Quan arrived.

But it didn’t matter: the damage was already done.   Mama was on the couch, eyes glued to the television . . .

which would’ve been unremarkable if not for the busted and puffy left side of her mouth and the fact that her      left arm was cradled in her lap like she maybe couldn’t use it.

Quan stopped a good distance away from her. He couldn’t figure out what to think or how to feel. “Ma?”

She didn’t respond. Didn’t even shift her eyes away from the TV.

Quan dropped his own eyes. “Ma, I’m sorry. I fell asleep on the playground.”

Nothing.

Quan sighed and forced his feet to carry him to his bedroom, where he knew he was gonna find something that would morph the guilt hanging over his head into something solid that’d drop down onto his shoulders like a cape made of lead.

And he was right.

His siblings were in his closet.

Dasia was cradling Gabe, who’d fallen asleep. She wasn’t crying, but not three seconds after Quan pulled the door open, Gabe’s body shuddered with an aftershock from what Quan could only assume was quite the sob session.

“Great, I can go to my room now,” Dasia said, rolling her eyes as she shifted Gabe off her so she could get up.

Quan knew there was no point in asking her if she was okay. He knew all that attitude was her porcupine skin. Her way of letting people know they needed to

back

the

hell

up.

She shoved into his ribs in passing with her bony eight- year-old shoulder, and he took it. Absorbed that  bit  of her anger and let it throb without making a sound. He knew if he spat out the I’m sorry turning sour in his mouth, she would suck her teeth and say something like Don’t nobody need your wack-ass apology, and right then, there was no way Quan could’ve dealt with how grown-up she was.

So he scooped Gabe up—little dude’s body shook with another post-cry series of rapid-fire sniffles—carried him to his bed, and climbed in with him.

  • • •

Dwight stayed gone for over a week.

Under normal circumstances, this would’ve made Quan the happiest dude maybe on all of earth.

But the COAN had taken the EBT card with him.

He’d also somehow found the minor cash stash Mama kept in one of the shoe boxes on the top shelf of her closet. There’d been a note in its place:

Oh, so now you keepin shit from me? We gon see about that.

First few days, they were okay. They had Hawaiian rolls. Half a dozen eggs. Quarter jar of peanut butter. Two TV dinners and three pot pies in the freezer.

Day four, it got tight.

Day five, Dasia and Gabe split the final pot pie. (Quan didn’t eat.)

Gabe complained that he was still hungry, so Quan gave him the slice of crap pizza he’d smuggled from school.

(Quan stayed hungry.)

Day six, Quan smuggled home two slices.

And after getting Gabe in bed—Dasia plopped down on the couch, turned the TV on, and crossed her arms when Quan said it was time for bed (She was still hungry.)—Quan left the house.

He walked six minutes to a corner store he knew was owned by an elderly man who lived in the neighborhood.

He’d been there a bunch of times, sent by Mama with $10 in his pocket to grab some milk or hot dogs or jelly when they were on the verge of running out.

Wasn’t no money in his pocket now, but he went in anyway.

The old man smiled and waved at Quan as he entered.

Then he excused himself and went to the bathroom.

Leaving the store wide open to Quan. Trusting him.

As soon as the door to the storage room shut behind the old man, Quan gulped.

He looked left. He looked right.

Then he grabbed a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter, and he walked out of the store.

His First Time. Stealing.

Dasia cried as she bit into the peanut butter sandwich Quan handed her after waking her up. She’d fallen asleep in front of the TV.

Arms still crossed.

Day seven, the COAN came back.

With groceries.

 

 

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