Read a Free Excerpt of This Is My America by Kim Johnson

The Hate U Give meets Just Mercy in this unflinching yet uplifting novel about a girl named Tracy who is working tirelessly to gain the attention of Innocence X, an organization that can help get her father, an innocent Black man, off of death row. When her brother is then accused of killing a white girl, Tracy investigates what really happened, and will stop at nothing to save her family. But will Tracy and her family survive the uncovering of the skeletons of their Texas town’s racist history that still haunt the present? This gripping mystery explores the racist injustices in the American justice system and will leave you on the edge of your seat. Start reading now...

Saturday, April 23

Stephen Jones, Esq.

Innocence X Headquarters

1111 Justice Road

Birmingham, Alabama 35005

Re: Death Penalty— Intake Department

Dear Mr. Jones,

My dad has precisely 275 days before his execution. You’re the only

hope we have because every lawyer we’ve used has failed us. In the last

appeal, Judge Williams didn’t take more than five minutes to consider.

We mailed a renewed application since it’s now been seven years.

Please look into James Beaumont’s application (#1756). We have all

the court and trial files boxed up and ready to go.

Thank you for your time,

Tracy Beaumont

P.S. Jamal’s going to college. Can you believe it? All that running added

up to something. If you have those letters where I say he was wasting

his time, please destroy them.

P.S.S. Next Saturday at 10:00 a.m. Jamal’s doing an interview on

The Susan Touric Show. You should check it out.

READY. SET. GO.

Time runs my life. A constant measuring of what’s gone and what’s to come. Jamal’s hundred- meter dash is a blazing

10.06 seconds. That’s how my older brother got this monumental interview. I’m not thinking about Jamal’s record, though. I’m thinking about Daddy’s time. Seven years— two thousand five hundred and thirty- two days served, to be exact.

This running clock above my head’s been in place since his conviction. That moment branded me. Mama gripped the courtroom bench to keep from collapsing as each juror repeated guilty. I looked to Mama for an explanation. The empty look in her eye cried out the answer: death.

Since then, it’s tick- tock.

Here at the TV station, Jamal rocks steadily in the guest chair, watching highlights of his track career with the producer during a commercial break. He glides his hands over his fresh barber cut, his mind more likely on the camera angles that’ll best show his waves.

We’re true opposites, despite our one- year difference.

He’s patient.

Calm.

Thinking.

Living.

Loving.

He’s everything on the outside I wish to be. Bringing people in, when nine out of ten, I’d rather push them out. That’s why I hate that my mission crosses paths with the biggest day of

Jamal’s life.

Five minutes and thirty- seven seconds until showtime.

As the commercial nears its end, I don’t have to look up to know Mama’s leaving the makeup room. The click of her heels echoes past a crew of engineers and radiates as she circles around

Jamal to the guest seating area on the side of the studio stage.

She enters like only a proud Black mother can, hair all pressed and curled, with a sharp black skirt suit that fits her curvy figure.

Mama’s been name- dropping everywhere she can about the news anchor Susan Touric showcasing Jamal as a top athlete. I expected a live audience, but the set is a small studio and crew. I look out to Susan Touric’s interview desk with a backdrop image of Austin, the state capital. They’ve pulled out a white couch so there’s space for my family to join Jamal at the end.

Mama smiles at Jamal, then at my little sister, Corinne, but

I swear she throws some silent shade my way. Her not- so- subtle warnings have been going on for the past month. She knows I want Daddy’s story to seep out, but Mama has made clear there is no room for Daddy on this occasion. Not because she don’t love Daddy, but because she wants Jamal to have a clean slate at college as Jamal, not “Jamal, the son of a murderer.”

If it was a few years ago, I’d understand, but Daddy’s got less than a year. No extensions. No money for more appeals. While time uncoils itself from Daddy’s lifeline, she’s forbidden Susan

Touric from mentioning him, too. The show agreed not to talk about Daddy in exchange for Jamal showing up; and if Susan tries anything, Mama says we’ll straight up leave.

Mama stands by me and leans near my ear. “Tracy, ain’t it something to see your big brother’s hard work paying off?”

“Mmm- hmm,” I say, even though I’m still hoping the journalist in Susan can’t help but fling open Pandora’s box— on live television.

Mama won’t be able to stop it then.

Then our truth can breathe free.

The fight for Daddy’s appeal won’t be in vain. People will finally hear the truth. Wake up to the fact that Lady Liberty has failed us. Failed so many others.

Angela Herron floats into the room with a twinkle of excitement in her eye. Her long blond hair bounces with an unstoppable future. Angela’s a new production intern for The Susan Touric Show, even though she’s only a senior in high school, weeks away from graduating with Jamal’s class. It’s no coincidence that her dad owns Herron Media back in Galveston County, where

Jamal’s worked the past two years. She’ll always have it easy. I’ve worked my ass off to be in the running for the school newspaper editor next year so just maybe I can get into college internships early. Meanwhile, she’s already advanced to a position most college grads can’t get.

“Nervous?” Angela asks Jamal.

“Nah.” Jamal’s foot taps as he tries to play cool.

“You got this.” Angela hands Jamal a sheet of paper. “Here are the questions Susan’s asked the other guests.”

“Thanks, Ang.”

All the other interviews have the common thread of compelling

American stories: a boy who battled cancer; an almost career- ending torn ACL; a girl hiding her gender at football tryouts. Each story a tearjerker. I’m hard pressed to believe that they’d leave out what’s at the heart of Jamal’s dedication. What he’s had to overcome.

I glance over Jamal’s shoulder and skim the questions, looking for my window of opportunity.

“Tracy,” Mama says. “Give your brother space.”

Hater. I step closer to Mama.

Angela goes over a few pointers. Before I can ear hustle more,

Angela’s boyfriend, Chris Brighton, enters with a large box of doughnuts that appear tiny in his hands. Chris is still built out from football season, his strawberry- blond hair tucked under a

Texas A&M hat with his jersey number, 27, stitched on the side.

He’ll be playing there next year. Just like at school, he barely acknowledges us.

“Excuse me.” Angela goes to meet Chris, and I catch her mouthing, What are you doing here?

Chris places the box of doughnuts on the table. Angela touches his arm, like she’s trying to be sweet, but by the way her mouth is turned down, it’s obvious that she’s irritated at him messing up her work flow.

“Can I have one?” Corinne asks, ogling the doughnuts.

Mama agrees, and Corinne tiptoes past Angela. When she reaches in, the box slips.

“Watch it,” Chris snaps, catching the box. His square jaw is tight, like he can flick Corinne away with a nasty glare.

Jamal jumps up. Chris’s ears get red as Angela shushes him, pointing to the red flashing on air sign.

Sorry, Corinne mouths, then takes a bite.

Jamal joins us, his arm now around Corinne, who’s dressed in a striped yellow church dress. I chose a simple black A- line dress.

My hair in an updo, sleek edges, and curls all out like a crown was placed on top of my head.

The camera cuts away from Susan and they play a video of the four athletes they’ve spotlighted in May.

“It’s starting.” Corinne nudges Jamal before clapping like there’s a live audience. Crumbs flying everywhere.

Jamal chuckles and joins in with Corinne. I can’t help but let a smile slip and clap softly because Jamal deserves this.

The last of the footage includes Jamal’s records rolling up the screen. He’s compared to competitive world athletes with Olympic gold medals. Then they show Jamal’s last track meet of the season, where he beat the boys’ high school track record, tying the long- standing 1996 college record. I feel like I’m there again.

The crowd cheered so loud it shook the bleachers. You knew something special was about to happen. Jamal dropped to his knees when the scoreboard confirmed the new record.

“You know what you gonna say?” Corinne asks.

“Do I know what I’m gonna say?” Jamal bends down to

Corinne so he can whisper. “You got advice for me, baby sis?”

“Don’t say ummm.”

I burst out a laugh, then cover my mouth when Mama nudges me.

“That all you got?”

“You say ummm a lot when you’re nervous.” Corinne shrugs and takes Mama’s hand.

“You hear her, Tracy?” Jamal elbows me. “I don’t say ummm a lot.”

“You kinda do.” I smirk.

“Yoooo. You wrong for saying that right before my interview.

You know what’s gonna be stuck in my head now, right?”

“Yip,” I say. “Ummmm.”

“Ummmm,” Corinne joins in. We sound like a chorus at the side of the stage.

“Knock it off now, girls.” Mama wags her finger at us.

Angela cuts between us, gesturing for Jamal to follow her onto the studio’s stage while we take a seat offstage. Jamal gives her a wink when she wishes him good luck. Her cheeks go pink.

He can always make someone feel special. Daddy says he’s got a heart of gold. I just wish he wouldn’t throw it around like that.

I watch Chris in the shadows. White privilege at its finest.

Today he’s exhibiting classic toxic masculinity. I can tell Angela doesn’t want him here, but he’s too arrogant to think different.

He acts that way in school, too, like he could get away with anything, since his dad is sheriff.

Poised and ready, Susan Touric faces the camera marked nbs one. She looks like all the white newscasters they have at this station except the rotating weather girls of color. Susan’s dressed in a white blouse and a gaudy necklace of choice for the day. Her silky black hair is coiffed in a bob around her fake- tanned skin, and pink lipstick matches the color of her glasses.

The crew shifts into movement. The spotlight zooms in. The producer gives her a hand signal near the teleprompter. A green light blinks, and Susan plasters on a smile. On cue, the music begins. My heart now beats at a rapid pace.

“Reporting live here at NBS World News. If you’re just tuning in, we’ve been highlighting top scholar athletes across the country. I have the pleasure of introducing a local star: the number one track athlete in the state of Texas, soon to be high school grad, Jamal Beaumont.”

Jamal’s dark brown skin shines as he flashes a wide smile. He sits lean and tall in a closely tailored dark blue suit, white shirt, and red tie he saved up for so Mama wouldn’t worry about the cost.

The camera loves him. My stomach twists because I need the interview to bring attention to Daddy’s case, but it’ll take away from Jamal. I hope he’ll forgive me once he realizes what I’m trying to do.

Bring Daddy home.

Alive.

“When did you first start running?” Susan leans forward and rests her hand on her chin. The same way she begins every interview.

“You’re going to have to ask my mama, because I swear I came out running.”

Mama laughs, nudging me, then mouths, It’s true. It’s true.

I chuckle. Mama’s loving every second of this.

“When you’re not running, you’re also working at a local radio station and have your own show Thursday evenings.”

“Yes. I love it. I’m planning to major in communications and media.”

“One day you could be interviewing me.”

“That’s my sister’s thing. I’m more behind the scenes. Audio engineering.”

“Brains and brawn, huh?”

He gives her a modest smile. Susan eats it up.

“Do track stars run in the family? There’s usually more than one. Am I right?”

Jamal swallows, stopping for a millisecond, but I’m sure only

Mama and I notice.

“The men in the family have those genes for sure.”

Jamal’s talking about Daddy. Before we moved to Texas,

Daddy had his own track glory days in New Orleans. His name kept hometown business afloat in tough times, with customers wanting to help him out. After the flood, all that was lost. People left, and the local history was forgotten. Life was still hard a decade after Hurricane Katrina, so when Hurricane Veronica hit, we also left for good.

We evacuated to Texas, but Daddy never ran again. During his trial, they said it was his speed that got him all the way across town so quick. Daddy’s fast, but he’s not Superman fast.

I watch Jamal, nervous with how he’ll handle this.

“Well, they must be proud,” Susan says.

“He is.” Jamal hesitates after he says “he.” He looks directly into the camera, and I smile at his secret way of acknowledging

Daddy, and his ability to sidestep additional questions is impressive. Jamal’s not going to let this interview go down like that.

I’m both proud and nervous. I bite my lip, regretting that I tried all week to persuade him to use this as an opportunity to talk about Daddy’s appeal. Now Jamal’s guarded, each word carefully crafted to avoid Daddy coming up.

“One thing I love about highlighting you, Jamal, is that you could have chosen to go anywhere in the country, but you chose Baylor. Everyone thought you were going to Track Town,

Oregon, or North Carolina. Why Baylor?”

“I’m a mama’s boy. Plain and simple. Got my two sisters over there.” Jamal points to us. “And I can be home in about four hours if I need to. What can I say?”

“I’m sure your family loves that you’ll be close. Let’s bring them out now.”

Angela leads Mama to the stage, where she sits next to Jamal.

Corinne squishes in, and I end up at the edge of the couch.

The hot lights beam down on me. I’m dizzy now, with one thing on my mind.

The thing everyone here is thinking about, the thing that hasn’t been said but that’s boiling near the surface.

“Let’s meet your sister Corinne.”

Corinne’s round face immediately goes blank; her eyes bulge, like they’re about to pop.

“How old are you, Corinne?”

“Seven.”

“You love your brother?”

“Yes, ma’am. I’m gonna be real sad when he goes off to college.”

“I bet you are. What’s special about your brother?”

“He’s fast. And . . . when he packs my lunch, he always leaves me notes. I’m gonna miss that.”

“What kind of notes?”

“Nice stuff.” Corinne pauses. “Like if he knows I’m worried about something or trying to be funny. Like, ‘Smile. I’m watching you, Bighead.’ ”

Susan laughs awkwardly.

“It’s okay if he says Bighead.” Corinne shoots me a warning.

“Only he can say it, though.” I chuckle, because she’s told the world her nickname from Jamal, and now he’ll have to triple his notes to her.

“Or on Mondays when I’m real sad, he always leaves me a note like, ‘I love you more than the sun.’ I keep all those.”

Her voice has a heaviness to it no seven- year- old’s should have. The thing that goes unsaid in our family. That missing piece of us that keeps us down because we only see Daddy an hour on Saturday or Monday.

“Tracy.” Susan tries to stay upbeat. “You’re a year behind

Jamal. Are you also an athlete? College plans?”

“I used to do track.” I pause, looking at Corinne, and then go for it. “I’m a school journalist and organize Know Your Rights workshops in the community.”

Mama digs her finger into my side. I have to grind my jaws together to keep a smile.

Susan’s face is expressionless before she turns to Mama.

“Mrs. Beaumont, what do you think about your son?”

“I’m so proud of Jamal. Anyone would be lucky to have him.

He’s respectful. Dedicated. Charming. There’s no one like him.”

“I’ve definitely picked that up.” Susan rests her hand on her chin again. “Bet your husband is real proud, too.”

“He is.” Mama gives a tight smile.

Three minutes left on the show clock. My chest floods like

I’m being filled by water. Time’s almost up. Susan has opened the door to talk about Daddy. I know that what hurts Jamal will hurt

Mama. But we all want Daddy home. I can’t let this opportunity pass us by. I speak before Susan asks Mama another question.

“College seems so distant because I’ve been focused on helping my father’s appeal.”

Mama parts her lips. A small gasp escapes.

Jamal flinches, and it’s like a wave has come crashing down over the entire interview.

“Jamal.” Susan turns to my brother. “Is this what influenced your decision to stay close to home?”

Jamal’s expression goes blank.

Susan keeps going when Jamal doesn’t answer. “Because your father is in the Texas Penitentiary.”

I watch him. Hope this pushes him to speak up on Daddy’s innocence. But he’s staring past the camera like he wants this to be over.

“Three- hour drive from Baylor to see him or your family.”

Susan uses her hands like it’s an actual map.

Jamal stays composed. “I couldn’t find a reason in the world to go somewhere else. I wouldn’t want to miss any time with

Pops, Moms, Corinne.” Jamal gives me a once- over. “My dear sister Tracy.”

Shame runs through my veins when Jamal singles me out.

“I can imagine,” Susan says. “You don’t get that time back.

Every week counts.”

She’s wrong; every second counts.

“Now, your father, how long has he been sitting on death row?”

Sitting? Why do people say sitting? Like he’s waiting patiently in line with a number in his hand.

“Yes. Ma’am. He’s . . . umm.” Jamal shoots a look at Mama.

He’s starting to flounder.

The crew is buzzing, scrambling at the breach of contract.

“He’s been, umm . . . on death row over seven years since the conviction,” Jamal says.

Inside I scream out in joy that he doesn’t skirt the issue.

“Must be painful.”

“A lot of pain felt from him missing in our lives.” Jamal pauses when his gaze is caught on Mama. “I’m sure there’s a lot of hurt, of course, from the families who lost the Davidsons that night.”

Daddy’s innocent. Why did he say it like that?

“But I take all that and train. I run. I care for my family. I work. I live my life freely because my dad can’t. I don’t need to be at a big track school. Not when the thing that matters is putting in work to help take care of my family. That’s something I can control. No one can beat me.” Jamal gives a shy smile. Slows down his rapid pace of talking. “In my head, I mean. Everyone has to lose sometime. But in my head, I can’t lose. Because I’m growing with each race.”

“Your dedication’s a rare trait, Jamal.”

“Thank you, ma’am. I don’t let things get me down. That’s why I’m so glad you highlighted me, and we can focus on my accomplishments.”

Jamal smiles, unaffected by her prodding questions.

I almost believe him.

“Must be hard, though.” She puts her delicate hand on her chin again. “Your father’s death sentence, having to start over from New Orleans, and then . . . the challenges in Texas.”

“Texas is home now. I plan to keep it that way.” Jamal keeps his fake grin.

It aches to watch Jamal keep his composure. He’s avoiding the topic as best he can. Mama’s scowl says she’ll slam it shut if

Susan tries her.

“How long does your father have on death row?” Susan’s voice goes low.

“Two hundred and sixty- seven days.” I say it because knowing how long Daddy has left is the air I breathe. Time to live. To appeal. To turn back time.

Mama whips her head at me. The camera follows.

“Two hundred and sixty- seven days,” Jamal repeats. “That’s why we want to keep our family together and focus on the good.”

“Yes.” Susan touches Jamal’s shoulder this time. “I can’t imagine how hard it must be having your father in prison. Convicted of a double murder. Unimaginable.”

“Our father is innocent,” I say. “He’s been trying to appeal.

But we don’t have the financial resources to prove his innocence.”

I’ve been writing to Innocence X to take Daddy’s case. They represent people wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death.

Especially those in underserved communities. People who can’t afford their bail, let alone an attorney with a team of expert witnesses to prove their client’s innocence.

After seven years of letters and no response, I’m getting Innocence

X’s attention. Today.

“If your father is innocent, I’m sure the system will work.”

“No,” I say. “The system has failed us. Continues to fail us.”

“I don’t know much about the details of his case, but we can talk after the show, since we’ve reached the end of the interview time. Jamal, what would you— ”

She’s cutting me off. I can’t let her take this time away from me. I haven’t said enough. I stand so the camera is forced to focus on me.

“Do you know how many men have been put to death who were later exonerated postmortem?” I point to the camera. “What about conviction rates by race and class? The system works if you have the money to defend yourself.”

Backstage, the crew creeps to the edge of the stage. My legs are Jell- O underneath me. I’m close to collapsing right here, so I form a fist that fills me with courage.

“My father is innocent, and we have the evidence, but not the legal support to appeal his case. There are hundreds, thousands, of cases like his. Innocent people sentenced all the time.”

Susan’s spiderlike eyelashes blink rapidly. Her legs point toward Jamal because she knows this should be his interview, but the journalist in her focuses on me.

“What evidence do you have proving your father’s innocence?”

The producer throws his arms up in frustration.

“He was home all evening,” I say.

“You were young then. I’m sure it’s hard to remember. I barely remember what I had for lunch.”

“That’s not something you forget, ma’am. A small town with a double murder, everyone locked in the memories of where they were that day.”

“He was home,” Mama interjects, even though I know she’s angry at me. “This interview today is about Jamal, but I can’t sit here and not defend my husband. He. Is. Innocent.”

“Then, who do you suspect killed the Galveston couple?”

“Mark and Cathy Davidson were murdered, but not by my father or his business partner, Jackson Ridges. Other suspects have been recently identified,” I say.

Mama’s and Jamal’s expressions turn hard.

I know Mama doesn’t like when I lie, but we need to catch

Innocence X’s attention.

“Unfortunately, the Galveston Police Department refuses to look into them, but we will find a legal team to represent my father’s case. When they study what we have, we’ll prove his innocence and the real killer will be arrested.”

As soon as the interview is over, Jamal jumps out of his seat.

“Tracy.” Mama’s got her hand on her hip. Susan Touric steps between us. Along with the producer, she blocks my view of

Mama, but not before I witness how upset she is.

“This is unacceptable,” Mama says. “We had an agreement.”

“I stayed within my parameters,” Susan says. “Your daughter— ”

Mama puts her hand up to me as I draw in closer to join the conversation. Her gesture is instantly sobering. This won’t be the time or place to talk to Mama. She won’t listen to a word I say.

I want this to be a moment to celebrate because I did what I’d planned, but to everyone else around me this isn’t a celebration.

I’m standing in the rubble of a building I blew up.

I follow Jamal, who is now in the hallway with Angela. Jamal’s shaking his head, and Angela is tearing up. Her boyfriend,

Chris, paces as he waits for Angela on the other side of the studio.

“Jamal.” I reach for his shoulder, but he brushes me away. My cheeks are hot. “Jamal, I’m sorry.”

“Forget it. Go to Ma.” His voice is expressionless.

“I mean it. I’m sorry.”

“I knew you’d make it go the way you wanted to. Just wish you wouldn’t have done it like that.”

His response isn’t what I expected. I wanted him to be upset with me. Shout. Yell. Anything to help me figure out how to approach him, but he doesn’t give me anything.

“Give me a second, please,” I start.

“I don’t wanna hear it.” Jamal walks back to the studio.

I turn my head to find Mama. Angela stands in my way.

“You’re so selfish. You think you know everything, but you don’t,” she says.

“My father’s innocent.” I turn away from her.

“It’s not just this. It’s the same thing with the school paper, always about you and what you want to do. Think about how

Jamal must feel.” Angela shakes her head, then storms out the exit doors. The Texas heat sucks the air out of my lungs until the door shuts behind her.

Mama’s no longer on the stage. The only person left is

Corinne. She hasn’t moved from the interview couch. She’s crying.

Jamal gets to her first; a sob builds in my throat watching them. Jamal sinks down to his knees and wraps his arms around her waist. I stand awkwardly behind him, wanting to help but knowing I did this. Corinne puts her arms around Jamal’s neck, her tears wetting his collar. The hurt I’ve forced on to my family knocks me backward as I look up at Corinne’s searching eyes.

“Everyone is angry,” Corinne says.

Jamal brushes her hair back. “Sometimes people do things that hurt because they think they’re helping.”

I shut my eyes and hope it’s not a lie.

WHAT HAD HAPPENED WAS . . .

Mama’s silence is worse than being scolded. I can’t take it anymore, so I text my homegirl Tasha for a ride to Polunsky

Prison. Maybe this way I can smooth things over with Daddy before Mama and Jamal get to him on Monday.

Tasha’s twenty minutes away on foot if I cut across the field from my house. She lives in an old historic block that seems to be forgotten. The rows of shotgun homes perch up close to the sidewalk along dusty potholed roads. I swiftly approach her dull-green-colored house.

Tasha’s already out front. “You know I’m not one to judge, but damn, why’d you go off like that?”

My face droops. “Nice to see you, too.”

“I’m surprised your mama didn’t skin you alive on television.”

“It wasn’t that bad, was it?”

“Train wreck.” Tasha slams her palm and fist together.

“Full- on collision.”

Damn.

“If I take you to Polunsky, I’m not aiding and abetting, am I?”

“She didn’t answer when I asked.” I shake my head. “I didn’t want to stick around for her to stop me.”

“Come here.” Tasha leans in to give me a hug. “Are you grounded?”

“Probably.”

“Jamal pissed?”

“He won’t talk to me.” I put my head down. “Didn’t even come home with us, so I haven’t seen him since this morning.”

“Jamal’s not the type to hold grudges.” Tasha lets me in, and

I enter her living room. “Remember when you washed his white jersey with your red pants?”

“Yeah,” I say, and chuckle. “He rocked that pink for weeks.”

“He’ll forgive you. Just don’t hold your breath if he ever gets another interview. No way he’ll let you in the building.”

“I know.” I let out a small smile that hurts, holding on to hope that Jamal won’t be mad forever.

I follow her down the hallway, passing two tiny bedrooms on the way to the kitchen that’s placed in the back of the house.

Tasha only has two window units for air- conditioning, but the long shotgun shape of the house lets cool air flow throughout.

When we get to the kitchen, Tasha’s sister, Monica, is practicing on her keyboard while her mom washes dishes. They all have the same long, thin braids, same flawless dark brown skin and high cheekbones. Folks easily confuse mother and daughters for sisters when they’re out shopping. Only thing her mom’s missing is the large gold hoop earrings.

“Need any help?” I ask Tasha’s mom, Candice.

“Hey, Tracy.” She gives me a hug. “I’m good. I know you rushing. Tasha, get your daddy’s keys.”

“Daddy Greg! Tracy’s here.” She yells out the kitchen window instead of going out back.

She calls him Daddy Greg because she grew up not knowing what to call him, since he was in prison. She wanted to call him Greg, but calling him Daddy was a requirement. Say it with respect, he always said to her, and her mama was always repeating that. So Tasha did what she do, called him Daddy, but always making it a point to add in Greg.

We used to be on the same page about getting our dads back.

The first time Daddy Greg was out, Tasha was excited, but he barely stayed in the house and disappeared days at a time. He had a hard time adjusting, especially when he couldn’t land a job, part of his parole. So back in jail he went. Three more years.

Now he’s done all his time, and Tasha don’t trust he won’t mess it all up again. Her tone stays sharp with him. Unyielding. Unforgiving.

He spent his time in prison only to come home to a new prison, where he’s free, but serving his own penance through harsh glances and judging looks.

Tasha pounces on Monica’s keyboard and starts singing off- key.

“Stop.” Monica pulls it back toward her, then gives me a nod.

“Hey, Tracy.”

I nod back.

“Tasha, quit playing around,” Candice says. “You know you can’t hold no tune, so just leave it for your sister.”

“Damn, Mama, why you gotta say it with your chest like that? Can’t a girl dream? Be the next superstar. Try out for one of those talent shows.”

“You love to sing, baby. Got a real nice voice.”

Tasha smiles.

“But you ain’t no Whitney Houston.”

“Ain’t nobody trying to be Whitney, Mama.”

“What you want me to say. Beyoncé? Come on now. You best focus on school. Be a business major. Accountant, I say, because you always up in my business. Checking my wallet.”

I let out my first hearty laugh since before the Susan Touric interview. Glad I chose to come see Tasha and not lock myself in my room, holding my breath every time someone comes up the stairs.

“That’s the problem with this generation, going on these reality shows because someone didn’t knock some sense into them before they get on the screen and have their dream snatched on live television.”

“That’s cold, Ma.” Tasha crosses her arms. Then scowls at Daddy Greg as he enters, joining in naming all the careers she should try that require no musical talent.

When things finally die down, Daddy Greg hands over his keys and turns to me. “How’s ‘Tracy’s Corner’?”

“Good,” I say. “The column is getting popular. Readers are up.”

“Most popular with Black folks,” Tasha says. “The rest hateread.

You know them white kids don’t like hearing about Black

Lives Matter each week.”

“That’s their problem. And they’re about to be big mad next year when I’m setting up feature stories.”

“Let me guess,” Tasha says. “Court cases and police brutality on every page?”

“Don’t let Tasha give you a hard time,” her mom says. “She stays reading ‘Tracy’s Corner.’ ”

“The editor position is a lock.” Tasha gives a wicked smile because she was just messing with me.

“Better be. I put in as many hours as the editor this year.” I glance at my watch. I want a lot of time with Daddy.

“You got this, Tracy,” Daddy Greg says. “Speak your truth.”

“So, whose fault is it you broke parole again?” Tasha rolls her eyes at Daddy Greg.

“Don’t you start.” Her mom’s tone is icy.

“It ain’t easy getting out and finding work. I’m lucky I did this time. You don’t know what serving six years can do. I was out early, thinking about who’s protecting my peeps. Are they gon’ feel some type a way I’m out?”

“That’s your problem,” Tasha says. “You were thinking about them and not us.”

“Tasha.” I touch her hand. We can’t understand what that life is like. Every moment of your day controlled. The people in there were his family for six years.

“The last three years I was thinking about what kind of man

I was gonna be when I got out. An end date became real after messing up. I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my life in there. I was caught up on that before.”

I gulp hard, look away. He’s talking about people like my daddy who aren’t ever getting out.

“I’m sorry, Tracy. I didn’t mean it like that,” Daddy Greg says.

“I feel your daddy coming home. I didn’t mean to put you out like that. I’m just saying, I was gonna be ready this time.”

Candice hands a glass of sweet tea to Daddy Greg. I look at them with envy that they’re back together, but Tasha’s not looking like she’s happy. She’s looking at them like she’s lost. Been betrayed.

“We gotta go.” Tasha spins, grimace on her face. Not even realizing while she’s mad at her dad, mine’s still in a cell block.

Tasha storms off without me.

“All right, I’ll be seeing ya.” I lean back awkwardly with my hands shoved in my shorts pocket.

“Don’t worry about all this,” Daddy Greg says. “I gotta prove myself. She’ll come around.”

We look at each other, nodding. But Tasha’s gone hard; her walls have climbed so high that I don’t know if she can break them down and let anyone in.

The car is silent, so I pull out my notepad and start a letter to

Innocence X.

“Damn, you stay writing letters.” Tasha breaks the silence.

“I’ve only written letters to Daddy Greg. Never even knew what

to say then.”

“Gotta reach them somehow.”

“Why don’t you call them?” Tasha says, backing up her car.

“Just call until they answer. Email.”

“They don’t take email or phone calls for cases. Only letters and applications to their intake department.”

“It sucks your dad’s locked up, but at least he’s still a good dad. Hell, he could trade places with Daddy Greg. I wouldn’t mind.”

“Tasha.” I put my pen down. Jokes about death row I don’t take lightly.

“Sorry.” Tasha taps my leg. “I didn’t mean you better off than me. Just having Daddy Greg home isn’t all cracked up to what it should be. He’s trying to fold into our lives, and he just don’t fit, you know.”

“He’s been gone,” I say, then pause. “Time stopped for him but kept moving for y’all. You guys will figure it out. Even if he was here all that time, you’re seventeen— you were gonna give him hell anyways.” I bump her shoulder and she only gives me a sliver of a smile.

I bite my tongue from saying how easy it is for her to say that. She had a clock to work with. Mine is different. Mine is a countdown.

“Can’t change the past, Tasha.” My voice is strained from irritation.

Tasha huffs but keeps her thoughts to herself.

We keep our chitchat light for the next hour, knowing we’ve touched nerves. I count down signs until we reach Livingston, a small town where Polunsky Prison is located.

Silence completely takes us over again. Everything else washes away except the fast beat of my heart as we take the long road past acres filled with grass and farmland. Then we see the fenced in wall of the maximum- security prison. It’s twenty feet tall along rows of cinder- block towers with razor wire atop it. From a distance, you can see the guards standing on top and the surveillance cameras lined up around the perimeter. As usual, an uneasy feeling swirls in my stomach. But this time is different— I defied

Mama during Jamal’s interview. Lied about new suspects, and

I’m certain Daddy’s heard all about it by now.

THE APPLE OF OUR EYE

We turn into the prison’s parking lot. A roar of laughter escapes a group of boys perched outside. They circle around one guy who’s trying to play it low- key. His eyes shift, watching the parking lot. A black garbage bag is sprawled on the ground in front of his feet, confirming he’s the one just released. Also by how his boys are all hype. They punch playful fists at each other, rapidly spitting out catch- up stories to him. I think they might be so into themselves they’ll ignore us parking, but the second we drive toward the visitor lot, I hear their chatter.

“There you go, man.” I’m not sure who says it.

A whistle blows out long and low.

“Not a chance,” Tasha says out the window.

His boys huddle laughing, saying “oooh.” Their voices eventually fade as she pulls into the lot farther away from releases.

I give a grateful smile to Tasha for driving me the two hours to visit Daddy. Knowing she’ll be out here waiting for me when

I’m done.

I enter the first small building and join a short line, dump my things in a yellow bin. The security woman smooths her hands down my arms, up my waist, across my bra line, then down my legs.

Then I go to the next building and wait until I’m called over the loudspeaker. I sit by a small round- table bench as the prisoners line up behind the glass. I’m grateful they changed the rule to visit death- row inmates, and I don’t have to come all this way to pick up a phone to talk to Daddy through a glass window.

There’s a buzz, then a clank as the locks release and the door is propped open by an officer. Rushing in to see their visitors, a few guys bump into one another.

My heart stops, hoping this doesn’t turn into some altercation that’ll shut down visiting hour while they go into lockdown.

Or worse, I witness Daddy getting into it with someone. I shut my eyes for a moment, thinking about the first time I saw him with injuries. I blink the memory away.

It takes so much out of me and the family getting ready for a visit, pushing away whatever’s bothering us. Always finding a way to ball it up during our visits so we don’t put that stress on

Daddy.

The men size one another up until one’s distracted by his son yelling, “Daddy! I see Daddy!” He turns to mush, then gives the guy a dap.

A grin takes over my face when I finally spot Daddy in line.

He’s tall, with broad shoulders that are covered by his orange jumper. His beard is grown in a bit, and he’s kept his Afro about two inches. He used to keep his hair lined up before prison.

Considering everything, he still looks the same to me, which gives me comfort.

Daddy scans from corner to corner until he finds me at the table. I warm over at his matching grin. I tap my fingers nervously until Daddy takes a seat in front of me.

“You came,” Daddy says.

“What do you mean?”

“I thought your mama might’ve locked you up after that stunt you pulled. What were you thinking?”

I put my head down.

Daddy flicks at my hair, then shoots out a bellowing laugh.

“You should’ve seen your mama’s face on television. Eyes all bugged out. It’s probably the one time in my life I was glad to be locked up, so I wouldn’t be on that car ride home or have to stay up listening to your mama talk my ear off all night about you, girl.”

I laugh with relief. “I’m sorry. I know you said not to.”

“You wrong. This was Jamal’s day today. My baggage don’t need to follow him to college.”

“I know, but we gotta catch Innocence X’s attention.”

“You’re a fighter. I love that about you.” Daddy brushes my hair back. “But you need to start preparing yourself— ”

“Never.” I glance away.

A bald- headed, muscular white guard watches us; the way he’s looking at us bothers me. Daddy follows my gaze.

“Don’t pay them no mind.”

Daddy rubs his hands together, callused from the three- hour daily work outside. He gets one hour in the library, another break from his concrete sixty- square- foot cell. In his cell, he reads five hours a day. That’s where Daddy picked up studying the law, after being filled with disappointment after each appeal.

This is what we share between us on visits. Our ability to swap facts back and forth and all my letters to Innocence X. Mama tells him everything going on with us kids. Jamal fills the visit with things Daddy likes. Like his working hard, his track practice,

Mama, and all the notes Jamal’s left for Corinne that week.

Daddy loves that the most.

When I talk to Daddy about his case and get too hopeful, he makes me promise not to get upset because getting an appeal grows more unlikely with each day. But Daddy’s also not the type to give up. He could’ve accepted a plea deal, but he said he wouldn’t admit to something he didn’t do. God would be watching over him and set him free. He believed there’d already been tragedy enough with the Davidson couple being murdered, and him and his best friend, Jackson Ridges, being blamed. Mr. Ridges was killed by the police as they tried to take him from his home. Daddy thought God wouldn’t let more pain come from that tragedy. So he pled innocent, and life without parole was off the table. It would be a death sentence if found guilty.

I used to believe that what Daddy said about no more pain was true. Like the Messiah Himself would walk right through the courtroom and carry my daddy out. Now I know it’s up to us.

“I didn’t mean to ruin Jamal’s moment.” I watch him with hopeful eyes.

“I see no one else came to make this visit.” Daddy squeezes my hand. “I need you to stay close, not pull apart.”

“They’ll be here Monday. I just wish Jamal’d understand what I was trying to do. I couldn’t not talk about you.”

“I knew you wouldn’t be able to control yourself if you had the chance. I had a bet out here when we watched it, but I didn’t expect you to lie. You don’t know what that does in here.”

I look away. I know I shouldn’t have lied about possible suspects.

I only wanted to attract Innocence X’s attention.

“Someone got away with murder, and it’s never been right

I had to do the time. Trust me, no one knows that injustice more than me. I feel it every day. But you can’t make stuff up.”

“But if we get someone to look into your trial, they could see they didn’t have any evidence to convict you in the first place.

Then they’d find new suspects.”

Daddy pats my hand. I try to let the topic go. We’ve talked about this too many times. I’m preaching to the choir. The fact is, the gun that killed the Davidsons was never found. Daddy never owned a gun. Every Texan in our neighborhood certainly has one, but not Daddy. They arrested him anyway.

Next, they went after Mr. Ridges. He paid with his life when he refused to open the doors for the police. Mama had called to warn him that Daddy’d been taken in. Mr. Ridges didn’t want to go out like that. Not in front of his kids. But it was too late.

The police shot up the house, nicking Quincy, who was my age, and killing Mr. Ridges with shots through the window. They didn’t wait for a negotiator like they do on TV. They straight- up started shooting.

After he was dead, it was easy to put blame on Mr. Ridges.

They needed him to be guilty. Especially when they’d almost killed

Quincy. I’ve always believed the police and prosecution were willing to do anything they could to justify killing Mr. Ridges and shooting a ten- year- old. Regardless of whether Mr. Ridges or

Daddy owned a gun, they both had alibis. Their fingerprints were found in the office meeting room, along with the prints of multiple other people who’d met with them, but it didn’t seem to matter that their prints weren’t found in the back, where the

Davidsons’ bodies were discovered.

“Don’t think I haven’t thought this through a million times.

Sometimes these things happen. Everything kept boiling down to the fact I was about to do business with Mr. Davidson.”

We both look down.

They’d questioned other suspects. Rumors flew around town that Daddy was upset with Mark Davidson. It’s true Daddy and Mark Davidson had gotten into an argument the day before, but it was because Mark didn’t want to join their business venture with Jackson Ridges, just with Daddy.

That’s not worth killing someone over.

Daddy changes subjects, tells me a story about when I was a baby and he’d knew I’d be trouble, but I’ve heard this story a million times. The only thing in my head is what I can do in the next nine months to bring Daddy home. A chance to stall his sentence. Save him before it’s too late.

When I get back in Tasha’s car, I can’t hold in all the disappointment from The Susan Touric Show and the helplessness from seeing

Daddy. Each moment replays in my mind. I hold my mouth closed to stop a cry from escaping.

“Let it out, girl.” Tasha rubs my back. “Don’t hold that shit in.”

“I just don’t know what to do,” I say between cries. “I’ve tried everything.”

“Not everything. You still got something left. I don’t know you to give up. What you did today could’ve worked. You don’t know yet.” Tasha hands me my notepad to finish my letter to

Innocence X.

Blurry eyed, I take the notepad from her, the pain still sitting in me. Tasha drives away as I finish my letter.

I used to plan the letters out more, writing pages and pages on why Innocence X needed to help Daddy, but time is running out. The climate’s changed with a new governor who’s stricter on sentences, filling up for- profit prisons with minor convictions.

Increased visibility of racial injustice in policing adds more pressure for Innocence X to respond to cases hitting the media. My fear is they’ll forget the old cases— unplug the chance for those, letting the clock wind down. Because I know the truth is, no one’s excited to look into a seven- year- old case. Attention spans are reserved for big stories and hashtags following the next news cycle.

Innocence X knows who I am, and now it’s the principle of writing. There’s nothing I’ve been able to control about what happened to Daddy. I’m broke. Can’t vote. Can’t afford a lawyer.

But I’ve got control of my voice and my mind, and that means I can do at least one thing: write a letter.

 

 

 

Text copyright © 2020 by Kim Johnson

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