by Rosie Brown
They were at Paolo's that night because that was the only place in town that didn't give weird looks to four black kids showing up after 11 p.m. They sat in their usual booth, two milkshakes and one large order of onion rings between them, all they could afford that still kept Paolo happy enough to not kick them out. That night, they were working on English.
"All I'm saying is, Demetrius is a fucking idiot," announced DJ. "Why does gotta he keep pining after that other girl when he's got a honey like Hermia waiting right there? It's bullshit." He stretched, nearly knocking into the light hanging above the booth as he did so. Alia rolled her eyes at him from across the table.
"It's a metaphor, dumbass. For, like, the way people only want the things they can't have. Right, Zee?"
Alia turned to the girl sitting next to her. Zuri dragged an onion ring through her milkshake.
"Dunno," she said finally. Alia clicked her tongue.
"Took a whole lot of thinking for just a 'dunno'," Alia accused. Zuri just shrugged.
"I dunno what I dunno."
Alia and Zuri were best friends and current enemies because Alia claimed Zuri had failed to return a CD that Zuri swore she hadn't borrowed in the first place. As such, tensions were cool within the group. This wasn't anything new- every other week or so the two would get into a falling out, then make up days later like it hadn't even happened. When Alia wasn't squabbling with Zuri, she was harping on DJ or talking smack about one of the girls on her step team. If there was drama happening within a mile of her, Alia would find a way to get involved. DJ looked between his two friends, smart enough not to get involved but too fascinated by girls and their silent wars to look away. Zuri's phone lit up. He pointed to it.
"You got another one," he said.
Zuri took one look at the phone, then turned it over.
"Why is she always on my ass?" she asked to no one in particular. The 'she' in question was her mother. Zuri couldn't go anywhere without a constant stream of calls and texts reminding her to be safe and not talk to strangers. She knew she should be happy she had a mother who cared so much about her, since that was not a luxury shared by everyone in her group, but at sixteen, the umbilical cord was starting to feel more like a noose. Alia peeled her eyes away from Zuri to look at Pat, their newest member. An exchange student from Nigeria, his name was actually Ogochukwu. No one had wanted to bother learning how to say that correctly, so they all just called him Pat. They didn't think he minded, though it was hard to tell with his broken English and tendency to stare off into the distance for hours on end.
"Wake up his ass up before he drools all over our work," commanded Alia. DJ reached over and gave Pat a good shove. Pat's eyes flew open. He looked around wildly as if he expected to see the swaying trees of Nigeria upon waking instead of the fluorescent lights of suburban America. When he got his bearings about him, he yawned.
This was a normal Thursday night for their crew. There was familiarity in the musty smell of burnt fries and a comfort in the untraceable stains that littered the booth seats. If given the chance, they would have stayed there forever.
"All I'm tryna' say is," said DJ, jabbing his onion ring towards Alia, "Demetrius's dumb as bricks."
"They're all dumb as bricks. That's the whole point," replied Alia. "Except Titania. I like her."
"She's the whole reason things got fucked up in the first place. And she's a kidnapper."
"She's also a Queen. Queens do whatever they want."
They both looked at Zuri, who looked up from her essay bewildered.
"Puck's cool," she said hesitantly since she knew her friends wouldn't let it rest until she contributed something. It didn't stop Alia from snorting.
"He's not even the main character."
"Neither is Titania," argued Zuri.
"She's more of a main character than Puck is. And is his name Puck or Robin?"
"But Puck gets the last line in the whole play. That's gotta mean something. Not just any character gets the last line."
Alia opened her mouth to say something back but was cut off by the tinkling of the front bell. Chef Paolo looked up from the counter he was cleaning to acknowledge the newcomer, but the man strode by without even looking at him, stopping right in front of the kids' booth. Zuri looked up to see her oldest brother staring down at her.
"What's up, Tye?" asked Zuri, suddenly aware of just how many calls she'd ignored that night. Tye looked her straight in the eye.
"Matthew's been shot."
Tye filled them all in on the way to the hospital. Tye and Zuri's brother Matthew had been at Walmart buying baby supplies with his girlfriend Shasté when a police officer had stopped them on their way out. Someone had apparently seen them stealing something from the store, and the officer wanted them to do a strip search right there, Shasté too even though she was six months pregnant. Matthew had gone to reach for a receipt, and, thinking he was reaching for a weapon, the officer shot him. Matthew died on the scene. They were going to the hospital to see Shasté.
No one said anything. In the passenger's seat, Zuri had curled herself up into a ball, her dirty sneakers leaving prints on the leather of Tye's seats. She stared straight ahead at each headlight that passed them by. Tye tried turning on the radio for a little bit but then turned it off.
The hospital was eerily cacophonic after the silence of the car. Tye and the kids shuffled into the waiting area like a couple of lost sheep, and the lady at the front desk pointed them towards Shasté's room. Zuri could hear her own heart beating against the sterile white walls as she navigated the hospital's hallways. They knew they'd found the right room when they go to one with a police officer standing guard out front, tall and imposing with blonde hair cut close to his scalp. The kids stood rigidly as he scanned them over then, finding nothing wrong, he waved them in.
Shasté lay in the bed with the white sheet pulled all the way up to her chin. In the corner of the sparse hospital room sat Mama, in her hands a paper cup she'd crushed so tightly that all that was left was pulp. Her eyes went hard when she saw her youngest child.
"Why weren't you picking up your phone?" demanded Mama. Her voice hoarse. Zuri took a step forward, and then paused. At that moment Shasté stirred, her eyes lighting up.
"Zee, is that you? Thank the Lord you're okay, nobody could reach you. Come give me hug." Tearing her eyes from her mother's, Zuri went to stand obediently by Shasté's bed side. The woman pulled her into a hug, or as close to one as her round belly would allow. Behind them Alia and the others shifted awkwardly, not really sure where to look.
"Thank the Lord you're okay," she muttered into her hair. Zuri didn't know what to say so she just said, "You too."
Truth be told, Zuri didn't like Shasté all that much. No one in the family did. She was sort of a tramp, wore too much perfume, and wasn't all that bright. Plus her getting pregnant and getting kicked out of her own house was the whole reason Matthew had to drop out of community college, giving up a promising career as a pharmacy assistant to do so. Zuri heard Mama shift in her chair behind her.
"They need to make sure the shock didn't hurt the baby," said Mama flatly. "Then we're going to the police station." Shasté shuddered in Zuri's arms.
"A Twix bar." Shasté's face contorted into a mask of grief that Zuri had yet to feel. "They said he took it from the store and they shot him. Right in front of me. They shot him." Shasté was sobbing now, full on heaving sobs that rocked through her body and smeared snot all over Zuri's shirt.
"They killed him over a Twix bar."
Zuri sat on the couch wrapped up in Matthew's old Snuggie. She had to roll the sleeves up several times just to have use of her hands. Feet dangling uselessly off the edge of the couch, Zuri stared unblinking at the TV.
The school had given Zuri the week off due to "extenuating circumstances." Alia had offered enthusiastically to take notes for her and, more importantly, catch her up on all the school drama when she got back. Apparently unable to wait a week, Alia had begun to call a day into Zuri's exile. She'd received calls from heh whole crew sans Pat, actually. She ignored each one.
"Protests have entered the third day over local teen Matthew Clarkson, who was allegedly shot to death by a police officer outside of a Walmart in Bowie. We go now to April Springs who has more information on..." Zuri changed the channel, nearly knocking over one of Matthew's handcrafted figurines as she did so. He was never all that good at carving, but that hadn't stopped him from making hundreds of little rabbits and foxes and leaving them in the most inconvenient places.
"And the shark, see, the shark, he just looked deep into my eyes and he-"
"How many more children must we lose before this becomes-"
"This is your absolute last chance, folks, miss this opportunity and you'll be regretting it for-"
"A white officer has killed a black person at least twice a week in this country since 2006-"
"Squidward, this is great! Just you, me, and this brick wall you built between us!"
She left the channel on SpongeBob. Picking up the figurine, Zuri turned it over and over again in her hands, examining the rabbit's crude workmanship and confused expression. Her phone rang again. She ignored it.
"I thought the blue was hella tight at first, but then I thought about it and that one would just wash him out and make him look all pasty. What do y'all think?"
Shasté held first the blue shirt, then a red one up to her chest. Tye pointed to the red one.
"That one's nice," he offered. Shasté gave a long suffering sigh.
"Of course you do. You're a man. Men always choose red."
After eight plus hours of funeral preparation, they were still no closer to having the details finalized than they'd been when they started. Shasté had elected herself unofficial funeral coordinator, and she'd somehow found fault in every single suggestion they offered up thus. They were now picking the outfit Matthew was to be buried in. They'd been picking the outfit Matthew was to be buried in for two hours.
"But fine, that's one for blue and one for red. How about you, Mama?" called Shasté over her shoulder. "Blue or red?"
Mama's knuckles went pale around the plate she was washing.
"Does it really matter what outfit we choose for him to rot in?" she spat. Zuri wordlessly took the plate from her mother and began drying it. The shadow of a frown flickered across Shasté's face.
"Of course it matters! This is the last outfit anyone's gonna- that he'll be seen in. It's got to be perfect," she argued.
When Mama didn't reply, she added, "Some help now would be really appreciated."
Mama wiped her hands on the front of her dress. "Then bury him naked. It's how he came into this world and how should go out," she said coolly. Zuri and Tye looked at one another. They'd lived in the house long enough to recognize the murderous tone in their mother's voice, but Shasté clearly hadn't.
"I know you loved him," said the pregnant woman in what she probably thought was a soothing tone. "I did too, Mama, but-"
There was the crash of a plate breaking as Mama turned to Shasté.
"Love? You call that foolish monkey fucking you did love? When you bring your own damn child into this world and it's covered in your own flesh and your own blood and it leaves this world covered in its flesh and blood- then maybe you can open your fat mouth and talk about love."
Shasté froze, her mouth hanging open. Then, tears streaming from her eyes, she ran- or more like waddled- out of the room.
Zuri couldn't help but snort at the sight. With a forced smile on his face, Tye got up and put a hand on his mother's shoulder.
"Why don't you go lay down, Ma? Zuri and I can finish up here." Mama squinted up at her son, a frown edged deep in her features.
"You sound just like your Daddy when you talk like that," she told him. Tye recoiled as if he'd been slapped. Together, she and Zuri finished up in silence.
The finally got her at the corner of Amber and Ricken streets. Reporters had been outside the Clarkson house day in and day out, making it impossible to leave without getting a thousand microphones thrust into your face. Zuri would have been perfectly fine with never leaving the house ever again, but Thatdog needed to pee.
The family dog Thatdog was referred to as such because when he was a puppy, Mama had screamed, "Get that dog offa my couch/outta my close/away from my stew" etc. so often that he now refused to answer to anything else. Thatdog was a chunky chocolate lab with a bad case of arthritis and an even worse case of body odor. Walking him had always been Matthew's job. With Matthew gone, the honor had now fallen on Zuri.
Though she snagged off a chunk of her hair, Zuri was able to make it out under the backyard fence with no injuries and, even more importantly, without being seen. Thatdog's entire body vibrated enthusiastically as they strolled as if he could think of nothing more exciting than having to break out of his own home. It was the first time Zuri had left the house since Matthew's death. The leash felt sweaty in her hands, and the sun hurt her eyes.
The street was oddly empty for 4 o'clock in the afternoon. At this time there should have been children tumbling over each other on the dry lawn grass while their mother's kept watchful eyes on them from the window. Zuri kept waiting for some neighbor to call out to her, but none did. Keeping her head down low, she shuffled down the streets of her childhood home with a feeling of dread that she couldn't quite shake.
She didn't see a single soul on her walk until she made the mistake of letting Thatdog sniff at an old squirrel carcass. As Zuri watched the dog prepare to urinate on the rodent's corpse, a pair of footsteps pounded towards her and then she heard, "Zuri! Hey, girl, heeeeeeeey~!"
Inwardly, Zuri groaned. She turned to see Alia bouncing towards her, currently on a walk with her own Yorkshire Terrier, Rhiyonce. Alia's hair was pulled up in a ponytail so tight it made her eyes look perpetually half shut, and her track suit was rolled up to the elbows even though it was nearly November. Zuri couldn't remember if they were supposed to be mad at each other still, so she decided they still were.
"Gurla, I have missed you," said Alia as she pulled the other girl into a one armed hug. "How have you been?"
"I'm alright," said Zuri. Her throat was dry from so many days of silence. Arm in arm, the two headed down their usual route, Rhiyonce and Thatdog excitedly tangling their leashes together.
They walked in silence at first, quietly passing by the old haunts of their childhood. Knowing Alia there were probably a million questions the girl was dying to ask; it was rare for them to go this long without talking. But surprisingly, the girl said nothing. Finally, mostly because the silence made her uneasy, Zuri asked, "So, um, what have you been up to since...you know....?"
Alia's eyes lit up. "Oh Zee, you wouldn't believe just how crazy it's been! The town's been in the news like, every day. There's reporters everywhere!" Zuri nodded, tugging on Thatdog's leash.
"You know how reporters are for a good story."
The lights of the protests had reached even the Clarkson house though the windows of their self-imposed isolation. Most of the protesting was centered around the Walmart where Matthew had been shot, but if the internet was anything to go by, it had now spread through over half of the town, not to mention all the way across the country. One night had gotten particularly bad, and the Clarkson's had stared transfixed for an hour at the flashing lights in the distance until Mama closed the blinds on them.
"And the hashtag!" chattered Alia. "#IAmMatthewClarkson! It's so unreal! Me and my family have been protesting every day," she added proudly. "Are you coming to the one today down on H Street?"
Shasté had argued that they should be at the protests too, that they should be leading them in fact, but she'd been shot down every time with excuses that they needed to focus on the funeral right now.
"We're focusing on the funeral right now," said Zuri, the words falling off her lips like dry sand. Alia looked over at her, a small frown playing her lips.
"I know this must be really hard for you right now," said Alia. Zuri looked away and pretended to pull something off of Thatdog's coat. Alia continued, "I remember how hard it was when Roscoe...you know."
Zuri couldn't bring herself to look Alia in the eye, focusing instead on a crack in the sidewalk. As talkative as Alia was, Zuri could count on one hand the number of times the girl had willingly mentioned her cousin's name since his own untimely death. Zuri opened her mouth to say something, but Alia got there first.
"If this many people had cared about Roscoe..." There was a strange edge to Alia's voice. "...But that's old news. This is now. There's nothing we can do for him, but maybe, maybe Matthew's still got a chance. I'm sure this is what he would've-"
"Don't say that!" Zuri suddenly shouted, causing Alia to flinch. Pulling back slightly, the girl repeated, "Don't say that. Don't talk about him like that."
It was as if a switch had been flipped in Alia. "God, you're always like this," she sneered, rolling her eyes. "Always acting like nobody could ever understand who you are or what you're going through. This is all for your brother. It wouldn't kill you to be a little more grateful." Zuri stopped too, wrapping the leash around a fist she didn't realize she was making.
"I'm sorry I'm not okay with seeing my dead brother's name plastered up everywhere I go!" she spat.
"There you go again, acting like the whole world revolves around you. I'm sorry Matthew died, but this is so much bigger than him now! Why can't you appreciate that?"
"Because my brother just died, Alia!"
"Is that what this is all about? Newsflash: you ain't the first person to lose someone and you ain't gonna be the last so you get on off your high horse and-"
Alia paused mid-sentence, mouth wide open. "Oh God, Zee, I'm so sorry I-" but Zuri didn't hear the rest of her apology because at that moment, the girl turned tail and ran. When she finally reached the safe confines of her house, she collapsed against the door, nearly falling to the ground in the process. Her breaths came out ragged and low and she put a hand to her heart to slow them.
"Zuri? Is that you?"
Zuri looked up to see Shasté gazing down at her from the bottom of the stairs, one hand on the railing, the other on her belly. Even from a distance, Zuri could make out the red rims of her eyes.
"Were you taking Thatdog for a walk?" asked Shasté. Zuri nodded.
"What are you gonna do now?"
"Dunno. Maybe watch a movie or something."
She ached for the comfort of Matthew's Snuggie and her couch. Pulling herself to her feet, Zuri made a move to leave the foyer. Shasté took a step towards her.
"Wait, actually, I was wondering if you would- maybe you'd like to ... do something with me? We could have a girls' night or something. Take our minds offa all...this."
Zuri bit back an annoyed sigh.
"I'd love to but I'm like, super busy, but next time definitely," she said, her voice hollow. Shasté blinked, then pulled out an unconvincing grin.
"Don't even worry about it. See ya."
When she had returned to her fortress of solitude on the couch, her mind kept replaying the sight of Shasté's hand gripping the railing as she turned from view.
No one was truly surprised when the miscarriage happened. The doctor had warned her to avoid stressful situations, after all. Shasté locked herself up in her and Matthew's old room and wailed so hard the whole block must have heard. The house shook with her sobs and even Thatdog was restless, carrying on so bad from her grief that Tye had to lock him up in the closet just to give them all some piece of mind.
Zuri knocked once, twice, three times, but Shasté never opened the door. Finally, over twenty-six hours into her lament, Mama came up and barraged the door, an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. The door opened just a crack and she slipped inside, shutting it firmly behind her.
When they came out of the room clinging to each other two days later, they had an air about them like soldiers returning from war.
The day of the funeral arrived with much more fanfare than was really necessary, at least in Zuri's mind. So many people came to pay their final respects and wishes to Matthew that the Clarkson's had no choice but to accept the police's offer to guard the doors. Fences had been put up along the sidewalks of the church to keep protesters of all kinds at a respectable distance, but that didn't stop their shouts from entering the church. With a mere few hours left until the ceremony, Shasté and Mama stood tall and proud at the front of the main hall. Any animosity that had once existed between them seemed to have ebbed away. Without any baby weight to hold her down any longer, Shasté looked gaunt but not frail. Shasté kept a hand on Mama's shoulders the entire time, and Mama never once kept the woman out of her line of sight.
"Move the vase to the side or the folks over there can't see the pastor! Where is Tye with Zuri? No no, not there, there! I know you can hear me!"
The pure chaos and energy of such a massive undertaking had rejuvenated Mama. Her wild gesticulations were more in line with her old self and would have done her children a world of good to see, had any of them actually been in the room. As she was yelling at one mover over the placement of some flowers, Tye came through a small door in the back and came to stand at the front.
"Where's Zuri?" he asked, looking over his shoulder as he did so. The two women looked at each other and then Mama answered, "I think she's out back with her friends."
Zuri was in fact out back, though saying she was "with her friends" may have been a stretch. They weren't hanging out so much as standing awkwardly in a circle. The one who normally started their conversations, Alia, was still mad at Zuri, so there was no one to spark one of their usual chatters. DJ tried several times, but eventually gave up, preferring the silence to an awkward attempt at conversing.
"This sucks," DJ muttered under his breath. No one responded.
All the kids froze. In the midst of their dejection, none of them had noticed the presence sneak up on them. Before them stood a reporter with a microphone and a cameraman holding a large camera with a Channel 9 sticker on it. She looked between the four curiously, then her eyes went on Zuri.
"You're Zuri Clarkson, right? Sister of the deceased Matthew Clarkson?" asked the reporter. Too stunned to speak, Zuri nodded. "I'm April Springs with the Channel 9 news and I was wondering if I could ask you a couple of questions before today's funeral?"
"She ain't got a comment," said Alia, stepping in between Zuri and the reporter. April eyed the taller girl, then shifted more towards Zuri.
"Is it true that your brother pulled a gun out on the officer?" Zuri blinked.
"What? That didn't happen!" exclaimed Zuri, surprising herself with the force of her reply. The reporter nodded and scribbled something down on her notepad.
"Why did Matthew not comply with the officer's demands?"
"Is it true he had a history of violent behavior?"
"Where did you- no!"
"As a family, did you ever notice any signs of a lack of disrespect or disdain for the authority?"
"Why has your family not be seen at the any of the #IAmMatthewClarkson protests?"
"Lay the fuck off!" screamed Alia. She lunged for the reporter's mic, but April dodged her deftly and stood back in front of Zuri.
"The world is dying to know all about your brother," the woman said curtly. Slowly, mechanically, Zuri nodded.
"Fine. I'll tell you all about Matthew," she croaked. Springs leapt forward, mic extended towards Zuri's mouth.
Zuri took a deep breath.
"Matthew hated peanut butter, but he loved Reese's Pieces. He read every issue of National Geographic like a nutcase, and he genuinely thought the Shrek movies were funny, even the last one, and when I was eight he farted on my pillow after we got into a fight."
April Springs shared a look with her photographer, but Zuri wasn't done.
"He was a Pisces and proud of it. He always lied at diners and told them it was his birthday so he'd get a free slice of cake. He got kicked out of the Boy Scouts for talking back to the scout leader, and every night he carried our dog up the stairs to bed cause his legs aren't so good and can't make it up on his own.
"I was mad at him more often than I wasn't, and he was shit at apologies. The absolute worst. Every Christmas he got me a Beanie Baby because I like to collect them but my Mother never buys me any. He was gonna be a Dad, but then both him and the baby died."
"Thank you, that is more than enough-"
"You people on the news, you keep talking about him like he was just this one thing. Well he wasn't a devil or a saint. He was my brother, not a hashtag. Put that in your stupid article."
Before anyone could say anything, Zuri ran.
She ran and ran and she didn't stop running until she hit the steps at the back of her house and her knees scraped bright red against the dry earth. Zuri made it all the way to the woods behind the neighborhood before she collapsed to the ground. She heard the footsteps of her friends pound behind her, and she turned her backs towards them. The trees waved ominously overhead. Then Pat took a step forward and dropped to his knees besides Zuri, taking her hands in his.
"Matthew's right- peanut butter is horrible."
His accent was thick and heavy, a remnant of a homeland none of them had ever seen. Despite herself Zuri grinned. Both DJ and Alia sank down as well, bringing themselves down to Zuri's level.
"Remember that time Matthew took us to Splash World and lost his trunks on the water slide?" teased Alia. Zuri laughed at loud.
"Or that time he tried to give us a ride home from band practice," chimed in DJ, "And he got so lost your Mom had to drive 3 hours to pick us up?"
In that manner they continued on through the night, their voices mingling and wafting away in the gentle breeze.
They were at Paolo's that night because that was the only place in town that would let in four black kids in complete funeral garb after 11 p.m. DJ had luckily had some money in his back pocket and bought them all some fries to share. They spoke loudly and freely about everything and nothing. The funeral was long over and in the morning, all their parents would give them a good ass whooping, but for now they gorged themselves on over-saturated fries and laughed loudly at hilarious internet jokes. Zuri's knees stung only a little where she'd broken them open.
One couple looked over at the raucous teens, their noses wrinkled in disgust.
"Why do they talk so loud? It's so ghetto," whispered the woman to her boyfriend. The kids heard her and for that they talked louder, laughed harder, and acted even more ghetto until the couple left.
All of their phones rang. They ignored them.