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Excerpt

Excerpt

I'm Not Dying with You Tonight

1

Lena

McPherson High School

“Waiting for Black is on your agenda, not mine,” LaShunda barks as we leave the building.

I ain’t think she was gonna wait, no way, that ain’t what I was anticipating. I know she’s got responsibilities at home, but she knows I hate sitting out here by myself. If you ask me, this is really about her hating on Black. As usual.

“It don’t cost you nothin’ to walk away,” I snap back.

LaShunda cackles. “Can your grandfather stop speaking through your body?”

“I don’t know what you talkin’ about.” I flip my hair over my shoulder, but she got me laughing like she always does. “Pops got all the best sayings.”

She shakes her head and then looks down at my feet. “Anyway, I see you got them.”

A big smile takes over my face. LaShunda never misses anything I do. She knows me, like, really knows me, and she knew that statement would perk up both our moods.

“They cute, right?”

“Lady, you know they better than cute—­they are fire, best friend. If I thought I could cram my size tens into them, I’d be trying to borrow them ASAP,” LaShunda says.

“I saw some size tens in a different style as cute as these. Let me turn a few more checks, and I’m going to hook you up.”

“Go, best friend. That’s my best friend,” she sings, and we both laugh. Her granny, Miss Ann, house is really her house. Miss Ann works two jobs and drives for Uber. LaShunda does all the laundry, cooking, and watching of her three bad, little cousins. Even though she works real hard, she’s not able to have an after-­school job or anything. That’s why I love splurging on a pair of fly shoes for her when I can. I like being that person in her life who gives her the little extras. “So are we going to this game-­slash-­fund-­raiser-­slash-­turnup-­slash-­piped-­up lituation?”

“Yes, ma’am, you know if we don’t see the Dolls dance at halftime, they will kill us.”

“You ain’t never lied.” LaShunda winks. “NaNa, let me get out of here before Gram kills me.”

“Okay, but don’t flake tonight.”

Anyway, it’s okay she has to go. Some days you just want to be alone with your man, and for me, this is one of those days. I’ve been missing him. He’s been grinding so hard lately that we never get to see each other. He always smells good enough to eat. He puts aftershave right on his neck too, because he knows I like to rest my head on his shoulder and just breathe him in. Ooh, that man does something to me. He makes my head spin. I’m so caught up thinking about his fine self that I don’t notice LaShunda walking away until she yells back at me.

“Love you later.”

“Love you later,” I shout. She hates goodbye. That’s the last thing her mom said to her before she passed away from a heroin overdose. She’s never said the word goodbye to anyone since.

I think about texting Black but that will only aggravate him. I know he’s coming, and he always says what’s understood doesn’t need to be said. Not a minute later, he pulls up, bumping the new Kelechi album loud as he can. He has such amazing taste in music. He can’t stand trap music and only listens to real emcees who don’t do all that cursing and hating on women.

“Did somebody request an Uber?” He smiles, leaning toward the passenger window.

“I did. I hit the button for cute, so I wasn’t expecting fine. Is it the same fee?”

“Uber Black is usually a little more, but I lower the rate when the rider is fine too.”

We both laugh, and I get in. I lean over to hug him, and he smells as good as I expected. I almost don’t want to let go. I lift my face for him to kiss me and melt into him. His soft lips press against mine, and it feels like sun rays warming my skin.

I gently pull away. “I need to go home and get myself together to be cute at the football game tonight.”

“The game?” He starts the car and pulls out. “Since when is that something you do?”

“My girls doing the halftime, and I’m a good friend, jerk.” I push his shoulder playfully. “But you know, I don’t plan on staying longer than their show. So I’ll have some free time left before curfew.”

“Okay, well, Imma see how I’m movin’ tonight, and you know, I’ll let you know what I’m doing.”

“So, that’s a no?” I say, feeling my mouth twist up.

“I didn’t say no.”

“You didn’t have to,” I say. “I guess we’ll see, won’t we?” We pull up a few doors from my house, and I let him kiss me goodbye. “Bye, Black.”

“Later, beautiful.”

I roll my eyes as I get out of the car. I walk in my house and head to the kitchen for a snack.

“What you doing?” Pops asks, not looking up from the sink as he washes the plates. I have no idea why my grandfather won’t use the dishwasher. I refuse to hand-­wash dishes, my nails too delicious to be ruined by Palmolive.

“Just making a snack before I get ready for the game.” I sigh. Black usually leaves me in the most amazing mood, except for when he plays like he Hansel, leaving me crumbs.

“What’s got you down in the mouth?”

“Pops, you ain’t even looked at me.”

“Don’t need to. I can hear it. I reckon it’s ’cuz of that little knucklehead you just got out the car with.”

“Pops, I didn’t—­”

He interrupts, “Go to lying and the only game you gon’ see tonight is Wheel of Fortune on the Game Show Network. If you had a nice boy, there would never be a need to lie.”

No, if you gave him a chance, I’d have no need to lie. If I said that out loud, he’d pop me in the mouth. “Am I excused?”

“Go on, little liar on the prairie.”

I don’t care what Pops says as long as he don’t say I can’t go to the game. Imma try to hook up with Black later. I think tonight can end better than we just left it in the car.

2

Campbell

McPherson High School

Football Field

My dad’s truck rumbles into the school parking lot at the same time as the bus carrying the opposing team. We squeeze into a space at the very end of a row.

“It’s good you’re doing this, Campbell,” Dad says, as the bus empties and a long line of beefy football guys in tracksuits lumber out.

Is it? I stay in my seat, remain buckled. I wonder why he thinks it matters if I work the concession stand for one game at this school. I’ll only be here a year—­my senior year. Where does he think this one night is going to lead?

While the players head through a gate in the chain-­link fence toward the locker rooms, another bus pulls up and hems us in. This one lets out a load of cheerleaders, a dance team, and some boosters. The Panthers and their entourage fill the parking lot. According to what our principal said on the morning announcements, Jonesville is McPherson’s biggest rival, ranked one beneath us in the standings. Or something. I guess they would bus in a big crowd for such an important game.

The only people around seem to be Jonesville fans. You’d think McPherson fans would’ve shown up by now to cheer on the home team at the most important game of the season. Then again, the principal made a big deal about expecting extra security and demanding we all be on our best behavior tonight, so I’m guessing the rivalry gets intense. Maybe it’s better if the Jonesville superfans are settled on the visitor side of the stadium before the home crowd shows.

I look around for people I might know, then realize that’s ridiculous. I don’t know anybody here.

The human throng before us parts, allowing a tall woman with waist-­length braids to make her way through. She struggles to push a dolly in front of her with one hand and drag a battered, red wagon behind her with the other. Both are heaped with cardboard boxes.

“That’s Ms. Marino,” I say. She coaches the dance team, teaches my English class, and invited me to work the concession stand tonight. I unbuckle my seat belt and hop out of the car to help her. To my surprise, my dad jumps out too.

“Campbell!” she exclaims. “So glad you decided to come.”

I can’t think why I did. Ms. Marino explained that this year, the proceeds from concession stand sales will be used to fund renovations to upgrade the rest of the athletic facilities so they’ll be as nice as the fancy new football field. The only catch is, the teams have to man the stand. Of course, as the athletes are too busy during games to work the booth, they’ve been asking for volunteers. I didn’t raise my hand when Ms. Marino asked, believe me. No one did, even though she practically begged for help every single day this week. The entire class dodged her. The awkward silences that followed her more and more desperate requests made me squirm. That’s probably why, when she caught me as the bell rang this morning and asked if I’d ever run concessions before, the word yes came out faster than an excuse.

My dad takes the dolly, I hoist a couple of boxes off the top of the wagon, and we follow her toward the main gate. She leads us past two dance team members raising a glittery support field renovations banner up to the top of the fence.

“Good job, girls,” she calls. “Finish hanging that, and I’ll meet you in the locker room in ten minutes for warm-­ups.”

The familiar ring of a coach giving orders makes me flinch. Words like those reverberated through my nights and weekends once. Back when I used to be on a team. I look quickly away from the girls and their mascot-­logo warm-­up suits, and scurry after my dad and Ms. Marino.

The huge concrete stadium looms above us, casting a shadow over the concession stand, which is a relief. There’s a good couple of hours of daylight left, and this wooden booth will be enough of a sauna without sitting in the middle of a sunbeam. The shade is the only thing to get excited about. Otherwise, the concession stand is a disaster—­a rickety box built of plywood and two-­by-­fours, with big windows on one side covered by a rolling metal security grill, and below them, a lip of wood that juts out and is probably supposed to be the service counter. Ms. Marino dials the combination of a padlock hooked onto a hasp near the top of the door, slides it off, then yanks the door open, the knob wobbling loosely in her hands. With her, my dad, me, and the dolly, the booth is crowded to capacity. A third of the boxes and the wagon are still outside.

How is this going to work?

I don’t point that out, though. I just help ferry the boxes.

My dad stays long enough to help cram all the supplies into the concession stand. “Okay,” he says, when the last of the packages have been shoved into cabinets. “I’ll see you after the game, Campbell. Pick you up right outside the gate.”

“You know,” Ms. Marino says. “The dance team always celebrates at Mr. Souvlaki’s after home games. I think, after working the booth for us tonight, you’ve earned honorary team member status. You should come with us.”

I’m stunned. “I don’t really know any of the girls.”

She smiles gently. “This is how you get to know them.”

“Mr. Souvlaki’s?” Dad’s frown lines cut deep into his face as he considers this invite. “That Greek place up on Woodland Street?”

“Yes,” Ms. Marino says. “Pizza’s perfect, Cokes are cold, and they’re both cheap! And I’ll be there, as will both of our team moms. Plenty of adult supervision, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“Campbell, I was planning on heading up to the cabin right after the game. I’m not thrilled about getting up there that late,” says Dad. He sets a hand on my shoulder, like his trip is breaking news to me. Like I’m disappointed and need comforting.

“You’re going out of town?” Ms. Marino asks, deflating.

“Just him. But he’s my ride home, so.” I feel a strange mix of regret and relief churning around in my stomach. “Maybe another time.”

“Oh,” she says, her smile back and beaming. “That’s no problem. I can drive you home after dinner.”

What? No, no, no. As if being the new girl isn’t pathetic enough. Now Ms. Marino is my ride?

Dad says slowly, “That could work. If I leave now, I’ll reach the cabin before it gets too dark.”

I protest, but in vain. My teacher and my father lock down my Friday night plans, he happily heads off to his fishing cabin, and before I even make sense of how it happened, I’m escorting Ms. Marino as she goes to get more supplies. We head toward her portable classroom, which is housed in a big square trailer on cinder blocks between the main building and the football field. The portables were probably meant to be temporary, housing overflow classes until the district could add on to the building, but as far as I can tell, they look like they’ve been there for about thirty years. Ms. Marino chatters on about wanting to have the best sales records tonight of any other team that’s taken a turn running concessions, telling me the rules of running the booth. They’re nothing new—­take this seriously, give accurate cash back, blah blah—­but everything else here is. Her words wash over me as I wipe the sweat from my forehead and let my mind wander to what might be happening back home in Haverford. Which I shouldn’t think of as home anymore, since I probably won’t ever live there again.

“This fund-­raiser,” Ms. Marino says. “It’s partly about raising money to renovate the concession stand. It’s such a disgrace compared to the new stadium. All kinds of donations welcome—­construction supplies, for example.”

Ah, there’s the ulterior motive that isn’t related to my popularity status. She knows my dad owns Carlson’s Hardware down in the commercial district on Seventh Avenue. She can’t have ever been in the place, though, if she’s hoping he’s got anything extra to donate. I smile blankly back at her, pretending not to get the hint.

She doesn’t seem to take it personally. She shrugs and hands me a small, metal lockbox, preloaded with quarters and singles, and the key to the room. “Here you go. Since your fellow salespeople haven’t shown yet, you go ahead and take this down to the stand. You’re in charge of it. I’ll send them along soon. Meet me back here after the game so we can go to Mr. Souvlaki’s! Wait inside, though. Don’t stay out there with the cash box.”

An hour and a half later, I’m still sweating my butt off inside the concession stand. It’s not quite halftime yet in what has to be the longest game ever recorded. There have been so many penalties and stoppages in play I’ve lost count.

Ms. Marino came by a few minutes ago, took one look at the inside of this stand, and blew her top. “Y’all,” she said, her voice snapping like a brittle twig. “You been having a food fight up in here? Get this place cleaned up. Now. I’ll be back in the second half, and it better be as clean as the Board of Health.”

“I’m gonna get supplies.” Keisha swings her purse over her shoulder and heads for the concession stand door. “You stay here, New Girl, and start cleaning up.”

“It’s Campbell,” I say. I told her that earlier, but she doesn’t remember. Or maybe doesn’t want to remember.

“Uh-­huh, New Girl.”

These are the first and only words Keisha has said to me all night.

That leaves me and Caleb in the booth, and he’s no help. He only looks up from his phone to talk to a parade of friends, who, for some reason, keep stopping by the door, instead of the customer service window.

“Hey, dude,” Caleb says, hopping down from the counter as another of his friends sticks his head in the door.

So here I am, the new girl, basically alone, cleaning up a catastrophic mess by myself.

People leaving me behind is quite the trend lately.

Somewhere overhead, people start cheering, and the band strikes up a song totally unlike the marching songs played at my old school. No John Philip Sousa here. Everything the McPherson band has played so far tonight could be on the radio. It’s kind of awesome, and I wish I could be in the bleachers to watch, but I’m not supposed to leave the stand.

I glance from the pile of napkins scattered across the floor to the massive, old-­fashioned soda fountain that’s been jammed up and working erratically most of the night.

“What am I doing here?” I mutter.

None of the answers that pop into my head seem like good ones anymore. Yes, I worked concessions at Haverford, before my mom chased a job to Venezuela and dumped me with my dad for my last year of school. Yes, the idea of working concessions and going out with friends afterward was the first thing that felt familiar since I moved to Atlanta. I imagine, for a second, an alternate universe Friday night in a similar booth with bright lights shining on the carefully tended turf of a football field. But those are the only similarities. All the rest of McPherson is so far away and so different, it might as well be another planet. In Haverford, October is already chilly. I’d be wearing my varsity track jacket, and I wouldn’t be afraid to sneak out to watch the game. I’d be counting cash into a real cash register, instead of a metal lockbox, with people who were actually my friends. Almost half my track team, including my best friends, Lindsey and Megan, had been going directly from track practice to football games since freshman year. I’d be Instagramming pics of the architectural wonders we always built from candy bars when the game was boring.

I swing the door to the soda machine shut and think for a second about constructing a candy bar Golden Gate Bridge to post. There are enough Snickers bars to do it, but there’s no one I could ask for help. Caleb’s friend is gone, but Caleb has returned to sitting on the back counter, face glued to his phone. Anyway, I wouldn’t want people in Haverford seeing this place in the background. Cellophane trails down the counter like enormous, shiny spiderwebs. Trash litters the ground, including an entire stack of popcorn cups Caleb knocked over. They lay half crushed and blackened beneath our feet. A disgusting work of red-­and-­yellow abstract art, done in generic condiments, smears the customer counter. Ugh.

“Hey, Caleb. Do you think you could—­”

Three knocks on the side of the concession stand.

“Hold that thought, dude,” Caleb says. He jumps down from his perch and wrenches open the door, slapping hands with the guy on the other side.

I hold my breath for a second, trying to control the impulse to roll my eyes. And then, I bend down and start cleaning up. Not that I really want to. I don’t want to be here at all anymore, but I can’t leave. Anyway, my dad already left town for the weekend. There’s no one waiting for me, even if I did take off.

Caleb hauls himself back onto the cabinet and pulls his phone into its usual position: in front of his face. His thumb scrolls and his eyes follow. Totally absorbed. I wish I had a snarky comment that would get him off his butt to help, but as usual, my mind’s blank. I can only ever think of good retorts when it’s way too late. Besides, I’m a little nervous to take a dig. I’m not sure how people here would react, and I am not about to risk starting trouble.

With a sigh, I start picking up dirty napkins and tossing them into a trash bag, keeping one eye on the kids outside the window. There’s a few people hanging around, and I don’t recognize a single one of them.

Except wait. There’s Lena James. I know her—­sort of. We have a class together, though she’s never spoken to me. I recognize her friend too, the one Lena’s always hanging out with. I can’t remember her name. They’re laughing as they wander over. Lena gives her friend a shoulder-­shove, the girl shoves back, and then Lena swats at her with a Louis Vuitton purse. I look closer and see the leather is a little worn and the bottom is scuffed up, but I’m pretty sure that bag is not a fake. Wow. I wonder where she got a real LV.

Lena’s forehead is beaded with sweat, and her makeup has started to cake. Surprising, since she usually catwalks the halls looking like she stepped out of a music video. Her long, wavy hair flows over her shoulders, and I wonder how she can stand the heat. Maybe she’s compensating with her shorts, which are so short they’ve got to be a dress code violation.

I catch her friend eyeing me and realize I’m staring like a creeper. Whoops. I drop behind the counter, hiding from the girl’s gaze.

3

Lena

McPherson High School

Football Field

The Dancing Dolls finish their routine, and everybody is going wild. My girl Aaliyah is the captain, and she was out front, crushing it. Next to me, LaShunda is Milly Rocking. I wave at Aaliyah from my seat as they’re leaving the stadium. Then I grab LaShunda’s elbow and pull her up.

“Come on, let’s go before everybody else does.”

“I still wanna see the band,” she says. “They got one more song.”

“You seen that tired-­ass band before.”

“You a hater,” Shun says, but she follows me anyway.

Once we get done stepping over people and get to the bottom, a bass thumping hip-­hop song makes just enough noise to be heard over the roar of the football stadium. The sound creeps through the leather of my favorite Louis purse—­the one I searched for months to find—­that special ringtone alerting me Black is calling.

He got his nickname from his family because his skin is darker than anyone else, but also because he was so dark and calm like a lake. The calm got lost when he got older, but he kept the name. If he was a girl, that rich sable tint would’ve gotten him made fun of, and for sure no one would have been checkin’ for him to be a bae or boo. But being a dude, it made him a lady’s man.

“Hey,” I say, making it sound like I don’t care at all that he called. I don’t want him to think my world revolves around him. I mean, it does a little, but he don’t need to know that.

“Hey,” he says back, without the softness every girl wants to hear from her boyfriend—­that tone in a guy’s voice he uses only for you.

“Whatchu doin?” I ask, trying to draw him, like I usually can.

“Hangin’ out.”

“Who with?”

“You not still yellin’ ’bout Tamika? She ain’t even here.” He definitely ain’t sounding soft and sweet now.

That groupie who was all over him at the studio last weekend still causing trouble. He mad I said somethin’. But what was I supposed to do, let it go? Uh-­uh. Anyway, that was days ago.

“I’m not.”

The quiet is not good.

“What you doing later, shawty?” he asks, sounding like it’s inconvenient to ask me.

“Tryna see you,” I say with a hint of humor. I don’t want to come off as thirsty. Everybody in our neighborhood recognizes Black, his box Chevy with the custom candy-­purple paint, and his J’s. I been wanting him, and now I got him and I plan to keep him, although it’s work. Like keeping his age a secret at home. He’s twenty. Pops don’t know that. If he found out, I’d never leave the house again.

I wait to see what Black says, hoping he wants to see me too. I already miss the way he smells and the way he wraps his arms around me when he kisses me. I know I saw him earlier, but it was only a few minutes. I’m not trippin’ though. He’s been busy in the studio. His beats is fire. He’s not gonna be a bum like the rest of these clowns who think they can rap. He says he’ll do whatever to get rich. I believe him too.

I sigh a little when he teases back, “Aw, I feel special.”

It’s all right now. He ain’t mad no more, and I can breathe easy. By the time we hang up, he’s agreed to pick me up after the game. He’s gonna get a new tattoo to celebrate almost finishing the new album, and I’m gonna hang with him and his boys while he gets inked. I hang up and can’t stop smiling. LaShunda hits me on the shoulder and knocks me out of the trance I’ve been in since I heard his ringtone.

“Girrrrrrl,” LaShunda almost sings. “That must have been Black’s annoying behind.”

“Yup, so I don’t need a ride home from you, friend.”

We both laugh. I hope one day LaShunda finds a bae. I don’t like candy, but I don’t need it, because LaShunda is my sugar. She takes care of everybody from her baby cousins to me and anybody else who needs her. She thinks nothing of it. I see how amazing she is, but she doesn’t.

I look over at her. “You comin’ with me to meet him?”

LaShunda hesitates for a second. “Nah, I won’t wanna hang around with them.”

“Come on. A girl is only as cute as the cute chicks around her, and I need you to bring me up a few notches.”

LaShunda shakes her head, like she don’t think that’s true at all. But of course, she jokes back. “Don’t use me for my beauty. I have a brain.”

“It ain’t your brain I’m into,” I say, and we both laugh, because most of the time, LaShunda is all about the brain. “Hey, remember that one time Black and his boys wanted to go to Stone Mountain, and we got on the kayaks, and the paddles got stuck, and you told ’em they had to row us back with their shoes?” I’m laughing so hard thinking about it. “Big Baby actually did it!”

“Yeah, okay. That was fun,” LaShunda says. I can tell she likes that memory as much as I do, and she wants to make me happy. She’s smiling, but she’s shaking her head. “I’m not comin’ tonight, NaNa.”

“Why? You do have fun with them. Come with me, and let’s count how many times Wink flashes you that smile of his.”

“He need to stop doin’ that.”

I grin, because I think Wink likes her a little bit and she kinda likes him too. “Don’t front. You like that chocolate morsel.”

“He a’ight.”

“That smile is moonlight!”

“You mean sunshine. No girl wants that smile comin’ at her at night,” she says, nudging my shoulder and smiling for a second before her face gets serious again. “No. Uh-­uh. Other than Wink, Black’s friends are hella rude to me. You should say somethin’ to your man when they talk to me like that.”

Ugh. She right, and it ain’t the first time she said it to me. I don’t normally allow people to talk to me like that, but LaShunda’s been my best friend since we was too small to know what best friends is. And she has a way of thinking that makes sense. She’s always worth listening to. Black’s friends might not treat her real kind, and Pops would comment on what that says about them if he knew. But I can’t admit that to her.

I glance away and cross my arms. “Black just thinks you should have that kinda conversation in private, Shun. He don’t want me frontin’ on him with his boys.”

“Well, as long as you ain’t saying somethin’, I ain’t gonna come hang around his friends. You and me can find some other time to chill.”

That hurts my feelings a little, but I would never say that out loud. Even to LaShunda. Anyway, I want to see my bae. That’s what’s keeping me going. Most people don’t understand why I’m so pressed to spend time with Black. Everything about our relationship seems wrong on the outside, but it’s our quiet moments alone that count.

“You should be glad I found someone that makes me feel beautiful,” I say. “He tells me stories he don’t talk about with anyone else. I know his dreams. Believe me when I tell you, ain’t no one else get that out of him. He don’t make a move without talking to me.”

“Girl, Black do what he want,” LaShunda says. “Anyway, that’s what you offer him. What does he offer you?”

I roll my eyes. She thinks she has him figured out, but what she sees on the surface ain’t what’s really going on, and I don’t gotta prove nothing to her.

“He’s the one who noticed how good my style was. He’s always telling me he’s gonna put me to work being a stylist for him when he blows up.” And he’s right too. You give me fifty bucks and two hours at LaRue’s consignment shop, and I’ll have anyone looking red-­carpet ready but unique. “When I told him about that cosmetology school me and Pops went to check out for me to maybe go to next year, he thought that was cool but said I could for sure do more. That’s why I found the Art Institute. I’ve got a lot of style and a lot of opinion, and I need to put it to work.”

“Well, he right about that.”

I give her a little shove. “His boys call me the pretty bandit. I’m the first one to steal his heart.”

“I think he did the stealing.”

I grin. “I mean, I love him so much.”

But LaShunda in serious mode. Unlike Black, I can never talk her out of being real when she in that mindset. “I don’t know, Lena. Don’t seem like he’s there for you.”

“He can be a little distant—­”

“A little distant? Or are you a little clingy?”

“Excuse me, Lena James clings to no one.”

“Me, Black, none of us can keep up with your demands.”

I hate when she claps back at me like this. Especially saying that. She knew saying that would sting because a few times Black has stated it’s hard for him to keep up with the schedule I request of him. I mean, I understand him. When he gets caught up at the studio, he in the creative zone. I get that. It’s a little embarrassing, though, when LaShunda agrees with him.

“Just saying sometimes even I feel sorry for the boy. You’re a lot,” LaShunda says.

I glare at her. I don’t like that response, and I don’t like her making me sound like a thirst bot. “You are my friend. My friend, my side.”

LaShunda lets out a long sigh. “I stand on the side of truth, and the truth is, you can be a gnat.”

“Rude.” I’m kinda surprised to see LaShunda being all Team Black. That part is not so bad, but I’m annoyed by all of it, so I need to get out of this conversation. The concession stand is right nearby. “I need a Coke.”

“Whatever, NaNa.” LaShunda flicks her hand and heads toward the stands.

I’m fine she walked off, though. Tomorrow we’ll be laughing on the phone again.

The concession stand ain’t exactly a 7-Eleven, but at least there’s fountain Cokes. Except tonight, I damn near have to crawl over the nasty-­ass counter to get the attention of the chick hanging out back there. She all crouched down for some reason.

“What you doin’ down there?” I ask, staring at her.

When she finally looks up, she has the nerve to ask the dude, who clearly doesn’t plan on working, to help her. I don’t give a damn who gets my Coke, somebody just needs to get it.

“Coke,” I say again.

Her ass is still moving slow!

“And don’t take all night neither.”

She finally gives me my drink, and I feel kinda bad for throwing my dollar at her and watching it fall in a bunch of ketchup. When I’m at work, people always rushing us to get their orders, and the owner, Dollie, is always sending me to calm people down. She don’t like no kinda arguments, but she know I’m a boss and people love me. But even though I understand, this Coke is still nasty as hell.

“Ugh!” I slam the cup down on the counter. “What did you do to that?”

“Sorry,” she says. “The machine isn’t—­here, let me get you another.”

“No, gimme my dollar back. I don’t want that nasty sh—­”

That loud horn goes off, and I can’t hear what ol’ girl is talkin’ about. It’s a whole bunch of noise after that. People leaving the bleachers, cheering, all that. The band must be done.

4

Campbell

McPherson High School

Football Field

“I’m sorry,” I say, fumbling with Lena’s condiment-­streaked dollar. Her nostrils flare as she grabs the soggy bill with the tips of her manicured fingers. “I’m really sorry.”

Kids descend from the stands in a stampede. The crowd is full of McPherson kids wearing school colors—­black and gold—­though not the official school gear sold by student council. They’re in regular clothes, black T-­shirts, bright yellow hats, and sneakers. That’s familiar enough. In Haverford, people also wanted to be their own brand of school cool. The adults around all seem like they’re connected with kids on the team, mostly moms decked out in PTO team booster gear and shirts with players’ pictures screen-­printed on the front and numbers on the back.

Outside the booth, a line of sweaty, cranky people forms. Keisha hasn’t come back, not that I really expected her to. That leaves me and Caleb behind the counter, but he remains bent over his phone, ignoring me and the crowd. They’ve started yelling at us. At me.

Lena James is standing there, in front of the window, like she doesn’t notice the crowd behind her. Like everybody can just wait their turn.

Nobody wants to wait tonight.

The line dissolves into a horde, as people press forward, calling orders, shouting over one another. I can’t tell who’s asking for what, or keep track of how much someone’s order costs. No one will hand over their cash before I put the food in their hands, and I’m mixing it all up.

“Caleb, could you get the sodas?”

He doesn’t respond.

I miss the system I had with Lindsey, Megan, and Rachael. We worked the concession shift together with as much precision as we ran the four-by-four. Handing off a hot dog and Coke combo isn’t much different from handing off a baton. Lindsey took payment, Megan got hot dogs, I handled candy, Rachael was on drinks. We had bottles on ice in giant coolers, which was simpler than dealing with paper cups and a soda fountain. Everything was easier.

A girl calls me a nasty name after I tell her we’re out of M&M’s. I blame Caleb for that. He’s been stealing and eating them all night. And definitely not putting any money in the cash box, despite the fat wad of dollar bills sticking out of his pocket.

It’s got to be 110 degrees in here. I’m afraid someone is going to hit me. People in line seem so angry. Furious. I know I’m taking a long time, but what am I supposed to do? It’s only me in here.

“Ew, gross,” a girl shouts, when I try to hand her a hot dog. “You’re sweating all over my food.”

I blush, realizing I forgot one of those white paper sheaths before grabbing the dog. I try to apologize, but she flings the thing onto the counter, and shouts, “I’m not paying for that!”

I don’t think we’re going to be setting that sales record Ms. Marino was hoping for.

I sneak a quick glimpse at Lena, wondering what the queen bee thinks of the new girl. Huh. She’s not sneering at me. In fact, she’s holding her Coke cup in one hand and the dollar I returned to her in the other, and she looks mad, but she’s looking away from me, staring down the girl shouting at me.

“Calm down,” Lena snaps. “Whatchu want her to do? She might as well be back there all by herself. White boy ain’t much help. You don’t need that extra hot dog, anyhow; you can afford to miss a meal.”

I blink. I can’t believe she stood up for me. I can’t believe she said that either! I’d never have the guts to burn someone like that, but I want to. I offer Lena a small smile as thanks, but she rolls her eyes and turns her face down to the screen of her phone.

The more people crowd around, the worse the heat gets. Foreheads drip. Baseball caps get repurposed as fans, which don’t do much beyond move warm air around. Voices grow loud, full of irritation and complaints. Mixing in with the black and gold of the McPherson crowd, there is a fair amount of Jonesville maroon and white. They wear official spirit gear—­jerseys and T-­shirts with huge snarling panther logos. The girls have pasted temporary tattoos of the mascot onto their cheeks.

I can’t stop watching them. They remind me of my old school. My old friends. A lot. Maybe too much. A prickle begins high up in my nose, the warning sign that tears are gathering.

“Hey, you! What’s wrong with you?”

A hand flies in front of my eyes, and I flinch. My cheeks get warm, and I hurriedly sniffle back the tear prickles. I’ve been standing there, staring. God, this is the wrong time to get all upset about missing home. Humiliated, I lumber back into action. Pass hot dog, take dollar bill. The line of people swells like a wave, pressing closer.

“You gonna move up?”

There’s a guy, maybe three or four back in line, getting restless. He’s tall enough that I think he must be a senior, and he’s got blond hair and a Jonesville soccer polo shirt. In front of him, a group of kids is goofing around. I can’t tell which of them is in line, maybe all of them are, but they’re all bunched up, pushing and shoving each other, paying no attention. They’ve kind of stalled the line.

“Come on,” the Panthers fan yells, flinging up his hands. “Move already, boy!”

Oh, damn. I freeze. The guy in front of him is African American.

He stops and glances over his shoulder, looking for the source of the comment, and spots the Panthers fan. The noise in the immediate vicinity of the stand hushes a bit. The African American kid turns slowly. “What’d you say to me?”

The blond boy looks to his group of friends, all of whom have stopped messing around to focus on what’s happening, and the Jonesville kid puffs up. “You heard me, monkey. I told you to move.”

Oh. My. God. What a dick. That’s so wrong—­

A fist arcs through the air, thrown as fast as a blur, followed by the crack of knuckles into a jaw. I suck in air so hard and so fast, it hurts.

Not good. Not good. Not good.

A shout raises, and then more. The boys clash, chests bumping together, arms swinging. A boy stumbles, and his knees hit the ground. Fists batter downward, pummeling his head, his shoulders. His mouth opens in a cry I can’t hear. The shouting has swelled again. Bodies tumble over and around the boy on his knees, and he’s lost behind a forest of kicking legs.

I link my hands, crushing my fingers together. My breath comes too fast, making me pant like I’ve finished a sprint, though I haven’t moved a step. I’ve never seen a fight up close. Every time a scuffle broke out in the halls at my old school, a teacher showed up in under two minutes to break it up.

No one steps in to stop this.

“Dude.” Caleb has finally looked up from his phone.

A cup flies past, soda arcing through the air and splattering everyone.

“Aw, what the—­”

“This is a new purse!”

And then things…detonate. One flying fist becomes twenty, fifty. Two bodies crashing into each other become dozens. Yells rocket into shouts.

Caleb comes to stand beside me. “This is intense.”

Intense? Intense? This is way more than that. People push, shove, swing. Yell horrible insults I don’t want to hear. Throw cups of soda, poster boards, pom-­poms. A fan flag goes flying through the air and hits a woman in the side of the head. The crowd morphs into a huge, seething mass.

“We should do something,” I say.

“Like what?”

“I don’t know.” How am I supposed to know what to do in a fight like this? Maybe there’s someone I could signal. An adult who’d break up the fight. All the older faces I see are involved in the pushing and shoving. “Call for help, maybe?”

Caleb rolls his eyes. “You’re an idiot.”

He lifts his phone, and for a second I think, despite the name-­calling, he’s going to call 911. But he flips his phone horizontally and starts filming. Probably going live on Instagram, so he doesn’t waste his front row seat to the show. What a jerk. Not a second later, the door behind us flies open. I whirl. Lena James, a dark stain seeping down the front of her cute outfit, bursts inside.

“You’re not supposed to be back here,” I blurt. Ms. Marino told us, clear as crystal. No friends in the booth.

Lena looks at me as if I’ve grown another head. My cheeks burn.

“Shut up, Becky,” she says. “You don’t see what’s going on out there? Look what them fools did to my shirt!” She grabs a handful of napkins and swipes them across the stain. “There wasn’t another one like it at LaRue’s. I cannot show up to meet Black looking like this!”

I glance at Caleb. He’s riveted by the fight, arcing his phone to film the chaos in panoramic glory. He couldn’t care less that Lena’s in here, that we’re breaking the rules. Why do I?

Loud, older voices, sharp and authoritative, ring over the shouting.

“What’s going on over here?”

“Break this up!”

To the right of the concession stand, two cops push their way through the melee. At the sight of the officers, my clenched muscles go loose with relief.

“Cops!” I say. “It’s gonna be okay.”

“Oh, now shit’s about to get real,” Lena says at the exact same time.

I turn my head, her eyes meet mine, and we stare at each other.

5

Lena

McPherson High School

Football Field

“Oh, clearly you don’t know how this could go,” I say as I roll my eyes.

Becky wrinkles her freckly nose. “And you do?”

This fool. I shake my head. “Don’t you see those po po out there?”

This could go left, fast. And my damn shirt is ruined! I try to clean it up, but no luck. I’m so mad. Man, this sucks.

Some kids from the Panthers are holding down this big dude from my school, and he’s trying to pull their hands off of him by peeling back their fingers. A couple rough girls are screaming at this chick from Jonesville, who doesn’t seem to be that afraid of them. And there it is. A real brawl.

“Man,” I say. “We already ain’t feelin’ these racist Jonesville kids after that offensive-ass Halloween party incident, and now they have the nerve to come here, acting up?”

“Incident?” Becky asks.

White boy jumps in with the explanation. “When the football players dressed up in blackface?”

“Oh,” she says, sounding real unsure. “Yeah, I heard about that.”

Dude’s still got his phone up filming, like he some kinda Ava DuVernay. “Who thinks that’s okay anymore?”

“Anymore?” I say, staring. “Like it ever was okay?”

At least, he has the grace to blush a little. “You know what I mean.”

“Unfortunately, I do,” I say.

Outside the booth, I can’t tell anymore what’s happening, but sweat’s flying, pieces of weave are hitting the ground, there’s bloody knuckles, yelling, and cursing. Once it gets to this point, you better either get in the fight and go for what you know or get the hell on.

I’m about to get the hell on.

On my way into the concession stand, this one girl was swinging her purse so hard at the girl she was fighting, she hit me in the head. She didn’t even look up. On a normal day, I probably would have swung on her, but I do not have time for that today. I ain’t hurt, so I don’t care enough to do nothin’. I don’t want to be part of this.

And there’s Becky’s useless behind, standing around looking like a garden gnome. This fool’s first comment was that I’m not supposed to be here. I can’t believe that’s what she thinking about. I was tempted to bring the fight to this concession stand and give her a WorldStar beatdown for opening up her mouth to say some crap like that. But my mission is to lay low ’til everything dies down enough for me to run.

She’s looking at the chaos. “What is going on?”

“Girl,” I say. “They fightin’!”

I almost can’t hear myself over the roar of the crowd. My ears hurt, it’s so loud. I look over, and Becky’s hands are halfway to her head, but then I think she realize how she would look, so she drops them to her sides.

The school resource officers step into the middle of the crowd. My eyes follow they dark uniforms, chests bulky with bulletproof vests, and I wait for their presence to bring more drama. I bet Becky is waiting for the people around them to settle down. That’s because she ain’t never been here when stuff pops off. She probably used to seeing how they treat white folks at concerts. This ain’t that.

Officer Kersey slides in between two guys squaring off, a hand to each of their chests. He pushes them apart, hard, and sends the boys stumbling backward into other kids. Body-­sized dominoes crashing into each other. All of a sudden, I peep this kid from my science class, Gabriel, trying to dump an extra-­large Coke on a Jonesville kid’s head. He hits Officer Kersey instead. The cop ducks and yells as ice and Coke go washing over his buzz cut. His partner, Officer Tate, grabs Gabriel by the back of the shirt and yanks him up until his heels leave the ground. The collar of his shirt pulls on his neck. Gabriel’s flappin’ around.

Oh, God. I hope this cop don’t kill this dude right in front of me.

I breathe through my nose, and the humid air feels too thick. Too hot. Everything is too hot. My palms are sweating and my forehead is dripping and salt stings my eyes.

I look over at white girl. I bet she still thinks the officers will get this under control. That the people around will listen to them.

Stop.

Break this up.

Disperse.

They’re shouting as loud they can.

Get on the ground.

Chill out.

Move along.

Becky can keep waiting. It’s goin’ down now. People are yelling at Officer Tate. He’s tryin’ to make room around him and Officer Kersey, backing up, using his elbows. Everyone’s so wrapped in their feelings, nothing these cops do makes a difference.

“Does this happen a lot?” Becky asks, her voice all shaky.

Good lord. This girl.

“No,” I say.

But white boy contradicts me. “Yeah, it does.”

“When?”

“It’s the third fight this season,” he says, rolling his eyes at me.

“You mean somethin’ as outlandish as this?” I wave my hand out at the crowd. “Nah. I would’ve heard about that.”

“Not this bad, maybe,” he admits. “Guess those other fights were before everyone in this town decided they hate each other.”

“That ain’t nothin’ new,” I say.

Becky looks between me and white boy, terrified. “What does that mean?”

She’s shocked. Surprise, surprise. I decide I’m gonna ignore her.

The officers try to get the fighting under control, but it’s not working. Folks are yelling, pushing, hollering about pig this and pig that. Like I said: Cops showing up did not make things better. Hope Becky sees that now. Before, people were just kinda acting a little annoyed. Hell, I thought for a second Becky’s terrible customer service set off a brawl. But leave it to the police to really aggravate folks.

6

Campbell

McPherson High School

Football Field

Lena, Caleb, and I stand behind the concession stand window, watching the seething crowd. Seems like hundreds of people are fighting. Maybe even thousands. Arms flying, feet kicking. The school resource officers can’t control them. People are punching, pushing, shoving, and they’re not afraid to hit the cops. I think they might be trying to. The officers are totally outnumbered. But they’re also mad. I can tell they’re scared, the way their voices sound. Loud and sharp. Repeating themselves. One of the officers elbows a girl in the chest. I didn’t see what she was doing, other than running in his direction. Maybe he thought she was going to jump him. I can’t imagine anyone being reckless enough to do that. She has to be a head shorter than him too, and half his size, especially with all his gear on. He hits her, though, hard and violent, and she falls to the ground and cries out. So do I.

“This is awful. They shouldn’t be doing this!”

“Never can trust the police,” Lena says.

I meant everybody.

I feel exposed, standing here watching, and cross my arms, but my sweaty hands slide over my skin. I drop them quickly, wiping my palms on my jeans.

Lena’s pissed. She stands beside me, buzzing with the fury of a hornet. But she’s also breathing heavy, which makes me wonder if maybe she’s as scared as I am. I have the worst impulse to grab her hand. Somehow, I don’t think she’d like that very much, so instead, I tuck one shoulder behind hers. It’s not much, but I feel less alone.

She doesn’t seem to notice.

I want to go home.

“Should we get out of here?”

Lena holds a hand out, gesturing at the brawl in front of us. “Not yet. Do you see what’s happening?”

Before I can answer—­boom. A huge object crashes against the wall of the concession stand, hard enough to rattle the whole structure. I jump. Lena flinches. So do the cops. Both officers half crouch. One reaches for his hip and then—­

A bang.

No. A pop.

Pop pop pop!

I freeze. The noise and chaos around me fade until all that’s left are echoes of those pops for seconds that stretch longer than they should. Then I hear: “Oh, crap.”

Behind me, both Lena and Caleb have dropped to their knees.

“Get down, fool!” Lena shouts. “They shootin’!”

That sound is unmistakable, though I’ve never heard it outside of a movie.

“They’re shooting,” I whisper. I’m only able to move my mouth.

Lena grabs my wrist and yanks me to the ground.

More popping. Then more screams. I don’t even know who’s shooting. The cops? Someone in the crowd? I peer up at the window, see heads bobbing around. A shaved head thuds against the wall of the concession stand.

There’s an electronic screech and then the scratch and crackle of a walkie-­talkie.

“Mass disturbance at McPherson High School! Shots fired, officer down!”

Oh, my God.

I’m trembling. My heart pounds. Lena’s still gripping my wrist. She’s not shaking, but her eyes are enormous. She’s breathing fast again. Caleb mouths over and over and over: Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck.

We huddle on the ground while chaos reigns outside. Swearing. Screaming. Smashing. I turn to Caleb and Lena, but they aren’t looking at me. His face is turned toward the window, mouth hanging open, eyes huge. He looks stunned. Lena stares at the wall in front of us, both hands over her mouth.

“This is out of control.” The words don’t come out right. They get caught in my throat, thick and dry like cotton balls. “This can’t be happening.”

Excerpted from I’m Not Dying with You Tonight by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal. © 2019 by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal. Used with permission of the publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc. All rights reserved.

I'm Not Dying with You Tonight
by by Gilly Segal and Kimberly Jones

  • Genres: Fiction, Friendship, Racism
  • hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
  • ISBN-10: 1492678899
  • ISBN-13: 9781492678892