“Zuri! You coming?” Kayla yells from downstairs. The whole block is used to our loud mouths by now, but I wonder what the new neighbors will think when we yell each other’s names out from windows, down the block, and even from the corner bodega.
Outside, Marisol and Layla are already across the street, talking with the two boys. Their parents must have gone inside. Kayla grabs my arm, and before I know it, I’m headed across the street too. My little sister is holding my hand like I’m some kid, but by the time we step onto the curb, I pull away from her and cross my arms.
Both of the boys look to be about my age, seventeen or so. They have smooth brown faces that look unreal—the forehead, eyebrows, and cheekbones of models. One of them is a little taller and slimmer than the other, but they definitely look alike. They have to be brothers. The shorter one has a head full of thick hair, and even though he’s shorter than his brother, he still towers over my sisters and me. The tall, slim one has a close-cropped fade and a hard jawline that moves from side to side as if he’s gnashing his teeth. I try hard not to stare, but it doesn’t really matter—my sisters are already holding it down in the thirst department.
“And this is ZZ. Aka Zuri Luz Benitez.” Layla pronounces my whole name while pointing at me.
“Hi, it’s just Zuri,” I say, holding out my hand to the taller boy with the fade. “My friends call me ZZ.”
“Darius.” He takes my hand but only grabs the tips of my fingers and shakes them softly. I quickly pull away, but he keeps staring down at me out from under his thick eyelashes.
“What?” I say.
“Nothing,” this boy named Darius says as he rubs his chin and fidgets with his collar. He’s still looking at me.
So I roll my eyes at him. But I can still feel him staring even as I turn my whole body away from him and face his brother.
“I’m Ainsley,” the other boy says, giving me a firm shake. “We, uh, just moved in. Obviously!”
“Nice to meet you,” I reply, using the good manners that Mama has drilled into us.
“Totally! I can’t wait to explore Bushwick. Your sister has been telling us all about it,” Ainsley says. He’s smiling way too hard. It’s the kind of smile that’ll get him punched in the face if he bumps into the wrong guys from around the way. But still, he’s nice, like a happy puppy in a handmade sweater that the white people in our hood like to walk around, while Darius seems more like a cranky bodega cat. “And please ignore my baby brother, he’s just grumpy that we had to leave Manhattan.”
“Dude, hey, I am not grumpy. It’s just an . . . adjustment,” Darius says, crossing his arms.
“What a hard adjustment for you,” I say, my curiosity about these boys turning off like a switch. I don’t appreciate anyone throwing shade at my neighborhood, especially from people who say words like “totally” and “dude.” I give Darius my mean Bushwick mug, but it doesn’t seem to register. He just stands there with his upper lip curled as if he’s smelling his own stank attitude.
“We’ve been living here our whole lives. So you can ask me anything,” Layla continues. “I can show you where the basketball courts are, and introduce you to some of the brothas on the block. You gotta meet Colin. He cool. But Marisol knows where you can get the best prices for bread and milk. Don’t go to Hernando’s bodega, though. He jacked up the prices ever since he put up that ‘organic’ sign.”
I’m about to stop Layla from embarrassing herself further when Marisol interrupts her first, ready to initiate one of her business transactions.
“I’m Marisol, but you can call me Money Love Mari, for reasons you will soon understand. Can I interest you in any financial advisory services? It doesn’t look like y’all need any, but things are a little different out here. You might wanna learn how to stretch a million dollars in the hood. I charge by the hour. Small bills, please,” she says, revealing her signature braces and pushing up her glasses.
“Stretch a million dollars in the hood? Okay.” Ainsley laughs. “Money Love Mari. I like that.”
Marisol smiles, looks down, and hugs herself. She didn’t see that coming—a compliment, followed by a dimpled, bright smile. She can’t even look him in the eye after that.
“Y’all need to come over here and help me!” someone yells from across the street. A yellow cab eases up to our building, and I see Janae poke her head out the back window.
I start to run to her across the street, but a bike bell makes my heart leap out of my chest. I freeze as a bike screeches toward me, and I don’t even react when one of the boys pulls me out of the way. The bike races past me with the rider holding up his middle finger as if I almost totaled his hipster bike with my five-foot-four-inch frame. I knew these new bike lanes were trouble. No one watches where they’re going anymore.
I catch my breath and realize that it’s Darius who has a firm grip on my arm as my sisters surround me. The shock wears off, but he’s still squeezing my arm a little too tight.
“Uh, you can let go now,” I say.
“Right.” Darius releases his hand. “You’re welcome, by the way.”
“Oh, thank you,” I mumble, trying to be polite. He steps away from me, and his face is a little more relaxed now, but I can still smell his stank attitude. Thanks, but no thanks, I say in my head.
Janae jumps out of the cab, looks both ways on the busy avenue, and rushes over to me.
“Zuri!” she says as she wraps me in a hug. “I know you missed me, but don’t go jumping in front of traffic for me!”
“Missed you too, Nae-nae,” I say, and give her a squeeze. We both rock from side to side before we let go, but Ainsley has already stolen Janae’s attention. Her eyes are glued on him, and I know that in less than a second, she’s taken in his whole swag—haircut, face, body, clothes, smile, and even his teeth. I don’t blame her.
“And you are?” Janae asks, grinning from ear to ear.
“Ainsley,” he says, only smiling back at her. “Ainsley Darcy. We just moved in. And this is my younger brother, Darius.”
“Oh, hey,” Janae says with her usual sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns. Then there’s a long second of awkward silence, except for the usual Bushwick noise. I can tell that Janae is looking for something interesting to say, as if she didn’t just come down from upstate after meeting new people and having new experiences and learning new things. My big sister is not good at this whole game, even though she’s spent a year away at college.
Ainsley grabs her hand and says, “I’m sorry. You didn’t tell me your name.”
“That’s our big sister, Janae Lise Benitez!” Layla says. “She goes to Syracuse.”
“Syracuse?” Ainsley says. “I go to school upstate too. Cornell.”
“That’s nice,” Janae responds, trying really hard to look cool while the twins start giggling.
I’d be lying if I said Janae wasn’t like a second mother to me, to us—especially after Mama had the twins and she was busy doing any- and everything for them. Nae-nae never tried to take our mother’s place, though. She was simply our big sister—two years older than me, and six years older than the twins. She did our hair, helped pick out our outfits, gave us advice but still let us make decisions for ourselves. She was the sticky sweetness that held us all together.
My sisters bawled their eyes out the day she left for college. I took a long walk from here to the Brooklyn Bridge, because that’s how I deal with stuff. Now she’s home for the summer, and we are back to being the Fierce and Fabulous Five Benitez Sisters, according to the twins. Or, the All About the Benjamins Benitez Sisters, according to Money Love Mari. Or the Five Heartbeats, according to Janae, because she says we are her heart.
Out of the corner of my eye, I catch Darius shaking his head, as if this whole scene is nonsense. I turn to him and shake my head too, letting him know that we are on the same page, that everybody except him and me is being ridiculous. But he doesn’t return the gesture. He looks away. Whatever.
The cab driver honks at us, still waiting for his fare.