I make my way to the closed door of our bedroom. I can hear my sisters giggling even with the lights turned off.
“Darius and Zuri sittin’ in a tree” is the very first thing I hear when I open the door.
“What are you, like, five? Shut up, Layla!” I say as I turn on the lights.
“K-I-S-S-I-N-G,” Kayla finishes off.
“First comes love,” Layla adds.
“Then comes nothing!” I cut her off. “There was no kissing, there’s no love, there’s nothing. Now shut up and go to sleep!”
“Are you boyfriend and girlfriend now?” Layla asks anyway.
“No!” I almost yell.
“You think he likes you?” Kayla asks, sliding down out of her bed to sit cross-legged on the floor, as if I’m about to tell them a bedtime story.
“No. He hates me and I hate him. And that’s the end of that. I don’t wanna talk about those stupid boys. Why don’t you ask me about Howard instead?”
“Okay,” Layla says. “So did you see a lot of fine boys at Howard?”
“Oh, come on, Layla!”
“Is his grandmother’s house even bigger than the one across the street?” Marisol asks.
“Yes, and she’s even snootier than those boys across the street. And their parents. She’s the worst!” I say as I climb out of my clothes. I can’t help but notice the smell of Darius’s car on my shirt.
“Was that his car? And is he making payments, or is it leased?” Marisol asks.
“I don’t care!”
“Then what did y’all talk about for four hours, though?” Janae finally asks. But I know deep down inside she’s curious about something else.
“School, college, stuff,” I lie.
I shut out my sisters’ voices as they keep giggling and guessing at what we talked about.
When I’m finally in bed and the lights are turned off again, Janae slides in with me. I scoot over, knowing exactly why she’s here. She won’t sleep until she finds out. So I speak first.
“No, I didn’t see Ainsley,” I say. “But Howard was lit!”
She wraps me in a hug, and she slides back out of my bed. I wish I could make Janae hate Ainsley as much as I hate Darius.
The next afternoon, while my sisters are out of the room and it’s just me and my notebook, I notice a missed text from Warren last night. I text back a quick Hey before I start typing a long response. Another text comes in with a simple Hey. I immediately notice that it’s not from Warren after all. It’s from a number I had called earlier, and immediately my insides twist.
It’s Darius. I don’t know how to respond, but before I even think of something, my phone rings.
“Hello?” I say nervously.
“Can you come outside?” Darius asks, with his voice sounding much deeper than in person.
At the same moment, another call comes in. It’s Warren. I tell Darius to hold.
“What up, Z?” Warren sounds way too cheerful for so early in the morning. “I’m working out over here at the Irving Square playground. You good to shoot some ball?”
I laugh. “Yeah, that’ll be cool. Just hold on a minute. I gotta get rid of somebody.”
I switch over to Darius. “I can’t. I gotta meet Warren in a few,” I say without hesitation.
“Warren?” I can feel him bristle. “That’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about. You caught me off guard last night, but Warr—”
“You know what, I really don’t want to hear it. I’m good. I’ll see you around the way, Darius. And thanks for getting me home safe.”
With that, I switch over to Warren and tell him to meet me out front in a few minutes. I can’t wait to see him and tell him about Howard.
The minute I step outside my door, Warren shows up on my stoop with that smooth smile of his. But even as I sit, listening to Warren crack jokes about the guys on the courts and other people we know from around our way, I can feel something tugging at me across the street. It’s a soft pull, like someone touching the bottom of my shirt, or a light tap on my shoulder.
I glance up at one of the Darcy house windows, and I spot Darius looking at us. I quickly look away. Warren has his back to the house, and while he checks his phone, I look back up at the window. I stare at Darius for a moment, and he stares back.
“Zuri Benitez,” Warren says. “I wanted to see you again.”
At the same moment a text comes through my phone. It’s Darius, again.
Then another text comes in. “What does he want?” I say out loud.
Warren glances at the windows across the street.
“He wants you, Zuri,” Warren says with a smirk. “Just ignore him.”
My phone keeps buzzing, and I watch Darius type quickly. I can’t ignore him, because his texts keep flooding my phone.
But I really need to tell you something
Warren isn’t a stand-up guy
I would never lie to you
Please believe me
“Why don’t you just tell him to come over here,” Warren says, and I almost jump. He’s trying to look over my shoulder, and I shift away.
Believe you about what? I respond. Just tell me what’s going on.
I watch Darius pause and read my texts. It’s like I can see his jaw tighten from across the street. Then he begins typing again.
Gigi is in boarding school because Warren took sexy pictures of her
He sent them to his friends
“What the fuck?” I gasp.
Then they got around to the whole school
That’s why she’s staying with our grandmother
He fucked up her reputation
But please keep this a secret
I really don’t want anyone to know
I look up over at Darius, and our eyes lock. I try to process all this information about Warren, the boy who’s sitting right next to me. Has Warren been lying about everything? Is this the reason he almost got expelled? I can’t believe it. But then I think about Georgia. She’s mad sweet. Photos getting around isn’t something you just make up. My stomach stirs. If anything like that happened to one of my sisters . . . I can’t even finish the thought. I’d hate Warren too, if I was Darius.
I see him typing. The three dots hover.
Zuri? he writes.
I promise not to tell, I write back.
“Yo, Zuri. What. Is. Going. On?” Warren says.
I turn toward him, but I can barely look him in the face. My blood is boiling.
“Is it true?” I ask Warren point-blank. I narrow my eyes at him.
“Zuri, is what true? What just happened?”
“What you did to Darius’s sister.”
“Damn, is that what he just told you? Seriously, I can explain.”
I get up from the stoop and start pacing, my mind buzzing. “The only thing you need to explain is how you were nasty enough to take pics of a fifteen-year-old girl. What the fuck, Warren?”
“So it’s like that, huh?” He gets up too. He’s a step above me, and now he towers over me. But I refuse to be intimidated.
“Get the fuck outta my face, Warren!”
Warren glares at me, but he does what I say. The gate slams shut behind him, and he walks down the street without looking back. I feel all the air leave my body, and it seems like my heart is screwed on backward. I went from catching feelings for Warren to cursing him out in the span of a minute.
I look up and see Darius is still standing in the window. He nods at me, once. I bite my lip as I nod back. Darius steps away from the window. I sink down onto the steps and cover my head in my hands.
“What’s going on?” Janae calls out from upstairs.
My sisters are watching from the bedroom window. Madrina’s curtains are open. And maybe the whole block had their eyes on me, Warren, and Darius.
And that’s when I know for sure that those boys moving onto this block has changed everything.
WHEN I REACH Madrina’s door, it’s already slightly open. I can see her colorful walls covered in bright artwork: fake Picassos, African masks, Caribbean art, and even the stuff my sisters and I made in grade school, framed and placed beside all the other eclectic knickknacks Madrina has around her home. It was Madrina who gave me my first poetry journal, who encouraged me to write down everything I saw.