As soon as he got the break-in alert on his phone, Kevon Johnson ran outside and jumped into his black and chrome McLaren P1. He skidded out of the driveway of his mansion in West Hollywood and headed toward his studio in Los Angeles.
It was night. Here on the outskirts of the big city, he could see the stars, but as he got closer to downtown, they were washed out by the city lights. Hours before, he had left a Thanksgiving Eve party for music label executives and studio heads in southern California. His partner, Marco Cáceres, had been absent from the gathering, raising Kevon’s suspicions once again. He’d tried calling Marco, but he hadn’t picked up. For the past few hours, Kevon had been holed up in his writing room, sipping a Bud Light and working out the lyrics for his upcoming rap album.
It should have been his and Marco’s album. But, recently, he felt like Marco only wanted to show up for radio interviews, concerts, and promotional events, leaving Kevon to do most of the hard work. He and Marco had gone into business together to develop K’MarJay Records once they’d gotten out of college.
The break-in alert on Kevon’s phone sounded again, bringing him back to the present. He was five minutes out from the studio. Without telling Marco, he’d had a new security system installed at their strip mall studio and new electronic padlocks added to the safe where they kept all their cash. A few shady looking characters had dropped by recently inquiring about getting an album done, but they seemed more interested in looking around the shop.
Kevon slammed on his brakes as a city bus slowed down in front of him. He swerved around it and accelerated again, glad that the alert also notified the local police. They were likely already on the scene.
He jumped when his phone buzzed again, notifying him of an incoming call. He snatched it up, thinking it was Marco. But the picture on his screen belonged to his girlfriend, Myrian Tate.
Kevon made a grumbling noise in his throat. He was supposed to pick her up for dinner a half hour earlier. Now, she’d be upset, and his only excuse would be that he’d gotten lost in his writing. Again.
Kevon sighed and skidded to a stop in front of his studio. Two squad cars, lights flashing, were parked partially on the sidewalk. The glass front door stood open. An officer was stretching another strip of yellow crime tape around the front of the building. Two officers stood talking in the doorway. The beam of a flashlight bounced inside.
The officer stretching the crime tape looked up as Kevon approached holding his cell phone and ID. “This is a crime scene, sir. Please stay back.”
“I own the place,” Kevon said, holding out his ID. “I got notified of the alarm.”
The officer snipped the tape and tied it around a light pole. “We caught someone trying to rob the place,” he said. “He had a key to get in.”
The officer motioned toward one of the squad cars and Kevon took a step back. Another officer came out of the studio carrying a plastic evidence bag with stacks of cash bundled inside. He opened the front door of the car and Kevon looked inside. At first, he just saw a man with his head down, hidden beneath a hood. The suspect shifted in the seat, trying to get comfortable with his hands in cuffs behind him.
The light from the street lamp fell on a sliver of his face, highlighting a familiar tear-shaped scar.
“Marco? What are you doing man?” Kevon said.
Marco jerked his head away and his hood fell back an inch, revealing his face. He looked scared and sleepless.
“What are you doing?” Kevon said again.
Marco just shook his head. “You wouldn’t understand.”
Keeping raw cash around was a habit Marco and I had picked up from our growing up days in Oakland. Where I was from, there were a lot of dudes who had money but didn’t have jobs. They were drug dealers, and they didn’t like to answer questions about where or how they got their greenbacks. They kept their cash close and their guns even closer. One dude who went by the name of Cotton had a vault built into his basement and hired some guys from the community to watch it 24/7. One unfortunate — and, frankly, stupid — soul tried to rob Cotton. He never made it past the front door — fell dead in Cotton’s front yard with at least a dozen bullet holes in him.
Amazing, the things money will make people do.
I knew it was wrong, but growing up, I admired those drug dealers. My family — my mother, my sister, and I were dirt poor and living in the projects. But Cotton and his ilk came rolling by in Rolls Royces and Escalades, driving real slow like they were in a presidential motorcade. Even though they lived in the hood, they had brick houses and three-car garages unlike the rest of us. It was only later on that I figured out that the reason they didn’t move to a better neighborhood was because our cut was where their customers were.
And the customers were, unfortunately, good for handing over that cash.
Every now and then, my mother would give me some money to buy basics at the E-Z Mart convenience store on the corner. We rarely went to Walmart or Whole Foods. We lived off of cereal, milk, bread, peanut butter, beef jerky, canned vegetables, and dried fruit packages from the E-Z Mart. But I didn’t mind — at least not back then. I got a good feeling every time my mother gave me a few dollars and told me to buy stuff and bring it back. Just the sight of those crumpled, worn fives and tens made me feel good.
So, as I got older, and started to make a little cash on my own, I adopted the mentality of the dealers. I kept my money close at hand. I kept my roll of cash in the front pocket on my favorite pair of cargo pants during the day. I was glad the pockets zipped up. At night, whatever money I had was rolled up in a glass jar underneath my pillow.
Sometimes, finance majors from Stanford and UC Berkeley would come by the high school to lecture us on handling money. They always told us that one of the most important things to do was to get a bank account and start saving money. I never believed that. Why would I give the money I had to somebody else for safekeeping? I just didn’t like the idea. I could keep my money safe all by myself.
More than once I considered going into business for Cotton or one of the other drug dealers. Word on the street was that they were always looking for entrepreneurial-minded young people. In other words, young people who wanted to make money. It would have been easy. The only reason why I didn’t go for it was because Momma was constantly on me about not hanging out with that crew. I’m pretty certain that one of the reasons why we were so broke all the time was because she was hiring Sir Brody from the church to keep an eye on us. On Friday nights, whenever Marco and I were getting ready to go to a football game, Sir Brody would just “drop by” and offer to drive us. The real reason was because walking would have taken us right past Cotton’s house and all the money-flush druggies who hung around him.
But I was determined that, as soon as possible, I would be living like Cotton. Marco was too. When our first single became Recording Industry Association of America certified gold and the checks started rolling in from distributors, we cashed them all and stored them in the safe at our first studio. We looked at that stack of cash every day. It drove us to make a bigger stack with our extended play, and then an even bigger stack with our debut album. Only when we were sure that our single and our EP weren’t flukes, and that fans really did want to listen to a full album from K’MarJay, did we decide to open a bank account for the label and separate accounts for ourselves.
But we still kept several thousand in cash at the studio. It was a reminder and a motivation.
Marco, of all people, knew what that meant.
That’s why I didn’t understand why he would steal from me. From us.
Kevon went down to the police station to sign and put his thumbprint on the paperwork for the stolen cash. Once the police gave him the money, they asked if he wanted to press charges.
”I take it you two work together,” the officer said.
“I don’t know. I’d like to talk to him first,” Kevon said.
The police officer went to the holding cell, but came back a few moments later. “He says he doesn’t want to talk. He wants to wait for a lawyer.”
“Okay,” Kevon said. He had a lot to think about on the drive home.
When he pulled up at his mansion, there were two cars out front. He only recognized the one parked in the driveway. Maybe the one parked on the street belonged to the neighbors, but it was parked too close for comfort. He sighed as the garage door rolled up and he parked his car alongside the motorcycle. He had bought the motorcycle for fun, but hadn’t had time recently to drive it.
He locked the garage door behind him and walked down the narrow hall to the living room. Myrian was sitting on the couch in the darkened living room. She was holding a cocktail glass, and an open Sprite can sat on the side table. She didn’t look up when Kevon came in.
“You did it again,” she said shaking her head, setting the curls in her black hair bouncing against her face.
“Come on, don’t be like that,” Kevon said. “You know how it is. Sometimes when I get to writing. I can’t — “
“You were writing in the garage?” Myrian said, raising an eyebrow at her glass.
“No, um, something happened at the studio. There was a break-in. I had to go check it out. How long have you been here?”
“So, you drive all the way to the city at the drop of a hat, but you can’t remember that we had plans for tonight? You see why I worry about us?”
“Look, there’s nothing to worry about.” Kevon walked over and knelt down by the couch. He put his hands on Myrian’s knees and looked up into her hazel eyes. “I’m trying to make things better for the future — for both of us. That’s what I’m trying to do. You gotta be patient. I gotta be patient. Once this next album is done, I’ll be able to spend all the time in the world with you.”
“You sure you want to spend it with me?”
“What? Of course, baby?”
Myrian picked up a small black box from between the cushions on the couch. “Then what is this?”
“Where did you get that?” Kevon reached for the box, but she kept it out of his reach.
“I found it in the wine cabinet when I was getting this glass.”
“You weren’t supposed to find it,” Kevon sighed.
“Oh, I wasn’t? Who were you going to give it to?”
“It’s for you, baby,” Kevon said.
“You don’t buy a ring for a girl without giving it to her,” Myrian said.
“I was going to give it to you, but not yet. I told you, I’m planning for the future.”
Myrian handed him the black box. “That’s your problem. You’re always thinking about the future. You don’t know how to live in the present, how to be grateful for today.” She spread out her hands. “Right now is all we have.” She got up and headed for the front door.
“Wait, where are you going? We can go out tomorrow. I’ll set aside my writing, I’ll —”
“No, tomorrow’s Thanksgiving. You probably forgot that date too. I have to be with my family.”
“Okay, well. After that, then.”
Myrian opened the front door. “And another thing. While you’re planning for the future, you might want to consider the possibility of one without me.”
I sat on the couch and held the ring after Myrian left. I had gotten it from Goldsmith’s in London when we were on tour in January. I was high then, way up on cloud ninety-nine. The four-month long tour had been a huge success — much greater than I had anticipated. I had no idea there were people who listened to our music in England, but our tour manager insisted that we add the date to our schedule. It was the last event of the tour. We had a sold-out crowd.
I was excited about coming home and asking Myrian to marry me. But as I got off the plane in Los Angeles and searched for my McLaren P1 in the parking lot, I came down to earth a little bit.
Someone had broken into my car. (I know, the tour manager had offered to drive me and Marco to the airport. But I loved my car; I went everywhere in my car. If anybody was going to be giving rides it was me. Not that I liked to show off or anything.)
The driver’s side window was smashed open. Someone had clearly rifled through the vehicle, probably thinking there might be cash or valuables in it since it was such an expensive car, but I wasn’t stupid enough to leave stuff like that lying around. My insurance papers, registration, and title information were strewn on the passenger’s seat.
I swept the glass out of the front seat and started putting the papers back into the glove box. As I refolded each of the papers, I kept feeling like something was missing. I scratched my head and tried to think of what else I kept in the glove box, but I came up empty. I piled my luggage in the trunk and carefully put the ring for Myrian in a zippered pocket on my jacket.
On the drive home, I passed by my old neighborhood. I liked to do that every now and then to remind myself of how far I had gotten away from the way things used to be for me. And to remind myself of what I was never going back to.
As I passed my old house, I started to think about my mother. (She didn’t live there anymore; she had saved up enough money to move to a better neighborhood when I was in college.) Mostly, I was thinking about the fact that she had never married and had raised me and my siblings by herself. The only marriages I knew about were the ones I had seen on TV, and I was pretty sure none of them were the real thing.
When I did get up the nerve to ask my mother about my father (or our fathers — I don’t know if I shared the same father with any of my siblings), my mother would just say, “He left us in the past and we left him in the past. Ain’t no use going back there.”
I didn’t see how I could leave something I never had. I remembered that as I was driving home.
What kind of man was my father? Why did he leave my mother, his children? How does who he is (or was) affect me? Am I the kind of person who would leave his wife, the mother of his children?
Those kinds of thoughts shook me up as I drove home. Right when I was starting to feel like I was getting a handle on life — on being independent, on being successful, on establishing a better future for myself — all these doubts came rushing in.
That’s why I put the ring in the wine cellar.
That’s why I didn’t give it to Myrian.
Kevon jumped up when the doorbell rang a few minutes after Myrian had left. He hadn’t locked the door, so he wondered why she didn’t just come on in. He swung the door open, another apology on his lips, but stopped at the form of a different, but still familiar face. He looked out into the yard. Myrian’s car was gone, but the other vehicle, a golden-brown Lincoln town car, which had been parked on the street was still there.
The vehicle’s colors coordinated with the tall, thin man standing before him. He had a brown silk suit, a golden tie, and a crisp sandcastle dress shirt. He twisted a dark brown Panama hat in his hands.
“Rev. Caldwell,” Kevon said. “What are you doing here?”
“It’s your mother, son. You should come quickly.”
“What? Is she sick? Is she — ? Is she —?” Kevon backed away from the door, unable to say the word.
“She’s been sick,” Rev. Caldwell said as he stepped inside. “It doesn’t look good.”
“She’s been sick? Since when?” Kevon asked.
“We all thought it was just the cold or the flu. But it didn’t go away.” Rev. Caldwell shook his head. “She kept saying she was going to get better, that she was feeling better. She told us not to bother you. She doesn’t know I’m here right now.”
“Is she still at home?”
“No, she’s in the hospital. They’ve been giving her medicine, antibiotics. But the doctors can’t figure out why she’s not improving.”
“You think she’s going to die?” Kevon said.
“I hope for the best,” Rev. Caldwell said, forcing a small smile into his expression. “Maybe all she needs is to see you. I think it’s her spirit, not just her body, that needs a boost.”
“I’ll get on my way up there now.” Kevon jogged up the stairs to his bedroom, intending to quickly pull together an overnight bag and start the nearly six hour drive from Los Angeles to Oakland. When he had come home only a short while earlier, he had hoped to get some sleep after being up all night and into the early morning. Now he grabbed an overnight bag out of his walk-in closet — last used on his four-month long music tour — and threw in an extra change of clothes, dress shoes, hairbrush, toothbrush, phone charger, iPad, and his favorite Air Jordan snapback. It occurred to him that it was Thanksgiving morning. The highway would be packed with people traveling to reunite with family for the holiday, which would likely cause his own drive to Oakland to turn out to be longer than the usual six hours. Kevon chuckled at the irony of himself traveling home at the same time thousands of other Californians would be doing the same, albeit for different reasons.
Back downstairs, Rev. Caldwell was looking at his vinyl record display which was in a glass case mounted on the wall in the living room. Kevon had collected originals of, among others, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, MC Hammer’s Too Legit to Quit, 2Pac’s All Eyez On Me, and N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton.
“I’m leaving now,” Kevon said. “I’m sorry you had to come all this way. Why didn’t you just call me?”
Rev. Caldwell turned away from the display case. “Because, son, nobody seems to have your number. If your mother has it, she’s not giving it up. So, I asked around until I got this address. I’m just glad I didn’t waste my time.”
Kevon nodded and picked his keys up off the side table in the living room.
Rev. Caldwell was still looking at the vinyls. He swayed a little, from one side to the other. Kevon recognized that move from the many Sundays he’d spent with his mother in church. It happened when the “Spirit” was speaking to God’s man.
“Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry,” Rev. Caldwell said. He turned, slowly, dramatically to face Kevon. “But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?” He stretched out one hand, indicating the entire room with its rich furnishings. “So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”
“Like I said, I’m leaving now.” Kevon went to the front door and held it open.
“That’s the Good Book for you,” Rev. Caldwell said as he walked toward the entrance. At the door, he paused and faced Kevon. “’Talk about money; all you see is struggle. Talk about living large; I’m telling you, it’s trouble.’ Even Tupac knew that.”
As I expected, the highway was crowded on my drive up to Oakland. It seemed like everybody had waited till Thanksgiving morning to travel to see their families. I could feel my car’s engine rumbling like a corralled stallion, ready to go but prevented from doing so. It took me an hour to get out of the Los Angeles metro area.
I had a lot to think about, though. Like what Rev. Caldwell had said to me.
It was no secret: straight out of high school, my goal was to make money. I had no problems with that, but other people did. My mother wanted me to stay close to home, but I didn’t want no parts of the life we had growing up. Since I had been effectively banned from selling drugs to make money, I started looking to cash in elsewhere.
I know a lot of people think drug dealers are the worst kind of people, but I don’t judge nobody’s hustle. When you grow up like the kids do where I’m from, you learn to look for money and respect wherever you can.
Most boys I knew when I was young wanted to be like Michael or Kobe. (And no matter what Kobe says, he’s not better than Michael.) I played a little basketball in high school, but I didn’t have any special talent for it. And if you weren’t on your way to being a baller, the fastest way to get popular was to be a DJ or a rapper.
Deejaying was fun, and if you were really good at it, you got invited to all the best parties and girls paid attention to you. But, in high school, you didn’t get paid for deejaying — not unless you got permanently hired by a club (which was technically illegal) or started getting gigs at fancy galas. It was primarily a way to boost your social status.
I knew almost from the start that I wouldn’t be a deejay forever. But my time behind the mixing board was an education for me. I studied the songs, the music, the lyrics. I wanted to know what made people move, what spoke to people’s hearts. I wanted to understand why people identified with music and why they came back to certain songs over and over again.
In the middle of a party, a DJ is almost like a god. (I know, there’s only one God; I’m just saying.) A DJ sets the tone for the night. He knows which songs get the people moving, and which songs can bring the room to a standstill. He and his audience are in a communion; they share a vibe. I learned so much from the nights I spent deejaying.
Seeing the power music had over people awakened my own desire to write songs. I say awakened because I don’t think songwriting can be learned. Either you can do it or you can’t. I would have been a songwriter no matter what else I did in life.
When I started sharing my songs with my mother, she told me, “Make sure you do it for the Lord, son. Only what you do for Him matters.”
I was fine with doing it for the Lord as long as the Lord would pay me for it. I knew Rev. Caldwell’s music director drove a beat-up Volvo and lived down the street from us. His house was nothing special either. He was a good man, but if that was how the Lord paid him, I wanted no parts of it.
Rev. Caldwell was a different matter. Although I had seen him all throughout my young life, he never seemed to age. When he showed up at my front door on Thanksgiving morning, he looked just the same as he did when I had last seen him about eight years prior before I went off to college. From the way he dressed and the car he drove, it seemed like he didn’t want for anything either. I had never seen his house, but I was sure it wasn’t anywhere near the neighborhood I grew up in.
Although my mother loved her pastor, and he seemed like a sincere man, I wondered if preaching was just his hustle, if sermons were just his songs.
But like I said, I don’t judge nobody.
When Kevon reached the hospital in Oakland, he checked his rearview mirror, half-expecting Rev. Caldwell to have followed him all the way from Los Angeles. He drove around the packed parking lot looking for a safe place to park — a place where no one could possibly hit his car by accident. After a few laps around, he found a spot underneath a row of trees at the edge of the property. It wasn’t designated as a parking space, but it wasn’t part of the driving area either. He tucked his car into the tight nook and jogged to the Emergency Room entrance.
He asked for his mother, Keriah Johnson, at the front desk and rode the elevator to the fourth floor. A few of the people — nurses and other visitors he passed in the halls — slowed down and gave him a second glance, like they had seen him before. It happened more frequently nowadays. Kevon just smiled and kept moving.
He reached the door to room 409 and took a breath before entering.
The room was dark and he let the door close softly behind him. He could hear beeping from behind a thin curtain, and the shadows indicated a bed. He pulled the curtain aside and saw his mother laying with her eyes closed. There was an IV bag hooked up to her arm, dripping clear liquid into her body. A black monitor by the window had green and white lines tracking across it, monitoring her vital signs. The monitor looked normal, but judging by his mother’s face, it was easy to see why Rev. Caldwell had felt the urge to come and get him. Her cheeks were shallow, her eyes sunken in. There was more gray in her hair than when he had last seen her the week before he had went on tour. Even though she was in a hospital gown, she still wore the silver cross around her neck that she had worn for as long as Kevon could remember. Her hands resting on the blanket were frail, the bones showing through her skin.
Kevon eased himself into the chair by the bedside. “Mama,” he whispered as he touched her hand unsure if he wanted to wake her or not.
His mother’s eyelids trembled and slowly opened. She looked around and then over at him. “Kevon, what are you doing here?” Her voice was dry, like her throat was coated with desert sand.
“What are you doing telling people not to let me know you’re in the hospital?”
“I ain’t sick. It’s just the flu. That’s what the doctors say. They’re trying to figure out why it won’t go away,” Keriah said.
“Mama, people your age can die from simple things like the flu.”
“If it’s the Lord’s time for me to go, He’ll take me. He ain’t got to use the flu to do it.”
Kevon shook his head and smiled a little.
“Which one of the kids told you I was here? Was it Shanice?” Keriah pointed with her finger. “Shanice!”
Kevon looked to where his mother had pointed and noticed his sixteen-year-old sister curled under a blanket in a chair by the window.
“Mama, what’s wrong?” Shanice said, rubbing her eyes as she uncurled herself from the chair. “You know you shouldn’t be using your voice like that. You—” She broke off when she saw Kevon sitting there and got up to give her brother a hug.
“Hey, girl,” Kevon said. “It wasn’t Shanice, Mama. It was Rev. Caldwell.”
“Oh, well, that explains,” Keriah said. “I’ve seen pictures of you on tour. I thought you was too busy for me nowadays.”
“Never,” Kevon said.
“Well, now that you’re here, we might as well make the most of it. Girl, go on home and get Charlix and Rockaway. Tell Rockaway to bring some of the turkey he’s cooking. I gotta make sure he does it right.”
“Mama, you know you probably shouldn’t be eating any turkey,” Kevon said as Shanice picked up the keys from the bedside table.
“Don’t worry about me, boy. Well-cooked turkey never hurt nobody.” Keriah reached over and patted her son’s arm. Her hands felt thin and light, too light, on his skin. “Prop these pillows up and tell me about England till she gets back.”
I was glad to see that Mama still had some life in her. Rev. Caldwell’s urgency—and Mama’s insistence on not letting me know that she was sick—had me worried. After Shanice left to get my siblings, I spent the next hour or so catching my mother up on what I had been doing since the last time we had seen each other.
I told her about the release party last year, and the beginning of our tour. From our first concert in Atlanta, we rolled up the East Coast and then hopscotched across the central U.S. before flying across the Atlantic. We did our shows in Berlin, Stockholm, and London before flying east to reach the West Coast where we did our final two concerts in San Diego and Los Angeles.
Our time in England seemed to pique Mama’s interest more than anything.
“Did you meet anybody interesting in London?” she said.
“No,” I said. “We didn’t have time to meet anybody. London was kind of squeezed in at the last minute. Should I have met someone?”
“I know some people there,” she said softly.
This, I did not know. “Who?” I asked.
She was silent for a moment. Then she said, “Nobody now.”
I was curious about this, but I let it go, as it seemed to be making her sad. But I made a mental note to look into it.
When I told her about the situation with Marco, she just shook her head and said, “You can’t trust nobody nowadays.”
She was far more interested in how things were going with Myrian. When I explained the reason why I hadn’t given her the ring and asked her to marry me, she said, “You can’t let other people’s mistakes make you afraid of taking risks.”
I nodded. I knew, deep down, the longer I waited to patch things up with my girlfriend, the worse things would get between us. I suddenly felt like running back to Los Angeles to talk to her.
By this time, Shanice returned with Charlix and Rockaway. Rockaway was the oldest next to me. He was in his second year of college. When we were younger, he always wanted to follow me to parties and stuff. I didn’t want him to then. But, I found out later that he was interested in deejaying like I was at the time. He was also the first person I shared my songwriting with. Since he listened to more music than I did at the time, he turned into a great critique partner in the early days. I think I’ll always owe him a debt.
Charlix is the third-oldest. She’s eighteen, and graduated from high school last year. She was on track to join the medical program at UCLA in a few months.
Shanice, the youngest, still lived at home with my mother and Charlix.
Rockaway was carrying a warm plate that smelled delicious. After we greeted each other, we propped Mama up on her pillows, and she scrutinized the meal my brother and sister had cooked. After tasting the turkey, the collard greens, and the macaroni-n-cheese, she proclaimed that they had made her proud. “Maybe this sickness is God’s way of letting me know I don’t need to do everything all the time anymore,” she said.
“We’ve been telling you that all along,” Charlix said.
“It’s just hard to give up,” Mama said. “People think giving up is the easy thing to do. That’s not true. It’s harder to give up, to let go.”
“You’re not really giving up,” I said. “It’s not like you’re going to lose us. You’ll just be holding on in a different way.”
Chapter 9: Call of Death
Kevon left the hospital room feeling a lot better about his mother’s condition. While he felt the diagnosis was serious, his mother’s spirit had not abated. He was glad for that, but it didn’t prevent him from feeling a little bit of guilt over not being in touch more often. When he had moved to Los Angeles after college, he had pretty much left his family behind to pursue his goals, only checking in every few months. As the elevator opened onto the first floor, he determined to stay in better communication in the future.
Outside, a conspicuous group of people had clustered around the hospital’s entrance. Kevon walked out of the sliding doors and was assaulted by people yelling questions accompanied by the click and whir of cameras flashing. Kevon hesitated a moment before setting his mouth in a grim line and walking right into the middle of the crush of photographers. They shoved back at first, but then let him through.
This, Kevon had found, was the best way to deal with paparazzi. Even after a five-month long tour, he hadn’t gotten used to the impromptu press parties that seemed to pop-up with increasing frequency wherever he went. (He had gotten his car checked twice for tracking devices, afraid that somehow someone knew where he was going at any given time.) It looked exciting on TV to have a cluster of reporters following you around all the time; but in real life? Not so much. On one hand, running away from them never worked; that just made them more determined to follow you. On the other hand, they loved people who played up to them; if you drank up their attention, they’d never leave you alone. So, Kevon tried to stay in the middle, never giving them too much or too little.
He reached his car now and got in with the reporters gaggling about, jostling for one last shot while at the same time trying not to get hit as Kevon revved his engine and sped away.
Weary from being up all night and a nearly six-hour drive to Oakland on top of having to deal with three highly emotional situations involving people he deeply cared about, Kevon was glad to finally rest. Once he got into his hotel room, he told himself that he would work on some melodies before going to sleep. But he was only able to tinker with a few chords on his iPad before falling asleep, stretched out on a mattress that, to his tired head, felt like it was stuffed with feathers of heaven.
It seemed like it was only a few minutes later when he was awakened by a tune playing close at hand. At first, he thought it was something from the Garageband app he’d left open on his iPad, but the device’s screen was black. He fought past the fog of sleep until he found his phone and answered it.
Myrian was on the other end, talking in a low, tear-laced voice. “I’m so sorry, Kevon. I didn’t know.”
Kevon didn’t know if he had dozed off once he had answered the phone or what, but he was awake now. “Sorry for what? What are you talking about, Myrian?”
There was confused silence on Myrian’s end. And then she said, “Your mom, I didn’t…”
“Yeah, she’s sick…Has the flu but it won’t go away or something,” Kevon said. “I didn’t know either until today.”
There was more silence on the other end of the phone before Myrian slowly said, “Kevon, where are you?”
“I’m up here in Oakland in my hotel room. I came to see my mom and—”
“People have been calling me for the past half hour telling me your mom died.”
“What?” Kevon said. “I just talked to her a few…” His voice trailed off as he turned toward the window where a thin strip of black showed between the curtains. It was in the middle of the night. He must have been asleep for hours. The clock on the bedside table confirmed it was two in the morning.
Kevon pulled the phone away from his ear and looked at it, ignoring Myrian’s raised voice. The screen indicated he had missed three calls.
Chapter 10: Shattered Jewel
I had missed two phone calls from Shaunice and one from Rockaway—all within five minutes of each other. I wanted to believe that Myrian had just heard things wrong. But a few minutes and a phone call to my family at the hospital proved that she was indeed correct. Mama had passed in her sleep that night.
The funeral was held the next Saturday. Clouds rolled in over Oakland, piled up on each other over the church building as though jostling for the best seats in a football stadium. The auditorium was packed with people, many of whom I recognized as long-standing residents of the community I had grown up in.
As stragglers filed in before the service began, I noticed the absence of the chatter that I remembered from church services as a child. Maybe there’s something about death that quiets people, calms them somehow, makes them consider their own mortality.
I sat in the second row with my siblings, one arm around Shaunice. Being the youngest, she had been taking Mama’s death really hard. She had cried every night since the coroner removed Mama’s body from the hospital and took it to the funeral home.
If this is something to be thankful for, I don’t know, but no one close to me has ever died. We heard about kids who were involved in gangs sometimes getting killed, but no outright deaths. It’s easier to take when you have someone to blame. People talk about someone dying in their sleep as if it’s a good thing, but that is more unnatural than anything.
By the time Rev. Caldwell takes to the podium, the choir has sung three very upbeat but rather long songs. It’s hard to tell if we’re at a funeral or a rock concert.
“Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,” Rev. Caldwell soothes the crowd. “Praise the Lord. We are gathered here today, not to mourn, but to celebrate the life of Sister Belinda May Johnson. A teacher, a pillar of our community, a faithful member of this church. And, most importantly, she leaves behind four wonderful young people whom she raised by herself and who are well on their way to success.
Getting out of the church after the service was a chore due to the number of people who want to shake hands and wish me well. I tried to be pleasant and warm with everyone, but I got tired of people telling me how sorry they were. When I looked back over my shoulder, I saw that my siblings were strung out amidst the crush of other people slowly making their way out of the sanctuary.
I was glad when I got outside. The sun was shining.
The car that would take us to the cemetery pulled up in front of the church. I walked down the steps to wait for my siblings.
As I stood by the open door, someone yelled my name. I turned and saw a group of teenagers split off from the stream of people leaving the church and head towards me. “See, I told you it was him,” one of the boys bragged to his friends.
“Show some respect,” an elderly lady says as she crosses his path.
“Yo, man, sorry about your mom,” the boy said as he came up to me, holding out a copy of my album. “But could I get your autograph?”
I wasn’t sure about the appropriateness of granting his request at a funeral, but I opened the inside of the album cover as the boy’s friends gathered around him excitedly. A girl raised her phone to take a picture.
My pen was bleeding black ink on the glossy album cover paper when a crack ripped through the air, followed by another and then another. Simultaneously, a warm, red liquid splashed over my hand, the one that was holding the album. My hand shook and the jewel case fell to the ground, shattering into a dozen blood-slicked shards.
Chapter 11: Why This?
Kevon spun around to face the direction from which the gunfire had come. Around him, funeral-goers dropped to the ground behind cars, covering their heads. A few dared to peer over hoods to try to see what was happening. Those still on the church steps hurried back inside, dragging children with them.
Something warm and slick dripped from Kevon’s hand. He looked down as a red drop splashed on his black shoes. For the first time, he registered that it was blood. But it wasn’t his own, and he didn’t feel any pain. He looked around, back to the cluster of teenagers. The boy who had asked for his autograph was clutching his right shoulder, blood seeping out beneath his fingers, his face twisted into a grimace. The girl beside him had dropped her phone and had her arms around the boy, trying to keep him from falling down.
“Get inside,” Kevon said. He glanced around, looking for his siblings. He didn’t see them outside. The church’s front doors were shut, and he assumed, gratefully, that meant they were safe.
Kevon put one arm around the wounded boy. “Hey, man, don’t worry. You’re going to be all right. Come on, let’s get you inside.” He waved the boy’s friends toward the church doors.
Another crack of gunfire split the air.
Around them, the people who remained outside ducked and scrambled for cover again. Kevon dragged the boy the rest of the way up the front steps and thrust him beyond the safety of the church doors. He stopped and looked for the source of the gunfire.
On the side of the road in front of the church, he spotted a man dressed in black—not dress black like the funeral attendees, but a loose black leather jacket, a black t-shirt stretched taut across bulging muscles, and black jeans. The man’s eyes were hidden behind sunglasses. He had a huge, linebacker-sized frame. He stood calmly by a black SUV with heavily-tinted windows, apparently unconcerned that his life might be in danger.
Kevon watched the man. Something about his posture made Kevon think he had seen him before, but he couldn’t recall a name to match the person. As parishioners around them cautiously rose from their sheltering positions, the man slowly removed his sunglasses. Kevon couldn’t stop himself from thinking that the man was looking directly at him.
“What happened to you?” Rockaway said when Kevon made his way back into the church. “We were so worried.”
“I’m fine,” Kevon said. He looked around. The church’s lobby was swarming with police officers taking pictures and interviewing attendees. Half a dozen ambulances were parked outside, and EMTs were treating the wounded. Miraculously, no one had been killed.
“Almost like old times back in the cut,” Rockaway said. “I mean, for real, who would shoot up a funeral?” He looked toward the front of the church where their mother’s closed white casket and her still form lay undisturbed.
“Yeah,” Kevon said. “Things could have been worse.”
“You know this isn’t just some random shooting,” Charlix said, sitting down on the end of an empty pew.
“I know,” Kevon said, still trying to figure out why he felt the man outside had been familiar. He tried to think of people from his old neighborhood that he or someone in his family may have offended. He didn’t put it past the gangs to try to settle a score in a manner such as this.
“Mama didn’t have any enemies,” Shaunice said. “There’s no way.”
Kevon was silent for a moment before answering quietly, “Maybe it’s not Mama they came here for.”
Chapter 12: The World Must Go On
We buried Mama late that evening after the police got through taking statements at the church. Standing in the shade in a cemetery that seemed to have more trees than tombstones, we said our final goodbyes. It was amazing to me how quickly people seem to get back to their lives after death and tragedy.
Death. Shootings. Injuries. I always felt like the world didn’t pause as often as it should to ponder the significance of loss or the danger of the highwire that we walk called life.
But I didn’t always feel that way. I remember my mother crying for three days after Whitney Houston died. Even though she only knew her through her music, she told us that the world was emptier without her voice in it. At the time I didn’t understand how you could cry for someone you had never met. “Just live a little longer,” Mama said. “You’ll see.” I think I was beginning to see now — at least a little.
However the world must go on, and I had a couple of problems to deal with on my own. But first, I went back to the hospital to visit the kid who had been shot in the arm at my mother’s funeral. I felt bad about that; if I hadn’t chosen to sign his album, he probably wouldn’t have been hurt. The boy’s name was Jeremiah, and when I arrived, he was sitting up in bed with a clean, white bandage wrapped around his right hand and forearm. “How is it going?” I asked.
“It’s not as bad as it looks,” Jeremiah said. “The doctors called it a flesh wound, but I call it a bullet wound but anyway, I thought they would have to take my hand off or something. It’s not as bad as my foot was though.” He kicked his left leg out from under the blanket. A long scar ran from midway up his shin down to his ankle, as if the skin had been torn and then sewn back together.
“You’ve been shot before?” I asked.
“Yeah. The bullet went straight through the bone. They had to replace it with metal or something.”
“Can you feel it?” I said.
“Only when it’s raining or cold, it itches. But other times, nah, I don’t feel it.”
“Well, I brought a new album, signed and everything.” I took it out of my pocket and handed it to him. It occurred to me that it was strange that he was in this room all by himself. “Where are your parents?” I asked.
“My dad had to go back to work. He told me I was pretty stupid going to your mother’s funeral just to get an autograph,” Jeremiah said, looking away in embarrassment. “But he’ll come back when he gets off.” I could tell from the way he said it that he either didn’t know his mother or didn’t expect her to be there for him, which was worse.
“All right then,” I said. “I hope your hand heals quickly. I left my email address inside the album cover, so you can get in touch if I can help you with anything.”
“Thanks, man. I appreciate you coming by.”
I left Jeremiah’s room glad that he would be okay, but a little saddened that this was the second time he had become a victim of violence in his short life. Even though I didn’t like some of the things Mama did to keep my siblings and I safe when we were young, at least I had never been shot. For that, I was grateful.
My high spirits were short-lived. The room door had hardly clicked shut when I saw the same man I had seen outside the church during the shooting leaning against the opposite wall. He looked even bigger and more dangerous standing in the quiet hospital hallway. I stopped, one hand still on the door handle.
“Mr. Johnson, I hope you’re done playing compassionate celebrity,” he said. “We have business to discuss.” He opened his jacket, exposing a leather gun holster beneath his arm. “And by now, you know we mean business.”
Chapter 13: Vex
“Look, I don’t know who you are or what you want with me,” Kevon said, moving away from the large man. Considering his size, Kevon thought he could easily outrun him, but what if he got shot in the back as he tried to escape?
“Hmm,” the man rubbed his chin with his palm, his nose drawn up in a snarl. “That’s funny. Marco said you’d say that.”
“Marco? What?” Kevon said. Despite his confusion, he took a step down the hall toward the elevator. “Marco’s in jail right now.”
“I know, and that’s your fault.”
“He was—” Kevon shook his head. “Who are you even?”
“You know who I am.”
Kevon was sure he had seen the man before, but he still couldn’t remember where or attach a name to his face. “I swear, I don’t.”
The man stepped across the hall and stuck his face in Kevon’s. “My name is Vex Lattimer. And you and your little record company owes us money.” His breath smelled like he’d just eaten a rotten egg.
Backed against the wall, Kevon actually began to laugh. “Clearly, that’s a fake name, and your attempt to sound threatening makes you less so.”
“I don’t fool around making no threats,” Vex said. He reached in his pocket, pulled out a folded wad of papers, and slapped them against Kevon’s chest. “Let’s take this outside and see if we can give your memory a wake-up call.”
Kevon looked at the folded papers as a nurse walked by, giving them both a suspicious glance.
“Let’s go,” Vex said, patting under his left arm where his gun holster bulged. “And don’t try anything or you’ll get more than a threat in your back.”
Kevon started walking to the elevator, trying to think of how he could give Vex the slip. He couldn’t think of any possible connection he or Marco could have had with this man. If he could just get to his car, he could outrun anybody.
But Vex was right behind him as they approached the elevator. The elevator doors slid open, and they got in alone. They rode down in silence. At the hospital entrance, the sliding doors opened and Kevon stepped out into the cool breeze just as a nurse pushing a patient in a wheelchair was coming in. Vex sidestepped to get out of her path, briefly allowing the gap between him and Kevon to expand.
Seizing the reprieve, Kevon sprinted down the walkway and ran toward the side of the building. He had parked out front, but was trying to get out of a direct line of fire should Vex try to shoot him. He darted around patients and visitors heading into the building, glancing back over his shoulder to see if Vex was following him. He didn’t see him at first. At least he had been right about being able to outrun him.
He kept going, circling around the parking lot and crossing the street before heading for his car. His heart beat faster as he jogged up to it. He glanced around one last time, got in, tossed the papers Vex had given him into the passenger’s seat, and started the engine before he slammed the door shut.
A low chuckle sounded from behind him and Kevon snapped his head around so fast, his neck cracked.
Vex was sitting in the back seat looking amused. “You just don’t watch any movies, do you?” he said. He held up his gun. “Drive, boy.”
Chapter 14: Around the Corner
My heart beat rapidly as I slowly pulled out of the hospital parking lot. I looked around for police cars…security…something…but I saw nothing.
“Drive faster,” Vex said from the backseat.
“Where?” I said.
“I’ll tell you when to stop.”
I kept driving, as slow as possible. My mind was working in overdrive, conjuring thoughts of being forced to drive to some abandoned plot of land on the outskirts of town where I would be executed and my body disposed of. I would never be heard from again and no one would ever find out what happened. Every corner we passed was an opportunity to die. I was reminded of some of Tupac’s lyrics.
I see death around the corner, any day
Trying to keep it together,
no one lives forever anyway
Strugglin’ and strivin’,
my destiny’s to die
In the end, we only drove a couple of miles.
“Pull over here,” Vex said as I passed a park. I pulled into one of the empty parking spaces, and immediately noticed two big black SUVs like the one Vex had been standing in front of at the church parked in front of us. It was early afternoon and parents watched as young children scampered around the playground. Joggers jogged. Some people were fishing in the artificial lake. I put the car in park.
“Are you going to tell me what these papers are for?” I said as I picked up the folded wad Vex had given me at the hospital. I was appreciating the fact that he didn’t seem to be in a hurry to kill me. He wanted something.
“That is the contract you signed guaranteeing us a forty-percent cut of the record company’s profits off of its first album.”
“Look, I’m telling you: I didn’t sign anything with you or whoever the hell you really are.”
“Well, technically, you didn’t sign it,” Vex said. “But since Mr. Cáceres is in jail right now, I thought you would honor our agreement.”
“I didn’t—” I started to say again. And then it hit me. Marco and I had set up the record company as a legal partnership which meant that either of us could enter into a contract that was binding on the whole company. Whatever Marco had done in the name of K’MarJay Records, it was as if I had done it too. But I couldn’t think of a reason why he would make some kind of deal regarding the company without discussing it with me first—and certainly not a deal with Vex and his gangsters (or whoever they were). That’s not how we did things. We always made decisions regarding the company together. Now I know why Marco had tried to steal from the company. He was trying to cover his tracks. “Look,” I said. “I know you don’t believe me, but I had no idea about any of this. Marco did this totally on his own.”
“We don’t care,” Vex said. “We just want our slice of the pie, and we’ll leave you alone.”
I had a feeling that that was not entirely true. “But I can’t give it to you now,” I said. “I’d have to write a check and—”
“No. No checks,” Vex said. “Just cash.”
“Well, I’d have to go to the bank to get out that much cash.”
Vex seemed to think about this for a moment. “Well, you better do that.” He opened the back door. I looked around slowly, hoping not to show too much excitement over the fact that he was getting out of my car. “Don’t try anything funny,” Vex said, stooping down to face me. “One of my boys will be watching you at all times. We’ll be in touch once you’ve got the cash. And if you try anything—” His words hung in the air as he slammed the door.
Okay. I was free.
Now I needed to find out what on earth Marco had done.
Chapter 15: Last Will & Testament
Kevon arrived late at his mother’s house for the reading of her will.
“What took you so long?” Shanice asked.
“I got held up,” Kevon said as he pulled up a chair to the small dining table in the kitchen. He glanced out the window, feeling unease at the sight of the gray Jaguar with heavily tinted windows parked across the street. It had pulled up earlier but he hadn’t seen anyone getting out of it. He figured Vex hadn’t been joking when he said someone would be watching him.
He sighed and turned his attention back to what was happening inside the house.
By the time Kevon had been ready to start college, his mother had saved enough money from her daycare center business to buy herself a new house in a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood. All together, Kevon had only spent a few days in the new house, so it didn’t feel like home to him, but he was glad that his younger siblings could spent their formative years in a better environment than he had.
The flowered yellow wallpaper cast a cheerful glow over the somber group gathered in the kitchen. Charlix sat at one edge of the table with Rockaway who had his elbows on the table and his chin in his hands. His apron was smeared with some kind of brown sauce—or maybe it was gravy. He had been trying to cook something, but based on the lingering smell of burnt food that hung in the air, he had failed.
The lawyer, Andrew Adamson, who had been a friend of the Johnson family for years, sat at the corner table quietly shuffling papers in a dark green folder. Kevon cleared his throat. Adamson jumped. “Right, okay, let’s begin,” he said. “Again, I am deeply sorry over the death of Keriah Johnson. She was a great friend, an admiral woman, and a fine mother.” He clasped his hands on the table, and then immediately unclasped them to open the green folder and then the letter-sized envelope that was inside.
“The testatrix, your mother, has appointed me as the executor of her will. So, I will read it in your hearing. I have and I will continue to take the necessary steps to see that her desires are carried out to the best of my ability.” He cleared his throat.
Shanice raised her hand. “Um, shouldn’t we have all of the family here for this? Aunt Tinny? Uncle Wayne? Cousins…”
Adamson shook his head. “Your mother only named you four as beneficiaries in her will. Other family members will receive a copy of the will in the mail.” He smoothed the creases from the folded paper in front of him. “Okay… Let’s see here. Mrs. Johnson leaves all of her clothes and personal possession to the care of her children who will decide collectively what to do with them. She would like for some of her possessions to be distributed to appropriate charities for the benefit of others. All of Mrs. Johnson’s monetary savings, totaling over nine thousand dollars, will be divided evenly between accounts for each of her children who have yet to graduate from college. The funds are to go toward their college education.” Adamson paused and noted something on a tablet. “That will be three of you, correct? So…three accounts.” He nodded before continuing. “The daycare center, Golden Rays Children’s House, will be under the joint supervision of Charlix Johnson and Shanice Johnson once they graduate from college. They will be trained by Assistant Manager Marie Ono, who will serve as acting director of the day care center until Charlix’s and Shanice’s graduation.
“Ownership of Mrs. Johnson’s car will pass to Rockaway Johnson. Ownership of the house will also pass to Rockaway who will continue to live there and act as guardian of his younger siblings until they graduate from college, marry, or are able to leave home and live sufficiently on their own.”
Charlix folded her arms and pretended to frown. “That doesn’t mean you can boss us around,” she said.
“Oh, I’m sure that’s exactly what it means, little sister,” Rockaway smiled as he leaned back in his seat. “I will have plenty of chores for both of you to do.” His smiled vanished as he suddenly sobered. “Now that I think about it, it’s a big responsibility.”
Kevon put his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “You can do it. Mom wouldn’t leave you in charge unless she thought so too. I’ll help you any way that I can.”
Adamson made more notes on his tablet. “I’ll have the papers for legal guardianship drawn up by tomorrow and we can discuss further what your responsibilities will be,” he said. He began to read the will again. “Mrs. Johnson’s beloved ceramic cooking and cutlery set which has been passed down for four generations in her family will be passed to the care of Rockaway Johnson for continued preservation and for use on special occasions.”
Adamson paused and looked at Kevon before continuing. “Mrs. Johnson desires for each of her children to know themselves fully. In order to do that, they must know their past and the full story of their mother’s life. It is her desire that her diaries be given to her oldest son, Kevon, who will share their contents with his siblings as he sees fit.”
Kevon frowned. “I didn’t know Mom kept a diary.”
“I did,” Shanice said.
“I think she said they’re in her bottom dresser drawer,” Adamson said. “Okay, here’s the last section,” he continued. “It is Mrs. Johnson’s desire that, upon her death, the father of her oldest son be contacted and, if he is in agreement, a meeting be arranged between the two.”
Rockaway sat up straight and looked at Kevon.
Shanice and Charlix leaned forward, their mouths open.
“What?” Kevon said.
Adamson didn’t look at them. “Um…your mother’s wishes,” he said. He fumbled with his phone and then put it to his ear. After a second, he said, “Mr. Barrett, you can come in now.”
Kevon looked out the window as the door on the gray Jaguar opened and a man stepped out.
Chapter 16: Thy Father
We all sat with our eyes fixed on the entrance to the kitchen as we heard the front door open and close, and then footsteps in the hall, getting louder and louder, until we could feel the slight vibration in the wooden floorboards beneath our feet. A shadow passed over the doorway, and then a tall man stepped in.
At first, it was like looking at an aged version of myself—me with more weight and muscle. He removed a black fedora, like the one the former Nigerian president always wore, revealing a bald head. He had deep brown skin and black eyes. He wore a buttoned-up black overcoat even though the day was warm. I noticed that he looked nervous, but I did not feel sympathy for him. He clutched the rim of his hat tightly.
“Hello,” he said. “I’m Roland Barrett III.” He looked directly at me. “I’m, uh, your father.” He spoke with an accent that I had heard before. It took me a moment before I could place it. England.
Then it hit me. When my mother was in the hospital, she had asked if I had met anyone in England. She said she knew people who lived there, but didn’t tell me who they were. This must be one of those people.
Attorney Adamson had his head down, shuffling papers on the table.
My siblings looked from me to this man, Roland Barrett III, who apparently was my father.
I was unsure of what to say.
“All the feels just came up here,” Charlix said, raising her hand to her forehead.
I was not sure what I was feeling or what I was supposed to feel. What did Mama mean dropping this on us—on me—like this right after her own death? It didn’t make any sense. I felt more than a little angry. But I wasn’t sure if it was anger at her or at this strange man who now stood in her kitchen. I wanted to believe that she had good reasons for doing this. And I didn’t want to dishonor her by saying or doing the wrong thing from the jump.
More than anything, I wanted to get out of that kitchen. I scooted my chair back from the table.
Adamson looked up, worry (and fear?) flashing across his face, like he was the one who had just met a man whom he had never seen for two decades of life claiming to be his father.
“I need a minute,” I mumbled, and walked out into the living room where the air felt less charged.
I stood in front of the window facing the street, where I could see Mr. Barrett’s Jaguar parked along the curb. I tried to think of all the kids I had grown up with who didn’t know their fathers or whose fathers had died in gang violence. I tried to think of what one of them would do if their absent parent suddenly walked into their house. I suppose I should have felt grateful. But I mostly felt confused.
“Fathered he is, and yet he’s fatherless.” He had followed me into the living room.
I turned and glanced at him, still confused.
“Shakespeare… Macbeth,” he shrugged, still clutching his hat nervously. “I’m a theater actor in the UK.”
I nodded, looking at him askance.
He took a step closer to me. “What I’m saying is, I know how you feel. I didn’t meet my father until I was a couple years older than you are now.” His head bowed, and a solemn look crossed his features. “He was on his deathbed when we finally met. And the thing I’m most sorry about is that I messed up in the same way he did.”
Chapter 17: Discoveries
Kevon sat down on the couch in front of the window in the living room. Leaning forward, he rested his elbows on his knees and pressed his fingers together. “So, do you have any idea why my mother wanted us to meet now?”
“No,” Roland said. He sat on the edge of the easy chair across from his son. “I was in contact with her a few times in the past regarding us meeting. She always said that you were on a good path and that she didn’t want anything to mess that up. It seems she was right. You have become very successful of late. You’ve blown up as the young people say.”
Kevon nodded. “Why did you and my mother separate in the first place?”
“Things didn’t…work out between us back then,” Roland said. “But I’m here now.”
“You don’t get to do that,” Kevon said, shaking his head. “You don’t get to come here after all this time and say, ‘things didn’t work out.’ At the very least, Mama wanted you to come back to give some answers.”
“You’re right,” Roland nodded. He rubbed his palms together. “So, your first questions?”
Kevon thought about saying I asked one already, but decided he would get around to it again. “Are you the father of all of us?” he said.
At first, Roland looked momentarily confused by the odd phrasing. He turned and glanced at the entrance to the kitchen. “No, just you. After me, your mother…” His voice trailed off and he looked away.
“Do you know him?” Kevon asked. “Their father?” Fathers?
Roland must have seen the unspoken question on his face. “They all have the same father,” he said. “He’s—”
“Nevermind,” Kevon interrupted. “Don’t tell me.” He didn’t think he could take anymore revelations for one day. Besides, his mother may have already planned for his siblings—half-siblings—to meet their father at another time. The silence stretched between father and son. Briefly, while Roland was looking at the pictures on the wall, Kevon studied his profile. If he were an objective judge of character, he would say that Roland Barrett was at least a good man. Or maybe he just wanted him to be a good man because it was his father. Roland turned around and caught him staring. “So?” Kevon said as he looked away.
“Yeah. So,” Roland said. “About me and Keriah…”
“Wait, you’re from England right?” Kevon said.
Roland nodded. “Born and raised.”
“So, why were you in America—what?—twenty-five years ago?”
“Yes. I was getting to that,” Roland said. “I came to America to pursue my dream of becoming an actor. I started in London at Italia Conti. My mother put up a lot of money for me to attend there, but I was not a good boy, and I was expelled. Now, my mother has extreme agoraphobia; she can’t stand being observed by other people. But, oddly, she had invested herself heavily in my dream. She used to make me stand up every night before bed and recite and act out long passages from Shakespeare or George Calderon or David Rudkin. So she was extremely disappointed when I was kicked out of Italia Conti and she told me never to come home again. I knew then that she was just in a mood and would come to regret her words, but I used it as an excuse to take the allowance my mother had given to me, get on a plane, and, uh, hop across the pond.”
Kevon thought Roland’s mother—his grandmother—must have given her son a very large allowance if he had money for a plane ticket.
“Anyway, I arrived in New York and immediately tried to get a ticket to Los Angeles. I wanted to go to Hollywood. But my mother had reported my card as stolen, and I narrowly escaped being arrested by the police. I went into the city and made my way to Stella Adler. Of course, I couldn’t be accepted without proper legal documents, so I called my mother and begged her to give her permission. She wanted me to come home, but her desire to see my dream come true outweighed that. She sent over the documents necessary for me to begin attendance there. I worked at a restaurant to make money, and that is where I met Keriah.”
Chapter 18: Wait No More
“I never imagined that my father’s life could have been so different from my own,” I told Myrian over dinner. Back in Los Angeles, after spending far more time back home than I had planned, I had decided to do some catching up with my girlfriend-slash-woman-who-told-me-to-plan-for-the-future-without-her.
I shared with her about my mother’s funeral and how she had set things up for me to meet my father after her death. I related how they had met at a restaurant in New York, and shortly afterward, Roland had transferred to the Stella Adler school in Los Angeles so he could be close to my mother. During that time, I was conceived. Unfortunately, according to Roland, he wasn’t able to find work after graduating from acting school. Apparently, he was too early to catch the wave that would see Paterson Joseph, Idris Elba, and David Oyelowo cast by American studios. So, he went back to England to seek better opportunities, promising to return to California to help my mother raise me. Well, he never did. His own mother died and his acting career didn’t take off until years later. He kept telling himself that he would get in touch with my mother when he was sure he could provide for a family. But, when he finally did so, my mother had moved on and was involved with another man. She didn’t want to complicate things, so she told him to stay away. They communicated via e-mail a few times over the years.
“Wow. That is, um, interesting,” Myrian said as she speared a cut of barbecued ribs. “I mean, I guess most people would say that about their family background. But, you had to learn this all at once.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Have you heard from Marco?” I hadn’t told her about the other very interesting part of my time back in Oakland.
“No. Why? You two not speaking again?”
“He’s having some problems,” I said. “But we’ll work it out.”
“Speaking of working things out,” Myrian said, “I hope you know I’m not mad at you anymore.”
“How do I know you’re not just feeling sorry for me?” I said.
“I’m not. I think you’re right about wanting to make sure you’re ready for marriage. Especially considering your father’s story.” Myrian shrugged and dropped her gaze to the table between us. “It’s good to be sure.”
Something about her expression bothered me. “It’s good for both of us, right?” I said. “You’ll wait with me?”
She shrugged again. “I want to. But what if I can’t wait anymore?”
After I dropped Myrian off at her house, I drove slowly around her block. She had refused to tell me what she meant by not being able to wait anymore. The only thing I could think was that she was hinting that she wanted to breakup with me altogether.
I drove in circles around her block a few times trying to figure out if Vex and his crew were still following me. I hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary since I left Oakland. But I needed to handle business with Marco as quickly as possible.
Chapter 19: Not Strictly Legal
Satisfied that Vex and his crew weren’t lurking around Myrian’s neighborhood, Kevon drove to the prison, putting the doubts about his relationship with his girlfriend in the back of his mind for now.
He was seated on one side of the glass in the visitation booth when the door opened on the other side and Marco burst in, looking sleepless and worried. He shook off the prison guard’s restraining grip, threw himself into the chair, and snatched up the receiver. The guard approached him from behind, slowly, one hand on his baton.
Kevon waved him off as he picked up the receiver. “Yo, man, calm down,” he said.
“Where’s my mother? Have you talked to her? My sister? My dad?” Marco rushed the questions out.
“What? No,” Kevon said.
“They’re going to do something. My mom’s going to die,” Marco said frantically. “You have to get to them.”
“Calm down,” Kevon said. “They who? What are you talking about?”
“I’m not playing. I’m not making this up.”
“Okay. I believe you. But I don’t know about any of this. You have to tell me. Who is going to do something to your family?”
Marco swallowed hard. “They said if I don’t get them the money, they’re going to do something to my dad and my sister.”
“Yes. Who else?” Marco glared at his friend through the glass like he should have known all along.
“But, why?” Kevon said. “What were you doing with them anyway? And who is he?”
“You know my mom got sick, right?”
“Yeah.” Kevon remembered the day Marco had told him that his mother’s kidneys had failed and that she would need a transplant. “I thought your family was dealing with it. You said she was getting treatment.”
“Yeah, she was.” Marco ran his hand through his black hair, rendering it unkempt. “But her kidney’s failed and now she’s laid up in the hospital.”
“I didn’t know,” Kevon said. “Why didn’t you say something?”
“Because she needs a transplant that costs almost eighty thousand dollars—and that’s if they can find a match.”
“Well, are they looking?” Kevon said.
Marco glared at him again like he was stupid. “Of course, they’re looking, but even if they found a match, we don’t have that kind of money.”
“We don’t have that kind of money,” Kevon said, gesturing between him and his friend. “So, you decided to steal it from our company.”
“That’s not the point,” Marco said.
“That seems like the point to me,” Kevon said, hating that he sounded insensitive.
Marco let out a sigh. “The point is: I went looking for a transplant.” He held up his hand as Kevon started to interrupt. “And I found one.”
“You found a transplant?”
Marco nodded, his face serious.
Marco looked over his shoulder at the guard standing by the door. “I can’t really say in here,” he whispered through the phone.
Kevon raised a hand in exasperation. “Why not?”
Marco looked over his shoulder again before whispering through clenched teeth. “It’s not strictly legal.”
Is there an illegal way to get a kidney transplant? Kevon wondered as he motioned for Marco to continue.
“But it’s cheap,” Marco whispered. “And it works. “
“So…what am I supposed to do?” Kevon said.
“You have to get them the money and everything will be over.”
“Get who the money?”
Marco reached into his orange jumpsuit and pulled out a folded piece of paper. On the paper he had written a name—Charles Constable, MD—and an address on the outskirts of Oakland.
Chapter 20: Murda Bizness
My phone rang as I turned off the highway at the exit for the street Marco had given me. In less than seventy-two hours, I was back in Oakland and was feeling distinct whiplash creeping up on me.
I answered the phone without looking at the caller ID.
“Kevon, hey. I was expecting the first song a week ago. What happened?” It was our producer, David Kelson, who worked out of a studio in Santa Clara. K’Mar’Jay’s successful first record had been good for him too.
“Man, I’m sorry,” I said. “I should have been in touch. But some family stuff came up that I just had to deal with. I haven’t had the time to work on it.”
“No big deal, man. Just get it to me when you can,” David said. “Listen. I been trying to call Marco, but I keep getting his voicemail.”
“I talked to him yesterday,” I said, wondering how much to tell. “He’s going through some stuff too.”
David groaned on the other end of the phone, and I could almost see him nodding his head, knowing I wasn’t telling him the whole story. “I don’t mean to pry,” he said. “And I know you gotta do what you gotta do. But take it from a brother who’s been in this thing for a lot longer than you. You had one big hit; you can’t lose focus now. You gotta keep your eye on the ball. Decide what’s most important. If you want to live the good life, you need to focus on your craft, even if it means putting other stuff—important stuff—on the back burner. Other people gotta handle their own issues. You feel me?”
“Yeah, I feel you,” I said. But I was only half-listening. I was staring at the brick sign that bore the street numbers Marco had given me. I had driven into a seemingly abandoned industrial area. Scattered along the street were large, dusty-looking warehouses and factory buildings, most of them with signage stripped away. The place looked like a ghost town.
I said goodbye to David and drove slowly into the parking lot, a dust cloud rising behind my McLaren from the gravel. In front of me, a huge beige warehouse loomed at least three stories tall. All of the windows were high up and blacked out, or at least that’s the way they looked.
I drove around the building and noticed a single vehicle parked out back, hidden from view on the street. It was an expensive looking Cadillac Escalade, gleaming gray, and there were fresh tire tracks leading up to where it was parked. When I looked closer, I was able to make out more tire tracks. More than one vehicle had been here recently. I parked at the corner of the building, facing the street, just in case I had to make a quick getaway.
I tried the big double doors at the front of the building, but they were locked, so I walked around to a side door. It was pushed up but wasn’t closed all the way. Whoever was here wasn’t planning to stay long. I edged the door open and slipped inside.
The cavernous interior was cool and dark. In the middle of the huge, open space, there were several desks and chairs, but what caught my attention was the humming sound coming from the left. It sounded like a refrigerator buzzing, but ten times louder inside the warehouse.
I looked over and saw glass front refrigerators, like the ones that hold beverages in convenience stores. But there weren’t drinks in these. I walked closer, and my stomach lurched. Behind the glass, were plastic containers of thick clear fluid. And in the middle of each container, was what looked like raw meat. But, as I looked closer, I saw that they were human organs. Each container was marked with a label—Liver, Kidney, Lungs, Heart.
Suddenly, behind me, I heard voices and running.
“Hey, how’d he get in here?”
“Don’t let him get out!”
I spun around only to get punched by two guys—in the face and in the gut. They were dressed in street clothes and black jackets. I grappled with them, trying to shove them off. But they kept kicking, punching, and asking questions.
“Ay, where you from, man?”
“What you doing here, negro?”
“Who told you ‘bout this place?”
I didn’t know how to answer them, so I focused on fending off their blows.
“Hey, back off, boys, back off,” a familiar voice said. The beating stopped and I looked up to see Vex standing over me flanked by his two thugs. “The Doctor says he wants to see this one.”
“Vex, what the hell is this?” I pointed to the refrigerators behind me.
Vex shrugged. “What does it look like?”
“Uh, it looks like you’re murdering people and stealing their body parts,” I said.
Vex shook his head. “That’s not exactly true. But I guess you could say we’re in the murder business.”
Chapter 21: The Doctor
Vex’s thugs kept tight hold of Kevon as they marched him to the other side of the warehouse. They passed by a set of cubicles in the middle of the huge space. Each cubicle had a desk and two chairs on opposite sides of it. A monitor was sitting on each desk, just like any doctor’s office.
As they neared the other end of the warehouse, Kevon wondered who this doctor might be. There was a metal staircase against the far wall. As they climbed, the creaky steps echoed loudly around them. Kevon’s mind was racing ahead of him. Already, it was on the second floor, imagining himself becoming the doctor’s latest victim, his organs cut out of him on a seedy lab table, packaged and sold to the highest bidder. He would be dead, just like his mother. He would never again be able to see Rockaway or Charlix or Shaunice. He wouldn’t be able to finish learning about his father, Roland Barrett III. Worst of all, no one would know how or where he had died. The doctor had gotten away with this much already.
Kevon tensed, causing Vex’s boys to grip him even tighter.
“Don’t try nothin’, fool,” one said.
Vex shoved open the door at the top of the staircase. Light—too bright—swarmed Kevon’s eyes. He froze, squinting.
“Here he is, sir,” Vex said, as Kevon’s captors loosened their hold on him.
“Thank you. Leave us,” a voice, vaguely familiar, said.
Kevon felt himself being let go and heard feet shuffling as his captors retreated. He blinked the light out of his eyes and stared. The man who had spoken—the doctor, he presumed—was sitting in a high-backed leather executive seat facing away from the door. He was surrounded by a wraparound desk on which sat three computer monitors. One was shut off, the other showed what looked like a spreadsheet, and the third displayed a 3D animated model of the human body, bones and arteries snaking through it.
Kevon didn’t know what to do. He wasn’t eager to get on with the let-me-kill-you-and-sell-your-organs part of the afternoon. He stood there wondering why the doctor’s voice had sounded familiar. Maybe he was just imagining it, or maybe the doctor was a physician who had cared for him before and who now, either disgraced or simply down on his luck, had decided to apply his skills in the black market.
The doctor waved a hand, indicating that Kevon should come around to the side the doctor was facing.
Kevon went slowly, registering every detail of the man in the seat. A balding head, a silk suit, sunglasses that appeared to have diamond-encrusted rims. A brown-skinned hand holding a fat silver fountain pen that appeared to cost more than the suit itself.
When he was almost directly in front of the man, Kevon froze. Puzzle pieces started to click into place. The shiny Escalade outside. Vex and his rent-a-thugs. The incongruous appearance of the wealthy man seated like a king in an abandoned and dusty warehouse.
“Cotton?” Kevon said.
The man slowly removed his sunglasses with a hand that bore a gold-and-black Rolex and a diamond ring. “It’s Doctor Lamont C. Christopher now,” he said.
Chapter 22: Helping People
“So, drugs weren’t good enough for you. You had to upgrade to killing people too?” I said.
“Don’t jump to conclusions,” Cotton said, putting the cap back on his fountain pen. “I haven’t killed anybody.”
“Right. I’m sure you get somebody else to do it for you.” I remembered the guards Cotton hired to watch his mansion years ago.
“Mistaken again.” Cotton chuckled and rubbed a palm against his bald head. “Look, I know you’re upset because Marco came to me to save his mother. He gave us certain guarantees that he couldn’t keep that have now dragged you into this. But all of it can go away if you keep the deal he made with us—which, as you know, is legally binding. Marco’s mother can get her kidney. Marco can get out of jail. And you can go back to making your music.” He spread his hands wide.
“And if I refuse?”
“Well, there are payment plans available. Many of our clients take advantage of them.” Cotton crossed his arms over his stomach and tilted back in his leather seat.
I was still trying to wrap my head around the body parts in the freezer. “Who are they?”
“What?” Cotton said, raising his eyebrows.
“How did you get those body parts? Who did they come from?”
“Approximately eighty people will be killed in this city this year,” Cotton said. “Many of them will be people who come from our side of the tracks—young, bad neighborhood, no hope for the future, life wasted, nothing left behind.”
“You ever think about how many of those lives you’re responsible for wasting?” I said.
Cotton held up his hand. “As a matter of fact, I do.” He paused, took off his glasses and polished them on a silk handkerchief. “There comes a time in every man’s life that he stops to think about the mark he’s left on the world. What he’s done for others. That time came for me not too long ago.” He turned away from me, facing the bank of computer screens, focusing on the one that showed the 3D image of the human body spinning slowly. “When I was young, I swore I would leave poverty behind. I imagine you thought the same thing. And I did. Selling drugs was good for me. It was good for the brothers who helped me. But, yeah, we sold poison. And some people didn’t know how to handle it. They got addicted. Wasted.” He rubbed his head again. “Recently, I’ve been trying to turn over a new leaf as they say; trying to do something positive with my life. All those murder victims I told you about? That’s where the organs come from.”
I felt my face twisting in…Surprise? Horror? I didn’t know how to feel. “Do the families know?”
Cotton shook his head. “I have deals with some of the local funeral homes. Once they get the body from the morgue, they call my doctors, and we take what we need. The bodies are sewn back up, prepared for the funeral. The families never know.”
“You have doctors?” I asked.
Cotton smiled a little. “Of course I do. Real doctors. They get paid and they keep quiet.” A line appeared between his eyes as he became serious again. “Lots of our people are sick—kidney disease, heart disease, lung problems. But they don’t have the money for treatment or transplants—and that’s if they can get matched for a transplant, which takes forever. Here, we provide a good service for a price they can afford.”
I glared at him skeptically, trying to find some malice in his logic.
“I’m not gonna lie,” Cotton said. “I am doing it for me. Everybody don’t live forever, and I’m trying to do something positive before I check out of here. I’m just trying to help people, Kevon. You gonna try and stop me?”
Chapter 23: My Position/b>
Kevon tried to reconcile Cotton’s claim that he was “just trying to help people.” He pulled out one of the chairs in front of Cotton’s desk and slowly sat down, resting his forehead against the heels of his hands, trying to figure out a way to get himself out of the mess he was in. “Can you really save Marco’s mom?” he asked.
“I believe we can,” Cotton said. “We have an eighty-seven percent success rate. And our policy is that if the transplant fails, we return all money to the patient’s family.”
“And where does the surgery take place?”
Cotton hesitated. “At independent doctors’ offices across the city.”
Kevon stood up. “I’m going to take some time to think this over.”
Cotton held up his hand. “Now, I can’t just let you leave. Not until I have some guarantees, considering that you know all about our little operation here.”
Kevon shrugged. “How do you know Marco won’t tell? He could sell you out to get off. Plus, he told me.”
“He wouldn’t tell me off just to get out of jail,” Cotton said. “He knows you won’t press charges. Besides, I have safeguards.”
Cotton nodded slowly. “A man on the inside. Someone who’s been watching over people who are locked up but who still have influence on the outside. If your partner talks, the prison will soon be explaining how little Marco had been placed on suicide watch.”
Kevon glared at him angrily. “If you’re trying to convince me that you’ve really changed, that you’re just trying to help people, maybe you should consider actually letting go of your old ways.”
Cotton spread his palms apart as if to say, It is what it is. “Look, boy, you and I are more alike than you care to admit. We all are trying to move on up in life. And right now, you think that moving up is more money, more fancy cars, more women running after you, more success. But that’s not all there is. You gotta move on up in here too.” He slapped his palm against his chest. “You gotta do what’s good, not just for your body but for your soul. That’s all I’m trying to do.”
“Really?” Kevon asked skeptically. “That’s all?”
But Cotton went on as if he hadn’t heard. “I spent so many years fighting for what I thought was good for me only to find out that what you get is what you give and what’s good for you is what you do that’s good for others. And I’ll be damned if I let you stand in the way of what’s good for me.”
“When you put it that way…” Kevon said. He was trying to reconcile what his producer David Kelson had told him only an hour before. You gotta do what you gotta do. Keep your eye on the ball. Don’t let anything distract you from pursuing your own success.
“Go on; spend your time chasing success just for yourself,” Cotton continued. “I guarantee you’ll be right here in my position thirty years from now.”
Chapter 24: Burning Man
After meeting with Cotton, instead of going back to Los Angeles as I had planned, I went to my late mother’s house which now belonged to my brother, Rockaway.
As I turned the key in the doorway, the sense of my mother’s loss really hit me for the first time. There was none of the gospel music she liked to keep playing on low in the living room. The radio, in fact, had been unplugged. There was none of the residual smells of cooking and eating—either leftover breakfast or preparations for dinner. Mostly, the house just felt empty. Rockaway would have been off at his college classes, Shanice at school, Charlix likely at a friend’s house.
But the house was more than empty of people. It was empty of soul. To use Rev. Caldwell’s words, my mother’s “spirit had departed.”
I sat down on the couch and started to wonder if Rockaway would really keep the house. There were a few houses on the street for sale. Maybe folks were moving to greener pastures or something. I wondered if I would really be able to hold my siblings together. Since as far back as I could remember, Momma was the glue. My siblings and I didn’t have to worry about a lot of things because we knew Momma would take care of it. She kept us together. “No matter what, family sticks,” she once said. “You may not like who you’re stuck to, but you’re stuck.”
Now, I have to be the glue. But it seems like I can’t keep parts of my own life stuck together. My music career is stalled because of my best friend’s foolishness. My girlfriend, despite her words, is still acting cagey. Suddenly, I have to deal with the father I never knew. And, now, I have to decide whether to report a black market human parts trafficking operation. If I don’t, Marco gets out of prison and his mother lives. If I do, there could be even worse consequences for the people I care about—and even some I don’t.
I got up and went to the kitchen to get something to drink. It was then that I smelled smoke. I sniffed, looking around the kitchen. The stove was off. The oven was off too.
Phone in hand, I followed the smell out of the kitchen and into the back hallway. The back door was open, and I could see through the screen door.
A man in a long black coat was hunched over in the back yard facing away from me. A stream of smoke billowed up over his shoulder. I opened the door softly and stepped out onto the deck to get a better look.
The man was standing over the metal wastebasket which I recognized as the one Momma kept in her room. A fire was blazing in it, flames leaping up as the man dropped something that looked like a book into it.
I realized, with horror, that it was one of my mother’s journals—the one’s the lawyer, Andrew Adamson, had told us about when he read her will.
“Hey!” I jumped down into the yard and barreled into the man, knocking him facedown onto the dead grass of the back yard. “What are you doing?”
The man rolled over and I could see his face.
It was Roland Barrett III. My father.