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The Stars Beneath Our Feet, page 1

 

The Stars Beneath Our Feet
 

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The Stars Beneath Our Feet


  THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Text copyright © 2017 by David Barclay Moore

  Cover art copyright © 2017 by R. Kikuo Johnson

  All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

  Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

  Visit us on the Web! rhcbooks.com

  Educators and librarians, for a variety of teaching tools, visit us at RHTeachersLibrarians.com

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available upon request.

  ISBN 9781524701246 (trade) — ISBN 9781524701253 (lib. bdg.) — ebook ISBN 9781524701260

  Random House Children’s Books supports the First Amendment and celebrates the right to read.

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  Contents

  Cover

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Dedication

  Epigraph

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Chapter 37

  Author’s Note

  Acknowledgments

  About the Author

  For

  Brian Patrick Moore,

  a star if ever there was one.

  I miss you.

  What I couldn’t get out of my skull was the thought of their rough, grimy hands all over my clean sneaks. What I couldn’t get out of my heart was this joy-grabbing stone I felt there. Partly because of these two thugs trailing me now, but more because I knew Jermaine wouldn’t be here to protect my neck this time.

  He would never, ever be coming home.

  My daddy, Benny Rachpaul, had bought me these sneakers when I turned twelve over the summer. I wasn’t about to let two older boys strolling down 125th Street snatch them off me.

  Besides me being humiliated by it, my mother would whup my butt if she knew I had let some dudes swipe my shoes. And then, when he found out, Daddy Rachpaul would drive over and whup me again.

  I flipped up the collar of my blue parka and continued down 125th Street, but rushed my step a little bit more. I heard the two boys following me quicken their pace. Their footsteps behind me crunched on the ice that much faster. My heart was beating faster too.

  The streets around me were cheery, though. Harlem’s main street was laid out tonight with bright lights, and Christmas tunes played constant on loudspeakers. I guess to put you more in the Christmas spirit.

  But for me, there was nothing, and I mean nothing, that would ever make me feel Christmassy again. I was through with it.

  Done.

  Done with all of the Christmas music, wreaths, ornaments and happy holiday shoppers. I had decided weeks ago that I would never be happy again.

  Because it wasn’t fair.

  Wasn’t fair to get robbed of somebody I thought would be there for the rest of my life. Someone who was supposed to spend this Christmas with me, plus lots more Christmases!

  It also wasn’t fair that I couldn’t even walk down 125th Street without being harassed. Rushing along down the sidewalk, I glanced up at all the men who were passing. All of them older and most of them Black like me. I was the youngest one out here and one of the few who felt scared to walk down this street.

  For us young brothers, taking a stroll down here, even on Christmas Eve, was not relaxing at all. I felt like I had put my life on the line, straight up.

  All of these old dudes lived in a different world from me.

  I crossed the street and dipped into a gift shop on the corner. Grinning wide smiles, my two “buddies” waited for me outside, one of them sitting down on a fire hydrant and wiggling his fingers at me like I was a little infant in a stroller.

  I sucked my teeth and turned toward the salesclerk.

  “Happy holidays, my young man,” the clerk said. “Help you find something?” For a minute, his eyes peeped outside at the two boys waiting. He frowned at them.

  I watched them leave and sighed with relief. The clerk cocked his bald head to one side.

  “I need a excellent Christmas gift,” I said. “One for my mother, and another one for her, um, friend. And for my father. But I don’t have much money.”

  “Last-minute shoppers,” he said, smiling at me. “Come on. We’ll get you straightened up. You’re lucky we’re open this late on Christmas Eve—125th Street is shutting down.”

  125th is a big street that runs from the East River on the east side of Manhattan to the Hudson River on the west side of Manhattan. The street cuts right through the neighborhood of Harlem and is where most of the main stores and shops and businesses are. The Apollo Theater, the Adam Clayton Powell Building and the Studio Museum are all lined up along 1-2-5. If Harlem was a human body, then 125th would be its pumping heart, throbbing all the time.

  I don’t know what the neighborhood’s brain would be.

  As I flew back toward home, I suddenly realized how heavy the gifts were that I had just bought in that shop. Ma and Yvonne would both be happy, I hoped. And Daddy, with his gift too.

  But the bag handle cut into my fingers.

  And just as I switched the plastic shopping bag to my other hand, I saw them. Across the wide blacktopped, slushy street, those two older boys had caught sight of me again. I started to step even faster down 125th Street, toward St. Nick, hoping I could make it to the border before they could catch me.

  Where I live, it’s all about borders.

  And territories.

  And crews.

  When you’re a little kid in Harlem, you can pretty much go anywhere and do anything as long as you’re careful. But when you start to get old—about my age, twelve—things start to change.

  You can’t go everywhere.

  You got to start worrying about crews. Crews are like cliques. Groups of mostly boys, and sometimes females, who hang out together. Mostly for fun, but for protection too.

  And each crew got its territory in their neighborhood. And if you ain’t from that hood, or a member of that set, you need to stay out.

  When I was young, I used to have a friend over on East 127th Street. His name was Cody. We used to play boxball and dodgeball on East 127th all the time, even though I lived on the West Side.

  Nowadays when I see Cody and he’s with his crew, we don’t talk at all. He just glares at me like I’m about to get jumped. He does it because we live in different places and we’re old now.

  That’s how crews work.

  So tonight, whe
n I finally turned off of 125th and onto Eighth Av’, the boys following me had to stop right there. There wasn’t no real roadblock set up for them. If they had really wanted to, they could’a kept on following me, right up the block and straight into St. Nick projects.

  But if they’d done that, somebody would’a jumped them boys.

  Or worse.

  “Yo, whattup, Lolly,” Concrete said to me when I walked up the path into St. Nick. We slapped hands. “Lolly Rachpaul,” he said again.

  “Hey, ’Crete,” I said to him. “How Day-Day?”

  “He fine,” Concrete said. “Thanks for asking. How your moms?”

  “She fine,” I said. “Merry Christmas!”

  “Yo, man, I don’t celebrate White Jesus Day no more!” he shouted. “This is the holiday of the Oppressor.”

  Concrete, about thirty, was ten years older than what Jermaine would’a been. ’Crete was what we called him. I didn’t even know what his real name was, and he probably didn’t know that my real name wasn’t Lolly, which is what everybody called me.

  “Sorry, man,” I told him.

  ’Crete didn’t even live in St. Nick, but he was always there, hanging around the big courtyard at its center. As far back as I remember, he had always been in that courtyard, peddling weed. He was a dealer, or “street pharmacist.”

  The place where I lived, the St. Nicholas Houses—otherwise known as the projects—was like a big family. Just like in a real family, you got some “relatives” you’re cool with and others you can’t stand, or who act up all the time.

  St. Nick Houses was just like that.

  It was home.

  I got to my building, where I lived with my moms, walked in through the broken door and took the steps, because our elevator was jacked up too—the city didn’t never fix nothing.

  Seven flights of stairs!

  About half the way up, the stairwell got all dark. The lights on this floor had burnt out, meaning I had to be careful climbing stairs in the gloominess.

  Being in the dark forced my brain to concentrate more on the smell, which was mostly laid-over pee. You got used to it, though, the pee smell.

  Just then, I raised one foot up and hit something. Something big and lumpy. The big lump jumped and clubbed my leg.

  I stumbled back and almost tripped down the stairs, until I realized the big lump was Moses. Who was a old drunk man. When it was real cold outside, like it was tonight, he sometimes slept in the stairs.

  Until the kids ran him out of here.

  Or the cops.

  “Merry Christmas, old drunk,” I said to him.

  “Show respect, boy!” he shouted after me. “I ain’t no drunk. I only booze it up twice a year—”

  “Yeah, I know, Moses: when it’s your birthday and when it’s not your birthday.”

  His jokes, I’d heard them all before.

  Moses cackled like a old witch in the darkness while I continued climbing stairs.

  I unlocked our front door and crept in.

  Grabbing my shopping bag close to my chest, I snuck past Ma and Yvonne. They were busy cooking dinner for our Christmas Eve bash. I smelled Ma’s famous roti and Yvonne’s mac and cheese baking and that pointy smell of callaloo cooking on top of the stove.

  Ma yelled out, “Lolly, you back?”

  “Yeah!”

  I shot straight for my bedroom and slammed the door.

  One thing about me, I love Legos.

  I may have been too old for them, but I had a million different Lego kits—space ones, dinosaurs, trucks and cars—all lining the walls of my bedroom on shelves. They used to get on Jermaine’s nerves since I had so many of them, and me and him used to share our bedroom.

  Now it’s just me in here.

  Every time I walk into our room, I have to face Jermaine’s empty twin bed, sitting across from mine.

  After getting the gift wrap out of my mother’s bedroom, I plopped down on my bed and wrapped up the gifts I had just bought. Then I laid back and counted my Lego kits. Right now I had forty-six different ones, and tomorrow morning I would probably get some more.

  I took pride in closely following the blueprints for each kit. Everything I built was exactly how it appeared on the box.

  I shut my eyes.

  Our front door buzzed.

  Soon enough, I heard Ma answer it and caught her wishing Vega a merry Christmas. His loud Dominican voice boomed back: him and his family was flying to DR on Christmas Day tomorrow.

  My mother tried to sound interested.

  Vega always talked like he was outside. Which was weird because when he played his musical instrument, he was real calm and silent.

  My eyes still shut, I heard him bounce in through my bedroom door and plop down on Jermaine’s old bed. He was quiet for a minute, I guess analyzing me.

  “You ain’t sleep, nigga,” I heard him say loudly.

  I couldn’t help laughing, so I opened my eyes.

  “Whattup,” he said, and then sang very sweetly: “I’m dreaming of a Black Christmas.”

  I laughed again. But my laughs had been weird lately. The good feeling that usually came with them only lasted a second. Then I fell right back to feeling all dark again.

  Vega knew this. He was my best friend.

  “You think your ma got you that smartphone you wanted?” he asked.

  I shrugged and rolled over on my side. “She says it’d put me in danger.” I pointed an imaginary gun at him and pulled the trigger. “She don’t wanna paint a big target on her boy’s chest.”

  “Yeah.” Vega stood. He checked out the Rocky the Clown poster that hung on my wall. “You think Benny Rachpaul’ll buy it for you?” he asked.

  I shrugged again. “No telling with my daddy.”

  “Hey, is he rolling through tonight?”

  “You know how he feel about Ma and her friends.”

  Vega nodded. “Yeah, but how long her and Yvonne been dating?”

  “A long time,” I answered.

  Casimiro Vega lived one floor above me with his parents and little sister, Iris. They looked basically Black and you would think that they were until they opened their mouths to say something in Dominican, or Spanish.

  His mother couldn’t speak English too proper. They were all Dominicans with real dark skin.

  My own skin wasn’t as dark as Vega’s. Mine was reddish brown and my cheekbones poked out a lot. I also had truly tiny eyes. I hated my eyes. They were almost slits.

  I narrowed my eyes even more as Vega studied one of my Lego kits on a shelf.

  He said, “I got a gay aunt, we just found out. She just told my mother at Thanksgiving.” Vega picked up a city bus. I always got nervous when somebody handled my Legos. “But everybody knew already. She act just like a dude. Drives a big bus for the city. Vroom!”

  “Butch,” I said, describing how she acted.

  “Yeah,” Vega agreed. He started giggling and almost dropped my Lego model.

  “Man!” I shouted. “Be careful.”

  “Ain’t nobody gonna drop your stupid bus,” he said, and put it back on the shelf. He pointed toward my bulletin board, with all my Lego blueprints. “I could draw better blueprints than these. They should hire me,” he said.

  “Right.” I sighed. “I hope Daddy does roll through for Christmas.”

  “You just want him to bring you that new phone!” Vega shouted, laughing.

  I shook my head. “I just wanna see him.”

  And right then, our doorbell rang again. I knew it was Daddy, and I jumped up to answer the door before Ma could. I thought that if she answered it and Daddy peeked in and saw her girlfriend in our kitchen cooking, he might turn right around and leave.

  So I ran to our front door, but there wasn’t nobody there but our neighbor Steve.

  Now, I liked Steve Jenkins, don’t get me wrong.

  He was tall and light-skinned and lived with his moms right next door to us. Him and my brother, Jermaine, used to spend all their time tog
ether when they were little, like me and Vega, my mother said.

  That all changed when they turned thirteen. Jermaine went in one direction—staying out more, running the streets—and Steve went another way, spending more time in after-school and art programs.

  Now Jermaine was gone and Steve made movies.

  Well, he didn’t really make movies, but he recorded the sound for movies and TV shows. I wouldn’t mind doing something like that when I’m twenty, working on movies. That’d be cool.

  I turn thirteen next summer, so I got a minute.

  Steve came back to my bedroom, where Vega was shaking the big Christmas gift that had been sitting on Jermaine’s bed the past week—a gift that I had hoped had come from Jermaine. Even though my brother was gone, lately I had started thinking: what if it was all a trick?

  What if my brother was hiding out somewhere? Like the supposedly dead rapper Tupac Shakur?

  Maybe him and Tupac were really chilling somewhere together.

  I smiled thinking about this.

  Steve scoped out all of my new Lego kits I’d built since he was last over. He studied them like he was trying to give them a grade.

  “You’d make a excellent architect, Lolly,” he finally said. “You always follow your blueprints so exact.”

  “That’s my thing,” I said. “I like them to be just like the box.”

  Steve picked up the same bus that Vega had almost let fall. This time I didn’t feel so nervous. I knew he wouldn’t drop it.

  “He needs to come up with something new, Steve,” Vega said. “He should build a Lego zombie. With somebody’s eyeballs and human brains dripping out of its mouth.”

  I sucked my teeth and held up one of my airplanes. It was dusty. I wished I had cleaned my kits off before Steve had seen them.

 
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