“Where’d you get that from?” I asked my older brother, my gaze latched on the gold watch wrapped around his wrist. It shimmered against his dark skin when he raised his hand to shield the sun from his face.
“What?” He questioned, not meeting my gaze. He was distracted, surveying the crowd filing out of the church. His eyes that were the colour of damp soil sought for the familiar faces of his friends amongst the folks scattered around in the large church parking lot.
“The watch,” I answered.
His gaze flitted to his wrist briefly, then he looked up at me. His jawline was set hard when he spoke. “Nathan gave it to me.”
“That’s not true. Nathan can’t even pay for a pair of new shoes on his feet, never mind a gold watch.”
“You better watch that fresh mouth of yours.”
“I’m going to tell mama.”
“You tell mama and I’ll tell her how you teefed those fifty cents from her last month to pay for her birthday present.”
I shut my mouth and tucked a loose strand of my long hair behind my ear. My eyes traveled down my brother’s white clean shirt, the only white shirt he had. It had a hole near the collar but you couldn’t see it unless you were close to him. Not many got too close to my half-brother. He ain’t the kind to hug you when you meet him, and certainly he don’t like people standing too close to him. His pants had a rip at the bottom, but he had cuffed them up to hide the tear. He wouldn’t tell mama how he’d gotten the rip on his pants. They were his only good pair that he wore to church every Sunday and I remember how mad mama had been at him when she’d figured out. His shoes had been scuffed but were clean, the same black pair that he’d had for the past two years.
“There’s Nathan.” He muttered in his usual warm voice that reverberated like a car’s engine.
My eyes scanned around the parking lot of the small church before I saw Nathan, the son of the pastor and Donte’s best friend.
I wiped away a slick of sweat forming on my neck. The day was hot, our Sunday clothes uncomfortable and tight.
The white boy saw Donte standing to the side and nodded at him. He pushed his way out of the clusters of people and made his way to my half-brother. I never cared to ask Nathan how old he is, but I guessed he’s the same age as my brother. Ever since kindergarten, they’ve always been tight.
Donte took a step forward, away from my side when Nathan reached us.
“Hey my man,” The lighter-skinned boy slapped my half-brother’s outstretched hand in their usual greeting before running his long, pale fingers through his blonde-grey hair. Somehow, even in this heat, his gelled-down hair managed to stay in one place.
“Where’s Low-Joe?” Donte asked, his eyes still on the groups of people quickly thinning before us.
“He was right behind me,” Nathan replied, then finally looked over at me with his sharp eyes. Outside in the sun they seemed to change from their usual blue-green to a piercing blue that matched the color of the sky. His thin lips were red and the kind that always seemed to be shiny. A lot of girls liked his looks, but Nathan didn’t care much about girls. Nathan didn’t smile much, but when he did, it scared me.
“Hi, Royce.” He spoke easily. I couldn’t tell if his steely gaze was happy to see me, or had darkened when he saw me.
“Hi.” I folded my arms across my chest, eyes squinting in the sun. Mama always said Nathan was trouble. She tells Donte to stay away from him, but my brother don’t listen much. Donte’s only two years older than me at sixteen, but sometimes he forgets that he’s still a kid.
Nathan turned away, with me quickly forgotten. “Low-Joe’s here right now.” He jerked a thumb behind his shoulder.
Everybody called Low-Joe by his nickname ’cause he’s short. I ain’t taller than him, but he’s only half an inch above me, and that says a lot.
“Hey, Royce. You good?” He gave me a fist bump after greeting Donte with a nod. His curly eyelashes blinked twice when he spoke. Low-Joe has the curliest eyelashes I’ve ever seen, curlier than mine. Out of all Donte’s friends, I like Low-Joe the best. Sometimes he could be a pain and needs a good lesson every now and then ’cause he’s always speaking without thinking, but most times he can be okay.
My lips turned to the sky. “Yeah. Yoself?”
He pulled at his tight collar, grimacing. “Yeah. Where’s your momma?”
“Somewhere here, I think I saw her talking with Mrs. Prentiss.” My gaze swivelled around, blinking at the harsh sunlight, seeking mama’s familiar lean form and the pastor wife’s pear-shaped one. Unlike mama, who was quiet and didn’t say much. Nathan’s mama was loud and bubbly with a plump gleaming face that held an endless smile.
Low-Joe nodded and looked away, surveying the last standing people.
“Royce,” I heard Donte call from behind me.
“Yeah?” I asked, spinning around. He had his shades on now, dark sunglasses that hid his deep eyes away from view. His hair appeared a lighter brown in the sun, the short curly ends illuminated by the bright light.
“I’m leavin’.” I couldn’t see his eyes as he spoke, and my eyes searched his face. I don’t like it when Donte wears his sunglasses, ’cause I can’t see his eyes. I can tell a lot of him just by looking at his eyes.
“Where you goin’?” I asked earnestly, hoping I could come along.
“Don’t matter.” He replied. Any hope in me was washed away when he answered. Nathan looked on with bored interest, thumbs hooked in his pockets like he was some kind of Western cowboy. I felt my cheeks go hot.
“You better tell mama where you’re headed first.” I put in sharply.
“I ain’t no mama’s boy.”
“I’m just saying.”
“Royce,” Nathan cut in impatiently. “You mind your own stuff, alright?”
I opened my mouth in an angry protest but before I could reply, Low-Joe interrupted.
“You wanna go buy something from Mr. Jay’s store?” He asked, stepping in between me and my brother, blocking my view as Donte turned and walked away with Nathan.
My eyes were firm on my brother as he made his way down the street. Mama wasn’t gonna be happy that he left like that. Especially if he’d gone with Nathan. I wished Donte would at least take me along with him. I didn’t like when Nathan was around ’cause he’s always going off with my half-brother and leaving me behind.
“I don’t have no money,” I mumbled, looking around for mama. I finally spotted her talking with Low-Joe’s gramma. My two younger twin sisters, Monica and Mary, were playing with Nathan’s six-year-old younger sister, Shelly.
“C’mon let’s go. You don’t need money.” Low-Joe grabbed my wrist and was tugging me.
I shook him away easily. “I’d better tell my mama first.”
“She won’t notice.”
I hesitated, looking back at my mama.
“I’m leaving,” He decided. “Stick around or don’t. It’s that simple.” He stated firmly as he began to walk away.
I glanced back at mama. She was in a deep conversation, and I knew she wouldn’t miss us. Why, me and Low-Joe could walk all the way to the moon and come back, and they still would be chatting away like birds. I looked back at Low-Joe. He didn’t turn back to see if I was coming or not. I sighed. It wouldn’t be far, just across the block.
I jogged after him, before catching up and falling into a smooth walk beside him. His long strides outstretched mine easily. Low-Joe could be short, but he still has long legs.
He looked over at me and a smile tugged at the corner of his lips. We didn’t say anything ’till we got to Mr. Jay’s small convenience store on the end of the street. It was on the corner, with cars parked on the side of the road in front of it.
“Look at that one. That’s the baddest Trans Am I’ve ever seen.” Low-Joe spoke suddenly, then let out a low whistle between his teeth. I always begged him to teach me how to whistle but he always seems to forget how.
“I don’t like the green colour.” I answered, studying the car parked in front of us. It’s shining chrome wheels glinted as the sun poured its light into the shiny metal. “It’s too bright.”
“Nah, I think it looks alright. You don’t think?”
I shook my head and we continued walking on down the street.
Across the street from it was another church, a Catholic one. It’s tall towering shadow shielded us from the sun that glared at us as if it was angry.
The bells jingled welcomingly in their usual way when we entered the little convenience store, the cool conditioned air rushing to greet us. I let out a deep breath, thankful for the coolness. Mr. Jays looked up at us from behind the counter, where he was occupied with counting bills, lips moving silently to each handful of cash. He paused to look up and acknowledge us with a slight frown, then resumed his steady count. I followed Low-Joe around the store for a bit, looking here and there wishfully at things nothing in my pocket could by. I was ashamed to say that there was no money in my pockets at all.
“You want gum?” Low-Joe asked, prying off a pack of the pink candy off the slope of the counter. I shook my head, but he didn’t put it back. Mr. Jays glanced at us briefly before going on with counting the bills in his hands once more.
“Then go get me a can of pop.” Low-Joe nodded to the bottle cooler across the room, hands stuffed in his pockets like he couldn’t use them.
“What are you, some kinda prince or something?” I muttered, making my way to the opposite side of the store.
“Get one for yoself too,” Low-Joe added as I slid open the bottle cooler’s cold sliding door. I grabbed two cans of 7-up. Mama doesn’t like when I drink Coke. Says only the devil would drink something that disgusting. Which doesn’t make much sense because I always see Low-Joe drinking it and he don’t look like no devil to me.
“You got money?” I hinted, sticking my hands in my pockets, which I already knew to be empty. My left pocket had a hole in it I didn’t know about until I lost a good fifty cents last week. I thought Donte had teefed it from me but I know he ain’t no bad brother to do something like that.
“Yeah.” He answered, motioning for me to set the cans on the counter. Mr. Jays standing behind it finished counting the money and disappeared for a moment to the back of the store.
Low-Joe pulled at his tight collar and wiped the sweat from his brow twice. It was cool in the store, but apparently Low-Joe still seemed to be sweltering. Finally, Mr. Jays returned.
“I hope you kids ain’t putting yourselves in no trouble.” Mr. Jays glared at us from behind his thin spectacles. I always thought he looked like some kinda bird, maybe a skinny one with his long limbs and narrow face, a nose protruding from it like a sharp beak. He wiped the sweat from his brow, let out a breath and looked over at me.
“No sir. We staying well out of trouble.” I answered with a smile.
“Hmph.” He replied gruffly, and didn’t say much after that.
Low-Joe pulled out a bill from his pocket. Mr. Jays stared at it for a moment, then back at both of us. He narrowed his eyes, took the bill without a word and gave Low-Joe the change, as well as the two cans of soda.
When we were safely outside and Low-Joe was popping open his can of soda, I pulled him aside roughly and demanded answers.
“Where’d you get that twenty dollar bill from?” I pushed him close against the hot brick wall and some of his drink splashed on his good shirt.
“Royce! Look what you did to my clean shirt! Gramma’s gonna be vexed with me.”
I hardly glanced at the liquid stain before questioning him again. “People like you and me don’t have money like that. Where’d you get that from?”
“Gramma gave it to me, okay?” He pulled away, eyes flashing with anger. “What’s wrong with you? Are you jealous or what?”
“Of course not!”
“So let go of me.”
“I’m cool.” I backed away a few steps, giving him some room.
“Let’s go.” His words were hardened.
He started to walk back towards our church and I said nothing as we made our way down the street.
“Hey, you want some gum?” He pulled out the two packs of pink candy from his pocket and slid a piece of gum out from one of them.
I glared at him but it didn’t last long, and in the end I shrugged, my face edging into a smile. “Okay.”
He gave two pieces to me, taking three himself. When he passed over the gum, I saw that the other pack wasn’t a gum pack at all. It was a pack of cigarettes. My lips parted in surprise but he pocketed both packs quickly without saying nothing. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen him with cigarettes. Once I saw him across the street, outside his house, smoking as he sat on the front steps. Then mama had called me from inside the house and when I went back out again minutes later, he was gone and I never questioned him about it.
“You smoke?” I asked warily, widening the small gap between us. He glanced at me, looking offended.
“Only a little.”
I went silent, not saying anything.
It was only when we were halfway down the street when I realized that Low-Joe hadn’t paid for the gum or cigarettes at all.
He’d stolen them.