Amari and the Night Brothers – B. B. Alston

I’M SITTING IN THE PRINCIPAL’S OFFICE. AGAIN. IN THE hallway, on the other side of the glass door, Principal Merritt is getting an earful from Emily Grant’s mom. With all those wild hand gestures, you’d think I did a lot more than give her stuckup Little Miss Princess daughter a tiny shove. Emily got up in my face, not the other way around. Wasn’t my fault she lost her balance and fell on her butt in front of everybody. Emily stands behind her mom, surrounded by her squad. They cover their mouths and whisper, eyeing me through the door like they can’t wait to catch me alone. I lean back in my chair, out of view. You’ve really done it this time, Amari. I glance up at the picture of the brownskinned boy on the wall behind Principal Merritt’s desk and frown. Quinton proudly holds up the trophy he won in the state math competition. You can’t see, but me and Mama are just offstage, cheering him on. There’s not much to cheer about anymore. The door swings open and Mrs.

Grant stalks in, followed by Emily. Neither makes eye contact as they settle into the chairs farthest from me. Their dislike for me seems to fill up the whole office. I frown and cross my arms—the feeling is mutual. Then comes Mama in her blue hospital scrubs—she got called away from work because of me again. I sit up in my chair to plead my case, but she shoots me a look that kills the words in my throat. Principal Merritt takes his seat last, his weary eyes moving between us. “I know there’s history between the two girls. But seeing as it’s the last day of school—” “I want that girl’s scholarship revoked!” Mrs. Grant explodes.

“I don’t pay what I pay in tuition to have my daughter assaulted in the hallways!” “Assaulted?” I start, but Mama raises a hand to cut me off. “Amari knows better than to put her hands on other people,” says Mama, “but this has been a long time coming. Those girls have harassed my daughter since she first set foot on this campus. The messages they left on her social media pages were so ugly we considered deleting her accounts.” “And we addressed that matter as soon as it was brought to our attention,” says Principal Merritt. “All four girls received written warnings.” “How about the stuff they say to my face?” I lean forward in my chair, face burning. “They call me Charity Case and Free Lunch and remind me every chance they get that kids like me don’t belong here.” “Because you don’t!” says Emily. “Quiet!” Mrs.

Grant snaps. Emily rolls her eyes. Mrs. Grant stands, turning her attention to Mama. “I’ll have a talk with my daughter about her behavior, but your daughter got physical—I could press charges. Be thankful this is as far as I’m taking it.” Mama bristles but bites her tongue. I wonder if it’s because Emily’s mom is right about pressing charges. Practically the whole school saw. “Up,” says Mrs.

Grant to her daughter, and they head for the door. Mrs. Grant stops short and looks back at us. “I expect to be notified the moment her scholarship is revoked. Or the Parents’ Association will have a lot to say at the next meeting.” The door slams behind them. I can barely sit still, I’m so mad. This is all so unfair. People like Emily and Mrs. Grant will never understand what it’s like to not have money.

They can do whatever they want with no consequences while the rest of us have to watch our every step. “Are you really taking away Amari’s scholarship?” Mama asks in a small voice. Principal Merritt drops his eyes. “We have a zerotolerance policy when it comes to physical altercations. School rules dictate she be expelled. Taking her scholarship is the smallest punishment I can offer.” “I see . ” Mama sinks in her chair. My anger melts into shame. Mama’s already sad because of Quinton.

I shouldn’t be adding to her troubles just because I can’t handle a few bullies. “I know that it’s been . difficult,” says Principal Merritt to me, “since Quinton’s disappearance. He was a great kid with a truly bright future. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to connect the dots between that incident and the start of your behavior problems, Amari. I can arrange for you to talk to a counselor, free of charge—” “I don’t need a counselor,” I interrupt. Principal Merritt frowns. “You should talk with someone about your anger.” “You want to know why I shoved Emily? It’s because she thought it was funny to joke that my brother is dead. But he isn’t.

I don’t care what anyone says. He’s out there somewhere. And when I find him, I’ll show you all!” I’m shaking, tears streaming down my face. Principal Merritt doesn’t say anything. Mama stands up slowly and pulls me into her arms. “Go to the car, Babygirl. I’ll finish up here.” We ride home in silence. It’s been almost six months since Quinton went missing, but it doesn’t feel that long. Seems like just the other day he was calling Mama’s phone to say he’d be home for Christmas.

It was a big deal because Quinton was always gone once he got that fancy job after high school. The kind where you can’t tell anybody what you do. I used to swear up and down that Quinton was some supersecret spy like James Bond. But he would just give me this little smirk and say, “You’re wrong, but you’re not totally wrong.” Whenever I tried to get more out of him he’d just laugh and promise to tell me when I got older. See, Quinton is smart smart. He graduated valedictorian from Jefferson Academy and got full scholarship offers from two Ivy League schools. He turned them both down to work for whoever he was working for. When he went missing, I was sure his secret job had something to do with it. Or at least that somebody who worked with him might know what happened.

But when we told the detectives about his job they looked at me and Mama like we were crazy. They had the nerve to tell us that—as far as they could tell—Quinton was unemployed. That there were no tax records to indicate that he ever had a job of any kind. But that just didn’t make sense— he’d never lie about something like that. When Mama told them he used to send money home to help out with bills, the detectives suggested that Quinton might be involved in something he didn’t want us to know about. Something illegal. That’s always what people think when you come from “the ’Wood,” aka the Rosewood lowincome housing projects. The car rattles as we pass over the railroad tracks, letting me know we’re in my neighborhood now. I’m not going to lie, it feels different coming back here after being on the other side of town. It’s like the world is brighter around Jefferson Academy and all those big, colorful houses that surround it.

Where I’m from feels gray in comparison. We pass liquor stores and pawnshops, and I see DBoys leaning up against street signs, mean mugging like they own the whole world. Jayden, a boy I knew in elementary school, stands with a bunch of older boys, a big gold chain around his neck. He recognizes the car and shoots me a grin as we pass. I try to smile back but I don’t know if it’s convincing. We haven’t spoken since Quinton went missing. Not since he started hanging with the guys he promised my brother he’d stay away from. Once we pull up in front of our apartment building, Mama buries her face in her hands and cries. “Are . are you okay?” I ask.

“I feel like I’m failing you, Babygirl. I work twelvehour shifts, five days a week. You should have somebody around who you can talk to.” “I’m fine. I know you only work so much because you have to.” Mama shakes her head. “I don’t want you to have to struggle like I do. That scholarship to Jefferson Academy was your ticket to a good college—to a better life. Lord knows I can’t afford to send you to a place like that on my own. I don’t know what we’re supposed to do now.

” “I’m sorry, but I never fit in at that place.” I cross my arms and turn to look out the window. Just because my brother made it look so easy doesn’t mean I can too. “I’m not Quinton.” “I’m not asking you to be your brother,” says Mama. “I’m just asking that you try. That school was an opportunity for you to see that there’s a big, wide world outside this neighborhood. A chance to broaden your horizons.” She sighs. “I know it’s unfair, but the truth is that when you’re a poor Black girl from the ’Wood, certain people are gonna already have it in their minds what type of person you are.

You can’t give them a reason to think they’re right.” I don’t respond. She acts like this isn’t something she’s already told me a million times. “If you’re not acting up in school,” says Mama, “then you’re sitting in front of that computer for hours. It’s not healthy, Amari.” I mean, I know she’s right. But it’s hard to concentrate on schoolwork when you can hear other kids whispering about you. And posting photos of Quinton on as many websites as I can lets me feel like I’m helping with the search. I know it’s a long shot, but it gives me hope. Mama continues, “When you get inside, I want you to slide that laptop under my door and leave it there.

” “But Mama.” She waves her hand. “I don’t wanna hear it. Until you decide to take your future more seriously, that computer stays with me. We’ll talk more about this tomorrow. I’ve gotta get back to the hospital.” I slam the car door after I get out. And I don’t look back once as I stomp toward our building. What am I supposed to do now? Once I’m inside the apartment, I fall over onto the couch and bury my head in the pillows. This has been the worst day.

Finally, with a groan, I pull myself up to a sitting position and grab my old, beatup laptop from my book bag. Quinton won it after placing second at some international science fair forever ago. He gave it to me after he won a better one the next year. I’m not even surprised when the screen stays black after I open it up. I open and close it a few times, but it still won’t work. Since it’s clearly in one of its moods, I set it down and head to the kitchen to get myself some food. Except, even after I’ve calmed my grumbling belly, the laptop still won’t turn on. I close my eyes and bring it up to my forehead. “Mama says I’ve got to give you up, and there’s no telling when she’ll give you back. Please work.

” This time it powers right up. Thank goodness. The free neighborhood WiFi is super slow, but I’m still able to copy and paste Quinton’s missing persons poster onto a dozen websites. Normally I’d check his email next (I figured out his password months ago—Amari-Amazing—my fake superhero name from way back), but my curiosity gets the best of me and I pull up Emily Grant’s Instagram page to see if she posted anything about today. And what do I find? A photo of me on her profile with the caption: Summer Break! And guess what? We finally took out the trash at Jefferson. Expelled! The post has a ton of comments from other students. I only read a few before I slam the laptop shut. Never wanted her here . I heard she used to steal from the lockers . All it took was her dumb brother to drop dead .

I didn’t get expelled, and my brother isn’t dead. Jaw clenched, I open my laptop again to write a reply to shut them all up. A notification appears at the top of the screen, and my whole body goes stiff. It’s a new email for Quinton. 1 New Email: From Discreet Deliveries Which may not sound like a lot, but Quinton never gets new emails. Ever. I’ve been checking since the day I figured out his password. I open the email: Package Delivered. You shall receive a separate email once Amari Peters has signed, as requested. Thanks for using Discreet Delivery service, where they get what’s coming to them, whether they know it or not! This email will self-destruct in 3 .

2 . 1 . The email vanishes. I jump in surprise. Did that email really just . And what am I supposed to sign? A knock sounds at the front door. “Delivery!” 2 I SPRINT TO THE FRONT DOOR AND YANK IT OPEN. A man in tattered clothes stands hunched over in the doorway. I lean over him to look down the sidewalk in both directions. Where’s the delivery guy? “Hello there,” he says without looking up.

“Might I trouble you for a moment?” I instantly feel guilty for overlooking him. “I don’t have any money. But there’s a Hot Pocket in the freezer you can have. Mama hasn’t gone shopping yet.” “That’s very kind of you but I’ve actually just left a very fine restaurant.” “Oh,” I say. “So you’re not homeless?” “Homeless? Heavens, no.” The guy finally lifts his head—he’s older, with a neatly trimmed gray beard. The thing he’s been hunched over is a computer tablet. “Why would you think that?” My eyes drop to his patchy clothes.

“Um, no reason.” The guy follows my eyes and his face goes bright red. “I’ll have you know that this is the height of fashion in—oh, never mind. Might your name be Amari Peters?” Whoa! I take a couple steps backward. “How do you know my name?” “It’s right here on the screen,” he says, pointing to his tablet. “I’ll just need you to sign for your delivery and I’ll be on my way.” “You’re . the delivery guy?” I say warily. “And you’ve got a package for me?” “Yep.” He flips the tablet around.

“From a Q. Peters.” I gasp. “You’re saying you’ve really brought me something from my brother?” The guy nods. “I do if this Q. Peters fella is your brother. Says here he’s sent exactly one ‘Broaden Your Horizons’ kit.” Broaden your horizons? Wasn’t that what Mama was just talking about? “Is this some kind of joke?” “I should think not.” He frowns. “I only do deliveries parttime, but I take it seriously.

” “Well, whatever you’re supposed to be delivering, I’ll take it.” That’s when I notice he’s not carrying any envelopes or boxes. “Where is it?” “Only after you sign, I’m afraid.” The guy offers the tablet and I grab it, messily signing the screen with the tip of my finger. I look at him expectantly. “The package?” The man taps the screen a couple more times. “Left it in Q. Peters’s old bedroom closet.” I just stare. “You’ve been inside my apartment?” “With Q.

Peters’s permission, of course.” He clears his throat loudly. “Now then, I’m afraid I’ll be needing your memory of this whole encounter. You see, we at Discreet Deliveries take pride in our customers’ anonymity. Don’t worry, you’ll still get your package. At some point during the day you’ll feel the sudden, unexplainable urge to clean out that closet, and there the package will be.” “You need my . what?” I take a nervous step back. “Just the one memory.” The guy pulls out what looks like a TV remote control.

Then he squints down at the tablet again. “Oh. My mistake! Seems your name is on the Memory Intact List. Someone’s off to the Bureau, I’ll bet. Best thirty years of my life. Anyways, good afternoon!” I blink and the man is gone. What in the world just happened? And what’s in my brother’s closet? Even after all this time, I half expect to hear Quinton yell at me for barging into his room without his permission. I step inside and glance around at the wrinkled rap posters hanging alongside his framed photographs of Stephen Hawking and Martin Luther King. His bed is messy, like always, and all his academic trophies and honor roll certificates fill up the back wall. The investigators tore this place apart looking for clues about what might’ve happened to him, but me and Mama made sure to put everything back exactly like it was.

I think we both secretly hoped we’d find something the police missed, something only family might recognize. But that just didn’t happen. Neither one of us has been in here since. It hurts too much. It’s not until I get all the way inside that the memories hit me. All the times Quinton and I used to play in here. Or how sometimes he’d put on a playlist while we lay on the floor, joking and talking about how we were going to take over the world one day. How we were going to show our loser dad who ditched Mama that we’re worth something. How we’d always have each other’s backs, no matter what. Sure, Quinton might be ten years older than me, but we’ve always been tight.

Tick . tick . tick .

.

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