There’s Going to Be a Fight in the Cafeteria on Friday and You Better Not Bring Batman
By Lamar Giles
The Winter Soldier
The school bus squealed to a stop at the corner by Cornell’s house. Other kids from the neighborhood got off, but he was too busy rereading that stupid list to notice. Black Panther gone. Superman gone. The Hulk--
“Cornell!” Mr. Jeffries shouted from the driver’s seat. “You ain’t about to have me doubling back because you missed your stop again. Pay attention!”
“Sorry. Sorry.” Cornell scooted from his seat and brushed past his laughing schoolmates, including Amaya Arnold. Amaya was more giggling than laughing, and Cornell could tell she wasn’t being mean. Actually, her giggle was kind of pretty. Almost as pretty as her.
But he wasn’t brave enough to look her way too long, so his eyes wandered . . . to Tobin Pitts. Who was staring at him. Hard.
Tobin swiped his red bangs away from his eyes and freckled forehead. “Hope you’re ready.”
Cornell shook his head and exited the bus with that stupid list taking up the space in his head he’d rather reserve for Amaya.
But, unless she got superpowers before lunch tomorrow, she wasn’t going to be much help.
The cars in the driveway told Cornell everyone was home except Mom, who was still on the West Coast for her business trip. He weaved between Carter’s beat-up burgundy Chevy “starter car,” Dad’s might-be-time-for-an-upgrade-if-he-can-convince-Mom black Audi, and Pop-Pop’s classics-are-the-way-to-go baby blue Cadillac until he reached the side door. He removed the lanyard from his neck where his single silver key dangled and jiggled it in the knob.
Before she left, Mom had told them all, “Don’t think because I’m away it’s supposed to be Bruhs Gone Wild. I want this house looking like humans live here when I get back.”
Inside, the funky-ripe smell of the overfull kitchen trash can suggested they had work to do.
First things first, though. “Carter! Hey, Carter! I need your help.”
Cornell’s brother wasn’t in the kitchen, and the house wasn’t shaking from rap bass, so he probably wasn’t in his bedroom. Cornell rushed through the dining room, scooted by Mom’s home office, cut through the foyer, kicked his shoes off before stepping into the living room no one ever sat in, and came to a skidding stop at the den, where he found his brother on the wraparound couch with a guest.
“Hi,” Cornell said, surprised.
The girl gushed. “Oh, you must be Carter’s brother!”
She had dark brown skin, supercool red-framed glasses, and an Afro puff on each side of her head. She reminded Cornell of Amaya. Her jean jacket had a bunch of buttons pinned to the collar and pockets. Cornell leaned forward, trying to read some--black lives matter; love is love--when Carter reminded them he was in the room. “Whatchu need, Lil’ Man?”
Cornell’s chin jerked up. Carter never called him “Lil’ Man” before. Also, “Why’s your voice sound like that?”
Carter coughed and cleared his throat. The weird deepness became his normal little-bit-whiny voice. “We’re studying.”
The girl told Carter, “Hey, I want you to introduce me to this little cutie.”
Cornell smiled. “Thank you!”
Mom taught him how to take a compliment.
Carter . . . was not smiling. “Raven, that’s Cornell. Cornell, Raven. What. Do. You. Want?”
“Oh, right!” Cornell fished the list from his back pocket and hopped over the back of the couch. It was a nimble leap. He landed right between the study buddies.
Raven clapped like Cornell had done some YouTube-level parkour. Carter stared, his face twitching in a super weird way. He was probably just focusing real hard so he could be as helpful as possible, Cornell figured.
“There’s this thing that happens in the cafeteria on Fridays,” Cornell said, “where everyone gathers around and argues about which superheroes can do what. Sometimes it’s just about who’s better, and sometimes it’s about who would beat who in a fight. It’s a big thing. Anyway, my name got pulled out the hat again, so I have to go tomorrow, except I can’t use any of the characters on this list because--”
Carter stood up.
Maybe he thought better on his feet.
“Come with me.” Carter left the room.
Cornell hopped off the couch and waved bye to Raven.
He found Carter in the kitchen, leaning on the fridge, his face tight. “Do you see what’s happening out there?”
“Yeah, you’re studying with Raven.”
Carter’s chest heaved. He snatched the paper from Cornell’s hand. “Gimme that list.”
His eyebrows rose. “Batman’s perma-banned?”
“Yep. Everyone thinks he’s overrated. Plus, it’s not cool how he practices his karate on, like, his neighbors.”
“True. Don’t even get me started on him fighting Superman. I mean, an orbital blast of Heat Vision beats a stupid bat-shaped boomerang any day of the week.”
“That’s what I said.”
Carter’s mouth screwed up. He rubbed the back of his head with one hand. “You need a super who’s not on this list?”
“No!” Cornell got to the really alarming part he was trying to explain on the couch. “I need three. Tomorrow’s category is Battle Royale Trios.”
“Y’all have categories? That is weirdly precise.” He seemed impressed.
“It’s the last debate before school’s out and I always lose. Help. Me.”
“Okay, okay.” Carter cracked the fridge, grabbed three ginger ales in the glass bottles that Dad liked while he contemplated the list.
Cornell plucked the magnetized bottle opener from the fridge door and popped the caps off. He liked the clinking noise they made when they hit the granite counter.
“Can’t use Black Panther?” Carter said.
Cornell pointed to the back of the sheet. Luke Cage had already been used in a previous battle, too.
“Black Green Lantern?”
Cornell chewed his lip. “Someone used a white Green Lantern before, so since they’re both Green Lantern, it might not work.”
“That’s trash,” Carter said, but moved on. “You really gotta know your stuff to work these rules. Okay, seems to me you need a pretty versatile team to be safe. Someone techy. Someone magic. Maybe some kind of wild card. Like a telepath, or a teleporter.”
“If Shuri or Riri Williams isn’t on the list, you’ve still got good techy options.” Raven stood in the doorway between the kitchen and the den, obviously catching all of their conversation even though they’d tried to be quiet.
Carter straightened, then sort of leaned diagonal on the counter like someone was about to take his picture. “Bae, didn’t know you were into this.”
He was also back to his funky not-normal voice. What was wrong with Carter?
Raven joined them at the counter. “May I see your list, Cornell?”
“Yep.” He passed it to her.
Raven smoothed the paper on the countertop, reviewed it, then flipped it over. “Can I have a pen, please?”
Cornell looked to Carter. Carter looked confused but retrieved a pen from the junk drawer. Raven began quick scribbling on the list. Then: “Here.”
Wonder Woman Nubia
Iron Man Riri/Ironheart
The Hulk She-Hulk
The Winter Soldier
Black Panther Shuri
Cornell didn’t know what to say. This was genius.
“Pro tip,” Raven said, “don’t sleep on the ladies. Now you have options.”
Carter gawked like he’d just met a real-life superhero. “Who are you?”
“Fan Girl,” Raven said. “Now we probably should do a little studying.”
“Absolutely,” Carter grabbed two ginger ales and led Raven away.
Cornell went over the list again; Raven poked her head back in the room.
She said, “I don’t know the rules for your debates, but in case your friends say you can’t swap She-Hulk for Hulk or something, you might want some backups.”
She was right. Of course. “Thanks, Raven. I’m glad you can tolerate Carter enough to be here.”
Carter yelled, “Go. Away!”
But Cornell was already gone. Darting to the rec room for Dad’s advice.
Hopefully he was as good as Raven.
“. . . All right, you Workout Warriors! Keep the High-Intensity Interval Training blast-off going! Twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty . . .”
One of the really energetic but a little bit scary trainers from Dad’s workout app screamed instructions Cornell heard before he entered the rec room. He burst in, found Dad on the couch sweaty and gasping.
Dad spotted Cornell and leapt up, rejoining the workout streaming on their big TV with an out-of-sync burpee.
“Thirty-two,” he said, “thirty-three, thirty . . . hey, son. Let me pause this real quick.”
Dad’s hand shook when he exited out of the workout video instead of pausing it, then closed the app altogether.
“Whew! Good workout.” He heavy-gasped three times, then dropped to one knee like he needed to tie his shoe even though both sneakers were double-knotted. “Never stop moving, son. Never. Stop. Moving.”
Cornell was concerned about his father’s hard breathing. “Do you want to lie back on the couch, Dad?”
“After . . . that? No way. That was light work.” He squeezed one eye shut against the sweat pouring off his forehead. “You need something?”
Dad looked like Carter (and, I guess, me, Cornell thought) just wider, with less hair on his head, but more (gray!) hair on his face. He liked cool bands like the Roots and really good singers like Mary J. Blige, and insisted they were better than Carter’s and Cornell’s music--sometimes, maybe, they were. Dad loved funny Eddie Murphy movies, and serious TV like CNN and Divorce Court, and often wanted the whole family in the rec room on Saturday nights to play Monopoly or UNO. Since the superhero battles were kind of like a game, he might be into it. Cornell showed him the updated list and explained what he was looking for.
“I see,” Dad said. “Does it have to be strictly comics?”
“Naw. Someone said John Wick once and everyone was okay with it. Then the John Wick kid tried to say John Wick could use Kryptonite bullets. We all knew that was wrong, though.”
“Uh-huh.” Dad was still gasping, but less.
“Raven, Carter’s friend, gave me a good techy option with Riri Williams. Carter said it might not hurt to have a magic user.”
Dad perked. “That’s easy, then. Kazaam’s your guy.”
“Shazam?” Cornell flipped the list, almost certain that hero had been used, too.
Dad said, “Not SHA-zam. KA-zaam. The genie basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal played in the best movie of 1996.”
“Let me show you.” Dad opened the movie app on the TV and scrolled through the family library to the Ks.
“We own Kazaam?”
“Boy, I’ve owned Kazaam on VHS, DVD, Blu Ray--had to buy that one international because apparently the United States dropped the ball there--and now on digital.”
“Why?” The thumbnail photo of the basketball giant in golden genie clothes and the floppy-haired kid star of the film looked ridiculous.
Dad’s breathing was normal again--thank goodness--and he shambled to the couch, patting the cushion next to him. Cornell took a seat.
“This movie came out when I was about your brother’s age. To be honest, I got excited whenever I saw Black guys like us on the big screen. Pop-Pop would take me and your grandma to see any movie that Black folks were a part of, and I loved them all, even if they sometimes seemed silly.”
Dad worked the remote, scrolling through other movies in their digital library that Cornell never noticed. “There’s The Meteor Man. Blankman. Steel--another Shaq classic. Spawn. Blade. Those last two we might watch when you’re a little older. If you want, I mean.”
“How come you never showed me these before?” They watched movies together all the time, but never these.
“I tried with Carter when you were very young, but he wasn’t into it. Your generation have a lot of different--and better--things than me and your mom had. I get it. I still keep all this because I love it, and . . .” He wrung his hands in a way that made Cornell feel a little sad. “I like having something for y’all from when I was young. Even if you don’t need it.”
Cornell took his list back, pressed it onto his thigh so he could write. He scribbled down his new additions.
Wonder Woman Nubia
Iron Man Riri/Ironheart
The Hulk She-Hulk
The Winter Soldier
Black Panther Shuri
Cornell hopped off the couch. “Dad, I don’t know about those Shaquille O’Neal movies, but could we maybe watch Meteor Man this weekend? His costume’s cool.”
Dad beamed! And looked way less like he needed to go to the hospital. “Of course. Just catch me after I’m done working out Saturday. Gotta keep my six-pack tight.” He rubbed his round belly and cackled.
“Love you, Dad,” Cornell said on his way out.
“Love you too.”
“Hey, you said Pop-Pop took you to see those movies?”
“Every last one.”
Cornell jogged up the stairs, bypassing his bedroom for the one at the far end of the hall. Pop-Pop’s.
Time they had a little chat about his taste in film.
Cornell knocked, a three-part rhythm. Ta-da-thump!
Pop-Pop called from the other side, “Who dat?”
Pop-Pop knew full well who it was because that Ta-da-thump was Cornell’s knock, but this was part of the game they’d played since he was little-little. “It’s Cornell Curry, your grandson, Pop-Pop.”
“Are you sure you’re Cornell and not some sneak thief coming for my gold?”
“The only gold you have is your tooth.”
“Well, I definitely ain’t letting you in, then. Because if you a sneak thief, how I’m supposed to chew?”
It was silly, and didn’t make a lot of sense, but they’d been doing it since Cornell was four years old, and it still felt a little funny. Cornell knew it wasn’t something they’d do forever. But it was fine for now, and that was okay.
Cornell turned the knob, stepped inside, and immediately began coughing. His eyes burned. What was happening?
“Close that there door for me, Nelly.”
Cornell cupped his hand over his nose and mouth. “Are you sure?”
“Yep. Need your opinion on something.”
Sealing them in, Cornell adjusted to the weird scent his brain identified as spicy lemon juice ocean water.
Pop-Pop said, “I got Bible study tonight and Miss Felicia down at the church sent me one of them text messagings with a winky face saying she liked the cologne I had on the other Sunday. Thing is I switch it up every Sunday because you got to be unpredictable.” He motioned to a silver tray on his dresser that was jam-packed with half-drained cologne bottles. “Remember that, Cornell. Never let ’em see you comin’!”
Copyright © 2021 by Kwame Mbalia. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.