“There’s nothing too spectacular about you.”
“Well, jack my phone and call me Jill; that fool done it again!”
Aunt Kat shuffles into the living room and lowers herself into her special peach-colored easy chair, a piece of paper in her hand and a frown on her face. She tosses the paper onto the coffee table in front of her. Me and my sister, Shannon, call it the Obama Table, since Aunt Kat’s got practically every magazine he was ever on the cover of.
Shannon’s in the kitchen, chopping the life outta something, and she calls over, “What’s wrong, Aunt Kat?”
Aunt Kat shakes her head, the corners of her mouth turned down like she just smelled one of my power-farts.
“Cain’t even speak on it, girl,” she says at first, which only means she’s gonna speak on it in 5 . . . 4 . . . 3 . . . 2 . . .
“But that fool brother of mine done took off again to God knows where!”
“You think he’s okay?” Shannon asks.
“Pffft!” Aunt Kat makes a loud noise with her lips. “Who gonna know that? For all I know, he’s somewhere slumped over a piano havin’ a heart attack, while some used-to-be singer tries to hold on to her note and her wig!”
I bust out laughing before I can stop myself. I shut my mouth real quick and try to go back to being invisible on the couch, praying Aunt Kat don’t look my way and tell me my ten minutes on the Nintendo Switch are up. I know, right? Who gives a ten-minute video game limit?
Luckily, she’s too upset about her brother leaving to pay any attention to me. She mutters about how ungrateful he is, and who’s gonna pay his part of the bills here at the house now that he’s gone. Not gonna lie; Frankie Bell always gets the good groceries when he’s home.
It’s really not a shocker, but Aunt Kat’s actin’ like this has never happened before. To be honest, this happens almost every month! Her brother, my great-uncle, Frankie Bell, is a musician--a piano player--and according to him, he’s been playing since birth, and traveling as much as he can with his group, the Bell-Aires.
“I started off strumming the umbilical cord,” Frankie Bell tells anybody who asks. “But when I got out that womb prison, it was all about the keys.”
Frankie Bell’s been in bands since he was fifteen, and he says he’ll be in one till they’re playing for his funeral.
Aunt Kat, who’s technically my great-aunt, was the oldest of six kids, and all that’s left is her and Frankie Bell, the youngest. My grandfather, who was next in line after Aunt Kat, died when I was three. All I remember about him is the smell of Vicks VapoRub and cigar smoke. So Frankie Bell, which is what everybody calls him, is the closest thing to a grandfather I got. He’s cool but kinda weird. Aunt Kat says he’s ten steps past crazy, whatever that means.
“You watch,” Aunt Kat says, pointing at his letter. “Whenever he goes on the road for a long time, he starts sending letters that don’t make a lick of sense! He picks some poor soul to torment with his secret instructions and whatnot, like he’s the wisest man to draw a breath. Messes with their minds so much, they start thinkin’ they the ones losing it!”
Aunt Kat cusses and Shannon looks up all shocked.
“Ooooh, Aunt Kat!” she says, but I can tell she’s tryin’ not to laugh. I am, too. I keep it in this time.
“I’m sorry, baby, but that’s what Frankie Bell is full of.”
Shannon opens the oven, and a whoosh of good smells floats out.
“How long ’fore we can eat?” Aunt Kat asks, noticing the smell, too.
“ ’Bout fifteen minutes,” Shannon says. She picks up her cell phone and sends a text. I bet anything it’s to Julian.
She claims Ju’s her “friend,” but we all know better. Aunt Kat hates him, thinks he’s too old for Shannon cuz he’s eighteen and she just turned sixteen. I don’t think it’s that big of a deal, especially since Ju’s one of them dudes who’s got everything going for him: star quarterback, girls are obsessed with him, and he’s smart. He says he’s gonna be an anesthesiologist, but even that doesn’t win Aunt Kat over. She says he could be the next Black Jesus, but something about him still don’t sit right with her.
It’s probably his teeth, which, to me, are his only flaw. Two on the bottom are kinda crooked, like they’re tryin’ to high-five each other. This obviously doesn’t bother Shannon, but teeth are definitely a “thing” for Aunt Kat. “Crooked teeth, crooked feet” (whatever that means) is what she told me when she forced me to get braces a year ago.
The best thing about Ju is that he’s in the Scepter League, which is a huge deal. It’s this club that was started at Rosewood Public Schools, like, a hundred years ago. You gotta have super swag to get in, and if you do, you become kinda famous around the city. At my school, dudes in the Scepter League are like kings. Once a month, they wear their blazers and ties and get to skip the line at lunch and miss last hour to have important meetings in the library with teachers and the principal. Sometimes they even go over to the high school to link with the Leaguers there. They get a section reserved for them in the gym during basketball games, and Rosewood games always be sold out. Once they’re old enough to get jobs, Scepter Leaguers work at the rec center, or the bank, or at the stadium downtown--never at some greasy fast-food place. And the girls? Maaaan, if you’re in the Scepter League, it’s pretty much a guarantee that they notice you. My #goals for seventh grade? Get in.
“Xavier, you still on that game machine?” Aunt Kat asks, not even looking at me. Dang, I thought she was all into this judge show she just turned on. Guess not.
“No,” I say, turning the Switch off.
“Good! That mess is rotting your brain, one cell at a time,” she says. “Why somebody would willingly buy that, I do not know.”
I swallow hard and slide the Switch into my pocket. I love Aunt Kat and all, but sometimes she goes too far. My dad gave me the Switch before he got locked up, and no matter how she feels about it, it’s special.
I walk to the kitchen to peek at the birthday cake that’s chillin’ on the counter. Double chocolate, just like I asked, with Happy 12th Birthday, Xavier! written across the top in fancy green cursive. I open the freezer: pistachio ice cream, check!
“Get out the kitchen, Xavier, it’s almost ready,” fusses Shannon. She always gets moody when Ju takes too long to respond to her texts. I slide my finger across the cake for a nice taste of the icing. Shannon’s too busy staring at her phone to notice.
I told her I just wanted pizza, but no, she had to go all fancy, said a birthday dinner can’t be just some pizza. It smells so good in here, I almost agree with her. Only problem is, it took, like, all afternoon to make, and I’m starvin’! Pizza’s much quicker, I’m just sayin’.
Shannon’s been into food since before she was tall enough to see over the stove. I’m the one who has to try all her “creations,” and she still hogs the TV watching the Food Network. Guess I can’t complain too much, though, cuz my b-day dinner is Cajun chicken linguine. Add in some sautéed asparagus with Shannon’s signature lemon butter sauce, a salad, and homemade garlic bread, and I got a five-star meal.
“Okay, let’s just eat,” Shannon says a few minutes later. Guess Ju hasn’t called or texted, cuz she looks like she wants to smack somebody.
“ ’Bout time,” Aunt Kat mutters, pulling herself up from her easy chair. “Boy gonna be thirteen by the time we sit down.”
Shannon’s got the table set all fancy--no paper plates--and in the middle is a pitcher of my all-time favorite drink: strawberry lemonade mixed with cherry 7UP. Yo, I won’t say this out loud, but I got a pretty good sis.
“Aunt Kat, you gonna pray for the food?” Shannon asks, which is this joke we have.
“And get struck down before I can eat? Hell, no!” Aunt Kat says. Me and Shannon grin, and Shannon blesses the food. She barely says amen when we hear footsteps on the porch and three quick knocks.
“Yo, sorry I’m late, everybody,” he says with a crooked-tooth grin. He goes to side-hug Aunt Kat, and she has a stank look on her face the whole time.
“Happy birthday, bro!” Ju tells me, giving me dap and dropping a ten-dollar Taco Bell gift card on the table by my plate.
“Thanks,” I say, kinda shocked that he actually got me something.
Ju takes off his green-and-gold Scepter League jacket, which he wears even more than his football letter jacket. He sits across from me and piles his plate high with linguine while my eyes lock onto that jacket like a magnet, imagining my name in bold lettering on the front of one . . . soon.
“This smells sooo good, Shan,” he says, shoveling a huge bite into his mouth.
Shannon’s attitude is gone now that Ju is here, and she actually grins and sighs, like everything is all good now. Ridiculous, right?
“So how it feel to be twelve?” asks Ju, crunching on the garlic bread. “Exact same as eleven, right?”
I nod. He’s pretty much got it. No magic feeling when I woke up today.
“Hope you like the food, Xav,” Shannon says, “cuz that’s the only present you gonna get from me.”
I shake my head and take a giant bite of the linguine.
“You gonna do this for my birthday?” Ju asks, reaching for another piece of garlic bread.
Aunt Kat opens her mouth to say something else, probably something about Ju being too old for Shannon anyway, but then we hear more footsteps on the porch, followed by the half-working doorbell.
“Now, who in creation is that?” Aunt Kat asks with a frown. “You expecting somebody else, Shannon?”
“No,” Shannon says, a confused frown on her face, too.
“You got your hooligan friends coming to my house?” Aunt Kat narrows her eyes and points her fork at Ju.
“No, ma’am,” Ju says quickly.
“I’ll go see who--” Shannon starts to say, but then Aunt Kat holds up her hand and cuts her off.
“Ah Lord,” she mutters. “I already know who that is.” It takes the rest of us a few seconds of listening before we know, too.
Shannon goes to the door, and before any of us are ready, my mother’s sisters crash my dinner.
Aunt Nadine’s the oldest, super bossy and loud. Surprised she drove all the way from Chesterfield, a suburb that’s over an hour away. Aunt Crystal is next. She’s a tad nicer than Aunt Nadine, but just as loud.
“Happy birthday, baby!” Aunt Nadine shouts the second she sees me. She waltzes by Aunt Kat to hug me and give me an oversized kiss on the cheek. “Look at you, the Big Twelve and all! Twins, say happy birthday to your cousin!”
Great. I didn’t notice Stephen and Stacy slink in behind the aunts. They’re ten, but already too much like their mom, which means they act like they better than everybody else.
“Happy birthday,” they say at the same time, like they’re bored out their minds. Stacy literally yawns as she looks around the dining room, probably critiquing how poor we are compared to them.
“Can’t believe you’re twelve!” Aunt Crys says, hugging and kissing me next. She ties a bunch of balloons around my chair, like I’m four or something. There’s an awkward silence until Shannon asks if they wanna make plates. Yeah, she’s only sixteen, but she’s pretty motherly, always making sure people are comfortable.
“Oh, no, sweetie,” Aunt Nadine says. “We’re gluten-free, you know.”
“Sense-free, too,” Aunt Kat mutters.
I always thought it was scary how Aunt Nadine can have a smile on her face while looking at something (or someone) like it’s the most disgusting thing in the world. That’s how she’s looking at Shannon’s food, and it’s making me mad.
“I’ll take a plate,” Aunt Crys says. Trying to be the peacemaker, I guess. She fixes a tiny bit of everything and sits next to me.
“You guys remember Ju, right?” Shannon says, cuz clearly, there ain’t much else to say.
“Yes, how are you, Ju?” Aunt Crys says.
“Pretty good, thanks,” Ju tells her.
“What is that short for again? Justice? Juvontay?” Aunt Nadine asks, wrinkling her nose.
Aunt Kat snorts. “Now, you know damn well--”
“Um, it’s actually Julian,” Ju says.
“Hmmm.” Aunt Nadine’s word hangs in the air like rotten skunk spray.
“And you guys go to the same school?” asks Aunt Crys.
“Yeah,” Shannon says. She side-eyes Aunt Kat, who would usually throw in some kind of snarky comment about their grade difference. But I think since Aunt Kat can’t stand Nadine and Crys, Ju’s off the hook this time.
“That’s nice,” Aunt Crys says, fake-smiling. She takes a few more bites of linguine. “This is really good, Shannon.”
“Thanks,” Shannon says. “You ready for cake, Xav?”
I nod. My plate is clean, and I was thinkin’ about seconds, but I can always do that later.
Ju helps Shannon clear the table and then they return with my cake, all lit up with candles. Can’t help but smile while they sing “Happy Birthday,” especially since they sound horrible. I get all the candles out in one try, and when Shannon hands me the knife, I make sure everybody gets huge hunks. Everybody who wants a piece, that is. Stephen and Stacy stand by the wall the whole time, but I swear I can see drool comin’ out their mouths as me, Shannon, Ju, and Aunt Kat attack our pieces.
“Ready for school to start, Xavier?” Aunt Nadine asks, continuing without giving me a chance to answer. “The twins are beyond excited. It’ll be such a busy year for them!”
Aunt Nadine rambles on and on about their violin lessons, and tennis, and how they might be picked for a modeling campaign. I tune her out and think about what my year’s gonna be like. Most people think seventh grade ain’t all that important. It’s not like sixth grade, when you’re just starting middle school, or eighth grade, with all the class trips and the moving-on ceremony. But at Rosewood, seventh grade means I’m eligible for the Scepter League. Finally!
Copyright © 2021 by Kelly J. Baptist. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.