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If You Come Softly and Behind You: Two Companion Novels

My mother calls to me from the bottom of the stairs, and I pull myself slowly from a deep sleep. It is June. Outside the sky is bright blue and clear. In the distance I can see Central Park, the trees brilliant green against the sky. I was dreaming of Miah.

“Elisha,” Marion calls again. She sounds worried and I know she is standing at  the bottom of the stairs, her hand moving slowly up and down the banister, waiting for me to answer. But I can’t answer yet. Not now.

Is there a boy? Marion asked me that fall, when Miah was new. And I lied and told her there wasn’t one.

She is standing at the door now, her arms folded in front of her. “Time to get up, sweetie. Are you all right?”

I nod and continue to stare out the window, my hair falling down around my eyes, my pajamas hot and sticky against my skin.

No Marion, there isn’t a boy. Not now. Not anymore.

She comes to the bed and sits beside me. I feel the bed sink down with the weight of her, smell her perfume.

“I dreamed about Miah last night,” I say softly, leaning my head against her shoulder. Outside, there are taxicabs blowing their horns. In the seconds of quiet between the noise, I can hear birds. And my own breathing.

Marion moves her hand over my head. Slowly. Softly. “Was it a good dream?”

I frown. “Yes . . . I think so. But I don’t remember it all.”

“Remember what you can, Elisha,” Marion whispers, kissing me on the forehead. “Remember what you can.”

I close my eyes again.

And remember what I can.

Part One

Chapter 1

Jeremiah was black. He could feel it. The way the sun pressed down hard and hot on his skin in the summer. Sometimes it felt like he sweated black beads of oil. He felt warm inside his skin, protected. And in Fort Greene, Brooklyn --- where everyone seemed to be some shade of black --- he felt good walking through the neighborhood.

But one step outside. Just one step and somehow the weight of his skin seemed to change. It got heavier.

Light-skinned brothers --- well, yeah --- sometimes he caught himself making fun of them. But everybody laughed. Everybody ragged on everybody. Those same brothers --- shoot! --- they’d be getting on him just as hard. His homeboy --- Carlton --- messed-up name --- Mama’s white and Daddy’s black, but he swears he’s all black. Some days they’d be shooting hoops and Carlton’d just start going off on how black Jeremiah was. Nothing mean in it. It was all just the way they acted around each other. Sometimes they got to laughing so hard, tears’d be running down their faces. Laughing and pointing and trying to come up with something else funny to say. It was like that. When Jeremiah and his boys were hanging out, he just was. They way they all were. Some light-skinned, some dark-skinned, nappy-headed, curly-headed, even a couple bald-headed brothers --- just hanging out and laughing. Those times, he felt free --- like he was free inside his dark skin. Like he could celebrate it --- throw his arms way out and grin.

Sometimes, he’d remember his grandma, a long time ago before the cancer took her --- they way she’d make him sit in the shade. Don’t want you to get too black, she’d say. He was little then and going back and forth between down south and Brooklyn. He didn’t know anything back then. Back then, it was just his mama and daddy kissing him good-bye at the airport, Mama holding his hand so tight and for so long that he got embarrassed, then some stewardess taking his hand and sitting him right up front where she could keep a good eye on his like his mama had asked her to do. He remembered airplane wings, a pair of silver ones that a pilot gave him and his first whole meal on a little white plastic dish. There was always cake on the plane, real sweet cake, the kind his mama never let him eat at home. And then he’s fall asleep and be down south, and his grandma would be there waiting, already crying. She always cried when she saw him—cried and laughed all at once. Jeremiah smiled, remembering how he used to sink into her heavy arms and be surrounded by the smell of her rose-petal lotion.

That was a long time ago.

Jeremiah palmed his basketball in his left hand and held it straight out in front of him. He stared at it a moment then dribbled it three quick times against the curb. He wished his grandmother was alive so he could tell her—that it wasn’t a bad thing. That you couldn’t get too black. He remembered the time his father had taken him to see a film about the Black Panthers --- all those Afros and fists raised in the air. Jeremiah smiled. He wished his grandmother had heard them shouting Black is beautiful. But she hadn’t. And she had believed what she said—that a person could get too black. The same way his father believed it every time he said Miah, you’re a black man. You’re a warrior. But where was the fight? he used to wonder. Where was the war? Later on, when Jeremiah saw a cartoon about a monkey playing basketball, he felt ashamed, like the monkey was supposed to be him somehow. And he knew then, the war was all around him. It was people and commercials trying to make him feel like he didn’t even matter, trying to make him feel like there was something wrong with being black.

And now, on the basketball court he always felt how black he was. It seemed as though he left his body and jogged over to the sidelines to watch himself. He saw the quads flexing under his dark thighs, saw his long brown arms reaching out for the ball, the way his calves moved as he flew down the court. He hated that he was gonna be playing ball for Percy Academy. No, it wasn’t the game he hated, he loved that, had always loved that, couldn’t remember a time when he didn’t’ love the feel of the ball against his palms. But he hated that he could be playing for Percy. White-bright Percy. At preseason practice, he’d look up sometimes and see all those white faces surrounding him. Yeah, there was Rayshon and Kennedy, they were black. Different though. Rayshon and Kennedy came from a different world. Yeah, they slapped each other five and gave each other looks when other teammates said something stupid. But at night, they went home to different worlds. Kennedy lived in the Albany Houses out in Brownsville. Rayshon lived in Harlem. Jeremiah frowned. He didn’t want to be a snob.

I’ve been around the world, he thought. I’ve been to India and Mauritius and Mexico. I’m different because of it. Different from them. Different from a lot of people --- black and white.

And he knew what was coming this winter --- his first season on the team. He knew he’d look out at the stands and see more white faces --- hundreds of them, cheering him and Percy Academy on.  It seemed wrong --- cliché somehow. Why couldn’t he lave loved tennis? Why hadn’t someone stuck a racket or a golf club in his hand? Not like there was a golf course or tennis court anywhere near him --- well, Fort Greene Park had courts, but you needed a permit and a partner. Basically, you needed to know something about the game before you could get it together to go there and play. And when he was real little, nobody was making a running leap for the tennis courts. But there was always some ball being played somewhere, a group of guys getting together in the park, someone setting an empty trash can on the curb for free throws, a fire escape ladder hanging down from somewhere with the rungs spaced just far enough apart for a basketball to fit through.

Jeremiah set the ball on the ground and stared at the back of his hand, at the place around his knuckles where the skin was darker than the rest of it. When he was little, his mama would always say, Where’s my beautiful brown-eyed, black baby child? And he’d go running to her. Right here, he’d scream as she lifted him high above her.

People were always telling him what beautiful eyes he had. Even strangers. Girls mostly. His eyes were light brown, almost green. He though --- had always thought --- they looked strange against his dark skin. Sometimes he stared at himself in the mirror and wondered whether or not he was good-looking. Yeah, he knew girls checked him out all the time --- but the pickin’s were slim in Fort Greene, so they were probably just feeling desperate. Black is beautiful. Don’t get too black. Black monkey. Where’s my beautiful black baby child. You’re a black man. You’re a warrior.

Jeremiah sighed and stared out over the block. All the things people had always said to him --- year, he’d heard them again and again. But sometimes, looking in that mirror, he had no idea who he was or why he was in this world.

And now, on top of everything, he had met a girl.

Chapter 2

It rained the afternoon I met Jeremiah. A hard, heavy rain that would last for four days. I walked home slowly in it, an umbrella I had bought on the street for three dollars barely keeping the rain off my back.

Our doorman, Henry, waved when he saw me then rushed forward, holding an oversized umbrella over mine. We had lived on Eighty-Eighth and Central Park West since I was a baby. And since I was a baby, Henry had been running out from his post by the door with an oversized umbrella to greet us when it rained. It didn’t matter if we were carrying our own umbrellas.

I smiled at Henry. He was tall and quiet, with gray brown curly hair and skin so pale, you could see the veins running along his temples.

“First day in a new school, Ellie.” Henry said.

I nodded. He never asked questions --- just sort of stated things. “How can you tell?”

“The uniform. You’re looking like me in it.”

I glanced down at my Percy uniform, wondering if the administration knew the burgundy jackets and gray skirts we had to wear were the same colors that many doormen in the city had. “I guess I’ll get used to it, huh?”

Henry winked at me. “You’ll be surprised how quickly you do. Percy, right.”

“I feel like a walking billboard for that school,” I said.

Henry laughed and returned to his post by the door. “I’ll see you later, Ellie.”

The elevator door slid open quietly. I stepped inside and waited for it to close, counting slowly under my breath. When it started moving again, I closed my eyes and thought about Jeremiah.

I had been staring at my program card, trying to figure out where room 301 or something was --- looking from the program card to the numbers on the doors and I had run right into him, my math and science textbooks crashing to the floor. Then he was apologizing and we were both bending at the same time to retrieve them. And then --- we just stopped and burst out laughing.

That’s when he said his name --- Jeremiah --- and that stupid song about the bullfrog popped into my head so fast I just said it --- “Like the bullfrog?”

“Yeah,” he smiled. “Like the bullfrog.”

I couldn’t stop looking at him, at his smile and his hair. I had never seen locks up close. His were thick and black and spiraling down over his shoulders. I wanted to touch them, to touch his face. I wanted to hear him say his name again. For a moment we stared at each other, neither of us saying anything. There was something familiar about him, something I had seen before. I blinked, embarrassed suddenly, and turned away from him.

Then Jeremiah rose and I rose.

“Well . . . good-bye. I guess . . . I guess I’ll see you around,” he said softly, looking at me a moment longer before turning away and heading down the hall, his locks bouncing gently against his shoulders.

“Jeremiah,” I whispered to myself as I walked away from him. I could feel his name, settling around me, as though I was walking in a mist of it, of him, of Jeremiah.

I stopped then and looked back over my shoulder. He was looking at me, a kind of puzzled look. Jeremiah, I thought, smiling. Jeremiah smiled back, then sort of waved, and turned into the classroom at the end of the hall.

Excerpted from IF YOU COME SOFTLY and BEHIND YOU: Two Companion Novels © Copyright 2011 by Jacqueline Woodson. Reprinted with permission by Puffin, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group. All rights reserved.

If You Come Softly and Behind You: Two Companion Novels
by by Jacqueline Woodson

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Puffin
  • ISBN-10: 0142419184
  • ISBN-13: 9780142419182