The Battle of Jericho by Sharon M. Draper


  “The roads are pretty icy,” she said as she peered through the curtains out the window.

  “I promise I’ll drive very slowly and carefully,” Jericho had said through clenched teeth.

  But she went on and on. “Don’t play your radio and be sure to wear your seat belt.”

  Jericho sighed. “Okay, Okay! Can I go now?”

  “Okay, I guess.”

  Jericho left before she had a chance to think of something else. He scraped the windows while the car warmed up, then he climbed in and savored the smell of the inside of it. It reminded him of auto shows and crayons for some reason—maybe because when he was little all he ever drew pictures of were cars. He carefully put it in reverse, popped in a CD, turned it up as loud as it would go, and headed down the icy streets to Josh’s house. He stopped in front and honked twice. It was too cold to get out.

  “What’s up, Cuz!” Josh said as he opened the passenger door.

  “Where’s your hat, man? It’s two degrees out here!” Jericho said as Josh climbed in.

  “You sound like my mama! What do you care if I freeze my ears off?” Josh asked jokingly.

  “I don’t care if you freeze your buns off, man, but that glow-in-the-dark hair you got might stop traffic!” Both of them laughed.

  “Where you want to go?” Josh asked.

  “I dunno. I’m hungry, I guess. What about you?”

  “Man, I’m always hungry! Mom’s on this health food kick, so I gotta get junk food any way I can. Last night she fixed carrot salad and asparagus to go with some kinda fish. It was pretty disgusting.”

  “Geneva’s got her faults, but at least she can cook.”

  “I got a taste for chicken wings. There’s a new place that just opened up down the street from the mall.”

  “Gotcha.” Jericho drove carefully down Montgomery Road and turned into the parking lot. “Looks like it’s crowded.”

  “Good. I love a crowd!”

  They headed into the restaurant, which had two huge television screens playing the University of Cincinnati basketball game, as well as the latest rock music blaring in the background. They ordered a huge basket of hot wings, cheese fried potatoes, and a pitcher of Coke, and headed for a table.

  “This is tight!” Josh said with pleasure. “And talk about tight—look at that girl over there!”

  “You better not let November hear you talk like that!” Jericho teased.

  “A man can still look, can’t he?” Josh said with a grin. “Hey, what’s the score?” he asked the girl as she walked past their table.

  “They’re up by twelve,” she replied, smiling.

  “Thanks, sweetness,” Josh said, winking at her. She ignored him and returned to her table.

  “You and November as tight as ever?” Jericho asked Josh as he occasionally glanced at the game.

  “Yeah, man. I look at the other girls, but November got me wrapped around her finger and the rest of her body too!” He seemed a little embarrassed.

  “I’m still a little scared of Arielle,” Jericho admitted.

  “Scared? Of what?” Josh scoffed.

  Jericho shrugged. “I don’t know. She’s just, you know, all that!”

  “I can tell by the way she looks at you, man, you got nothing to worry about,” Josh declared. He was sprinkling salt into the sugar bowl at their table.

  “You think she’d be with me if I wasn’t pledging the Warriors?” Jericho asked quietly. He was afraid of the answer.

  “Be for real, man. Give yourself some credit. You got it together—the girl ought to be glad to be with you, no matter what,” Josh told him sincerely.

  Jericho was thoughtful for a moment. “You’ve been with November a long time, man. Don’t you get tired of her?”

  “November is really heavy, my man. You just see her from the outside. I know the real person inside. She’s been through some real mess.”

  “Like what?” Jericho asked. By this time he was helping Josh to salt the sugar bowl.

  “Did you know she had a twin sister who died when she was nine? Complications from chicken pox. I think that’s why she spends so much time with the kids at Children’s Hospital.”

  “For real? I didn’t know that.”

  Josh continued. “She’s got a mentally disabled brother who lives in a group home on the other side of town. So every summer she works with the disabled kids at Camp Stepping Stones.”

  “Deep,” Jericho replied.

  “Then when she was ten her father was murdered. I think her mother has spoiled her because she’s all she’s got left. Nothing is ever as it looks from the outside, my man. There’s a lot of pain floating under there.”

  “It’s funny what you don’t know about people,” Jericho said thoughtfully. “I guess everybody’s got a secret side.”

  The waitress brought their food to the table then, and Josh jumped up and kissed her on the cheek. She laughed and pushed him back into his seat.

  “Well, we go back to school Monday and all the official Warrior stuff begins,” Jericho said, grabbing a cheese potato.

  “Yeah, and the unofficial stuff, too. Wonder what’s up with that?”

  “I don’t know. You worried about it?”

  “Naw, not really. How bad could it get?” Josh looked thoughtful.

  “What do you think about Dana?” Jericho asked.

  “I don’t know, man. Girl power and all that stuff, I guess. I wish she woulda chosen some other time and place to make a point,” Josh said as he balanced a cheese potato on his nose.

  “Me too,” Jericho admitted. “Dana in the pledge class changes everything. She might mess everything up for us.” Then he changed the subject. “Hey, what do you know about the ornaments on that Christmas tree for the orphans?”

  Josh was quiet for a minute, watching the game as Cincinnati scored again. “I know Dana brought in a bag full of ornaments,” he said quietly.

  “What about you?” Jericho wanted to know.

  “I was in the drugstore a couple of weeks ago and I ran into Rick Sharp. He told me about, uh, how the orphan tree was decorated, and what I had to do.”

  “Did you do it?”

  “It was one stupid ornament—worth about a dollar. Was that a major crime?” Josh asked defensively. “What about you?”

  “I was with Kofi in the mall and Madison told us we had to get two each. I talked to the clerk while Kofi got the ornaments,” Jericho explained.

  “You feel bad?” Josh asked.

  “Yeah, a little.”

  “I did, but I got over it.” Josh turned his attention back to the game. “Hey, three points! Look at that!”

  Jericho said nothing else, but concentrated on the wings in front of him.

  “Hey, Cuz, you ate all the food, man!” Josh exclaimed.

  “I told you I was hungry,” Jericho grinned as he licked his fingers.

  “I got an idea!” Josh jumped up and ran back to the counter where the orders were placed and came back with two fresh baskets of wings.

  “What you gonna do with all that food?” Jericho asked in amazement. “Even I can’t eat that much!”

  Josh walked over to a table near theirs, and climbed up on a chair. The two middle-aged women who sat nearby tried at first to ignore him, but Josh was not to be ignored. “I got free wings for two lucky tables!” he yelled at the top of his lungs. “Free!”

  The two women looked interested, but Jericho thought they looked too stuck up to take Josh’s silly offer. “Get down, man. You’re crazy!” Jericho said, glancing around uneasily for a management-type who might throw them out.

  “Ah, my good man,” Josh said to a bald-headed, sweatsuit-wearing fat man who walked over to the chair where Josh stood, “your dinner is on me tonight.”

  “How come?” the man asked.

  “I did a terrible wrong a couple of weeks ago, and this is my penance.”

  The man looked at Josh like he was crazy, but took the food anyway. “Whatever,” the man
said as he walked away.

  “Now I feel better,” Josh told Jericho as he sat back down.

  “You think that makes everything straight?” Jericho asked. They got their coats and headed out the door. “Absolutely!” Josh replied. “Hey, let me drive! I haven’t had a chance to get behind the wheel of the Red Queen yet.”

  Jericho hadn’t let anyone except the valet parking guy drive the car. He fingered the keys hesitantly, then took a deep breath and tossed them over to his cousin. “Just be careful, man. I don’t feel like Geneva sweatin’ me. When she gets on my case, her voice sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard.”

  “I’m straight, Cuz. Hop in and put on your seat belt.”

  Jericho climbed in, turned the radio up loud, and relaxed. Josh was taking the long way home, he noticed. He pulled onto 1-71, which was freshly salted, and surprisingly free of cars for a Saturday afternoon. They zipped along, laughing and singing with the music, the car going faster and faster. Jericho noticed they were doing sixty, then sixty-five, then seventy. The car sped along smoothly, effortlessly.

  “I love this car!” Josh shouted over the music. He rolled the windows down so that the cold, two-degree air blew into their faces as they sped down the expressway.

  “Roll up the windows, Josh! It’s freezin’!” Jericho gasped.

  “Maximum stimulation! It’s good for you!” he said, laughing. But he rolled the windows back up. “Can’t hear the music with the windows down!” He continued to do about seventy.

  “Slow down, man,” Jericho warned. Jericho glanced over at Josh and noticed the car in the next lane. It was Eddie Mahoney’s beat-up black Toyota. “Look, man, there’s Eddie!”

  Josh rolled the window back down and waved. Eddie nodded to them, rolled down his window, gunned his motor, and made it clear that he wanted to race.

  “Let’s see what this baby can do! You got it, my Warrior brother!” Josh yelled out the window.

  “No, man! You crazy! Don’t do it!” Jericho cried.

  “Relax! I got it under control. You’re not gonna let this dude punk us out, are you? If I had a Warrior car, I’d take care of it—he’s got that thing lookin’ like a piece of junk!” He gunned the motor of Jericho’s car and pressed down on the accelerator. Seventy. Seventy-five. Eighty.

  At eighty-five Jericho looked around, almost hoping for a police car so they could slow down. The road was inexplicably deserted. Josh drove faster. Eddie sped up. Josh kept up with him. The car was beginning to shake.

  “Josh!” Jericho finally yelled. “Slow down! You’ve made your point!”

  “I got ya. We’re at the exit anyway.” Josh gradually slowed the car, and carefully clicked the right blinker to indicate he was about to move over to the exit ramp. Eddie’s car slowed and moved to the exit lane as well. Josh sped up again, hurrying to beat Eddie’s car to the ramp.

  Jericho wasn’t sure what happened next, but suddenly the world was spinning out of control. He saw a dark tree, a patch of unmelted snow, a telephone pole, and Eddie’s car, then the same tree, patch of snow, pole, and car, then the same scene again, only at a dizzying speed as the car spun out, doing complete three-sixties on the exit ramp.

  Jericho screamed. He felt like he was going to throw up all those wings he’d eaten. “Take your foot off the brake!” he said finally. “Turn the wheel gently in the direction of the spin,” he said, although he felt far from gentle at that moment.

  Josh said nothing, but he nodded. His face was as pale as the winter sky outside. Gradually the car slowed and stopped just a little off the road, amazingly still facing the right direction. Eddie’s car had disappeared, and other cars rushed past them, obviously unaware of what had just happened. No one stopped.

  “You okay?” Jericho asked in a whisper.

  Josh nodded. His hands were shaking.

  “I didn’t see that patch of ice, did you?”

  Josh shook his head.

  “We didn’t hit anything, did we?

  Again Josh shook his head. He turned the music off. They sat without speaking for a very long time. When he was able to breathe normally again, Josh said quietly, “Why don’t you drive the rest of the way?”

  Jericho, his feet still wobbly, slid out of his seat and moved around to the driver’s side. “We’ll laugh about this one day, won’t we?”

  Josh looked serious. “Yeah, but not today. I’m sorry, man.” They drove the rest of the way home in silence.

  When Jericho got home, he said nothing about the near-catastrophe. He needed his car privileges for the Warrior pledge activities. His father had just come in from work and was sitting in the kitchen while Geneva fixed dinner. Jericho wasn’t hungry, but he got a cold glass of water from the refrigerator. He needed to clear his head a little.

  “What happens next with the Warriors, son?” his father asked.

  “I’ve got to get a physical, we have a bunch of meetings, and by the end of the month, it’ll all be over!”

  “Sounds almost too easy,” Geneva commented.

  “Oh, and we have to pay a pledge fee,” Jericho added.

  “How much?” asked his dad. “I think it was fifteen dollars when Brock pledged.”

  “That was back when gas cost fifteen cents a gallon!” Jericho laughed. “It’s a hundred dollars now,” Jericho added quietly.

  “Good grief!” Geneva exclaimed. “Do you want to join this club or buy it?”

  “Aw, you know you love me, Dad. I’m worth it! Didn’t I come home safely and on time today?” Jericho thought briefly how easily the day could have been a disaster.

  “Okay, okay. Don’t get started. When you go to bed tonight, I want you to dream about ways you can make your poor old dad a bunch of cash this summer.” Mr. Prescott shook his head and chuckled as Jericho headed up the steps to his room. Jericho got out his trumpet and tried to play, but the world kept spinning in his mind. He gave up after a few minutes and went to bed, burying his head under his pillow. The dizziness didn’t stop until he fell into a restless sleep.

  THE FIRST WEEK OF JANUARY

  THE FIRST WEEK OF JANUARY SEEMED TO be just about perfect. Everything was falling into place for Jericho. He went to his doctor, got his physical, and was told he was healthy, but a little overweight.

  “Hey, man,” he told Dr. Irvin. “I promise to eat carrot sticks for lunch every day.”

  “Carrot sticks dipped in ranch dressing or followed by two bags of potato chips won’t make it, Jericho,” Dr. Irvin replied. “You’ve got to think before you eat.”

  “But I’m always hungry!” Jericho said as he put his shirt back on. “And when they have the five burgers for five dollars special, I gotta help ’em out!”

  “Five cheeseburgers is too much food for one meal. You can live on two.”

  “Maybe you can live on two. I’m a growing boy!” Jericho grinned. “But I promise to eat better and exercise more, okay?”

  “Anything strenuous in these pledge activities?” Dr. Irvin asked as he signed the Warriors of Distinction medical form.

  “No, just fun stuff—you know—acting silly,” Jericho told him.

  “My cousin was a Warrior of Distinction years ago,” the doctor said, looking as if he were thinking back. “But I can’t remember what he did as a pledge.”

  “It’s supposed to be a big secret,” Jericho replied. “Well, thanks, Dr. Irvin. I’ll see you in a couple of years for my college physical.”

  “Take care, Jericho, and cut back on the hamburgers!”

  “You got it!” Jericho grabbed the medical form and rushed out of the door.

  Occasionally his father let Jericho drive the new car to school, which made him feel good, because very few kids had cars. “You lucky, man,” Kofi told him one day after school as he was driving him home. “Half the time my folks forget to leave me bus money. The other half they leave me too much.” Then he smiled quickly, as though it didn’t matter.

  “You get your physical yet?” Jericho asked Kofi quie
tly.

  “Yeah, last week. Doctor called me back and said I gotta come in Wednesday for some more tests. No big deal.”

  Jericho wasn’t sure how to reply. “You need a ride tomorrow?” he asked.

  “Yeah, thanks, man.” Kofi got out of the car and headed to his house. Jericho drove home thoughtfully.

  In school, Jericho was pleased to find, his grades were soaring. He’d always received good grades in music, but Mr. Tambori took extra time with him after school to help prepare him for the competition. Jericho wondered why all of his classes couldn’t be like music—as easy as drinking a glass of water.

  His math teacher, Mr. Boston, smiled at Jericho as he passed back the exam taken before the holiday.

  Yes! Jericho said to himself. “I can’t believe this—an A!”

  “You ace it, man?” Kofi whispered across the aisle.

  “Yeah, what about you?”

  “I’m straight. No reason to call the troops out, but I’m straight.”

  “I’m gonna kiss Mr. Boston on the lips!” Josh whispered from the next aisle. “I got a B!”

  “Don’t do that, man,” Jericho whispered back. “I bet even Mrs. Boston don’t kiss that ugly dude.”

  “You got that right!” Josh kissed his paper instead, and Kofi and Jericho cracked up.

  “Gentlemen? Am I boring you?” Mr. Boston’s voice interrupted.

  Jericho wanted to say, “Actually, you’re the most boring thing I’ve seen today except for that telephone pole outside the window!” but he just sat up in his seat and said, “Sorry,” and cleared his throat as he glanced at Kofi and Josh, who tried not to explode with laughter.

  TUESDAY, JANUARY 13

  ON THE TUESDAY BEFORE THE MARTIN LUTHER King holiday, the Warriors of Distinction held a meeting, once again in the shabby recreation room of Eddie’s apartment building. Jericho was sure that this time Eddie’s father would not be interrupting. Fourteen young men and Dana Wolfe waited nervously for instructions.

  Michael Madison walked to the door and made sure it locked when he closed it firmly. Next to him stood Rick Sharp and Eddie Mahoney. Mr. Culligan was nowhere to be seen. Jericho glanced at Kofi and Josh, who looked deadly serious. Dana looked intent.

 
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