The Battle of Jericho by Sharon M. Draper


  Jericho noted the rainbow of faces around him, especially notable coming from a school like Douglass where the largest number of students were African-American. He also noticed that there were no girls in the room, but after all, he reasoned, the name of the club was the Warriors of Distinction.

  Without warning, the door of the recreation room burst open and smashed loudly into the wall. Everyone looked over, startled. A short, wiry man with a bald head and red-rimmed eyes stumbled into the room. He carried a small brown paper bag with a green bottle sticking out of the top of the bag. The smell was overpowering and the man was obviously quite drunk. Everything stopped.

  “Where’s dat stubby little punk?” he yelled. No one answered. “I’ll teach him to lock me out! I’ll kick his a ...” Before he could finish, he spotted Eddie, who had turned his face to the wall. “Eddie, my boy! Who’s all these delinquents you got in here? Get over here and come unlock the door of our ’partment. I know your game, but you can’t outsmart yo daddy, you little piss ant!”

  Eddie grabbed the man fiercely by the arm and pulled him out of the room. The door slammed behind them and the silence that followed was deafening. Eddie had to be embarrassed, Jericho thought.

  Mr. Culligan loudly cleared his throat. “Well, we’ve gone over the preliminaries. Are there any questions?” No one said anything at first.

  Then a wiry basketball player named Rudy finally asked, “Is this an official school club?”

  “Basically, the school ignores us. Officially, they have to. We’re an off-campus club. But we’ve forged a real close connection over the years. We take care of the school, and the school takes care of us,” Rick replied cryptically.

  “I heard the Warriors give live parties,” a sophomore said jokingly.

  Rick laughed and told him, “You’re right, but remember that everything we do is better than the rest. We take great pride in the power of our brotherhood.”

  Jericho wasn’t sure what that meant—but he liked their bold attitude.

  “Anything else you want to know about the holiday service project?” Mr. Culligan prompted.

  “How much time will this take? I have a job,” asked a junior seated in the back of the room.

  “Each of you will work every day after school, or in the evening, for four hours. You choose your time slot. The week before Christmas we work until every package is delivered. Sometimes we work all night.”

  The room was silent for a moment. Then another hand was raised. “Does being called to this meeting mean we’re on the list to be Warriors of Distinction?” a boy from the baseball team asked.

  “It means you have been asked to work hard. The young men standing here wearing the Warrior jackets have proven themselves to be Warriors of Distinction. None of you has done that yet.”

  “Can you tell us about when you were a Warrior, Mr. Culligan?” Jericho asked timidly.

  “It made me who I am today. It wasn’t easy, and I had to learn to make difficult decisions.” Mr. Culligan allowed himself a slight smile. “And it all started with the holiday toy drive. So if you are interested in being a part of this service project, there are sign-up sheets on the front table. Be sure to include your home phone number. We will be in touch.”

  Every single boy in the room rushed to the front to sign up. Eddie never returned to the meeting.

  THURSDAY, DECEMBER 4—EVENING

  IT WAS DARK BY THE TIME JERICHO GOT HOME. Even though he was still tingling with excitement about the Warriors, he sighed as he walked into the house he shared with his father, stepmother, and her two sons. It was Geneva’s house—Jericho and his dad had moved in after the divorce, about five years ago—and Jericho still couldn’t get used to her dullness. She had no taste in decorating or style or even clothes. Everything in the house was brown—the carpet, the drapes, even the wallpaper. She dressed in drab brown dresses, drove a faded brown car, and even had the nerve to have a dumb brown dog.

  But he had to admit that in her own way she did try to make him feel welcome in her muddy-looking house. She had helped him to decorate his room, made sure he had spending money, and she let him call his mother, which was a long-distance call to Alaska, whenever he needed to talk to her. An edge existed between them, however, usually unspoken, but he knew it was there. It could be because Jericho looked so much like his mother, who was round and dimpled and always laughing. She lived in Anchorage with her new husband and his six kids. Jericho visited her every summer and even though he missed her terribly, he was always glad he didn’t live there in that crowded house with them.

  Geneva was a great cook, however, and the smell of fried chicken pulled Jericho to the back of the house. He tossed his bag into a corner and headed to the kitchen. Rory, who was nine, and Todd, who had just turned eleven, were doing homework at the kitchen table.

  “Hey, Jericho,” Rory called out.

  “What’s up, Shorty,” Jericho replied. “You break any hearts today?”

  Rory giggled, as he did every day when Jericho asked him that. “Not yet, but I’m working on it! How about you?”

  Jericho tousled Rory’s curly black hair and tickled him, making him laugh even more. “Just my usual thirty or forty girls. It was a slow day today.” But Jericho’s smile faded as he thought about how far from the truth that was. His friends seemed to be able to collect girls like baseball cards, while he couldn’t even say one intelligent word to Arielle Gresham.

  “Whassup, Jericho,” Todd piped up.

  “Nothin’ much. How’s it going, Todd?” Jericho asked the older boy.

  Todd, who wore an old Cleveland Browns sweatshirt that Jericho had given him, looked up from his math homework and smiled at Jericho. “We had track signups today. I’m gonna run this spring,” he said.

  “Looks like we got an Olympic star at the kitchen table, Geneva,” Jericho said to his stepmother as she came into the kitchen to turn the chicken. “Better give him extra mashed potatoes. While you’re at it, since I’m gonna be his trainer, better give me extras too!” Jericho was starving—he hadn’t eaten since lunch.

  “When did you get home?” she asked. “Don’t you think you ought to say hello or something when you get in?”

  Jericho could feel his good mood fading. Geneva could always find a way to put just a little edge to her voice, with just the slightest touch of disapproval or displeasure. “Just a few minutes ago,” Jericho replied. “Didn’t Uncle Brock call you?”

  “Yes, he called,” she replied without comment.

  “I came in here to say hello to everybody, but all I found were these two jokers,” Jericho said, trying to remain cheerful. Rory and Todd grinned at him.

  “Well, you’re just in time. Wash your hands for supper,” Geneva said without looking at him. “Boys, clear this stuff off and set the table for me,” she told Todd and Rory.

  Jericho refused to let Geneva spoil his good mood, nor did he intend to tell her about the invitation from the Warriors of Distinction. He was sure she’d find a way to make it somehow seem less important. So he helped the boys set the table and he smiled to himself all through dinner. He knew that Geneva liked the way he treated his step brothers—he gave them football jerseys and played baseball with them and helped them with their homework when his dad was busy. Jericho could tell the boys adored their built-in big brother.

  “What time is Dad coming home?” Jericho asked Geneva.

  “He called and said he’d be late again,” she replied. “A couple of the officers are out sick with this flu, and he’s doing overtime. With Christmas coming, it can’t hurt.”

  “Cops aren’t s’posed to get sick,” Rory reasoned. “Suppose I call nine-one-one and a recording says, ’Sorry, but the officers had to go blow their noses, so tell the burglar to take whatever he wants.’”

  Todd laughed at his brother, and turned to his mother with a mouth full of mashed potatoes. “Hey Mom, can I get that new video game player for Christmas?”

  Not to be outdone, Rory
demanded, “I want a CD player! My old tape player is history!”

  “We’ll see,” she said mildly. But Jericho knew without a doubt that she’d get them whatever they asked for.

  “What about you, Jericho?” Rory asked. “What do you want for Christmas? Let me guess—a brand-new SUV! You got your driver’s license now.”

  “Yes, but that’s just a piece of paper. An SUV costs too much money, Rory. Maybe I can get a car for my birthday,” Jericho replied quietly. “I think I’d just like some clothes for Christmas.” He glanced at Geneva, who said nothing. “May I be excused?” he asked. “I have some homework to do, and I want to practice my trumpet.”

  “You don’t want any apple pie, do you?” Geneva asked, in a way that made Jericho think she wanted him to say no. He didn’t need it anyway, he thought. A Warrior of Distinction should look good.

  “Maybe later, but thanks,” Jericho told her as he headed up to his room.

  “Don’t play that trumpet too loudly,” she called up the steps to him. “You know it gives me a headache.”

  Jericho didn’t reply. Geneva hadn’t even come to the Bengals game for which he’d been asked to play. Todd and Rory and his father had been thrilled to go, but she’d said something about not being able to get off from her job as a nurse. He knew she could have managed if she had really wanted to. He could hear the boys arguing over who got the biggest piece of pie as he shut his door and finally let himself relax.

  He had tacked posters, mostly of the Cleveland Browns, the Cincinnati Bengals, and a few of his favorite jazz players, all over the brown walls of his bedroom, which added quite a bit of color. He turned on his CD player, popped in a piece by Miles Davis, and sighed in satisfaction. He flopped on his bed and let the music take him away.

  He couldn’t help but think of the Warriors of Distinction, and how good he would look in one of those jackets. He knew his dad would be very proud of him. He was always sweatin’ him about getting involved with stuff that would look good on a college-bound transcript—especially to Juilliard. The Warriors of Distinction was a good start. He wondered why the club carried a name that sounded like they were soldiers or fighters. From what he could tell, they were a bunch of do-gooders who knew how to play the game of pleasing the school administration. He thought briefly of Eddie and how rough his home life must be.

  But he let the thought pass as he weighed the value of getting hooked up with such a group. Mr. Tambori was always hounding him to make serious life decisions. Well, this was an easy choice, Jericho thought. Jericho figured maybe even Geneva would be proud that he finally did something exactly right. But as the jazz music swirled around him, it wasn’t Geneva he thought about. It was Arielle Gresham—the girl with the skin the color of warm, sweet cocoa, the girl whose walk made him dizzy.

  He got out his trumpet then, and played with Miles Davis until the brown house he lived in became a blaze of colors.

  THURSDAY, DECEMBER 4—NIGHT

  THE PHONE RANG HALFWAY THROUGH THE CD, jarring Jericho back from the music of his trumpet and thoughts of Arielle to reality. “Hello,” he said softly, wishing that it would be Arielle’s voice on the other end.

  But the strong male voice that answered was one he didn’t recognize. “Jericho Prescott? Warriors of Distinction calling here.”

  “Uh, yes, that’s me, I mean I, I mean me.” Jericho closed his eyes. Get it together! he told himself.

  “There’s a small warehouse on Reading Road, right down the street from the school. The sign on the front says ’express deliveries,’” the boy on the other end of the line told him.

  “Oh, I know where you’re talking about. That delivery service went out of business last year. No problem.”

  “Be there Monday at three-thirty P.M.,” the young man continued. “We will work on the toy drive then. You may bring a guest if you like.”

  “That’s straight! I’ll be there.”

  “And Mr. Prescott?” The voice sounded so serious.

  Jericho hesitated. “Yes?”

  “Monday night. Midnight. Same place. Bring no one. Tell no one. This is not about toys.”

  “Huh? I don’t understand.”

  “See you on Monday.” The caller hung up.

  Jericho sat holding the phone a moment. What was that about? He dialed Josh’s number.

  “You get the call from the Warriors, man?” Jericho asked as soon as Josh picked up.

  “Yeah, about ten minutes ago. This Warriors of Distinction thing is going to be awesome, I think,” Josh replied. “Kofi told me they had just called him, too.” Josh was silent for a moment. “Uh, they say anything to you about something at midnight?”

  “Uh, yeah, I guess. What’s up with that?”

  “I guess we’ll find out soon enough.”

  “I’ll have to sneak out. No way is Geneva gonna let me out that late.”

  “Me too, but I really don’t care. As long as I get in—that’s all that matters,” Josh said seriously.

  “Why?” Jericho asked.

  “Forget it, man,” Josh answered, brushing off Jericho’s question. “November is so excited. She’s already talking about what she’s gonna wear to the Warriors of Distinction dance. You better get yourself together and stop acting like a third-grader every time you see Arielle.”

  With a resolve and confidence he did not feel, Jericho boasted, “Arielle is just another honey. I’m gettin’ ready to call her right now.”

  “Go for it, my man. I’ll catch you later.”

  Josh hung up and Jericho stared at the phone for a full ten minutes before he pushed the first button to dial Arielle’s number. He hung up twice, then, before he could change his mind, he quickly dialed Arielle’s number. A child’s voice answered.

  “Hello, may I speak to Arielle?” Jericho said, his heart pounding.

  “Arielle! There’s some boy on the phone for you!” the kid shouted on the other end.

  “Hello?”

  “Hey, Arielle. This is Jericho—uh—from school. You sure got a loud little brother!”

  Arielle laughed. “That’s my little sister, Kiki. They ought to hire her to announce for the Cincinnati Reds!”

  “How old is she?”

  “Seven, going on seventeen. She thinks she is so grown! Yesterday she asked me to take her shopping for a bra!”

  Jericho chuckled. “I got two little stepbrothers underfoot here. They’d both be driving if they could. They can’t wait until I get a car so I can drive them to all their games and practices and stuff.”

  “You getting a car?”

  “Not likely. Christmas is coming, but there is no way they’ll be squeezing a car under the tree. Money’s been a little tight. I’m gonna get me a job so I can buy my own car!” Jericho stated.

  “That’s a lot of hamburgers to flip.”

  “You got that right!”

  “Hey, Jericho, we saw a couple of the Warriors of Distinction talkin’ to you and Kofi and Josh at lunch. What’s up with that?”

  “Well, that’s one reason I called. They asked us to help out in the Christmas toy drive this year.”

  “That’s awesome! Doesn’t that mean you get asked to pledge, that you’ll be a Warrior? I think the Warriors are, like, off the hook. I mean, they wear really sharp stuff and . . .” She stopped speaking suddenly.

  “I know what you’re sayin’,” Jericho said, delighted that she seemed so interested. “That’s what we’re hoping. But at this point, they told us, all this means is we get to help with the toy drive.” He hesitated, then blurted out before he lost his nerve, “We get to bring a guest to help with the toys. Uh, you feel like wrapping some toys? It’s Monday after school.” He did not mention the midnight meeting.

  She said nothing for a moment. “You know what?” she replied finally. “I’d like that.”

  Jericho couldn’t believe it. She said yes! He felt like he was swimming in deep water now, but he knew he had to ask her one more thing before she hung up the phone.
“Hey, Arielle,” he added awkwardly, “Josh’s having some people over on Saturday, just to mess around. You want to come?” Jericho tried to sound casual, but his heart thudded.

  “Yeah! That would be tight,” she replied with what sounded to Jericho like cautious enthusiasm. He was amazed.

  “I think Kofi asked Dana, and you know Josh and November are joined at the hip!”

  “Joined at the lip is more like it!” Arielle laughed, then added, “I gotta call November and Dana to see what they’re wearing.”

  “Why?” Jericho asked.

  “’Cause we have to make sure nobody wears the same outfit, but everybody’s outfit complements the others. Like if Dana wears leather, we won’t wear it because that’s her thing. But if November is wearing jeans, then we’ll all wear jeans—as long as we have the right shoes.”

  Jericho chuckled and shook his head. Girls and how they thought were a mystery to him. “Don’t worry. I don’t think the fashion police will get you if you wear the wrong shoes.”

  Arielle replied, only half joking, he thought, “I am the fashion police!”

  Jericho wasn’t sure what to say next. “Uh, yeah,” he said finally.

  “I guess I’ll see you Saturday,” Arielle said, with that lilt in her voice that made him grin stupidly.

  Jericho tried to think of something else to talk about to keep her on the line, but couldn’t, so he just said, “Okay,” and she hung up.

  He turned the jazz music back up loud, and let it take him beyond his small, brown bedroom. Good things waited for him. He was sure of it.

  SATURDAY, DECEMBER 6—8 P.M.

  JOSH’S HOME WAS SUCH A SHARP CONTRAST to his own, Jericho thought as he walked through the front door. He gave his Aunt Marlene a hug, placed his trumpet case with care on the floor next to him, and flopped comfortably on the soft leather sofa in the living room. He sighed with contentment as he looked around. African artifacts from Brock and Marlene’s many trips to Ghana and Ethiopia decorated the mantle and bookshelves. A large, carved giraffe stood in one corner, and several beautifully carved masks grinned at him from the walls, which were painted a pale peach color. Turquoise accent pillows, redwood-trimmed furniture, and a golden hand-woven area rug sang harmony and happiness to Jericho. So very different from the bland, brown home he lived in. In the fireplace, orange flames crackled with bright intensity, making the room smell toasty and safe.

 
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