The Battle of Jericho by Sharon M. Draper


  “I like this time of year. My stepmother ain’t sweatin’ me so much, my girl acts like she likes me—I can’t complain.”

  “That’s good, man. I wish I could say the same. My folks ain’t into the holidays. No tree. No lights. Christmas is just another day. I thought I had something goin’ with Dana, but she’s fronted on me and everybody else with her stupid plan to be a man.”

  Jericho sighed. “Well, at least it looks like we’re gonna get a chance to be Warriors—with or without Dana.”

  “I want it bad, Jericho. More than anything I’ve ever wanted in my life. It would make me feel like I was somebody. You see what I’m sayin’? I ain’t never had that.”

  “I feel ya.”

  They wandered casually through the mall. Jericho bought video games for Todd and Rory and the perfect little gift for Arielle—a bracelet. Jericho found himself thinking about the smile she would give him when she opened it.

  “Hey, young warriors!”

  Jericho was surprised to see Mad Madison walking toward them. He was carrying a large shopping bag.

  “Whassup?” Jericho answered carefully. He wasn’t sure what the rules were. Kofi looked nervous.

  “I’m on assignment here,” Madison answered, “and now, so are both of you.”

  “Huh?” As soon as he said it, Jericho could have kicked himself—he hated to sound stupid.

  “Your obedience is required—this is your first test,” Madison told them cryptically.

  “I don’t get it,” Kofi said.

  “I’m collecting donations for the Warriors,” Madison began.

  “Toys from Toy City?” asked Kofi.

  “We have enough toys. These are for our members. Check this out.” He showed Kofi and Jericho the items in his shopping bag—a gold ash tray, several cigarette lighters, three pairs of leather gloves, at least a dozen Christmas ornaments, and a pair of Nike basketball shoes.

  “People donate stuff for the Warriors?” Jericho asked in amazement.

  “Not exactly. They don’t know they’re givin’ it up,” Madison explained.

  Jericho still didn’t understand. “How can they not know?”

  “We lift it.”

  “Steal it? You must be crazy!” Jericho couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

  “Shut up!” Mad Madison hissed. “You want everybody in this mall to hear you? Insurance pays it all back to the stores. Nobody gets hurt, and we get the goods we need.”

  Jericho could see that Kofi was looking around uneasily, but nobody seemed to be noticing the three boys looking at a shopping bag in the middle of the mall.

  “You do want to be Warriors?” Madison asked them, an ominous smirk on his face.

  “Yeah, man,” Kofi replied quickly.

  “Why do you ask?” Jericho wanted to know. He had a feeling he did not want to hear the answer.

  “We need some more decorations for the Christmas tree we’re donating to the orphanage. Go over there to that store called ’Cozy Christmas.’ Bring me back some ornaments. Two each. Doesn’t matter what they look like. Orphans don’t care.”

  “Can’t we just buy them?” Jericho asked hopefully.

  “Didn’t you promise to do anything you are asked to do?” Madison said, looking straight at Kofi rather than Jericho.

  “Yeah.”

  “Then hurry up.” Madison sat on one of the mall sofas and looked away. Jericho and Kofi walked slowly over to the Cozy Christmas store.

  “What do we do?” Jericho asked Kofi frantically.

  “Whatever he says!” Kofi whispered back.

  “My dad would kill me!” Jericho moaned. He felt nauseous.

  “My dad wouldn’t care. Look, you cover for me. I’ll get all four—enough for you and me. That keeps you clean. Bonded brothers, right?”

  “Right,” Jericho said weakly.

  Kofi looked excited as the two entered the store.

  Jericho walked up to the desk. It was decorated with little angels, and snowmen wearing red knitted hats. “Uh, excuse me.” He cleared his throat and looked nervously at Kofi, who was browsing in the back of the store.

  “Can I help you, sir?” The clerk looked tired.

  “Uh, do you carry nutcrackers—like the one in that ballet?”

  The clerk smiled. “Yes, let me show you—we have hand-carved models for several hundred dollars, and inexpensive ones for about twenty dollars. They’re right over here.”

  Jericho followed her and let her explain. She showed him several styles: nutcrackers dressed in baseball uniforms and king costumes—even girl nutcrackers. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Kofi leaving the store. He breathed heavily and asked the clerk, “You got any African-American nutcrackers?”

  The clerk looked defeated. “No, sir, I don’t think we do.”

  “I didn’t think so. Well, thanks anyway.” He left the store in a hurry.

  Kofi and Madison waited for him. “That was sweet!” Kofi said with a grin. “It was so easy!”

  “You did it that quick?” Jericho’s legs felt rubbery.

  “Yeah, look what I got!” Kofi removed four ornaments from his coat pocket—a small silver star, a red candy cane, a tiny gold angel, and a candle.

  “Good job, young warriors!” Madison thumped Kofi on the back, and tossed the stolen ornaments into his bag. “A Warrior of Distinction never breaks the code of silence,” he reminded them as he got up to leave.

  Jericho and Kofi said nothing as he disappeared into the crowd. Jericho felt sick.

  “It was no big deal, man,” Kofi said. “Forget it.”

  Jericho no longer felt like shopping, and he turned with a sigh to leave the mall. He never even noticed the wheelchair as it approached and he almost bumped into it.

  “Hey! Look out, man!” he yelled. “Can’t you drive that thing?” Then he realized it was Eric Bell from school. “Oh, whassup Eric? I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell at you.”

  “You don’t have to apologize. What’s up, Kofi?”

  Kofi towered over Eric in his chair. “Hey, man,” he said awkwardly. And Jericho said again, “I’m really sorry.”

  “You know, it was my fault. I’d yell at me too,” Eric said. “People always act like it’s a crime to talk to me like they would to everybody else. My controls wouldn’t cooperate. I gotta get this thing checked at the shop next week. Didn’t mean to run you over.” They had moved over to the soft sofas in the center of the mall near the fountains.

  “You have a shop for that thing just like an auto shop?” Kofi asked.

  “I gotta get it fixed somewhere,” Eric replied. “You’d be surprised what’s available for folks in chairs.”

  “I guess I never thought about it,” Jericho said pensively.

  “Most people don’t, because they don’t need to,” Eric told him. “I didn’t either, until I had my accident.”

  “I, uh, always wondered—what happened?” Jericho asked hesitantly.

  Eric shrugged, “I don’t mind talking about it. You know, most kids at school are afraid to even ask me. It’s my back that’s broken, not my head. I’m the same inside as I always was—I just can’t walk.”

  “You broke your back?” Kofi asked incredulously. “Did it hurt?”

  “I never felt a thing.” Eric shrugged again. “Like most twelve-year-olds, I was dumb. We were playing Daredevil that night. It was August, almost time for school to start back, and we were bored. Plus it was ridiculously hot—still over ninety degrees after dark.”

  “Yeah, I know how those nights can be. You’re too old to run through the sprinkler like little kids. We used to jump the fence and sneak into Hartwell pool sometimes,” Jericho admitted.

  Eric let himself laugh. “Believe it or not, that’s exactly what we did. First we played Daredevil by jumping off tree limbs—you know, climbing up, grabbing the highest limb you can, jumping from there to the ground, then daring your friends to do the same.”

  “Yeah, we’ve played Daredevil t
oo,” Jericho replied, thinking about the garage roofs he had jumped from and lived to tell about it.

  “Well, we got tired of tree jumping, so, since we were in that park close to Hartwell pool, somebody made the dare that we would jump the fence and into the water. My friend Andre went first. He looked like one of those Olympic divers. That water looked so cool and refreshing. Then Dashon jumped. The two of them were splashing and laughing in that pool, swimming and diving and yelling at me—calling me all kinds of wimps and punks because I was still on the other side of the fence.” He paused.

  “So what happened?” Jericho was fascinated.

  Eric took a deep breath. “I didn’t really want to do it, because it was a long drop to the ground, and to leap far enough to make it into the water seemed to me like something only Superman could do, but Andre and Dashon had done it, so I climbed the fence slowly, really wishing I was home in something safe like my bathtub. When I got to the top of the fence, a police car turned the corner and shined that bright spotlight on my friends in the pool, then directly on me. I got scared, lost my balance, and fell, not into the water, but onto the concrete next to the pool. I heard my back snap when I landed.”

  Kofi looked away. Jericho was silent for a moment. He gulped. “What happened next? Can’t they fix that kind of stuff in hospitals now?”

  “Only in science fiction movies,” Eric replied, his voice growing tight. “They took me to the hospital and did all kinds of procedures, but that kind of spinal injury is permanent. My mother was a basket case, and I cried a bucket of tears over the next few months. But I don’t want people feeling sorry for me. I’ve learned to live with it. I am still the same person—I’ve just had to make adjustments.”

  Kofi was strangely quiet. Jericho wasn’t sure what to say either. He looked at his two strong legs and felt guilty for being healthy. “I’ve got two younger stepbrothers,” he told Eric. “They’re dumb enough to pull a stunt like that—do something dangerous on a dare. For that matter, so was I at that age.”

  “Sometimes the Lord takes care of the stupid; sometimes the stupid gotta think for themselves—that’s what my grandma always says,” Eric said with a smile. “It’s just hard to know when. You finished your Christmas shopping?” he asked, changing the subject.

  Jericho felt suddenly clammy and guilty once more. He looked around nervously. “Yeah, just about, now that I found something special for this girl I been talkin’ to,” Jericho told him.

  “Arielle Gresham?”

  “You know her?”

  “Yeah, I know her. We’re in the same history class. But I’ve seen her with you in the cafeteria. I know most of the girls at school—especially the fine ones. At least, I know who they are. Not that they notice me, except to get out of my way in the hall. Arielle’s nice though. She talks to me in class like I’m a real person, instead of just a rolling piece of junk. She takes the time to hold doors for me and she makes kids get their book bags off my ramp.”

  “You know, the more I know about that girl, the more I like her,” Jericho mused.

  “Well, I gotta finish my shopping,” Eric said. “My mom will be here to pick me up in a few minutes and I still have one more gift to find.”

  “You need any help?” Kofi finally said.

  “Naw, but thanks. I put all the stuff I buy in the bag on the back of my chair, and we have a van with a lift like the bus that picks me up from school.” He put his chair in gear to head down the mall.

  “It was nice talkin’ to you, man,” Jericho said honestly. He stood up and noticed how much taller he stood over the seated Eric.

  “I’ll see you around at school,” Kofi called to him.

  Eric waved and wheeled away. Jericho stood watching him for a moment or two, thinking not of gifts, but blessings—and guilt.

  MONDAY, DECEMBER 22

  ALTHOUGH JERICHO KNEW THE ORNAMENTS had been inexpensive, for the next few days he couldn’t shake the heavy rocklike feeling sitting on his chest. He had to admit, however, that it was a little exciting to be able to get away with it with such ease.

  At the next wrapping session at the warehouse, he noticed the Christmas tree in the corner was now almost full of ornaments—some with the price tags still on them. He headed over to it and gazed at it in astonishment. There had to be a hundred ornaments on it! Dana walked up behind him then. She was carrying a small bag of ornaments. She said nothing, but quietly began to place them on the tree.

  “All of us or none of us,” she whispered to Jericho. She smiled and continued to take ornaments out of her bag. He hurried away.

  “Hey, Josh,” he whispered as they carried boxes of wrapped toys out to the truck. “What do you know about the ornaments on that tree?”

  “Obedience and silence, my man.” Josh would not look at Jericho and made himself very busy lifting boxes. “The orphans will love that tree.”

  “Yeah, I guess.” Jericho sighed deeply in the cold winter air. Some of the brightness seemed to have left the afternoon sky. It looked like snow. It was dark by the time they finished.

  When Josh’s dad dropped Jericho off at his house, Geneva met him at the door. “Why are you so late?” she asked. “You should have been home hours ago.”

  “I called, Geneva. I told Rory to tell you I’d be late. We start deliveries tomorrow.”

  “Well, Rory didn’t tell me. Are you sure you want to be involved in this club. It seems like it’s taking too much of your time. Your grades are going to slip!”

  Jericho sighed. He was too tired for all this tonight. “Geneva, it’s Christmas vacation, remember? And all of this will be over in a week. I promise.”

  “I guess you’re right,” she said. “You know, it is possible that I was worried about you,” she added with a small smile.

  “Thanks, Geneva,” Jericho replied. “That makes me feel good. Can I go to bed now?”

  “You’re not hungry, are you?” she asked as he trudged up the steps.

  “No, thanks. We had pizza at the warehouse. I gotta get up early.”

  “Well, then, good night, Jericho. Maybe this club is a good thing. It’s certainly making you work harder than I’ve ever seen you work at anything.”

  “Good night,” he called down to her, but he shook his head. Even her compliments seemed like slight criticisms.

  He picked up his trumpet as soon as he closed his door. He needed to work out his feelings. He inserted the mute, partly so Geneva wouldn’t bother him, and partly because he loved the way it sounded—almost like it could talk. He played riffs and progressions, improvisations as well as variations on old themes that he knew so well they breathed with him. He felt a little better when he finished an hour later, so he took a quick shower and crawled into bed. Then he picked up the phone and called Arielle. She answered on the first ring.

  “Whassup?” he said softly.

  “You just getting home?” she answered.

  “A little while ago. I’m tired,” Jericho said.

  “Getting into this Warrior stuff is a real good thing, right?”

  “I guess.” He paused. “Can I ask you something, Arielle?”

  “Sure.” Her voice sounded so pleasant and innocent on the other end of the line.

  “Can something be both good and bad?”

  “I don’t get you,” she said.

  “What I mean is, can something seem like it’s good but really be something else?”

  “I don’t know. I guess it depends on what you’re talking about.”

  He wanted her to understand his confusion. “It’s like roses. They’re pretty, you see what I’m sayin’, but they’ve got thorns.” He felt frustrated.

  “You’re not making any sense.” She sounded impatient.

  “Never mind. It’s not important. I’ll call you tomorrow. Good night, Arielle.”

  “Good night, Jericho.”

  TUESDAY, DECEMBER 23

  JERICHO DID NOT SLEEP WELL AND WOKE UP before his alarm went off. He was dressed an
d eating a bowl of cereal when his dad walked in the back door.

  “Hey, Dad, rough night?”

  “Like you wouldn’t believe, Jericho. From petty criminals to real thugs, they all wait till I come on duty to show off!” He yawned, pulled up a chair beside Jericho, and poured himself a bowl of cereal as well. “Why are you up so early?”

  “Today is delivery day, Dad. The Warriors will be by to pick me up in a few.”

  “Oh, that’s right. I forgot. You know, I’m proud of you, Jericho. This Warriors of Distinction project seems to be one of the best things you’ve ever been involved in. You’ve worked hard, and all for someone else.”

  “Yeah, I guess.” Jericho swirled his spoon in the cereal. The doorbell rang and Jericho bounded over to open the door. Rick, wearing a black leather Warriors of Distinction jacket, stood in the doorway.

  “Hey, man, I’m ready.”

  “See ya, Dad!” Jericho called to his father as he grabbed his jacket.

  “Bye, son,” his father said, yawning again.

  The deliveries that day were unforgettable. They stopped at a huge apartment building downtown and took a stack of wrapped toys into an apartment that had almost no furniture. The mother of the five children living there cried when they arrived. At another house, an older woman who Jericho guessed was the grandmother, her hands bent with arthritis, made them sit down on the old, flowered sofa while she made hot chocolate for them to drink. Seven children sat quietly in the corner while they sipped the chocolate, and watched with wide eyes as piles of gifts were put under their spindly tree. At a trailer park, they left gifts with a young father who wept as he told of his wife’s death three months earlier. He had four children.

  Jericho was silent most of the day, overwhelmed with the need and the poverty and the thankfulness of those who received the gifts. Many of them needed more than toys—they needed food and a safer place to stay and jobs. By the end of the day Jericho was exhausted, partly from the physical work, but mostly from the emotional impact. The little negatives about the Warriors that he had been harboring in his mind had vanished.

  As Jericho and Rick waited in the parking lot of the warehouse, a police car pulled up next to them. Rick looked up with concern. “Don’t sweat it, man,” Jericho said with a smile. “That’s my dad.” Officer Prescott waved and got out of the cruiser.

 
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