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Sweet Thang

Written by Allison WhittenbergAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Allison Whittenberg

· Yearling
· eBook · January 16, 2009 · $4.99 · 978-0-307-49815-1 (0-307-49815-8)

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I can travel through time. Sometimes it's voluntary; sometimes it's not. Like one night, I saw a movie with these white people with dark hair--I think they were Italian. In this film, there was a funeral scene where the main character jumped the six feet into the ground after the coffin was lowered, and all of a sudden I was right back at that day. My version had black people all dressed in black and only a smattering of white people, from the nursing program she had been in. She left behind a son. She had named him Tracy John Upshaw.

She was Karyn. I knew her as Auntie; she was Daddy's little sis.

Everything annoyed me that day. I was watching Auntie Karyn in her coffin, and I knew that Auntie Karyn was watching me. At the grave site, the Reverend Whitaker led us away, saying, "There's nothing we can do now."

I didn't want to be ushered to the side, and I hated those words: There's nothing we can do now. Especially the word nothing. There had to be something--something that would bring her back.

Reverend Whitaker used his arm to brace, then move me. My legs felt like they might fold under me. By the limo, my relatives were sobbing in one big huddled mass.

My last look at Auntie made my chest hurt. I was only eleven, but I felt like I was having a heart attack. Auntie had always been fair, but her face was now whiter, glittering, almost like wax. All her hopes, every dream, every prayer were lost, gone. Her large penny-colored eyes were closed forever.

What was I going to do? With the rest of my life, I mean. Without her, suddenly there was all this space. Space that would have been taken up by our adventures. Taking trips around the city or going to the movies or just hanging out. I know that sounds selfish, to think of things like that. But she was so much fun, so interesting, so up-to-the-minute with her clogs and scarves and bangles and jeans with the patches on them and Jeff caps over her natural hair. I wanted to be just like her, but my mom would never let me dress like that.

Back at the house, my family gathered. Otis Redding played on the stereo, singing "Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)." There was a lot of chicken. Fried, braised, broiled, roasted in a pan, stuck in a potpie. So much food. Nine trays of potato salad. Seven trays of bread pudding (Auntie Karyn's favorite dessert). Distant relatives ate heartily, even sloppily, macaroni salad sliding off their spoons onto their chins.
Only three at the time, Tracy John was asleep during most of that day. He was passed from arm to arm. Everyone wanted to hold the precious one; he was like a hot potato in reverse. Family and friends didn't leave till it was dark. Then it really sank in: I'll never see her again.

"I just want to know why," I sobbed into my open hands.
Daddy offered no explanation. He just came over and held me while I pulled myself together. Though he didn't sob that day, either in public or alone with me, I could see that he wasn't whole. Like the rest of us who loved her, he had a hole in the heart that would never go away.

With the sun down, my head felt lighter. My heart was heavier.

Around midnight, Uncle O called to tell us that his car had broken down by the airport. He said the engine had died. Daddy took jumper cables and my older brother, Horace, to Island Avenue to rescue him.

That night my eyes felt propped open by some unknown force. I wished Daddy had taken me with him instead of Horace. Maybe working a jack or holding a flashlight could have gotten my mind off the pain in my heart.

Nobody knew who would take Tracy John for good. Gammy had him for the rest of the week, and I thought she was going to keep him. The following week, he was with us; midweek, Gammy took him back. Then, that Friday, I was over Uncle O's apartment, and Tracy John was there.

By the end of the month, he was back at our house, and I guessed that Tracy John was going to stay with us forever. Back then, I didn't think that would be a problem. He was small and playful, and he fit right in with Daddy; Ma; my two brothers, Horace and Leo; and me.

But within a week of Tracy John's moving into our home for good, I lost my room.
When Ma told me, I was shocked. "What!"

Daddy backed her up, repeating what she had just said.

"No, no," I pleaded. "Let him move in with Leo."

"Leo is moving in with you, Charmaine," Ma said.

"But he's a boy. I can't live with a boy."

"Boy, girl, don't make no matter." Daddy waved me away. "We're all family."

I turned to Ma. "I don't have any friends who share a room with their brothers."

"Then you don't have any friends who share a room with their brothers," Daddy said. "That don't mean nothing. You and your brother will live together. That's how they do it in the country."

"What country?" I asked.

Daddy shot me a look that told me it was in my best interest to be quiet. I didn't argue with Daddy. Even at the age of eleven, I was pro-life--my own.

Inside, though, I was mad. How could they do a thing like that to me? How did Tracy John get his own room? Tracy John could stay with Leo, or Horace for that matter. Tracy John wouldn't even know the difference.

As worried as I had been three years before, now things had reached crisis proportions. Each day I was reminded that it was all about His Highness: the precious one, Tracy John Upshaw.

From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpted from Sweet Thang by Allison Whittenberg Copyright © 2006 by Allison Whittenberg. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.