So it really was a dark and stormy night, and it figured, thought Bo. Of course it was a dark and stormy night. Of course it was.
Okay, so it wasn’t actually night, technically. It was afternoon, and Bo sat on her bed, looking through the iron child-safety bars of her bedroom window, listening to the rain thunking against the metal fire escape outside. Still, dark and stormy afternoon was close enough. And on the same day that her teacher had made the whole class enter an annoying writing contest where the prize went to the worst writing possible. School was almost over, and instead of just letting Bo hang out in the band room with the monster drum set, Ms. Phillip expected her “to spend the time productively.” On a writing contest that didn’t matter. What sense did that make? Ms. Phillip said the contest was inspired by some guy who’d started his book with “It was a dark and stormy night,” which apparently was the worst writing ever, even if it didn’t seem so bad to Bo. Certainly not as bad as spending an ENTIRE PERIOD trying YOUR BEST to write YOUR WORST. At SCHOOL. She was sure Mary Church Terrell would not be happy to have her name on a school that did things like that. And she was sure because she’d won the award for the best Mary Church Terrell speech last year. She’d always had the best teachers—she made cards and cookies for them every winter break. Until Ms. Phillip. She was the kind of teacher who kept changing due dates after you already turned the assignment in. Bo had just given her a card she bought at CVS—and she’d signed it “Best,” which Mum had told her was petty-polite. Still, Mum had let it slide. She was cool like that, like a swing cymbal beat.
Thunder clapped, and Bo jumped. She heard her mum laugh down the hall. Bill must be telling one of his corny jokes again. Since neither of them had normal jobs, Bill and her mum had developed an afternoon tea routine that Bo had to admit was pretty cute. When he’d arrived today, shaking his wet umbrella all over the floor, he’d said, “If anyone needs an ark, I happen to NOAH guy!” and Mum had actually for-real laughed! Bo had laughed too, mostly because it was such a bad joke that you couldn’t do anything else. And because she liked Bill and his corny jokes. And because he’d winked at her; he’d known it was bad, but he’d said it anyway, and there was something good about that. Bo liked Bill a lot. But now that he had his own key to their apartment and felt comfortable enough to be shaking his umbrella all over the place . . . it made Bo a tiny bit itchy.
BOOM! Thunder again. It was so dark. Looked like it was going to be a dark and stormy night for real, and there was no need to say it some other, prettier way. Sometimes it was good to just see and speak things as they were. Like: her mum and Bill were serious. Real serious. They’d probably get married, and Bill would be telling jokes all day long, and Bo would have to hurry up in the bathroom even though she was just getting to the age where she was supposed to spend all of her time in there, looking at herself in the mirror and figuring out her best selfie angles.
Even though she never took selfies and kind of liked Bill’s jokes and loved hearing Mum laugh . . . the idea of Bill as her . . . stepdad(?) needed some time to settle. She and Mum had been a team of two for all of Bo’s life, and it worked. Bill was clearly becoming essential to Mum, and Bo was used to being “all I need to get by,” as Mum would sing when they baked together.
As lightning flashed and the rain continued to thud against the window, Mum called, “Sweetie pie, Bill’s leaving!”
“Don’t come out. I’ll see you soon,” yelled Bill. “Just saying bye. I’m heading home before it starts raining chickens and ducks, because then it would be real FOWL weather!” He laughed, Mum laughed, and Bo had to laugh again too, even as she rolled her eyes.
“Bye, Bill!” she said, sticking her head out of her door. “See you soon.” She really did like him. She closed the door so she wouldn’t have to hear goodbye smooching, and went to her desk. She pulled an overstuffed folder that said bo’s bakes on the front from the middle of a precariously placed tower of books. Mum had started collecting and creating special “mother-daughter” recipes when she was pregnant with Bo, and as soon as she could sit in a little vibrating baby chair on the table while Mum baked, Bo had been her “special helper” for weekly baking dates. They hadn’t baked together in a while; Mum had been working a lot, teaching cooking in schools and community centers. And spending time with Bill.
As she slid out the folder, the entire tower toppled over.
“Of course,” muttered Bo. “Blast!” As she bent to pick up the books, she thought about adding “Blast!” to her Bad Writing contest entry but then decided against it. She liked that word.
“You are not normal,” Celia Whitlock had said to her earlier that day. Celia had been dipping orange slices in ketchup at the time, so Bo wondered who the abnormal one really was, but okay. Celia was her best frenemy; she made pronouncements like that often, like when Bo had asked why they had to be extra nice to Amber White when Amber was extra mean to almost everyone else.
“That’s why,” Celia had said with a sigh. “So she won’t be so mean to us. We don’t want to be targets!”
“But I don’t even talk to Amber,” Bo had said.
“Exactly! So that makes you a target already. You act like you don’t care if she likes you.”
“Exactly,” Celia had said again as she helped herself to some of Bo’s homemade apple ginger mini doughnut holes. “Mmmm, these are like . . . cake candy.”
Now, picking up the books, Bo shook her head and jumped a little as the thunder roared again. As she shoved the books back onto her already overfull bookshelves, a half sheet of paper fluttered to the floor. She picked it up and immediately recognized Mum’s handwriting.
SUNSHINE SURPRISE SMILECAKE
A recipe she’d never seen before! Smilecake? The recipe was clearly unfinished, with crossed-out words, question marks, and phrases like: “How much cinnamon?” and “Almond extract or anise?” in the margins. Despite herself, Bo smiled. Unlike Bo, Mum loved surprises. Which made it surprising in itself that Mum would be planning a surprise cake for Bo. But then again, it was cake, and Mum was always trying to get Bo to try new flavors, so what better way than in cake? Parents.
Bo looked up, realizing that the storm had stopped outside. Birds were chirping, and the sun was pushing out from behind the clouds. It was suddenly a sunny, smiley afternoon. She looked back at the piece of paper in her hand. SUNSHINE SURPRISE SMILECAKE.
She smiled again. Even with anise, she’d play it off. Mum had a little surprise for her, and she wasn’t going to spoil it. Bill or no Bill, nothing was going to change. She was going to stay in charge of making her mother happy. “Mum!” she called, rushing out of her bedroom. “Mum!”
Bo locked her apartment door and double-checked both locks. She could smell garlic in the hallway; Mr. Korin was cooking again.
“Where you goin’?” said a little voice a few doors down. Bo didn’t have to look up to know it was Dougie. That was one of his favorite questions, next to “What you doin’?” and “Snacks?”
“Somewhere where I mind my business,” said Bo gently. Now that Mum had finally agreed to let her bake when she was alone in the house, she was going to test bake the Sunshine Surprise Smilecake. But first she had to finish the recipe herself. She had some ingredient ideas, like caramel extract instead of vanilla, and of course Mum had given her a scroll-long list of other things to pick up at the store.
“Where’s that?” asked Dougie. Bo had tried to teach him the difference between good questions and bad questions. “No questions” was not an option.
Bo sighed. “Nowhere you know,” she said. The problem was now that he was in kindergarten, Dougie was always telling her that “Teacher Jessie” always said that “curiosity is cool.” Teacher Jessie seemed kind of annoying to Bo. “Try telling that to a cat,” Bill had joked when she’d told her mum and Bill about Teacher Jessie’s bad advice. But when she’d said “Curiosity killed the cat” to Dougie, he’d replied that Teacher Jessie always said that satisfaction brought it back, and also, was she saying that his cat was going to die? So even though she apologized right away, Mum had made her babysit him for free every afternoon for a week. Which was fine; Dougie was a pest, but cute.
“Can I come with you, though?” asked Dougie.
Bo sighed again, but she followed up quickly with a grin, nodding. Despite the questions, Dougie was good company. His mother called Bo “Big Sis,” and Bo loved that. “Let me ask your mom,” she said, helping him pick up the Legos on the floor in front of his apartment door. “What are you making?”
“A water park for Dinobotland!” Dougie answered. “I just started it, though,” he added quickly. “I want us to finish it together.”
“Okay, I got you,” said Bo. “We’re still finishing the pizza factory too, remember? I got a bunch of red and yellow pieces from the flea market near the museum.”
Dougie cheered and Bo joined him in a happy dance. They’d been working on Dinobotland ever since Bo had started babysitting him a year ago. It was getting so big that they had to store it in sections in their respective apartments. “Your own collection of ‘tinker tools’ is already too big for this place,” Mum was always saying.
“You are such a natural, Big Sis,” Dougie’s mom said to Bo every time she came over. “Dougie actually asks me to go out sometimes just so you can be his babysitter!”
Now Bo stuck her head through the doorway of Dougie’s apartment. Old-school hip-hop music was playing in the kitchen. Dougie’s mom called it “classic hip-hop” and never left off a mention that her uncle “used to run with KRS-One and them back in the day.” “Um, Mrs. Dougie? I’m running some errands for my mum. Can Dougie come with me?” Bo was six years old before she realized that Dougie’s last name was Douglas; his name was actually Douglas Douglas. She loved Mrs. Dougie, but . . . really? Douglas Douglas? And people thought kids were the silly ones.
“Bo, you can call me Dawn,” said Mrs. Dougie. “Dougie, are you bothering Bo?”
“Yes, but she doesn’t mind,” said Dougie confidently.
Bo laughed. “It’s fine, Mrs. . . . um . . . well, yeah, it’s fine.” No way was she gonna say “Dawn.” Her mum’s Supersonic Bad Manners Hearing would probably be instantly activated. Adults were always Auntie, Uncle, Miss, Mr. . . . they had to have a title. Bo thought that was good. It reminded them to be adults, the ones who had things under control.
“Your mother told me that Bill has a bookstore, that’s wonderful,” said Mrs. Dougie. “It is so nice to see us owning businesses in our own communities.” Bo nodded politely. Mostly Bill talked about needing more “traffic” in the store and “commercial rent crisis.” None of it sounded that nice. Also, she’d gone a few times; he had only one shelf of kids’ books, and they looked like they were there to teach her a lesson.
Mrs. Dougie went on. “And she said Bill and them bought that building from Sunflower Rogers! Rogers’ Secret Spice Mix is my absolute favorite! Her grandmother made some magic right there. Since she lives right next door to them, you’ll probably be cooking and baking up a storm, getting tips and tricks from Black culinary royalty. . . .”
Bo nodded some more while Mrs. Dougie talked about “descending from Kings and Queens.” Bill had told her about his neighbor who had inherited a spice empire. “She’s young but she’s got real heart,” he had said, as though people had fake ones until they got old.
Mrs. Dougie was still talking. “We’ve got to preserve our stories! I’ve been trying to get our building association together—this building has a history and we need to claim it! But everybody’s too busy.”
Last year, Bo had asked why there was a plaque with DJ Kool Herc’s name on it when Kool Herc hadn’t even lived in the building, but Mrs. Dougie had told her to hush because she had been “down with him back in the day,” and a friend of his cousin’s had lived in the building, and that was enough to claim that they lived in “the heart of hip-hop history.” Bo had been thinking about this, since:
1) Mrs. Dougie always said she had been “tight with” every famous person in New York City, even though none of them ever seemed to come visit her or anything;
2) Even if this cousin’s friend existed, she could never remember the cousin’s friend’s name, when they’d lived there, or how she’d gotten that convenient tidbit of information; and
3) That was a real shaky connection to “hip-hop history” anyway.
4) So, basically: no.
But Bo just kept smiling and nodding as Mrs. Dougie continued. “They called my auntie Trace-Ski-Rock back in the day, you don’t even know, y’all think you invented Adidas, but what you know about fat laces? And I still have my cousin’s white bomber jacket, like new condition,” which she always said. Mrs. Dougie worked at the hospital, but she also had a side hustle; somehow she never ran out of family hip-hop heirlooms to sell.
Mrs. Dougie did have a point about holding on to stories, even the ones you made up for yourself, like that you were perfectly happy being by yourself most of the time. Bo understood the power of the past. You could get a lot of comfort from the things you knew; better than worrying about the future, like middle school. From what Bo had gathered about “Bill and them,” they were overly concerned with “the possibilities” instead of staying safe in what they already knew. Why else would they have left Brooklyn, where they had lived for more than ten years? Bill talked like he was so excited about having his bookstore in Harlem now, but the fact that he could close his store and come over for tea almost every day meant that “the possibilities” didn’t mean a whole lot of customers.
Copyright © 2022 by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.