When rent increases put a teen mom at risk of losing her home, she resorts to a dangerous game to keep her family afloat. But all games have consequences, and this isn't one she can afford to lose. A gripping story about race, income instability, and the strength it takes to survive from a critically acclaimed author.
"Kristen R. Lee is a miraculous story weaver"-Mahogany L. Browne, author of Vinyl Moon
B’onca always knew how to get by. And then her daughter is born. She wouldn’t trade Mia for anything, but there is never enough cash to go around. When their gentrifying Memphis neighborhood results in higher prices and then an eviction notice, B’onca’s already fragile world spirals. Desperate to make things right, B’onca forges a risky plan to help pay the bills. But one wrong move could cost B’onca—and her family—everything.
From the celebrated author of Required Reading for the Disenfranchised Freshman comes a compelling story about a teen mom navigating income disparity and racial inequality, and defying challenges to protect those she loves.
An Excerpt fromSun Keep Rising
It can’t happen the first time.
Don’t believe that shit. That’s why I got this baby in one hand while I’m trying to help hang up my high school graduation decorations with the other.
The banner hangs above the kitchen entryway. The missing S ain’t noticeable to my country-ass family. My house is packed with aunties, cousins, and longtime neighbors. This many people didn’t even show up to my baby shower. That’s to be expected, though.
Babies common around here. College ain’t.
To be honest, college hadn’t ever been on my radar. Not until my girl Savannah got into the top school in the country, a whole year early at that. Then everyone began looking at me. If I was her right hand, that meant I could do it too, right? Wrong. High school ain’t the same as college--everyone knows that. At my high school you can pass a class just by being quiet and pretending that you want to learn. That wasn’t me, though. Being smart is my thing. I can play ball, too, but not good enough for an athletic scholarship. Nah, I have to use my brain. That’s why people are always shocked whenever I get in trouble.
I heard these two lines my whole nine months with Mia:
You’re too smart for that.
Too talented for that.
So, in order to please everyone, I worked my ass off my senior year. Big belly and all. I had to prove that Mia wasn’t going to keep me behind. That I wasn’t only a dummy that got pregnant.
Proved all they asses wrong, too. Worked hard and got into three whole universities.
But this ain’t my dream. Can you believe that? All the hard work and I don’t want to go to nan four-year college. On the real: my dream is to do hair in a shop, not just in my older sister Shana’s kitchen when she isn’t home. I’ve always been good at hair. Clipping my own ends turned into chopping my hair into bobs at seven and dying it bright yellow at twelve. I like making folks into different people. The only escape you can get around here. Having a salon would be dope. A real business. Something that’s in my name that folks can’t snatch from underneath me. That may never happen, though; a shop cost too much. Especially now, with folks moving to the neighborhood like they are missing something. Three years ago, you couldn’t pay folks to come over here when the sun went down; now they bounce around like they own the place.
I haven’t told my family that yet, though. That in September when everyone else is having trunk parties I won’t be participating. I’ve already put one burden on their back in the form of this baby that’s sleeping on my chest, and a few more months of lying won’t hurt nobody.
My college acceptance letter to Hilbert University is blown up and placed on the one free wall in the house. Uncle and aunties laugh and curse each other all while screaming at the basketball game on our twenty-four-inch TV. Uncle LoLo is always talking about how he’s going to get us a bigger one, but that’ll be when hell freezes over.
“Give me that pretty baby.” Auntie Nora holds out her hands for Mia, who’s scrunched up in my arms. She can sleep through anything. You get used to the noises. The sounds of gunfire and car bass. Babies crying and mamas fussing.
“She’s sleeping, TeTe.” I pat Mia’s back in quick hits. A technique that Shana taught me. She has kids too--but she only has custody of my niece Cyn--and we all live in this two-bedroom duplex. It’s crowded, dusty, needs a repainting and an exterminator, but it’s still one of the better ones on our dead-end street. We could live in the building next door, where people run in and out all day long doing every and any thing.
Shit about to change around here, though. I can feel it. The fancy people have a name for it: gentrification. A big word for a short process. White people come and push all the Black folks out. When you see a coffee shop pop up and a damn dog park, it’s over with.
The dog park two blocks up will be finished next week.
Cops hound us every fucking day now. It used to be they only drove through Ridgecrest like they were keeping an eye on us. We are the last block in this neighborhood with a project still standing, and they are doing everything to make sure we know we ain’t wanted no more. Now the police sit, waiting for us to leave one by one. If not by force, then by death. Our next-door neighbor, Miss Margaret, got bamboozled a few months back. White folk with monogrammed cuff links went inside her crib and came out with the deed to it. Now it’s for sale, almost triple what she paid for it.
Once I start making some money, things will be different. I’ma move us out of this house somehow. Another reason I don’t want to go to college. It takes too long. Four years from now I don’t even wanna think of where we’d be. Probably bouncing from couch to couch or something. Shana doesn’t say it, but feeding four people on one income got to be some form of magic. Sometimes she takes herself out of the equation. Skipping her serving of sugar rice for dinner just so we’ll have more.
When I get my shop in a year or so (Savannah says I got to manifest), we won’t have to worry about having our house snatched from us, ’cause we’re gonna own it. Period. One day Mia is gonna have a house that she can pass along to her children. Them to theirs. I need to leave her with something. More than what my mama left me with. The only thing of value I have right now is Grandma’s diamond necklace. One day that’ll be Mia’s, but you can’t eat diamonds. Not unless I pawn it, which I’ll never do.
I have to get there first. To being my own boss. Even though I technically graduated, I still have one class to finish during summer school. Mia came two months early. Guess my body couldn’t take it anymore. Most teachers gave me a pass. They knew I could do the work, everyone except Mrs. Crenshaw. She made my life hell the entire pregnancy. “I’m pushing you to greatness,” she’d say. “They won’t coddle you in college.”
That’s why when I asked for an extension, she declined. I said fuck it and ended up with an F and a packet to summer school.
Being pregnant during senior year was a hot-ass mess. I missed everything. Homecoming, football games, and prom. Barely got to graduation, but I wasn’t missing that. Hearing my family cheer me on was the highlight of my life.
Auntie Nora is still trying to get her hands on Mia, but I ain’t letting her out of my arms. “If you never put her down, she’s going to have a hard time later in life. You have to let other people take care of her.”
It’s funny that now they want to take care of her. When she was in my stomach, folks acted as if it was the end of the world.
The sun kept rising when my mama had my sister at fifteen. When my sister had my niece at sixteen, and when I had Mia three months after my seventeenth birthday.
“You’re on your way, honey.” Uncle LoLo slides a balled-up five-dollar bill into my hand. Old people act as if every money transaction is a drug deal. “What you majoring in?” he asks. “You know, I almost finished college. Had a semester left. Don’t know why I never did.”
Auntie Nora reminds him. “’Cause you dropped out like a fool. Thinking you were going to be a damn musician.”
“I could have been. If Mama ain’t hold me back.”
Auntie Nora sucks her teeth. “Ask me, she did you a favor.”
They still argue like me and Shana do, even at their big age.
“We don’t have to declare until junior year, but I’m thinking about accounting.”
That ain’t a lie. Well, kinda. I don’t want to be a boring accountant, but counting money is easy enough. Been doing it my whole life. I’ve been worried about money my whole life. Something we never seemed to have enough of, but somehow we got by.
I’m tired of only getting by, though. I want to thrive. One day I want to walk in the store and buy Mia a gift even if it isn’t her birthday.
“Our baby gone be rich.” Uncle LoLo, and everyone, cheers.
“Come on and eat, y’all.” Shana doesn’t have to shout too loud. Everyone rushes to the kitchen. “Don’t be greedy, now. B’onca eats first since it’s her party. Y’all act like y’all have no home training.”
I squeeze through bodies and damn near feel like a celebrity. Everyone pats me on the shoulder and pinches Mia’s cheek. They congratulate me and slide money in my hand on the low. I cradle Mia in one arm and fix my plate of catfish, spaghetti, and white bread.
Auntie Nora probably right. Mia might have issues being apart from me, but having her close makes me feel safe. I know it’s supposed to be the other way around, but to be honest, I think I need her more than she needs me.
Shana finally pries her from my arms. “I’m taking her upstairs. She doesn’t need to be around all these people, no way.”
“Put the baby-monitor camera on.” A splurge that Shana said I didn’t need, but Mia deserves the best of everything. I can’t afford it all right now, but what I can, I get. Especially if it makes my baby’s life a little easier.
My older cousin Jasmine sits down next to me. She’s bouncing her own baby girl on her knee. “You think you can do my baby hair for me? I can slide you a twenty.”
“I can. Mia don’t have a lot of hair yet, so the only thing I really do for her is slick it back.”
“I still can’t believe you got a baby, girl,” Jasmine says.
“I can’t either,” I say. “I mean, she’s here, but it’s like she ain’t mine sometimes. As if I’m babysitting, waiting for her real mama to come back and get her, ’cause it can’t be me.”
No matter how close you are to it, you never think it’ll happen to you. You make excuses why it won’t. Always thinking how the other people must have done something wrong.
Then, when it does, you don’t even know what to do.
In our family, pregnancy is discovered through fish dreams, usually by the women over fifty. Those fishes never were of me. Always a third cousin, a mama, a sister.
Never me until that day at CVS.
I googled once: What else fish dreams can mean? Abundance, personal growth, and accomplishing goals. If grandmas around the way told you anything about that, maybe them fishes wouldn’t turn to babies.
Jasmine lets down her daughter, and she teeters over to the other small cousins. “I get it. Don’t judge me, but if I had a choice in the matter, I wouldn’t have kept Jade. I mean, I love her now, but I had dreams too, you know. You are still going through with yours, and I admire that.”
“I have those thoughts sometimes, but I never let them linger too long.” I scoop up my last bite of catfish. “She’s here, she’s mine, and I have to take care of her.”
When my mama was still around, she asked me if I wanted to keep Mia.
The question made me pause. I didn’t think I had a choice. Every girl I see push their li’l strollers down the street, prop their baby on their hip at the courts, push them on the swings at the park. They have their babies and go on. No one talks about wants and needs. All I knew was that there was a baby growing inside me and I loved it already.
Not that I was only seventeen and a kid myself.
That babies eat all the fucking time, and I don’t have a real job.
Those things didn’t matter for the girls at the courts, my sister, or my ma, but they made it work, and if they could, I could.
We are one and the same.
Back then I didn’t see welfare. Scrimping and saving for strollers. I didn’t see food-stamp cards or WIC vouchers. Putting the $5.50 pack of meat back for the $5.30 just to have something extra. I didn’t see the people who won’t even give me a seat on the bus even when I have Mia with me. Their eyes that say everything they mouth won’t. A way of punishing me, I guess.
All I saw was Mia on the ultrasound and how I swore she had my nose even when she was only the size of an avocado. Then, when I started showing, parents had their kids scoot on past me like pregnancy a deadly disease. For Black women, it can be. Doctors don’t take shit we say seriously, and when they do, it’s too late. Being young and Black, my fight was even harder. Shana wasn’t going for none of that, though. She’d tell them to “check again” when I complained about the swelling in my feet, which sure enough turned out to be something serious. If she hadn’t been there to advocate for me, I don’t know if Mia would be here--hell, I don’t know if I would be here.
Shana brings out a long sheet cake. A picture of a diploma decorates the front. She even got some Black girl normally used for wedding toppers on the side.
“For my little sister. You know I tell you this almost every day, but I’m really proud of you. You’ve never let anyone tell you what you can or cannot do. Lord knows I tried. You’re going to do great in college.”
Just when Shana is about to slice the best corner piece, the doorbell rings.
“Whoever that is, is boo coo late,” I say. “There probably isn’t even any fish left.”
“Probably Auntie Sherri--you know she is always on CP time,” Shana says. “Cyn, get the door for me, baby.”
Cyn bounces to the door with her baby doll hanging out of one hand.
“Mama, it’s a note,” she yells. Shana licks the icing off her fingers and holds out her hand. Cyn drops it off and goes back to her own little world.
“It looks important,” I say over Shana’s shoulder.
Shana rips open the envelope and reads over the letter. Her face drops before she even makes it to the end. “We’re getting evicted.”