Kings of B’more is a magnetic YA debut by celebrated cultural critic and bestselling author of Here for It R. Eric Thomas, following two Black, queer best friends facing their last day together with an epic journey through Baltimore.
With junior year starting in the fall, Harrison feels like he’s on the precipice of, well, everything. Standardized testing, college, and the terrifying unknowns and looming pressures of adulthood after that—it’s like the future wants to eat him alive. Which is why Harrison is grateful that he and his best friend, Linus, will face these things together. But at the end of a shift at their summer job, Linus invites Harrison to their special spot overlooking the city to deliver devastating news: He’s moving out of state at the end of the week.
To keep from completely losing it—and partially inspired by a cheesy movie-night pick by his Dad—Harrison plans a send-off à la Ferris Bueller’s Day Off that’s worthy of his favorite person. If they won’t be having all the life-expanding experiences they thought they would, Harrison will squeeze them all into their last day together. They end up on a mini road trip, their first Pride, and a rooftop dance party, all while keeping their respective parents, who track them on a family location app, off their trail. Harrison and Linus make a pact to do all the things—big and small—they’ve been too scared to do. But nothing feels scarier than saying goodbye to someone you love.
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Cover/jacket design: Theresa Evangelista
Illustrator: Alexis Franklin (IG @alexis_art; Twitter @alexisvicki)
At the same time, Harrison and Linus had the realization of how quiet the train had been, and how quiet they’d been on the train, and now, how the noise of Baltimore, and a Saturday, and at a distance, the Pride street festival, ushered them into a new world. They couldn’t see it yet; it was a few blocks over, in the middle of a large street now hidden from view by buildings. But the sounds that carried up and over houses and around corners pulled them in like a date grabbing your arm and rushing to the dance floor when the DJ drops the needle. They could make out at least two different songs playing at different volumes, the electric murmur of a crowd—yelling, laughing, talking—the brrrapp! that Linus thought was produced by the opening of handheld fans and Harrison decided was firecrackers. They bickered about it as they walked, bumping each other playfully as they attempted trash talk (which Harrison had to admit neither of them was any good at whatsoever).
“How big would the fan need to be to make all that noise? I swear it’s firecrackers.” Harrison said.
“In the middle of the day? In public? What world you living in?”
“Uh, Baltimore,” Harrison said, laughing. “I bet you a dollar it’s firecrackers.”
Linus’s eyes lit up. “All right. Bet.”
Harrison didn’t actually care who was right about the sound—although he was sure he was; he knew firecrackers when he heard them—he just wanted to stay in this place for as long as possible. They were finally back on track, back in Baltimore, and back to their old selves.
They approached the entrance to the Pride festival through a side street. They could glimpse, in the intersection ahead, food carts and booths, balloon arches and painted signs, and a crowd milling up and down the block. As they neared, the buildings on either side of the street framed the glimpse of the festival like archways leading to a castle. And, like a modern castle in a mythic urban land, there were two guards stationed in front of it at a metal fence, blocking the way in until they could check people’s backpacks.
“No outside liquids inside!” one of the guards called to the crowd as Harrison and Linus joined a line of people. “No bottles, no cans, no flasks, none of those Nalgenes, no Tupperware full of juice, no casks.”
“No goblets!” the other security guard called. “No sippy cups!”
“No SOLO cups!”
“No teacups!” The guards cracked each other up as people filed in between them, occasionally stopping to pour out a water bottle into a giant trash can that was already overflowing. Harrison had thought the Nalgene thing was a joke, but then he noticed a small mound of abandoned reusable plastic bottles, most of them covered in stickers, on the ground by the gate.
“Oh, and no guns, knives, or weapons,” the first security guard added.
“And don’t come in here with no drinking gourd!” the other called. They laughed again.
“Hold up,” Linus said to Harrison, pulling him out of the line. “Now I’m thirsty.”
“They just explicitly said that it is illegal to be thirsty at Pride.”
“I’ll drink fast. I promise.”
He walked back up the block and ducked into a convenience store, followed close behind by Harrison. Linus swung the refrigerator case open and luxuriated in the cold air for a moment before plucking two water bottles from the shelf and tossing one to Harrison.
Linus approached the counter and pulled his wallet out faster than Harrison did. Harrison had learned not to make a thing of it.
“Oh, can you do cash back?” he asked the cashier. The cashier pointed to a sign that read No. Not “no cash back,” just “No.” Useful.
“There’s an ATM machine over there.”
Linus looked. He seemed to be weighing his options.
“What do you need cash for?” Harrison asked, immediately regretting breaking the decision-making process that seemed to be happening. Linus was terrified of ATM machines. “ATM Machine” was on the list. This could be happening . . .
“We made a bet,” Linus said.
“Okay, but were you planning on losing the bet?” WHY AM I TALKING HIM OUT OF THIS? Harrison quickly made up for it. “Because you should plan on it. And I need my dollar.”
“You better send that bill elsewhere,” Linus said. But he still approached the ATM. Harrison held his breath. Linus pulled out his debit card.
OH YES, BABY! The ATM machine was a go. Ferris Day, back on track. Part two: ATM PIN and Pride.
Linus positioned himself at dueling distance from the ATM. He held his card out like a treat a wild-animal tamer used to placate a lion. It did not appear that he had any intention of moving closer. If it had been possible for him to throw the card into the machine like a big-top juggler doing the ring toss, Linus probably would have done it. The process of extracting cash had become a circus act.
“Do you want some help?” Harrison asked, not smugly but also not-not smugly.
“What you gonna do, wrestle the machine?”
“What do you think is going to happen?”
“What if I do it wrong and it starts beeping?”
“The sound is broken,” the cashier said.
“See?” said Harrison.
“What if something happens and I get my identity stolen and the account gets hacked? My dad will be pissed.”
“That is a possibility,” the cashier said.
“No, it’s not,” said Harrison.
“Don’t you watch the news?” the cashier said.
“Uh, no,” said Harrison.
“How are you going to find out what’s happening in the real world?” the cashier exclaimed. “You’re going to be caught out here unawares. You need to stay vigilante. Things are crazy.” A cat that definitely hadn’t been there before but definitely seemed to run the place hopped up on the counter. It stared Harrison in the eye as if backing up the admonition of the cashier. The cat was wearing a rainbow collar in the shape of a necktie. An ally. A professional.
Linus took a step forward and plunged his debit card into the machine. It did not explode, nor did it lead to the utter financial ruin of his family, his ancestors, and all his descendants. It asked him to choose a language. He did, then he withdrew $20, and bought two bottles of water. The cashier told them “Happy Pride”; the cat did not. Ferris Day’s first success was in the books.
“Are you excited?” Harrison asked outside the store. Linus was chugging an entire bottle of water.
“What?” Linus said, gulping in air.
“You used an ATM machine!”
“I don’t know about ‘excited.’ I was going to have to do it eventually.”
“But eventually turned out to be today! Now you can use any ATM machine in South Carolina any time you want and remember how easy this was.”
“The cashier was right, though. The world is crazy.”
“What are you going to do, just keep your money in a box under your bed?” Harrison asked.
“Well, first I gotta get money. But after that, yes. Did you see the cat in there?”
“I did. I was wondering if that was allowed.”
“The cat had a lot of attitude.”
“Cat-itude,” said Harrison.
“The cat was the manager,” Linus said.
“The cat wrote the ‘No’ sign.”
“The cat was trying to follow us around the store, like, ‘You boys need to empty your pockets.’”
Harrison laughed. “The cat is going to steal your PIN.”
“Yo, that’s not funny,” Linus said. But he was smiling. He was looking at Harrison with delight again.
They rejoined the line. The security guards were still calling out all kinds of drinking equipment that was not allowed within the confines of the Pride festival. Harrison wondered if they’d stayed up the night before, making a list. He got so caught up in thinking about it that he hadn’t finished his water by the time they got to the front.
“What did I say?” one security guard asked Harrison, pointing at the bottle.
“No thermoses!” the other guard called, waving two couples pushing strollers inside.
“No hot-water bottles!”
Harrison could watch this show all day. He would pay money to see it. Two People Shout Synonyms Against a Rainbow Background. If this was Pride, he would come every year.
“Hello?” One of the guards was speaking to him again. Harrison came back to Earth. “What’s the plan, my friend?”
“Oh!” Harrison yelped. He was holding a bottle! And it held water! Harrison fumbled with the cap on the bottle and took a big sip. He coughed roughly. It was his first day drinking water. He looked at the bottle. He’d barely made a dent. Everyone was looking at him. Linus’s shoulders were shaking as he attempted to stifle his laughter. Harrison took another sip while staring right at the security guard. This was awkward. Harrison closed his eyes. This was more awkward. Harrison opened one eye. He took a break and breathed. How long had it been? An hour? He was getting a stomachache. Sports was hard. Wasn’t it possible to die from drinking too much water? He wasn’t sure that one 12-ounce bottle of water would qualify as too much, but wouldn’t this be an awkward moment to find out. Literally every queer person in Baltimore was standing around, judging him. Well, some were still walking through the gates, placing their Nalgenes and mini liquor bottles at the altar of Pride. But the Nalgenes were judging. Harrison took a breath and raised the bottle to his lips again. Water was spilling out the sides of his mouth. Finally, the last few drops of water came tumbling down, and Harrison gasped and bent over. The security guards applauded; Linus clapped him on the back. The human gates parted. He dropped his spent water bottle in the trash can. They walked through. Here he is, boys; here he is, world; ready or not, here comes Harrison Meredith, soaking wet, out of breath, and stumbling into his first Pride.