Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older (Party Scene)


The Bradwicks’ elaborate Park Slope brownstone was bursting with teenagers when Sierra and Bennie got there. Just about every ninth, tenth, and eleventh grader from Octavia Butler High was running around the backyard or exploring the winding passageways of the house. The sound system alternately blared hip-hop and grungy emo rock as various DJs took turns pushing one another out of the way. Some kids stood in a little circle out back, beatboxing and freestyling, inventing brand-new ways of putting one another down and sending up wild cheers when each dig found its mark.

Sierra’s eyes jumped from face to face, but Robbie’s drawing-covered clothes and slender locks were nowhere to be seen. She watched Big Jerome pick up Little Jerome by the scruff of the neck like he was a puppy and toss him into the pool, upsetting the Marco Polo players. Over at the freestyle circle, her friend Izzy delivered a crushing sixteen-bar denouncement of another kid’s mama. Tee cheered her girlfriend from the crowd. Bennie joined the circle, laughing along with each line. Izzy wrapped up with a triumphant and brutal verse rhyming spastic, sarcastic, and less than fantastic, and the crowd erupted in thunderous applause. The other kid, an extra-short and elegantly dressed tenth grader named Pitkin, recognized defeat and stepped back into the crowd with a gentlemanly bow.

“Sierra! Bennie!” Tee shouted, running over. “Y’all seen my baby shred that tiny dapper kid?”

“Hey!” Pitkin yelled.

Tee cringed and then rolled her eyes beneath her perfectly coifed pompadour. “‘S’all love, bro!” 

“I did what I do.” Izzy grinned and walked over, making a little curtsy. Izzy had been entertaining everyone with her perverse rhymes since the fourth grade. “King Impervious on the mic!” she yelled. “Waddup, Brooklyn!”

“Who’s King Impervious?” Bennie asked.

“That’s my MC name, you ain’t know?”

“How she gonna know, Iz?” Tee chided. “You came up with that this morning!”

“But I’m already a global phenomenon!”

Everyone groaned. Izzy was a wisp of a girl, both skinny and short, but she sported a meticulously groomed mane of black hair that added a couple of inches in all directions. She sighed and rested her head on the shoulder of Tee’s designer polo shirt.

“Hey, c’mon now,” Tee yelled, stepping away. “This polo brand-new. Lean on Sierra, her T-shirt been around since the seventies.”

Izzy made a pouty face.

“I’m all set,” Sierra said. “Y’all seen Robbie?”

“You mean Weirdo McPainting Dude?” Tee said.

“You mean the Cartoon-Covered Haitian Sensation?” Izzy suggested.

“You mean the Human Walking Stick?” Bennie offered.

Sierra shook her head. “I hate you one and all. And Bennie, he’s not even that tall and skinny.”

Izzy scoffed. “He’s eight feet tall and two inches wide, Sierra.”

“When he walks down my block,” Tee said, “all the telephone poles be like ‘Ay bruh, what it do?’”

Izzy spat her drink back into the red plastic cup and dapped her girlfriend. “Good one, babe.”

Behind them, someone screamed. Sierra whirled around, but it was just Big Jerome, finally succumbing to the team of eighth graders that Little Jerome had rallied. Big Jerome hollered and tumbled headfirst into the pool, taking at least three younger kids with him. The whole party burst into jeers and laughter.

When Sierra turned back to her friends, both Bennie’s eyebrows were arched. “You shook up, girl. Talk to me.”

Sierra rolled her eyes. “Why don’t you go help your boy?” 

“Don’t even start,” Bennie said. Big Jerome had harbored a gigantoid crush on her for as long as anyone could remember.

“Y’all seen Robbie or not?”

Bennie snickered. “Why you wanna know?”

“I gotta ask him some stuff.”

“Sierra!” Izzy yelled. “Why didn’t you tell us you had a crush! We woulda gone easier on the guy.”

“What? No!” Sierra rolled her eyes again. “First of all: No, you wouldn’ta. And secondly, a girl can’t ask a guy stuff without everyone launching interrogations? I’m not tryna . . . no!”

“It’s cuz you both draw?” Tee suggested. “Because a lotta people draw. If you go to art school, you will find a whole teeming buttload of drawing dudes.”

“Please,” Izzy said. “Never say ‘teeming buttload’ ever again.”

“You guys are literally useless,” Sierra said.

“He’s right over there,” Tee said, “by the mango tree or whatever that is, in that little dark garden area. Being creepy like always. Hey, where you going?”

Sierra made her way up a narrow path surrounded by an herb garden and some scrawny trees. The light was dim deeper into the shrubbery, and Robbie’s slender form blended so well with the curling vines and branches it took Sierra a few seconds of squinting to find him. Robbie sat with his back against a tree and a sketchbook propped on his bent knees. 

Sierra’s policy on cute boys, and really, boys in general, was this: ignore, ignore, ignore. They usually ruined all their cute as soon as they opened their mouths and said something stupid, and she had more fun hanging out with Bennie and the crew anyway. Robbie had always seemed a little different, though. He was mostly quiet and didn’t have that insistent hunger for attention about him. In school, he just sat there sketching and smiling like he was in on some joke no one else got. Which would normally be annoying, but Sierra found it endearing.

All that only made her more dedicated to sticking to the triple-I policy. Inevitably, Robbie would open his mouth and end up an idiot like the rest of them. Why bother? But here she was standing at the edge of this weird garden in Park Slope, a house-full of partying teenagers behind her, and a bizarre mandate from her normally incoherent abuelo to recruit Robbie to finish a mural. She sighed.

“You just gonna stand there sighing,” Robbie said. “Or you gonna come say hi?”

Sierra cringed. “I . . . Hi!”

“Hi! I’m Robbie.” His hand poked out of the bush.

Sierra laughed and shook it. “I know who you are, man. We were in Aldridge’s American History AP class together, aka naptime.”

“I knew that!” Robbie said. “And I knew who you are, Sierra Santiago. I just don’t really expect people to, you know . . . notice me? I don’t really say much.”

“You really don’t.” Sierra parted some branches and entered the shadowy grove. “But you draw and I draw . . . er, paint, mostly, so I noticed you.” She found a spot beside him.

Robbie gasped through a mischievous smile. “How ever did you know I like to draw?”

“Sir,” Sierra said. 

“But seriously, I didn’t know you did too. What you paint?”

“Actually, that’s what I’m here to talk to you about.” But how to explain? She peered at Robbie’s picture. “What you makin’ there?”

“Just sketchin’.” He held up his drawing pad. Thick graffiti letters sprang from a swirly garden not unlike the one that surrounded them. The letters B U Z Z wound and looped with exaggerated grace; here they were brick, there, balloony, with globs of shine. “You like it?”

“I do.”

Robbie smiled and went back to his drawing.

“Listen, Robbie.” Words failed Sierra. Drawing was so much easier. She waved her hands a few times in the air. “I’m working on this mural.”

Robbie looked up briefly and nodded, still drawing. “That’s cool. I do murals too.”

A shout rang out from the party. Both Jeromes were in the pool now, each with a tenth-grade girl on his shoulders. Everyone was yelling. Some stupidity was surely about to commence.

“The thing is, my grandpa actually told me I gotta finish this mural like . . . quickly. Right? Which is weird, cuz he —”

“Who’s your grandpa?” Robbie shaded a thick loop of the letter Z with slanting lines. 

“His name’s Lázaro. Lázaro Corona.”

Robbie looked directly at Sierra. She caught her breath. He had big brown eyes, kind eyes, but something else danced behind them now. Was it fear?

“You’re Lázaro Corona’s granddaughter?” he said.

Sierra scrunched up her face. “Yes. That mean something to you?”

Robbie just nodded. His eyes didn’t leave hers.

She decided to ignore his stare. “Well, he’s been pretty much out of it since last year when he had this stroke, but tonight he told me to . . . He told me to find you, and he said the murals were fading and that someone was coming for us, and something about shadowshapers . . .”

And the painting was crying, Robbie. It was fading and crying. The words lingered at the edge of her tongue, made her mouth feel heavy. No. He’d think she was crazy. Or maybe they’d just sit there for ages and stare at each other and not say anything.

And as she looked again into his brown eyes, in a weird, quiet way, that was what Sierra wanted.

Finally, Robbie looked back at his sketch, his brows creased in concentration. “Lázaro told you about the shadowshapers, huh?”

“He just mentioned them,” Sierra said. “Didn’t explain. You know about ’em?”

“A thing or two.”

“Well, that’s gratingly vague. You gonna help me with this mural or not?”

“If Grandpa Lázaro said I gotta, then I guess I gotta.” He looked up and smiled.

“Oh, great, don’t do it for me or nothin’. I see how it is.” She took his notepad from him and scribbled her number on the cardboard backing. “There. You got the digits and you didn’t even ask for ’em.”

Robbie laughed. “Look, the shadowshapers . . . It’s a lot to explain. I’m not really sure where to start . . .”

A hubbub was rising from the party, some yelling and cursing — a fight perhaps. Robbie was staring through the tangle of vines around them. He stood up suddenly.

“What’s wrong?” Sierra said.

“It’s begun.”

Sierra got up too. “What has, man? Talk to me.”

“We have to go,” Robbie said. “Right now.”