Book Excerpt – Jelani’s Key
by D. Amari Jackson
Publication Date: Aug 29, 2023
List Price: $9.99
Format: Paperback, 80 pages
Target Age Group: Middle Grade
Imprint: AALBC Books for Young Readers
Publisher: African American Literature Book Club
Parent Company: AALBC.com, LLC
Copyright © 2023 African American Literature Book Club/D. Amari Jackson No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission from the publisher or author. The format of this excerpt has been modified for presentation here.
The Bully of Benning Road
Not the kind of kid Jelani, or any of his friends for that matter, wanted to mess with under any circumstance. For years, they’d heard horrific tales of the Bully of Benning Road, the man-sized boy who hovered by the door of his broken-down house and chased any boy his age who dared pass by his stoop alone after sundown.
Though few had ever seen him up close since they’d scatter like chickens once his tattered wooden door creaked open, Bakare was known throughout the community as a monster. He was said to be humungous—big enough to scoop up two screaming kids his age, slam their heads together, and drag them back into his creepy house to never be heard from again.
Then there were the stories from those who claimed to have escaped Bakare’s clutches telling of walnut-sized knuckles that could pound the stuffing out of bony little bodies like Jelani’s.
Since he lived seven houses down from Bakare, Jelani never had a reason or desire to cross the bully’s stoop after sundown. However, this was no ordinary evening. Jelani desperately needed to find out about his grandfather’s note and Bakare’s stoop was located between him and his destination.
Plus, despite such monstrous stories, there was something about the bully Jelani was not so sure of. Whenever his parents drove past Bakare’s house and Jelani gazed from his back seat at its second story window, he could see a large telescope—just like the one Ta-Ta had given him—sitting on a shelf, angled at the sky.
As far as he knew, monsters were not into stargazing.
The idea was to ride as fast as he could past Bakare’s stoop so the bully would not have time to react.
That didn’t happen. Just before the stoop, Jelani was stunned by how heavy and hard his bike had become to pedal. It felt like an invisible passenger was riding with him, weighing it down, stopping its thin rubber tires from turning.
Jelani looked down and his heart sank. His rear tire was flat. A small nail had punctured its rubber coating.
As he reached for the nail, from the corner of his eye he saw something move. It was as if a massive body was blocking the light of the evening sky, like the eclipse his grandfather had once taken him to the West Virginia mountains to see.
Jelani froze. Slowly, he looked up. Standing in front of him was the biggest kid he had ever seen. His body was like one of the linemen Jelani and his dad watched on television during football season. His legs doubled as tree trunks while his arms and hands looked like they could crush a trash can. And his head reminded Jelani of the giant presidential statues at Mt. Rushmore he’d researched online for a recent school assignment.
Trembling, Jelani knew he was about to become the latest victim of the Bully of Benning Road. He closed his eyes and sadly recognized his chances of finding Karakhamun, whatever that meant, were growing slim.
He was not prepared for what happened next. Instead of receiving the blow he thought would surely come, he heard an unexpected voice.
“Sorry about your grandfather.”
Opening his eyes cautiously, a confused Jelani answered slowly.
“You knew my grandfather…?”
The giant boy’s eyes dropped toward the ground. He responded softly. “Yeah… he and my dad were friends. They went to Africa together a few years back.”
Jelani was stunned. The boy was definitely huge but, surprisingly, he really didn’t look that mean. In fact, his saucer-like eyes looked anything but mean… even sad. And he had known Ta-Ta.
“I’m Bakare,” the large boy continued. “Your grandfather, back when he could talk, told my dad he wanted me to meet you since we both loved to gaze at the stars. But then he got sick before it happened.”
“I never knew that,” gushed Jelani. “Why didn’t you and your dad ever come see us at the house?”
Bakare’s eyes dropped toward the ground once more. A pained look spread across his massive face.
“Someone shot my dad… He died a few years back tryin’ to stop some lady from gettin’ robbed.”
The words cut Jelani like a knife. Several of his schoolmates had lost family members to violence. Each time he heard of someone dying that way, he wanted to cry.
Jelani offered the only words that came to mind. “I’m so sorry, Bakare.”
For a moment, the two boys stood in silence under the flickering streetlights. Suddenly, Bakare pointed up at the telescope in his second story window.
“My dad and your grandfather really wanted us to study the stars together.”
Jelani shook his head in wonder. “Bakare, I had no idea.”
“I know,” replied Bakare, softly. And just like that, for Jelani, the horrific and legendary tale of the head-smashing Bully of Benning Road disappeared as if it never existed in the first place.
The large boy changed the subject. “Well, wherever you’re headed, your ride’s not gonna get you there.”
Grabbing the bike with one hand, Bakare nodded at Jelani and headed toward the house that now seemed a lot less creepy.
“C’mon man, let’s get you fixed up.”