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Derived from Crenshaw, Meaning Inquisitive

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11, almost 12

It seemed to Akeelah that she could barely hear her own thoughts over the din of cheers in the school quad let alone what Georgia was saying in her ear. Mr. Welch had told her Ms. Cross organized the whole thing, and it looked like the entire school was bunched together, feet stomping on concrete, hands clapping so loudly it made her ears hurt.

Akeelah pasted a grin on her face and nodded at every voice shouting in her direction, calling back, "thank you!" every so often. Beyond that, she didn't think it mattered what she said.

Finally, Ms. Cross approached the podium and the noise lowered enough for Akeelah to swallow and pop her ears. She also heard Georgia's excited and giggly voice, this time loud and clear, and her question was like setting a hush to the crowd as it caught Akeelah's attention completely:

"Girl, what are you going to do next year?"

*

Akeelah bit her lip distractedly as she set the table, waiting on her mother to return with the last platter of food so they could eat. Kiana was settling the baby, and who knew where Terrence was.

Her mother swept into the room, holding a wide platter with both hands, and set it on the table. "There," she sighed, "time to eat." She caught Akeelah's eyes and asked, "Where's your sister?"

It was nice seeing her like that, Akeelah thought. Her mother was almost never still, always busy with something, but dinner was one of the few times where they all could take their time. Her mother didn't have to rush, but that didn't mean Akeelah stopped being impatient.

She sighed, shifted on her feet as she looked at her mother. "Probably trying to put that whiny baby to sleep," she said.

Tanya tsked at her. "Now, you know better than that. That whiny baby is your nephew."

"Mama!" Akeelah huffed, crossing her arms over her chest.

The teasing smile fell from Tanya's lips. "Akeelah Anderson, what is your problem?"

"Ain't you - aren't you gonna say anything?"

"Baby, I can't make that decision for you. You've already won the National Bee, is there a reason to do it again next year?"

Akeelah shrugged. "No, I guess not."

"Then what do you want to do?"

"I haven't thought about it," she answered, which was not entirely true. She'd thought a lot about what she'd do a month after, then a year, then five years. After hearing her mother talk about her regrets and spending that time with Dr. Larabee, Akeelah felt all the more certain. "Maybe college? When I get older."

Tanya nodded, finally taking her seat at the dinner table. The food was getting cold. "That sounds good, Keelah. How about you start by not skipping class anymore and we'll go from there?"

Akeelah smiled at that, despite her growing dread at returning to Crenshaw Middle for another school year. "I can do that."

"Good, now go get your sister so we can eat," Tanya directed.

 

15

Akeelah stared at her reflection yet again, smoothing out the small wrinkles in her shirt before straightening her glasses on her face. She eyed her hair critically. Pulling at the elastic band holding her braids in a simple ponytail let her hair fall around her shoulders. Turning slightly to the right, she studied her profile, silently approving of her appearance. She looked a little older than her 15 years, more mature. Somehow that seemed very important to her, that she look the part.

Changing out of her school uniform earlier had felt different, and she knew part of it was because it was different. She wasn't just hanging out at home or going to the mall with Kiana and Georgia.

She was hanging with Javier tonight. Not Javier and Dylan and the rest of the Woodland Hills kids. Just Javier, for a study date.

A date.

Akeelah tugged on the hem of her jean skirt, nervous all of a sudden at what tonight meant, could mean. It technically wasn't a date, despite Kiana's insistence. Her sister had been teasing her for the past two days, ever since she'd overheard Akeelah confirming the study date while on the phone with Javier. After that it was little comments here and there, like, "Keely, what does your boyfriend like to eat?" or, "Keely, make sure Javier keeps his hands to himself on your date."

Or worse, Akeelah thought with a cringe, Kiana would mime kissing her hand or the air, sometimes using her tongue and grossing Akeelah out. Like she'd ever kiss anyone, including Javier, like that.

Besides, Javier was not her boyfriend. He was just Javier; her friend who carefully pronounced every word he spoke, who liked her goofy laugh because he said it complimented his own. Who was always touching her hand, and helping her with her homework even though it was Akeelah who had skipped a grade.

Yeah, that Javier.

And she was crushing on him big time.

But it's not a date, Akeelah told herself. And not for the first time she wished she'd let Georgia come over to help her get ready, and maybe tell her what she was supposed to do on her first date, that was technically not a date at all.

*

"You want anything else to drink?"

Javier shook his head. "No, thanks."

Akeelah took her place at the coffee table opposite Javier, her back against the couch as she sat on the floor. She met Javier's eyes and smiled nervously before turning her attention back to her algebra book. Soon she was lost in solving equations until Javier closed his book shut with a snap.

She looked at him curiously. "Javier?"

He took a deep breath and said, "Akeelah, what are you doing for the summer?"

Shrugging, she laid her pencil inside her book and relaxed against the couch. "I don't know. Mama says I can get a job if I want. Me and Georgia will probably go to the mall and see if we can get one together. Why?"

It occurred to Akeelah that he looked nervous, the way he sat up straight, cracking his knuckles like he did. And damn was that boy cute when he was nervous. "I wanted to spend time with you."

Akeelah suddenly laughed. "Javier, what are you talking about? We already spend time together." They did. She felt as comfortable around his friends as he did with hers, and she really liked his parents.

And her mother and sister -- for all the teasing they both did -- adored him.

Terrance on the other hand, thought they spent too much time together, but she didn't care what he thought.

Javier's hand covering hers pulled her from her thoughts. Oh. It wasn't a get your attention touch; he was holding her hand, squeezing her fingers. His hand was a little damp, but warm. She wanted him to keep holding on.

"As friends, yeah," he said. Javier leaned forward eagerly, still holding her hand. There was nothing hesitant or nervous about the way he looked at her. "But I want us to be boyfriend and girlfriend."

Part of Akeelah already knew that but it was nice to have it confirmed. Neither of them had been (and still weren't) very subtle about constantly wanting to be around each other. She'd felt that way since they'd first met at the District Spelling Bee, and Javier appeared as a friend in a sea of strangers.

Somehow, she knew her dad would've liked him too.

"Me too," she murmured, not because she wasn't sure, but because it was happening now. Her friend Javier -- the cute boy who befriended her and knew lots of words and made her feel better about being different -- was now Javier, her cute boyfriend from Woodland Hills.

And she was Akeelah, his girlfriend from Crenshaw. She liked the sound of it.

"You know what we have to do now, don't you? It's customary," he told her.

Akeelah blinked. "What's that?"

"We have to kiss," Javier said with a grin.

"Have to?"

"I want to," he amended.

Akeelah nodded, and they both rose to their knees, leaning across the coffee table to meet each other halfway. His lips pressed against hers for a long moment before they parted, and she repeated his action, pulling back a little when his tongue grazed her bottom lip.

Javier tilted his head to one side and Akeelah instinctively did the opposite; having seen enough movies with kissing to know how it was supposed to look. Their mouths moved against each other, and every now and then their lips smacked, but it was only embarrassing the first time. After that it sounded natural.

Akeelah finally pulled her mouth away, taking deep breaths as she struggled not to grin and giggle. She'd just had her first real kiss.

Javier smiled at her, his cheeks flushed and eyes glassy, and Akeelah couldn't hold back her laughter any longer. He reminded her so much of the first time he'd kissed her cheek at his birthday party, and even then she'd wondered what he liked about her.

She thought she had a pretty good idea now.

*

The next day, Akeelah had a hard time thinking of anything else beyond kissing Javier, and wondering what was next now that they were going together. Mama had once told her that she was too analytical for her own good. At the time she hadn't understood, but the words made sense now.

Everything was changing.

She didn't know how to be someone's girlfriend. Being Keelah was all she knew, and she didn't see any reason for that to change.

Akeelah thought about that year after she won the Bee with Dylan, and how everything that was familiar and expected was suddenly unrecognizable. Crenshaw Middle was in desperate need of funds to remain open; they couldn't afford books, and the building was falling apart. At the time, she was embarrassed and didn't want to represent a school that couldn't afford stall doors in its bathrooms.

In two years, Crenshaw's Middle and High schools had implemented spelling bees and other academic programs, along with books in slightly better conditions and clean walls. And they had stall doors.

Those changes were an improvement. But more than that, Akeelah had realized that she wasn't just representing a school, but an entire community whose presence she felt on that stage during the competition.

Akeelah knew all change wasn't bad, and some of it she could even look forward to. She still kept in contact with Dr. Larabee, after all, even though the initial reason for their meeting was something in which she no longer took part.

She could look forward to the change in her relationship with Javier.

*

Georgia was waiting at Akeelah's locker as she approached, dodging students rushing to their next class. Akeelah nodded in greeting. "Hey, girl."

"Uh huh, what happened?" Georgia crossed her arms over her chest, and Akeelah knew she couldn't put her off much longer.

She didn't call Georgia after Javier left because she'd had to deal with Kiana teasing her again, and by then she just wanted to be left alone. Akeelah exchanged one set of books for another. "Nothing, we did algebra and talked," she said, shrugging.

"Mhmm." She felt Georgia's eyes on her and then her friend suddenly gasped. "You're lying! Wanna know how I know? Because you do that weird thing with your face when you lie, you liar."

Before Akeelah could protest Georgia giggled. "It must be good if you don't want to talk about it."

Akeelah pushed her glasses up on her face and confessed, "He kissed me," with a wide smile.

"Did you kiss him back?"

"You know I did!" Akeelah blurted out and they both laughed. "Oh, he also asked me to be his girlfriend."

"So y'all kicking it now, huh?" Georgia bumped her shoulder against Akeelah. "Aw, Keelah finally got a boyfriend!"

"Shut up!" Akeelah rolled her eyes and bumped back playfully before shutting her locker. "I gotta go. I'll see you at lunch," she said, and started down the hallway.

Georgia called back to her, "Yeah, and I want details!"

Akeelah chuckled and kept walking.

 

18

At the end of class, Akeelah thumbed through her notes, taking her time as she gathered her things to leave. She wanted to have a word with the professor, but a small cluster of students vied for his attention, so it was probably unlikely they'd get a chance to talk. Sighing in defeat, she made her way to the aisle of the lecture hall and faced the instructor's podium. "Professor?"

Dr. Larabee briefly met her gaze and nodded. "We'll speak at a later time Ms. Anderson."

Akeelah glanced at her watch as she left. She had just enough time to stop at the campus bookstore before meeting Javier at her dorm.

*

There were times during the first semester of her freshman year at UCLA that Akeelah had gotten so homesick she had felt like she needed to go home each weekend, just to make sure her old neighborhood, her old life hadn't changed. Then she'd look at Javier, sitting on the narrow twin bed in her dorm room, doing homework or watching TV; symbolizing equal parts old and new, and that feeling would settle enough so that she could breathe in her new surroundings. It wasn't always like that, but more often than not Javier and even Dr. Larabee would remind her of why she was in school.

College had always been her next step.

Akeelah took a deep breath as soon as her mouth was free while Javier pressed soft kisses against her neck.

This... is probably not what anyone had in mind when she and Javier had announced they were attending UCLA. It's certainly not what she had intended, at least not wholly.

But oh, it felt good.

They'd dated on and off through high school, but none of that had prepared her for this feeling, for the thoughts that often occupied her mind. She'd said once that she was naturally inquisitive. And at 18, Akeelah found herself much too curious for her own good, wondering things like, can I reach his skin with my lips if I stretch on my toes (because Javier had finally hit a growth spurt his senior year, and was now an inch taller than Akeelah) or would it feel as hard and warm without clothes between them, or a variety of other thoughts that embarrassed her on recall.

Each time they were here, their hands got a little more exploratory and their kisses longer. And each time, Akeelah found it harder to stop, but was unwilling to go any further.

When she felt Javier's soft lips touch her chest just beneath her shirt, she pushed against his shoulders until he looked up at her with surprised eyes. They usually got much farther than this before she stopped them.

"What's wrong?"

Akeelah shook her head. "Maybe we should go out and do something."

Javier smiled and gestured between them. "Now?"

"Yes, now," she smiled. "Come on, let's do something fun."

When he nodded, they both got up from the bed and headed to the door. She halted in her steps at the feel of his hand on her arm. Turning, she watched as Javier smiled at her and leaned forward to press a kiss against the corner of her mouth. Her lips turned up at the contact.

"Why'd you do that?"

He held the door open for her. "I had an impulse."

Akeelah smiled and touched her cheek, remembering that moment years ago. Then she giggled, and kissed his lips. "Me, too." She laced their fingers together just as Javier shut the door behind him and they started down the hall. "Now, let's go. I wanna get back in time to watch the National Bee on ESPN."

Javier's grin was all dimples and white teeth as they started down the hallway, and he still had to maintain a quick pace to keep up with her.

*