It wasn’t a hard choice for Quan to decide to run away. He feels bad about leaving Dasia and Gabe, but Quan is only nine and can’t run away with a four-year-old and a two-year-old in tow. He doesn’t think anyone’s following him, but he takes a circuitous route in case Mama’s boyfriend, Dwight, noticed Quan leave. Quan couldn’t stay to watch Dwight leave bruises on Mama. And Dwight is too strong for Quan to intervene—the one time Quan tried, Dwight threw him into the dining room table. It was nearly impossible to hide the bruise from Daddy, who would surely do something scary if he knew what was going on. So Quan hid his siblings in the closet and left.
The novel’s opening introduces its protagonist, Quan: a nine-year-old boy who feels extremely loyal to his family members, but who also feels mostly powerless to protect them. He also walks a fine line as he negotiates what seems like a complicated relationship between Daddy, Mama, and Dwight. This tricky dynamic seems to deprive Quan of support, since he doesn’t feel able to approach Daddy for help with Dwight’s abuse.
When he gets to the new playground, Quan heads straight for the rocket ship and wipes his eyes on his shirt. He’s glad there’s no one around to see him cry. The rocket ship is Quan’s favorite place in the world, though he’d never admit it. Once inside the ship, he’s so relieved that he sinks to the floor and sobs. Suddenly, a cough comes from above. A boy stares down silently and doesn’t respond to Quan’s hello. Quan is annoyed—this is the one place he can relax. He snaps at the boy, who looks down and picks at the skin on his thumbs. Quan does this all the time too and gets yelled at for it, so this makes him pause. The boy, who introduces himself as Justyce, says he didn’t expect anyone else to be here.
The rocket ship becomes a symbol for Quan and his childhood. At this point, Quan is doing everything in his power to preserve his childhood. In this instance, that means running away from the danger at home. As Quan runs away, he feels alone and unsupported. But finding Justyce in the rocket ship and pausing when he sees that he and Justyce both pick at their thumbs offers hope that Quan might be able to find a sense of community and support elsewhere.
Quan recognizes the name—Justyce is “that smart kid” who just won a contest. Justyce asks if Quan is going to make fun of him. Quan is confused, but Justyce explains that kids have been making fun of him since the school announced his win. With a shrug, Quan suggests the other kids are jealous. After a comfortable silence, Quan asks if Justyce is going to get in trouble for being out late. Justyce says he will, but his mom knows he’ll come back. Quan sighs that he wishes he didn’t have to go home. He starts to stop himself but remembers seeing women being laced into corsets in the movie Titanic. He feels like a corset is loosening from around his chest as he explains that Dwight is an “asshole,” even if he is the father of Mama’s other kids. Quan hates Dwight for taking out his anger on Mama.
The fact that Justyce fears that Quan will make fun of him for winning a contest implies that doing well in school is neither easy nor expected in the boys’ community—and also that it’s “cool” to underperform in school. So Quan’s suggestion that the other kids are jealous is both kind and unexpected for Justyce, and it also begins to suggest that Quan has the capacity to be a good, supportive friend. This passage also drives home the importance of open, supportive communication. When Quan feels alone, he feels constricted, as though he’s wearing a corset. But as he talks to someone about the things going on in his life, that constriction lessens.
Justyce says that Quan’s homelife sounds familiar, explaining that his dad was in the military and has been “different” since he came home. Now he has “episodes” and throws stuff. Sometimes he hits Justyce’s mom. Justyce wipes his eyes. When Quan asks if Justyce comes to the playground during the day, Justyce says he does “occasionally.” Quan scoffs that no fifth grader uses the word “occasionally”; no wonder Justyce won the contest. He says he’s going home to check on his siblings and that Justyce should check on his mom. An understanding passes between the boys. After Quan turns away, Justyce asks for his name; Quan offers his full name, Vernell LaQuan Banks Jr., but asks Justyce to call him Quan. The boys say goodbye and head home.
Hearing that Justyce’s dad can also be violent impresses upon Quan that he’s not alone in navigating domestic abuse. There’s at least one other boy—and probably more—in his community who lives in a similar state of fear and dread that he does. But even if Justyce and Quan can’t rely on their parents to support them and give them a safe place to live, their meeting and passing understanding shows that the boys can find companionship and support elsewhere, like in each other. Friendship, in other words, will become extremely important for these two, especially in the absence of supportive family.