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BAD THINGS HAPPEN IN THE HEAT, THEY say. It’s headed to be a scorcher. Dawn just barely cracking, sweat sheen already on the skin. Today could turn into a lot of things, but when it’s hot like this, ain’t none of them good.
There’s a knot in my stomach the size of my fist. No, bigger. Today’s the sort of day when it’s best to lay low, and that’s not what we’re doing.
Hamlin steers the old pickup through the Chicago streets real slow, headed toward the demonstration downtown. Squeezed up next to him in the cab, me and Emmalee and Patrice sit silent. We squint through the windshield into the sun rising over the lake.
It’s strange, the three of us being together like this but not saying nothing. Patrice knows how to work her mouth, and I can give her a run for her money. Emmalee always gets her word in too, no question. From the time we meet up every morning till we get to school or the Panther office, wherever. Jawing. And here we sit all wide-eyed dumb like strangers.
Then again, we’re usually alone. Right now Hamlin’s sitting so close his elbow bangs into me with every turn of the wheel.
“It’s okay.” But I hold my arms crossed over my chest to keep him from hitting anything private.
In the back, perched among the boxes, is Raheem and the kid we all call Gumbo, real name: George. He came up from the way South some time ago and his voice holds that certain twang. Nice enough guy, decent-looking. People mostly say the same about Raheem, but seeing as he’s my brother, I can’t really judge. He’s back there and probably looking over my shoulder, as usual. Maybe even wishing he hadn’t let me come along.
Raheem’s always saying how he’s responsible for me, which means he won’t let me do anything that counts and he says “Maxie, when you’re older” as the answer to just about everything. Raheem’s a Black Panther already, and I’m going to be one too, just as soon as they let me. Fourteen’s not old enough, apparently.
Hamlin bends over the steering wheel as the truck curves through the Loop. He’s vigilant, studying our surroundings like he’s taking the temperature of things, as we get closer to the park. Block after block, the city comes awake—store windows snap open, people ease along the sidewalks, sip coffee, buy newspapers.
Today’s headlines should have been enough to scare us into staying home, with all their talk of police riots at the demonstration last night. Now everything seems calm and quiet. Like a regular Tuesday morning. Except for the police vehicles lining the streets, many more than I’ve ever seen at once.
Emmalee yawns, breaking the stillness. Cuts a sideways glance toward me. Beyond her, Patrice is chewing on her nails, the only one of us not even trying to hide her nervousness. I breathe out long and slow, trying to settle the knot in my belly. I got us into this, and we don’t even know yet what this really is.
I’m not usually scared to go to a demonstration, but Raheem says this one won’t be like any demonstration we’ve ever been to. He tried to warn me off coming, but I have to be there. The Democratic National Convention is the biggest thing to happen in Chicago since . . . I don’t know what, and if there’s going to be a demonstration and the Panthers are going to be there, then I’m going to be there too. I told him, plain as day.
The girls came along because we go everywhere together. Around the neighborhood people run our names together like one word: “Hey, MaxiePatriceEmmalee.” Inseparable. Close like sisters, for as long as I can remember. Through good times, sad times, crazy times. Right now qualifies as a downright rough time. The world is shifting—exploding, really—and none of us knows how to deal with it.
At least once a week, Emmalee still breaks down crying over Dr. King being killed, even though it happened nearly five months ago. She carries this book of his writings in her backpack like a Bible, all the pages folded down. We tried to tell her, if you fold down all the pages, what’s the point? But then she only cries harder. Patrice is matter-of-fact about it, thinks everything’s going to work out in the end, which is so far the opposite of me that sometimes we end up spitting, fighting mad at each other.
When I told the girls I wanted to join the Black Panthers, Patrice called me a hothead. Emmalee was excited but scared. They don’t know what joining entirely means and neither do I, but I know the Panthers are going to change everything and we have to be a part of it. When we go down to the community center on Wednesdays to hear Leroy Jackson speak, he makes me feel like things are finally going to get better. The Panthers are going to make it so that we never have to worry about being hungry, or losing our apartment, or getting arrested for no good reason. When Leroy throws his fist up in the air and shouts “All power to the people!” there’s this energy that rises up around me that’s like nothing I’ve ever felt before.
I tighten my fists in my lap. Maybe if I clench hard enough, I’ll start to feel powerful inside, instead of scared.
Emmalee sighs, leans her head against mine. She spreads her hand across my knotted knuckles. Her gentle fingers clutch mine, tight and trembling. I know she’s scared, probably more than me. I wouldn’t have made them come with me, but they’ve always got my back. That’s how it is with us.
Hamlin turns a corner, and suddenly the road ahead is clogged with cars. The vague echo of many voices chanting begins to reach us. I can sense the rhythm of the chant but can’t quite make out the words. It doesn’t sound familiar. Nothing about today feels familiar. This is an anti-war protest, Raheem told me, not a civil rights demonstration like we’re used to. Most of the people there will be white. I try to pretend we’re heading toward any old protest, but it’s no longer so easy to pretend because I can see them weaving among the cars. White face after white face, all tensed up and in a hurry. Traffic is practically stalled letting them pass.
Hamlin hums quietly for a while, which covers us in some kind of spell. Safe enough. I don’t mind the closeness in the cab. All pressed together like this, nothing can get to us. For a while. Then Hamlin stops humming, taps the wheel twice with his thumb, and the world beyond our little pocket merges closer.
The protestors seem to be coming from everywhere, out of buildings and alleys and some of the cars, carrying things and climbing over whatever’s in the way. A girl with white-blond hair and dirt-smudged skin edges around our front bumper, holding hands with a guy who has a thick bandage of white gauze taped to the side of his face. He stumbles, and she steadies him. Then they move on, away.
I glance across the cab at my friends, knowing it isn’t the time of day or Hamlin either that’s got our tongues tied. There’s something in the air. Heavier than heat and thicker than humidity. A feeling like we’re rolling into trouble.