The bar hadn’t even gotten into the girl’s hand when a voice suddenly shouted out, “What do you think you’re doing?”
It happened so quickly.
Virgil trying to explain.
Janna and Mandy handing out the food. Me and Elwood holding the boxes.
Then all this shouting. Adults storming over. Yelling.
The kids taking the bars. Then the adults knocking them out of their hands. Reaching for Janna. Grabbing them out of her hands. Throwing them back at her.
Virgil stepping in. Getting shoved.
And the light. Suddenly there was more light than the declining afternoon deserved.
The camera lights. As soon as they were lit, the shouting became screaming, the shoves became harder.
I didn’t know what to do. I clutched at the box.
I told Elwood to run.
Janna and Mandy were screaming now. A different kind of screaming. Not an attack. The opposite.
“Let me go. Let her go!”
I dropped my box. Other people were coming now. Passersby.
We stepped into the crowd as they broke their lines.
Police coming now.
Virgil was being hit. Hit in the chest and hit with the most vile words.
I got to Janna. Mandy. Put my arms around them and pulled them back into me.
Then the police were pushing us. Pushing us away. Trampling over the boxes, the food.
Kids crying. Adults throwing posters in our faces.
Other people—not just police—running in now to push them back.
Fights breaking out.
I watched as he came stumbling out.
Hurt. Not bleeding.
I thought it might be a heart attack.
“Are you okay? Are you okay?” I kept asking.
He nodded. He didn’t look okay.
“Just shaken,” he said.
There were people from the other side trying to hold the attackers back. Trying to comfort the children. Yelling at the ones who had gotten to Janna and Mandy.
They’re not all bad, I had to remind myself.
I only half believed it.
The fighting continued until the police had pulled both sides apart. Separated us again.
It was Elwood who brought us back. He hadn’t run far. He returned, his box still intact.
“Well,” he said to Janna, “nobody ever said that Jesus had it easy.”
The cameras kept rolling.
Was Ludlow Rogers watching his screen, and did he see the girl being attacked on her mission of kindness? Had he been watching the crowds all day, knowing they were voting to stay, putting themselves on the line? Or was it simpler than that? Did he pray? Did he have to answer one of his children’s questions about what was going on? Was it something that secretly he’d always known he’d have to do?
What was it about that moment that made him decide?
Whatever the case, some hours later, Ludlow Rogers made a phone call and pressed a button.
Before I saw him, I heard Jimmy calling my name.
He had seen it. Later, we’d learn that everybody had seen it.
Janna reaching out with food.
One of the pug lovers had been watching an open channel. She said, “Something’s happening,” and everyone gathered around. Saw it as it happened. Saw it replayed. And replayed again.
Except for Jimmy. He didn’t wait for the replay. He was already running.
And then I saw him. There was a look on his face I had never seen before.
That fear that comes from love.
When he saw me, it was as if his body released angels. He was so relieved. So afraid—because the fear doesn’t wear off in an instant—and so relieved.
I have never been happier to see anybody.
He ran over to me, and he didn’t need to say a thing. But he said so many things anyway—one long rush of “I’msorryareyouokayohmy GodI’msosorryIleftyouiseveryoneallrightletmemakesureyou’reokayIwas soscaredIcameasfastasIcouldI’msosorryIleftyouI’msosorryI’msohappyyou’re okay.”
I held him as he tried to hold me. As Virgil held Janna and Mandy. As the violence of the situation subsided into aftershocks. As we slowly, slowly followed Elwood back to the fifty square feet we thought of as our temporary home.
Mira and Keisha were waiting for us together. Holding hands because they needed to.
Gus was with a cute boy who also looked concerned. His name was Pierre. He was from France.
Flora had wanted to come looking for us, too. But Clive had kept her close, saying, “They’ll come back. Don’t worry—they’ll come back. If he comes back and you’re not here, it’ll only make it harder.”
Mrs. Everett kept shaking her head, asking the sky, “Why does it always come to this?”
I called my parents. We all called our parents.
Even though it was nowhere near the top of the hour, Stein came out to speak.
“As many of you have no doubt seen or heard, minutes ago there was a violent incident in which a group of kind, charitable youth were attacked by people who support my opponent. I am sure this is not something my opponent would condone, and it is certainly not something I condone. I know that seeing this attack may anger some of you, leading to more violence.
“Let me remind you all: We are here as nonviolent protesters, and we expect our opposition to follow the same rules. As Gandhi said, ‘We must be the change we wish to see.’ We will all adhere to that.
“I know you are cold. I know you are hungry. We are doing everything in our power to bring more blankets and more food to the area. In our great challenge, we face everyday challenges as well. The only answer I can give you is this: The more kindness and justice are challenged, the more we must embrace them. Only when you are challenged—and only when you challenge yourself—do you discover what truly matters. Your actions are being witnessed and your words are being seen—not just in this city or state, but in this nation and the entire world. Stay strong. Morally strong. Spiritually strong. And physically strong. I promise you, we will get to the right end, and we will do it as quickly as possible.”
Sue and his father found us, and they brought a campfire with them.
The resemblance was amazing, not just in their features, but in the happiness they so clearly felt in finding each other again. Sue’s father was a gorgeous woman, and she spoke in a rich, robust voice. As we laid down the wood and lit it up, Sue’s father told us stories—of her wandering days, of all the time she lost to drink, of the moment she knew she had to be a woman.
“We talk all the time ’bout hard truths,” she told us. “But I reckon to tell you there are soft truths, too. It doesn’t always have to be like running into a wall. Sometimes it’s just like waking up.”
Her one regret, she said, was leaving Sue behind.
“I always knew where he was,” she said. “I just wasn’t sure he’d want to have anything to do with a pa like me.”
Sue just leaned into her in response. His father wiped a tear from her eye.
All through the story, Jimmy kept my hand in his. Now I nestled into him a little to distract him as Flora took out the birthday cake she’d brought from home and lit the candles.
We all started singing “Happy Birthday,” and Jimmy actually seemed surprised. He looked at me once before he wished.
“Help me,” he said.
So we blew out the candles together, as all of our friends and many of the people around us cheered. Then we ate the cake, which—after two days of Everything Bars—tasted delicious.
We hung around the fire some more. Janna and Mandy sang some gospel, and Mrs. Everett stood up to tell us how mighty we were. Gus and his new French boy flirted dreamily while Mira and Keisha had once again drifted apart—even though their glances kept colliding.
When the cake-frosting sugar high started to wear off, Jimmy moved his mouth to my ear and said, “I’m sleepy.”
“Let’s go, then,” I whispered. We said a full round of good-nights, called our parents, got ready for bed, then slipped into our sleeping bag.
The fire was still burning behind us. The green banners still glowed. The night air wasn’t really dark at all. It was a blue hour.
His face was mere inches from mine. His eyes were observing. He ran his hand behind my ear, down my neck. He kissed me gently. I kissed him gently back.
“I love you,” he said.
“I love you,” I said.
We lay there in a gentle equilibrium. Our knees touching. Our hands gliding. Quieter words. The slight heat of breath.
Gradually, very gradually, we fell asleep. Together.
The next morning, we heard the word before we knew what it meant. We woke up to it—people whispering it, speaking it, even exclaiming it.
recording. Recording. Recording!
We got up and turned on the open news channel. We saw a man walking into an official-looking building.
His name, we learned, was Ludlow Rogers.
He was the governor of Kansas’s chief of staff.
“They say he made a recording of the governor,” Virgil told us as we gathered around. “They say it could be something.”
It was something.
Stein was late for his hourly speech. When he reached the stage, all he said was:
“I want you to hear something.”
The governor’s unmistakable voice.
“I don’t care how we do this, but we’re going to do this. This state’s not going to go for that Jew fag Stein—I don’t care if I have to vote a thousand times myself to get the margin in our favor. We’re almost there, Ludlow. The woman in Ford County’s almost done.”
That “woman in Ford County” was an election official. And she wasn’t very happy about what the governor had said.
The truth was emerging.
We were energized. By the millions, we were energized.
The chanting began. All of us in unison. All of our voices, united.
“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
“We won Kansas! We won Kansas! We won Kansas!”
“Stein. Is. President!
Stein. Is. President!”
Simple slogans. Irrefutable truth.
We yelled for hours. We filled the air with our protest. Nobody was leaving now. Not when we were so close.
More and more people joined us.
We would push it and push it and push it. We would push it until we got there.
“This is what democracy sounds like.
This is what democracy looks like.
This is what democracy is.”
We forgot that we were cold. We forgot that we were hungry. We forgot that we were wearing yesterday’s clothes, if not the clothes from the day before. We forgot any of the dramas that existed among us. We forgot any other conflicts.
“I know the one thing we did right
Was the day we started to fight
Keep your eyes on the prize
Hold on, my Lord, hold on!”
“Hold on,” Stein told us. “Hold on.”
We held hands. We kept going.
Suddenly, around two in the afternoon, the opposition candidate’s face filled all the screens, including the one on the stage. We were confused—was this sabotage? Had his team somehow managed to jam Stein’s broadcast and infiltrate our rally?
We looked to the stage.
Stein was nowhere to be found.
What was happening?
But then we took a look at the opposition candidate.
He looked grave.
Disbelief swirled, carrying an undercurrent of joy.
Could it be?
Was it really?
Was he going to—
We quieted. He began to speak.
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