Julia sat in the park across from the church wearing her long white dress, her long hair pulled back into a ponytail. She didn’t know how long she’d been there, only that it was beginning to get dark and Kwame had not shown up the way he said he would in his text. She scanned the crowd for him and rubbed her arms. She leaned forward on the park bench. He had to show.
She could hear a few members of the crowd gathered in front of the church singing again. In the time since she’d arrived they’d gone from noisy to silent with heads bowed, but they had not gone home. If anything the crowd had seemed to swell with the passing of the minutes, there was always a group of them leaving flowers or lighting candles. She could see them clearly and watched closely for a difference in the look on the white faces. There was none. Each face saddened, their eyes bewildered, confused, hurt, the air around them heavy with the enormity of what had happened inside the church only hours before Julia arrived. The group in their black T-shirts never left completely, but some members rotated out. She watched them most closely as they raised their signs that read Black Lives Matter. She hoped to see Kwame among them.
“Ma’am, I noticed that you’ve been sitting here a while. What are your thoughts about all this? Are you a relative of one of the victims?” The CNN reporter seemed so out of place in Charleston in the middle of June. His long sleeves and long pants didn’t help the situation any. Although his skin was black, he was obviously not really black. The way he formed his words, the way he held his head, the way he breathed in and out with such ease, everything about him turned her off. She turned her head away, tried to act like he wasn’t there. She tried not to look at the sweat stains growing under each of his arms. Beads rolled off his forehead and down his cheek as he spoke. He reached into his pocket for a white handkerchief to dry himself off. Julia watched as hundreds of reporters, more vans and satellite equipment cluttering the streets than she ever would have imagined, attacked the city like locusts.
“I don’t feel like talking right now,” she said. The reporter’s eyes began to scan the crowd for his next victim, but he didn’t move.
“Me and my people, we just need to be left alone right now,” Julia wiped her eyes and nose with a Kleenex, drew in a deep breath. How had she even gotten there? Less than a mile from the college where she’d finished her freshman year a few weeks earlier, a short walk from her summer job. A heaviness settling over her like a hurricane cloud. She looked over the man’s shoulder hoping to spot Kwame’s dreadlocked head bobbing above the rest.
“Your people? So you did have a relative in the church?” He scribbled something on a notepad. Glanced at the white man a few feet behind him holding the camera.
Julia waited, prayed silently for the strength she would need to get through the next few minutes, the next few days. Her head began to pound behind her right eye and she noticed how stiff her body had become. Every muscle seemed to ache. She stood up just then watching the newsman’s eyes travel up her six foot frame.
“I’m tired,” she said as the man with the camera stepped closer and a microphone was thrust into her face. “But let me ask you something, sir? Have you ever lost somebody you loved? If you have, then you know why I’m tired. Tired of people like you coming in here like you know something about us. Like you care about us. Nine people are dead. That is my church over there,” she pointed her finger toward the tall, steepled building, its white paint and stained glass windows awash in the setting sun. “And nothing I do or say can bring them back. They are gone now. My only prayer is that they will catch him and give him the electric chair. Then I hope that God will burn him in hell.”
The words had escaped her before she’d even thought them through, but she felt like she could breathe easier once they were out. The reporter’s face brightened, his eyes got bigger.
“Did you get all of that, Fred? Please tell me you were rolling that.” She heard him say it as she started walking toward her house.
“Ma’am, don’t leave yet. I have a few other questions for you. Ma’am, at least tell me your name and how long you’ve lived here.”
He would have caught up to her if he hadn’t been intercepted.
“Don’t I recognize you from the TV? CNN, right?” An older black woman turned to the man with her. “I told you that was him! Told you! You don’t believe nothing I say.”
Turning back to the camera and the microphone the woman declared, “Listen son, this is bad, but we are a forgiving people here in Charleston. We love Jesus and he told us to pray for our enemies. Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord!”
Julia heard the last word as she rounded the corner on Calhoun. “Six blocks and I’ll be home. Six blocks.” She kept her eyes trained on the bricks under her feet just like she had when she was a little girl in her Sunday finest. Back then her shoes were patent leather and shiny. There were ribbons in her hair. Mama Pearl said ribbons made a person look more like a good girl, not like them wild, no manners children that run the streets. “Five blocks and I’ll be home. Five blocks.” But Mama Pearl was gone. She had taken her brand new Bible that she had gotten for her birthday with her to the bible study. It was the last thing Julia would notice. Mama Pearl and that brand new birthday Bible. She fought the image of blood splattered on the black leather cover. Blood splattered on the walls, her pastor’s dead body slumped over the table. Every time she closed her eyes the picture returned like it was burned onto the inside of her brain.
She reached the house after what felt like a hard labor. The afternoon was still hot even though the sun had dropped behind the trees. Three blocks left, but it felt like the house had started to take steps backwards and away from her. When she reached her street she saw the crowd and dread flooded her chest. People had been notified and were coming in from as far away as California. She walked into the house and saw the food; cakes, pies, pans of macaroni. Her aunt Vivian told stories about when she was little and when Mama Pearl got her switch when they did something wrong and the way she loved to sing Precious Lord, Take My Hand. Julia didn’t want to be a part of this. She wanted to be behind the counter at Panera serving sandwiches and salads. She bet things were busy out there with all the news trucks and everybody coming to see what had happened. She wanted to go back to her job and to a time when things were normal. And there would be bills to pay, things she would have to take care of now that Mama Pearl was gone. She’d asked her father about it, but he had said no.
“Stay in this house. Enough going on without you going round getting yourself in some kinda trouble. Stay right here where I can see you.”
“Yes sir,” she’d mumbled and took a few steps toward her room. Then she turned and made one more attempt, “But what if I only stay for a little while?” By that time he was already wrapped up in another conversation with a fancy looking man in a black suit. She couldn’t hear what they whispered, but after a minute her daddy dropped his head and his body shook. The fancy man laid a hand on his shoulder and handed him Mama Pearl’s Bible.
She had never seen her daddy cry before. On the few occasions that she was around him, he was always the one telling jokes and making other people laugh. There was so much she didn’t know about him, his wife and kids in North Charleston, his job at the Boeing plant. He was Mama Pearl’s only son, though, and it was his job to step up and take care of all of the arrangements. Keep everything together and everybody in line.
When she walked through the door he was sitting on Mama Pearl’s favorite piece of furniture, the couch she kept covered with plastic. Julia could almost hear her grandmother having a fit if she knew all these strangers were crammed in her house. Just then she noticed that somebody had the nerve to rest a glass on the end table without a coaster. The pounding behind Julia’s eye got worse as she tried to make her way through all the people and into her bedroom. But it was hard to blend in wearing that white dress.
“Julia!” his voice rang out across the crowded room. “Julia, you come here to me right now.” People stopped talking, stopped chewing.
“James, lower your voice,” Aunt Vivian whispered loud enough for the room to hear. He seemed to remember himself and his expression changed.
“Julia, let’s go in the room and talk,” he grabbed her elbow roughly and led her away.
When the door was shut he leaned on it and spoke through clenched teeth. “Girl, I know I told you to stay in this house. What did I say, huh? I said STAY in this HOUSE. You might be 19, but you ain’t grown yet. I know our talk earlier upset you, but that is no excuse for running away like a 2-year-old.”
Julia looked at him, rubbed the back of her neck the way Mama Pearl used to do when she was getting ready to read somebody. “I went to the park. I just needed to get some fresh air. I had to get out of this house.” She stopped talking before she reminded him about the days he said he would come by the house to pick her up and never showed. About the days of her recitals and her graduations, about the birthday dinners he had missed. She wanted to ask him how he knew that she was 19. She wasn’t convinced that he even really knew her name or anything about her. He had no right to talk to her like that. She looked at him through eyes that had become small slits and thought about the self-control her Mama Pearl was always reminding her about.
The need for her grandmother’s voice and the feel of her hand became so great in that moment that her body began to shake. None of this made any sense. Being there in her room with her father just brought home the reality that she was alone in the world. It was all happening so fast, happening because somebody picked up a gun and walked into the church.
James relaxed his shoulder then and he sat next to her on the bed. “Julia, this is no time to be running off. Things around here are not settled yet. You can’t just walk off without letting anybody know. I was worried about you, Skeeter. I was worried something might a happened.” He tried to put his arm around her but she leaned away. She could hear the hurt in his voice. Still, she just wanted to hurt him, even now. Bring up the other family. Surely his real kids and his wife needed his comfort too. Why didn’t he just go to them like he always did? Why didn’t he find some reason to disappear as he always had? It must be out of obligation, she thought. And with all these camera around and people talking, it would look pretty bad for him not to be here with his mother dead not 24 hours yet.
“I’m alright. You don’t have to worry about me. Everything is fine.” She kept her voice steady, her eyes trained on the wall ahead.
They were quiet together for a minute. Laughter and sometimes heated conversation reached them through the wall. People discussed it. They said the killer’s name and repeated the rumors. People told the stories of the dead every time someone new showed up. They fell silent and listened to the television tell them more about their lives and their current situation than they would ever know. Always the picture of the white church towering above them all. The one constant.
“I still don’t clearly understand….” His voice trailed off, he gripped his knees as if holding himself steady. Took a deep breath. “Julia, I know I’m supposed to say something to make everything better right now, but I just can’t. I just can’t right now. I know I’m supposed to do just the right thing, but all I know to do is just shake my head. Can’t even find the words. Why would somebody do this? Why do they hate us so much?”
She sat and listened, but all she wanted to do was lie down, cover her head with the pillow, turn on Kendrick Lamar and pretend to be dead. His words barely reached her. He hadn’t been there for her in years and now here they were together, her daddy sounding more like the child.
“We gone get through this. This family has always been tough and we gone get through this together. Just like I told you before you left, the Lord won’t leave us and he won’t forsake us. He’s a very present help when we are in need.” He recited the scripture while shaking his head.
“I gotta use the bathroom. Excuse me.” It was a relief to have some distance between them. But she couldn’t get away from Mama Pearl’s voice.
“Your daddy does love you. He has his faults, but he is the only daddy you got, so you better find a way to hold him close. Forgive him.” Her grandmother had been in the kitchen preparing Julia’s favorite ribs when she said it. Her wide hips wrapped in a red and white apron, her back turned. Julia remembered that her own fingers were deep in a pan of cornbread and she had just finished complaining about her father’s latest failure. He had just called to say he wasn’t going to be able to make it to church that next morning to hear her sing the solo. He’d been called in to work, he said. There was nothing he could do.
She walked by the TV and recognized the man from the park, the one who had stuck the microphone in her face just hours earlier. She wondered about him, the way he sat up so straight on the TV all the other times she had seen him. His teeth always gleamed white and his words flowed out of his mouth sounding even whiter. Who was this man, really, and did he even know what had been happening in Charleston, Walter Scott shot in the back while running away from the white cop. Did he have any feelings or was he just as detached as he always seemed to be on the screen?
He was reporting live now like they seemed to be doing all day. The mourners were glued to the TV, everybody trying to make sense of the last few days while balancing plates of food on their laps. They filled the room with their speculations and whatever answers they could knit together.
“They say that boy wanted to start a race war. Said he had been planning this thing for years.”
“But he is so young. How can somebody so young be so filled with hate? Somebody must have been teaching him to hate all his life. I blame the parents. They must not have no souls. ”
“Don’t think it’s just him. That’s how they all feel. He is just brave enough to do all the things they talk about doing behind closed doors. They stole us from our homeland, made us work ‘til we almost dropped, and when that didn’t kill us, they tried putting us in jail. I swear, they gone keep at it until they get rid of us. They ain’t gone quit until we all dead.”
“But Pearl was 86 years old. She ain’t never hurt nobody in her life. Why did he have to hurt Pearl? Why did the Lord allow him to snatch our pastor away from us like this? Why? You can’t tell me that there is any way we deserve this. Pearl been praying and being faithful and singing in the choir since she was a baby. How does a woman like that deserve to be shot down dead like a dog in the street?” Then the choked out tears and the yelling. The comforting of the one who broke under the weight of the news. They reached out a hand, someone wrapped her in a hug. A cousin, a friend. All knowing that sooner or later it would be their turn.
“The President need to do something about this shit. You know they just mad at him. They can’t stand to see a black man in the White House. They been so mad over this thing they don’t know what to do. Sweet Jesus. We ain’t safe nowhere. Not even in the church!”
Julia hated to hear them talking like that, like they didn’t have any decency and common sense, but she understood. She understood all too well. The same words came to life in her when she marched with Kwame and the others a few months earlier after Walter Scott was shot. There was some national attention right around that time too, but nothing like this. When the video had been released, when the whole world saw the white officer raise his gun and fire into Mr. Scott’s back eight times, there had been outrage, but not enough. Still, white men sat up on the television and tried to explain the whole thing away. It had added to the anger and helplessness she was feeling. Their denial that there was even cause for concern, their rising above the “controversy.” She kept it quiet, though. Mama Pearl had made her turn the television off telling her, “Keep your eyes on the prize, baby. You just hold on. I don’t want you getting yourself all worked up over these things. The Bible tells us that there will be wars and rumors of wars right up until the day the Lord comes back for us. You just keep getting good grades down at that college. Your education is the one thing nobody will ever be able to take from you.” Julia did what her grandmother told her but couldn’t stop thinking that even a PhD would not have made Walter Scott bullet proof. No degree could ever protect him the way that white skin could.
Julia took her eyes off the reporter and looked around the room at the people who claimed they were there for the sake of the family. If Mama Pearl was here, she thought, all y’all would be out in the yard with this mess. Have some respect!
And then there she was on the screen. He had set her up and now they were showing her face. Her eyes were redder than she thought they’d be. There were black streaks on her dress.
“Hey, that’s James’ oldest girl, ain’t it?”
Aunt Vivian ran into the bedroom and came out with James next to her. He squeezed into the living room just in time to hear her say, “I hope that God will burn him in hell.”
Every eye in the room was on her. Then the opinions started rushing out.
“That’s right, baby. I hope God burn him too. He just plain evil, that’s all.”
“No, Julia, that ain’t right. You can’t hold that kinda hate in your heart. You gotta let that go, baby. We can’t let him win.”
“She just a girl. She ain’t no grown woman and she ain’t trying to hide behind being no Christian. Shut your sanctified mouth and let the child grieve for her grandma in her own way.”
The cell phone in her pocket vibrated. She took it out and saw that she had received a message.
Kwame asked, “Where are you? I’m at the park looking for you. We need to talk.”
James and Vivian just stood there together looking at her. She couldn’t return the gaze, so she walked to the bathroom saying “excuse me” as she went by. She looked at her face in the bathroom mirror for a long time before she heard a knock on the door.
“Julia, you alright in there?”
“Yes, ma’am.” She took the Excedrin bottle from the medicine cabinet, shook three pills out into her hand, washed them down with water from the bathroom sink.
“I want to talk with you, honey. Can you open the door?” Aunt Vivian asked in a small voice.
“Not right now, Aunt Viv. I’m still using the bathroom. I’ll be out in a few minutes.”
“You know that I’m not leaving this door until you open it, right? Take as long as you need. I got all day.” Julia knew she meant it. “I’m angry, too, Julia. We’re all upset but we are going to have to find a better way to deal with things than hiding in the bathroom. You gone have to come out and face this sooner or later.”
“It’s going to be later.”
The door popped open then. Vivian, dressed in her black jeans and three inch heels put the key down on the sink and put her hands on her hips.
“It’s going to be now. Did you honestly think I would let you get by me so easily?”
Julia could see people beginning to crowd around outside the door.
Vivian sat on the edge of the bathtub after swinging the door closed with her foot.
“Julia. Go change your clothes. You look a mess. Have you even had a chance to get a shower since all this happened? Come over here and sit by me.”
Julia did as she was told.
“Remember when you was a little girl and I used to come in here and give you bubble baths? You was such a happy baby. I ain’t never seen nor heard a child as happy as you. And singing all the time. Always had the voice of an angel.” She put her arm around Julia and pressed her head onto her shoulder.
“One thing you gotta understand is that my mother loved you more than words. She was so proud of everything you had accomplished and what you would become. Mama Pearl had such hopes and dreams for you baby girl. You can’t let go of that now.”
Julia relaxed and let the tears fall.
“This is hard for all of us, but it must be especially hard for you, being so young and all. I know you don’t understand. Nobody in here can understand something like this. But what I am seeing in your eyes today, you don’t even look like yourself. I’m getting scared for you, Julia.”
“I’m alright. I’m alright. I’m alright!” She screamed the last words and pounded her fist on the side of the tub.
“Everybody claim to be so worried. Don’t. Just don’t. Mama Pearl taught me how to take care of things and that’s what I plan to do. I’m fine.”
“Well, what you’re saying might be true, but I want you to take a shower and change your clothes. Right now. In fact,” she reached over and turned on the hot water, “I think it might be a good idea for you to take a soak in this tub. Yes, you need a minute. I’ll stand guard and make sure nobody comes in here and don’t you come out until I come and get you, OK?”
The warm water felt good against her skin. After a few minutes her headache subsided. A few minutes more and she could block out the sound of the people in the house. She closed her eyes and this time she saw him, the skinny young boy with the bowl haircut. She saw his expressionless face and the bullet proof vest they had put on him to protect him. She saw his hands cuffed behind his back as he walked with his head down. This was the face of evil?
She thought about him and his family. Did he have a grandmother? What was he thinking as he drove the miles that lay between his home in Columbia and Charleston. She couldn’t answer, yet she wanted to know. They said he was only a year older than she was. They say he draped himself in a Confederate flag.
It was dark in the bathroom as Aunt Vivian had turned out the light before she left. Julia climbed out of the tub and wrapped herself in a towel, dried her ponytail. She dressed quickly in her black t-shirt and jeans, moved quickly toward the door before anyone would notice that she was gone. Fired off a quick text to Kwame.
“You still out there? I’m coming. Don’t leave.”
Though it was 1:00 in the morning, groups of mourners still filled the street in front of the church. This time she heard the singing before she even turned the corner. Reach out and touch somebody’s hand. Make this world a better place if you can. They were holding hands now, what looked like hundreds of black people and white people, Hispanics, Asians, little kids. She recognized the city’s mayor standing there, holding the hand of an old black man with a scruffy beard. The lights from the news cameras made everything seem like day and Julia felt like she was watching a dream unfold.
“These people act just like singing is gonna solve something.” Kwame had taken his place beside her wordlessly the way he had a million times since she met him in the sixth grade. There was something about his slender dark frame that made him seem to appear out of nowhere like smoke. She stayed quiet, nodded her head.
“If singing could do anything for anybody, Dr. King would be alive today.” He kept his voice to a whisper, glanced around to see who might be listening. Caught the eye of a cop, held the stare a minute too long. The cop walked toward them.
“A bunch of us plan to meet at the pool hall on the south end in 30 minutes. I think you need to meet us over there. There ain’t gone be no singing, cuz we getting ready for some real shit, you feel me?”
She looked at him trying to read his expression, trying to understand if he was saying what she thought. Kwame had introduced her to his friends in Black Lives Matter but had told her that change would only come by fire and revolution. She didn’t know if she was ready for all that. He’d explained to her that there was no other way. She’d hoped that he was wrong.
“So you coming, or what? You wanna walk with us over there?”
The smell of the flowers in front of the church reached her, sickly sweet.
“Yeah, I’ll check y’all out.”
He smiled, “I knew you was woke. Don’t be scared. Take my hand. I got you.”
She took his hand and together they walked fast down King Street, the breeze cooling things off slightly. She glanced at the sky, noticed that there was no moon. Ten minutes later they turned a sharp corner, Kwame pulled open the door to Fat’s pool hall and they took the stairs down to the basement. Julia was surprised at how crowded the little room felt, a few folks sitting in folding chairs, the rest standing shoulder to shoulder. They listened as a young bald man wearing wire frame glasses and a suit spoke passionately from the stage.
“Mental illness. When a white boy picks up a gun and shoots down innocent people, the first thing they want to claim is that he suffers from mental illness. But you let a brother sell one ounce of weed and immediately he is a super predator, a thug, a menace to society. They got all kinda ways and words to keep us trapped in their white supremacy. We been taking this shit for too long. We only got ourselves to blame for making it possible for a murderer to come up in our house and kill us. We just leave the door open, invite him in, and then when he shows us his real self, we act all surprised.”
The crowd responded. Heads nodded in agreement.
“But enough is e- damn- nuff. And tonight is the night. Just like Nat Turner had to rise up and take his place in history, we gotta rise up tonight. Mother Emmanuel must be protected. She must be restored. And there ain’t no amount of hugging white people and hollering about forgiveness that’s gone make them see us as human. We got to burn this bitch down tonight. No matter what they do, they gone call us animals so we might as well fight.”
A few fellows raised their fists, most kept quiet and still. Kwame lowered his head and moved his lips as if in prayer. Julia whispered his name, but he did not acknowledge her. Just kept rocking his body back and forth and saying words with no sound.
“Now I know that some of y’all are scared to take a stand. Some of y’all are good church going people. But you wouldn’t be here if you wasn’t tired of this shit. So it’s come to this right here. Either you gone live like a slave or you gone die like a man. It’s time for you to make your choice. ‘Cause my mind is made up. It’s pretty much clear to me.” The man reached for a bottle filled with a brown liquid with a rag hanging out of the top. He help it up in his right hand as he continued to address the crowd.
“I’m not living here like no slave. Not another day. Not another minute. Too many people went through too much for me to be free. And I mean to live free.” He took a cigarette lighter from his pocket and flicked it on. Kwame opened his eyes just then and focused on the flame. Julia started looking around toward the door wondering how much it would take to get through the thick crowd and up the stairs to the street. Her breathing was shallow. Her heart was going fast.
She watched as the speaker lit the rag hanging from the bottle. It burned slowly. Smoke rose toward the ceiling. He moved toward the door while the people made a path for him. Julia thought it looked like the bottle had begun to float slowly through the air without the aid of human hands. All she could see was the smooth transitions of the orange red light.
The man quickly moved up the stairs and onto the street followed by his supporters. Most stood on the sidewalk in front of the pool hall and watched him calmly walk across the street and launch the burning bottle through the display window of Bluestein’s clothing store. The crash, the explosion startled Julia and she reach for Kwame.
He was grinning broadly, bouncing on his toes in his new Jordans like there were springs in his shoes. She knew he was going to run when he snatched her hand off his T-shirt and screamed, “Burn this bitch down!” And then he was gone. People scattered in every direction as Julia stood a moment too long. Somebody pushed her from the back and she was on the ground. She felt blood trickle from her lip, tasted it in her mouth.
From her place on the ground she saw feet moving past her, but she couldn’t find the strength to hoist herself up. Then she felt a sharp pain in her head. And everything was dark.
Julia woke up the next morning in Mama Pearl’s bed. Her father smiled when he noticed her stirring.
“Looks like somebody had a rough night,” he whispered as he reached out a hand to brush her hair away from her face.
Aunt Vivian entered the room with a tray of food, grits and scrambled eggs. Julia turned her head away.
“I’ll just sit it here on the night stand. You can eat some when you’re ready.”
“I’m thirsty. Could you get me some water, Aunt Viv?” she asked.
“Of course, baby. I’ll be right back.” But she didn’t move. Just stared.
“Vivian, go get the child some water,” James whispered.
“OK. I’ll go get the water, but let me say this right here first. Julia, you scared us all half to death. You should not have gone downtown last night. This might not be the time or the place, but I’m gone get into this with you when you’ve had a chance to…” Her voice trailed off and she turned abruptly toward the bedroom door.
James put his hand over Julia’s. “Don’t mind your Auntie. She’s just concerned, that’s all.”
“Concerned about what?” It hurt her throat to get the words out. She knew that something out of the way had happened to her the night before but she could not remember what.
“Just keep still, child. The doctor says that swelling will go down soon enough if you let your body rest and heal itself. If that boy hadn’t brought you home when he did, well, we might be having this conversation at MUSC instead of here.”
“Said his name was Kwame. Tall fellow with dreads. Said you fell and hit your head. Blacked out.”
“Kwame brought me home?” She tried to sit up but the pain in her head wouldn’t allow it.
“Yes. Around 3:30 in the morning we heard a knock at the door. We had been waiting for you to come home. I don’t know why you decided to sneak out like that or where you went, but when I saw you….When I saw you, that boy carrying you like a rag doll, I didn’t know what to do. I can’t lose you too, Julia. I will not lose you, too.”
Julia met her father’s gaze, saw Mama Pearl in the way he tilted his head. She reached out for his hand and let the light from the rising sun warm her face. The two sat together in silence and she closed her eyes.