Victoria Adams-Kennedy is a Baltimore-based writer whose work engages in the complexities of Black Love. Her first novel, Sometimes Love, was published in 2017 by Brown Girls Books. Don’t Walk Away, her second novel was published in 2019. She has contributed to three anthologies, including The Dating Game (Brown Girls, 2015). Her short story “A Handful of Dreams'' may be found at midnightandindigo.com. Victoria is the founder of Zora’s Den, a social and support group for Black women writers for which she co-edited two anthologies – The Fire Inside, Volumes I & II. Victoria holds an MFA in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts from the University of Baltimore. She is currently working on her third novel. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
by Victoria Adams-Kennedy
As Sequoia leads the protestors west on North Avenue, water surges from a fire hydrant, flooding them with relief from the July heat. The air is thick with humidity and oppression, as people armed with rage and nervous energy fill the street. Another police shooting is the last thing the city needs and there’s a good chance no one will pay for it. A teenager has been killed by an overzealous cop. The angry words voiced from her podcast have found fertile ground in her listening audience and the multitude is growing by the minute. Today is the day she trades her microphone for a bullhorn. This isn’t the first time she’s pushed back against fear to speak her mind. But it is the first time she’s wondered if she is doing it right.
She jumps the curb to avoid the stream of trash: broken glass, swirling cigarette butts, and God only knows what else. Cameras are everywhere: TV crews, freelance journalists, and the ubiquitous cell phone in the hands of yelling marchers and spectators. Becoming the face of this movement is a stroke of luck. She doesn’t know yet if it’s good or bad.
At her command, the crowd comes to a complete stop and turns to face her on an abandoned stoop.
“What do we want?” She yells into the bullhorn.
“Justice!” They call back.
“When do we want it?”
They’ve seen enough marches and protests to memorize the slogans. Calling them out used to bring her more satisfaction. The image she projects is one of a secure and confident woman, but the strong opposition to her role in this protest has her rattled. It doesn’t help that the mayor has labeled her his foe in this fight. That reminder is unnerving but not enough to silence her.
Sequoia has been using the airwaves to paint a picture of the victim’s life, beyond the stereotypes. His mother shouldn’t be mourning the death of her oldest child. She is compelled to make sure people know the complexities of their story and feel the loss of another Black life.
She moves on to another overused chant. “No justice.”
“No peace,” the crowd replies.
A rumble of thunder echoes the unrest.
Though the chanting rings familiar, it doesn’t make her feel safe. When an explosion rocks the place where she stands, filling the not-so-distant sky with flames and smoke, her concerns are validated. Chaos claims control of the moment. One minute, Sequoia is caught up in the passion of the protest; the next, she is sprawled across the steps on her back, the bullhorn knocked askew. A strong grip tugs her from the lopsided concrete. She is on her feet but dazed, as the crowd closes in. She doesn’t know whose hands pull her to safety and panic rises in her throat like bile. A voice enters the confusion.
“Come with me.”
The command is given with such authority, she doesn’t think to question it, at first. The man, upon whose back her eyes are now glued, clutches her hand and guides her through the crowd that seems to part just for him. His damp tee shirt clings to him, making every movement visible through the thin white fabric. She walks a few more steps before coming to a halt and prying her hand free. When he turns to face her, she falters. The eyes peering into hers belong to none other than Michael Franklin, the mayor’s son and her high school crush. It takes her back twenty years to when she shrunk in his presence.
“Yeah. You hurt?”
For someone known for using her voice to make thousands move, she’s speechless in the middle of her own protest.
“I-I think I’m okay.” She dusts off her jeans to help regain her composure.
“You hit the ground pretty hard. You sure?”
“Ask me that again tomorrow.” She offers with an empty chuckle.
He reclaims her hand and continues to walk with purpose. There’s an ease in his movements as if they’ve touched before … as if he’s never been rejected. They are walking in silence, but Sequoia needs to know his plan even if it happens to go awry.
“Where are we going? I can’t just disappear.”
“Someplace safe.” He pauses and looks around. “Have you forgotten about the threats?”
She hasn’t but she’s shocked he’s been keeping record of the public warnings against her. She takes a minute to survey their surroundings and notes the sound of approaching fire engines.
“Of course not. But these people came because I called them.”
“These people wouldn’t want you to get hurt.”
She gives a compliant nod and allows Michael to lead her to the “someplace safe” he mentioned. When they reach the middle of the block, he lets go of her hand to push open the door of a popular Pan-African bookshop. The bell clanging overhead announces their arrival.
The scent of Black Love incense greets them, as they enter. They find seats at a table in the rear next to a large fan blowing hot air, while the clerk behind the counter talks on the phone.
“You ok?” he asks again, as she scans the crowded space.
“I need to know who did this and if anyone is injured…”
“I’ll find out from my father, as soon as things settle.”
“Your father is somewhere safe and comfortable.”
“As he should be. I’m out here.”
They sit in awkward silence and listen to anxious chatter from other patrons. The loud voices are especially grating because of the protestors’ silence outside. Their chants wouldn’t be stale, like before. They’d be welcomed and reassuring.
The bell calls their attention to the front door and Sequoia bristles at the sight of a sunburned police officer whose eyes are sweeping across the room. She fights the urge to slide down in her seat. Perhaps they consider her complicit.
“Folks, I need you to shelter in place until we get the streets settled. We don’t want any of you in harm’s way.”
His smirk doesn’t go unnoticed when his eyes meet hers and hold. She lifts her chin in defiance.
The store clerk comes from behind the counter, at his beckoning.
“Please keep the door locked,” he instructs. “I’ll give you the all-clear when it’s safe.”
The clerk doesn’t look convinced by his show of concern.
By now, Sequoia is standing, speaking under her breath.
“Too bad, they were the harm in Corey’s way.”
The sympathy in Michael’s eyes touches her. He seems to really care.
“I need to get a word on the air and reassure people,” she says.
“I think we just need to be patient.”
Michael urges her back down into her chair and tries to reassure her.
There is no indication he recognizes her other than her connection to the protest. She is just as sure he never knew she existed during the four years they spent at the same high school. Sequoia never had any delusions of dating anyone like him. He is from a very different class of Black people who arrange marriages to join prestigious families and present their children to society. He has a storied background steeped in the Civil Rights Movement with local trailblazers as his forefathers. Where she comes from, guys like him don’t date girls like her. They play with them and when playtime is over, they go home.
He answers his cell phone on the first ring.
“Hey, Pops. I’m safe. I’m in the bookstore on North Avenue and it’s locked down.”
Her eyes are fixed on him, as he converses with his father. She can’t decide whether to feel confident about his connection to the mayor or bothered by his privilege of feeling protected.
“Yes, sir.” He continues. “Let me know if there’s anything else.”
When he ends the call, he returns her glare. “What,” he asks.
“Did your father send you to spy on me?”
Her question seems to take him by surprise.
He sputters before answering. “Excuse me?”
Sequoia tempers her accusation with a mischievous smile.
“He has given me the dubious honor of naming me a troublemaker,” she says.
It is Michael’s turn to smile and his already handsome face transforms into something so beautiful, she’d probably forgive him anything, even having Wes Franklin for a father.
“Give me some credit for choosing to come to a troublemaker’s assistance on my own.”
“I’ll have you know, I make good trouble.” She surprises herself with the declaration. It’s spoken as a joke, but she means it.
“That’s what I like,” he says.
Sequoia’s face heats with embarrassment. For as outspoken as she is, her confidence with attractive men could use some work. Usually, she thinks of everything she should have said, after she’s left their company.
“So…the trailblazing Sequoia Cantrell, huh?”
The label shocks rather than soothes her. As a teenager she wanted so badly to be seen by him and now that she has his undivided attention, she wants to disappear.
“I actually think you and my dad have more in common than either of you know. You’re on opposite sides that need to come together.”
She has no retort for his remark and the silence prompts her to fill it.
“You don’t remember me, do you, Michael?”
“I know exactly who you are.”
The way he clenches his bottom lip with his teeth makes something deep inside her clench too. She can’t tell whether she should cross her heart or her legs.
“But I admit, up until an hour ago, I only knew you as the freedom fighter on the news. I had a déjà vu moment while watching you on that stoop. It reminded me of high school when you wore an Afro and championed every other cause. The fellas feared you – called you Sista Souljah.”
As his speech drifts into slang and its cadence changes, she realizes he’s getting more comfortable. He’s drifting into a rhythm that sounds like home. It feels good – his remembering her as someone with grit and not the mousy girl she imagined back then. She is more than another face in the crowd. Sequoia’s not sure why this matters, after all these years, but it gives her a boost. Though she wants to, she doesn’t dare look away.
“I guess it prepared me for this,” she says with a nervous laugh.
“I’m sure of it.”
“Were you... scared of me… too?”
Those six halting words are filled with so much daring, he looks like he’s measuring his response with care before it crosses his lips.
“Nah, I wasn’t scared. Some girls ain’t meant for flings and you don’t step to them if that’s all you’re looking for.”
She’s thankful the blush is hidden beneath her brown cheeks.
Lounging in the back feels like she is hiding away. In the lull, she rises from her seat and walks past the front counter to the door. Michael follows her lead.
“Thanks for coming,” the clerk says, without looking up from the book she’s reading.
Outside, a few officers linger. The sidewalks are clear of people but not debris. Discarded water bottles and protest signs are strewn about. All is quiet but the tension remains. So much for the “all clear”, she thinks. It makes her feel like the fight is only postponed, not abandoned. Far off, a bolt of lightning streaks across the sky. There is no reason to stand around, but she can’t seem to pull herself away. Michael doesn’t move either.
“Where’d you park,” he asks.
She smirks at the indignation in his voice.
“I don’t live that far.”
“Until this clears up, everywhere is far.”
Before they can finish negotiating her transportation, a reporter and cameraman are upon them. It is obvious they aren’t planning to leave the scene empty-handed. Sequoia accepts it as a benefit and decides to grant a brief interview.
“What do you think the mayor will have to say about this recent development, Ms. Cantrell?”
The ginger-haired reporter is assertive without being too pushy.
Sequoia looks back toward Michael before answering the question and is disappointed to see his spot beside her empty. What the hell? She isn’t ready for the conversation between them to end. Allowing the reporter that one question, she ends the interview with a vow to find something wonderful on such an ugly day. Then she prepares for the walk home.
The air is still heavy, and the heat is stifling. By comparison, it makes the muggy bookstore much more appealing, and she considers going back inside until the sun sinks lower in the sky. She swallows the bitter pill of Michael’s abrupt absence and stands at the curb weighing which route she’ll take. When playtime is over, they go home. The thought pricks at her pride. While she thumbs through her phone, she hears an engine revving and steps back.
“Hey Sista Souljah! Today’s your lucky day.”
She looks up to see Michael sitting on a motorcycle. His smile is a beam of light in what is quickly becoming an impending storm. The mischief in his voice entices her.
“How’s that,” she asks, cocking her head to the side. It feels too good to stop flirting now.
“Looks like I’m headed your way.”
He coaxes her onto the back of his bike and hands her the only helmet. She loosely wraps her arms around his body.
“You wanna meet my father?”
“Is that a trick question?”
“I think it’s long overdue.”
She leans into him and holds on tighter. He smells like soap and summer and man. When they pull off, she enjoys the breeze created by his speed. She doesn’t balk at the first drop of rain. The skies tend to open up on summer days, calming the heat as well as the pressure of untapped possibilities. It’ll be over, as soon as it starts, she muses and wonders if this feeling she’s clutching close to her will have the same fate. When they stop at a red light, she feels the second drop and moves close enough to place her lips against his ear. But she refrains. Not wanting to lose momentum, she shoots her shot.
“So, you were intimidated, huh?” She asks, emboldened by their tête-à-tête.
“Yeah,” he says, after a pause. “I was. Just a little.”
She can’t see his smile, but she can feel it.
There’s something so magical in this moment. A peace she can’t name is relaxing every inch of her.
“I was sixteen,” he adds. “Don’t let that go to your head.”
As they ride against the wind, Sequoia wonders if she’s doing this right. She allows the fleeting thought to drift away. Before she can stop it, her smile is bold and goofy.
She finally replies. “Too late.”
Torch Literary Arts is a 501(c)3 nonprofit established to publish and promote creative writing by Black women. We publish contemporary writing by experienced and emerging writers alike. TORCH has featured work by Colleen J. McElroy, Tayari Jones, Sharon Bridgforth, Crystal Wilkinson, Patricia Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Elizabeth Alexander, and others. Programs include the Wildfire Reading Series, writing workshops, and retreats.