“Where is she, Curt? Dena’s never late.” The ten minutes of generally accepted grace time had passed, but Dena was nowhere in sight. Ruth had texted and called every two minutes, but her messages went unanswered.
Curt, a bear of a man with shaggy brown hair, beard, and puppy-dog eyes, shrugged. “She’s probably stuck in traffic.” He gestured to the crowd from the wings of the stage. “Look at these folks! Did you ever imagine . . . all this?”
Ruth dared to look out at the masses. Her breath caught. Thousands of people were streaming into Grant Park, three hundred sprawling acres in the middle of downtown Chicago. They were heading to the bandstand shell and stage at the southern end of the park. Ruth remembered the last time she’d been here, an unusually balmy November night in 2008. Obama had just won the election. It was a miracle that the entire world had shared.
Now, though, icy puffs of air aided by a stiff January wind frosted her cheeks and seeped through her coat. The crowd size wasn’t nearly as large as Obama’s, but people seemed buoyed by the cold, cheering and waving signs that proclaimed, “We Are the Resistance,” “Never Give Up,” and other political bromides. Some wore the knitted kitten hats that had become popular after the election. Most were grinning and joking as if the occasion were a rock concert or football game rather than a demonstration.
Curt peered up at the sky. “I hope there’s a drone up there filming this. Maybe we could get the footage to use on social media.”
Ruth glanced up, twisting the shoulder strap of her bag. “Yeah, good idea. But where is Dena?”
Another man, lean and lanky, the Jeff to Curt’s Mutt, fiddled with a microphone stand on the center of the stage. He looked over at Ruth. “Chill. Traffic is shitty.”
Ruth shook her head and waved her cell in the air. “She always picks up. But it’s going to voice mail.”
“Probably on the el.” DJ ran a hand through his long blond ponytail. “But you’re right. We can’t wait forever. What do you want to do?”
“Give her another minute. Dena would never blow this off, DJ,” Curt said. “Not after all her work.”
A flood of memories washed over Ruth. The two of them in Dena’s condo, full of plans and purpose. Working twenty-four-hour days, planning, eating junk food in the omnipresent blue-white light of their laptops. Hard to believe it had been more than a year.
“This is just the beginning!” DJ grinned. “After today, we’ll have a real shot at accomplishing something.”
But what if something happened? Dena had been getting those creepy calls. Ruth pushed the thought away. Lots of prominent people got crank calls, Dena had said dismissively. And she—they, Dena made sure to say—were famous. “Almost.” They would laugh.
Some people in the crowd, clearly impatient, started to clap rhythmically. A signal for the show to begin. Others joined in. Ruth, DJ, and Curt exchanged glances. A wave of nausea climbed up Ruth’s throat.
“Okay,” Curt said. “Color me officially worried.”
“Relax, people,” DJ said. “Nothing bad’s happened to Dena. She’s indestructible.”
“She was fine yesterday,” Ruth said. “She was pumped.”
“Did she go over what she was going to say?” DJ asked.
“Of course. She practiced—you know—rehearsed it with me. And Curt.” She nodded at him.
“Well, you’re número dos,” Curt said. Was there a hint of resentment in his voice? Ruth wondered. “If she doesn’t get here soon, you’re on deck.”
Ruth let out a tiny cry of terror. “I can’t!”
“There are thousands of people out there. They—they’re expecting Dena.”
DJ slipped his hands in his pockets. “The show must go on.”
“There are way too many people. I’d rather die!”
“You have to try. Look, at least start. You’re the only other person who knows what to say. You’ve been with Dena from the beginning.”
“What do they say?” DJ added. “Pretend all the people in the crowd are naked?”
Curt waved a hand. “No. Just focus on what they need to hear. And feel. And do. That’s what Dena would say.”
“Yeah, but she’s experienced at—at public speaking,” Ruth said. “I’ve never done this before. I’m the backstage person.”
DJ said, “Look, we’ll help you out. And Dena will probably get here while you’re talking. As soon she does, you’re off the hook.”
Ruth’s eyes raked the crowd. “Oh my God. I really have to do this.”
A whispery whine made them gaze upward. Curt grinned. “I knew it. Thar she blows!”
Ruth could just make out a speck in the sky. “A drone?”
He nodded. “Maybe CNN, huh? Hope they’ll give us their video.”
“It’s probably just channel five.’”
Most of the crowd was clapping now. Ruth could tell they were edgy.
“You ready?” DJ adjusted the mic. He tilted his chin in the direction of the crowd. “They are.”
Ruth turned her back on the crowd. She had to center herself. Just then, the aroma of patchouli oil wafted toward her, discordant but familiar. Dena! Ruth whipped around. While the possibility of public speaking hung in the offing like a Christmas bauble, attracting and panicking her at the same time, now her anxiety melted away. Dena jogged up the steps to the stage, all energy, confidence, and red cheeks.
“Where have you been?” Ruth shouted above the noise.
“In traffic,” Dena said breathlessly. “I had to ditch the car. Had to run all the way from Chicago Avenue. Give me a minute to catch my breath.”
The crowd, realizing their leader had arrived, grew louder, more boisterous. Dena had it, Ruth had to admit. Whatever they called it now. Charisma. Magnetism. Eloquence. Ruth might be Tonto, but Dena was the Lone Ranger. An electric buzz seemed to emanate from under Dena’s skin. Ruth could almost feel it make contact.
Despite his casual attitude earlier, DJ anxiously cut in. Was he feeling it too? “We have to start. Look at them.” He gestured again toward the crowd.
Dena glanced out. So did Ruth. DJ was right. The crowd seemed to swell with anticipation. Ruth watched as Dena rolled her shoulders and started toward the mic. “Okay. You guys come out too. Stand behind me.”
Ruth nodded. As if they knew the show was about to begin, the crowd noise suddenly dropped. In her quilted jacket, with her long black braid hanging down her back, Dena adjusted the microphone stand.
“Good morning, Resistance!!”
The crowd roared.
It was then that a crack-crack-crack spit through the air.