by Emma Burnett

Stella wears her hair in ringlets

because she knows it makes her look angelic. She wears black nail polish because it makes her look counterculture. She wears short skirts and second-hand T-shirts, and comfortable flat shoes no matter what because she wants to be comfortable when she’s on the go, and she’s always on the go. Stella is my best friend, even though she’s up and I’m down, she’s out and I’m in.

Stella takes care of people. And she takes care of animals. And she takes care of the environment. She doesn’t care that kids at school call her a tree hugger, or that tree huggers call her a consumer whore, or that her mother tells her she’ll be a failure if she doesn’t become a lawyer. My mother doesn’t tell me I have to be anything at all. She already thinks I’m a failure, I guess.

But she does tell me to steer clear of Stella because she’s a bad influence. I wonder if she remembers what it’s like to be a teenager at all, that telling me to stay away from something is a sure-fire way to be sure I’ll keep doing it.

I follow Stella when she goes to the animal shelter, and she volunteers us both for weekly socializing sessions. We play with puppies and kittens, sit quietly with older animals, groom donkeys, feed pigs. I ask where the donkeys came from and the woman who works there says they’ve been there, like, forever, and my volunteering time isn’t chatting time so skedaddle, wouldja? She never scolds Stella, probably because of the ringlets.

Stella tells me we should go to protests. I ask what sorts of protests. She shrugs and says that we should do good things protests, like for trees and immigrants and stuff. I agree, and when I tell my mother that I’m cutting school next week to go to an environmental protest downtown so not to freak out, she scowls but doesn’t say anything, because who tells their teenager not to stand up for the planet?

Stella finds a list on Facebook, local protests coming up. Apparently, they get registered with the cops in advance, which she finds fascinating. She says it’s so they can round us up, if they don’t like what we’re saying. She says we should run something off the books. I ask what, and she shrugs, says she’ll think of something.

I follow her to the protest, carrying my sign painted on cardboard. She paints her face, and ties her ringlets up into little bouncing pigtails, and wears a bright pink T-shirt that says

Save Planet Earth 

It’s the only planet with cats

and people smile at her and laugh and nod. She shouts and cheers with the rest, and she holds my hand as we march and intone chants with half a melody that we half know.

I find the chants online later so I can learn the words. I find others, too, on a message board that has suggestions for protest leaders, and learn those. I want to be able to shout properly next time. I want Stella to know I’m there with her. My mother tells me I should be there because I care about the rally. I tell her we don’t call them rallies anymore.

I follow Stella down a rabbit hole online, looking for the good fights, trying to become the people we said we wanted to be. She says she wants to save everything, all the people, all the animals, the whole world. I agree, let’s save the world together. We report bots. We confront trolls. We talk to movement leaders about marches and protests and peaceful sit-ins. We decide that to lead a protest against book bans, or at least Stella does and I say I’ll help. We don’t register it with the cops.

It’s a spring day, and we march out of school with banners and chants and Stella has a megaphone in one black nail-painted hand. She leads the students who joined us — a lot of them because who doesn’t want a day off school? — and we head downtown, chanting and singing, and I holler with the rest of them, only louder because I know all the words and I’ve been practicing.

We round the corner, and there is a string of cops. It is a beautiful day, and they’re all in their lightweight blues. The chanting dies down. One of the cops approaches Stella, and talks to her quietly. I hear them, because I’m close to her, wishing I was holding her hand.

He asks her if she is the leader of this protest, and she stands proud and says she is, and he tells her so politely that she is supposed to register all marches in advance so they can be sure to protect us while we march, and she agrees that that’s a good idea and promises to do it next time as long as the cops are on our side, and he says that’s grand, and it’s a good thing one of the parents let them know in advance of this one, and she glares at me. She’s probably right, it was my mother not hers, because her mother probably wouldn’t know about that rule but mine would because I might have told her. Stella never tells her parents anything important. He tells her it’s ok, and the cops are gonna spread out now and make sure we don’t have any troubles. He means that we don’t cause any trouble. Stella shrugs and nods and says ok, then puts the megaphone up to her mouth and starts the chanting again.

Then she grabs my hand, and I know she’s not angry at me, and we march together towards the square at the end of the road, and I raise my fist tangled with hers into the sky and her shiny black nails glint in the sunshine.


Image by Nothing Ahead via Pexels