Joko makes his way through a massive crowd of students out on the yard of the high-walled campus on Jl. Ahmad Yani. The sun is pale against the metallic sky and the city is brimming with heat and exhaust fumes.
It is not yet eight in the morning.
He finds Mara somewhere at the back of the crowd, leaning against a rusty iron pole near the pair of tall speakers through which the voice of their student organization leader rips across the yard, past the rows of students donning silver jackets and hats.
Mara glosses her lips with a pink ChapStick and listens intently. She has on a pair of bright green sneakers. Her hair has been washed and blow-dried and it smells of strawberries. She doesn’t usually wear tights under her skirt, but today is an exception. And instead of the mandatory alma mater jacket, she puts on a washed-out denim vest. Joko almost laughs at the irony of it all.
“You’re late,” she says as he stands next to her.
“How long has he been up there?” he asks.
“About an hour,” she says. “Why are you late?”
“The bus was late,” he says. “Have you been here the whole time?”
“I didn’t want to miss the party.”
He can’t take his eyes off her.
“You look great,” he says.
“The shoes are a nice touch.”
He smiles. “It’s going to be a very long day.”
“So I gather,” she says.
“You should know these things never end well.”
“Don’t be a pain.”
“I can’t help it.”
“It’s a monumental day for all of us.”
“You should’ve stayed home.”
“You’re an ass.”
“I’m just saying. You could get hurt.”
“It’s a risk. Life is all about taking risks.”
“What is that?”
“What is what?”
“Life is all about taking risks,” Joko moans in jest.
“Oh, he said that.” Mara nods at the senior student on the podium who is facing the crowd and chanting the word “justice” repeatedly into the mic. “He opened his oration with life being about taking risks.”
“He’s an idiot,” says Joko. “And the idiot is going to get us all killed.”
“You could get hurt.”
“So could you.”
Joko tilts his head heavenward, sees the patches of clear blue here and there in the dust-colored sky. Someone shakes their fist in the air to make a point and everyone else erupts into a wave of cheers. Mara claps her hands enthusiastically.
Their university is among the last few to join a string of student rallies held across the nation in the past couple of months. There are stories going around, all the time. Soon, Joko thinks: the crowd will be led to the other side of the yard, past the brick buildings — toward the gates. And as they make their way out of the campus, they will begin the long and carefully planned march across town toward the legislative complex.
They will march in file: the sound of their footsteps against concrete a staccato of expectation, aspiration, delusion, idealism and foolishness.
They will cross bridges, ignore curious onlookers, wait out the traffic and appreciate the warm weather.
“I heard it might rain,” says Joko.
Mara sticks out her hand into the air as if to test the level of moisture. “It’s too warm.”
“It still might rain,” he insists.
“So let it rain,” she shrugs.
“You’re just …”
“I don’t know,” he says, narrowing his eyes. “I can’t find the word for it.”
“No, not naïve.”
“Not that, either.”
“You’re just so …” Joko sighs. “Gullible.”
Members of the student organization take a few steps toward the podium and begin the procession of raising the country’s flag at half-mast. The crowd belts out the national anthem. Joko lights up a cigarette and thinks of the way things burn and crackle and turn to ashes. This is their moment in the sun. This is the day they will attempt change, for better or worse.
“I’ve never had to stand up for anything in my life,” says Mara. She is staring ahead at the podium where their seniors turn sideways to salute the flag. “I think we should all be given the opportunity — or at least the option — to stand up for something.”
“I don’t see the point,” says Joko.
Mara smiles. “I know you don’t.”
They will set up rally points and shout out their demands on live television a few hours from now: Impeach the president! Reform the government!
They will look like ants six, seven thousand feet from the air.
They will be met with a fierce resistance from a battalion of trained soldiers in uniform, fully armed with shields and sticks and guns.
They will be asked to turn around and go home, like children.
They will lock arms and refuse to be driven away.
They will raise hell.
Though — at some point — they will run. They will not have the chance to stop as the bullets come raining down and the beating and the arrests follow. They will struggle to find each other amid the stampede and the panic and the loss. They will know fear. They will know despair. And nothing else.
When it gets dark and the streets are spilled with the blood of fallen friends, they will try to remember the feeling they had at the beginning. They will try to remember the reason and weigh that against the price they have to pay. Yet, all the same, they will not know where or how to draw the line.
It will be the longest day of their lives.
The crowd begins to move toward the gates. Mara picks up the rolled up banner she has rested against the pole. There is hope in her eyes. Yes, that’s it. Hope. What a silly thing. Joko drops his cigarette on the ground, crushes it underfoot and takes Mara’s hand in his.
“Stay close to me,” says Joko. “Don’t stray too far.”
The gates are opened. The sun is high. Beyond them, the city lies idle, in wait, as smog slowly fills the air.
The writer is an Indonesian author and translator. A different version of this story has appeared in Everyday Fiction.