Grief Map

In the Heat of the Light

Stephen Kearse


Kindred Books • Release Date: August 6, 2019

Print ISBN: 978-1-948559-29-4 • Ebook ISBN: 978-1-948559-32-4

Brain Mill Press offers In the Heat of the Light in ebook and trade paperback editions. Ebook buyers receive access to MOBI (Kindle), EPUB, and PDF files, offered without DRM restrictions. Print book buyers receive a physical copy of the book and access to the ebook files in all formats.

"The playful, techno-inflected thriller is full of the textures of the city: the stickiness of Waffle House tables, the post-apocalyptic landscape of Old National Parkway in Clayton County, the gleaming bike lanes in Old Fourth Ward."

—Atlanta Magazine

During a brutally hot Atlanta summer, a crew of Black teenagers deals with the aftermath of their biggest tag: an audacious defacement of the United States’ largest bas-relief monument to the Confederacy. They never exactly planned to hit Stone Mountain—things just got out of hand. But as June gives way to July and the temperature keeps rising, the crew can’t quite manage to get anything back under control. Instead, each struggles with conflicting allegiances and problems they’re not quite ready to handle, and they hurtle toward the summer’s end and a future that threatens to pull them apart for good. Meanwhile, two FBI agents attempt to untangle the knot of rage, alliances, and tensions that led to the tag, getting in deep and ultimately revealing their own dangerously different professional agendas. 

Set to a thumping soundtrack, rolling down suburban lanes and congested highways, In the Heat of the Light delivers a new twist on the old story of a crew of young friends drawn in different directions on the verge of adulthood—one that is rooted in Black experiences of gentrification, Black Lives Matter, music, and a mosaic of Atlanta neighborhoods made up of families, food, and overwhelming change. 

Stephen Kearse is a dynamic journalist and critic covering movies, music, and American history for media including New York Times Magazine, Uproxx, Pitchfork, and Paste.


Stephen Kearse is a reporter and critic from Atlanta. He now lives in Washington, DC, where he regularly laments the lack of good biscuits. He has been published by the New York Times Magazine, Hazlitt, Pitchfork, and The Ringer, among other outlets. He loves Georgia summers.

AN EXCERPT from In the Heat of the Light by Stephen Kearse

© Stephen Kearse, 2019. All rights reserved.

Chapter 1

June 14

8:52 a.m.


Kai watched as Theo began his ritual dance. First, he stepped out of his Honda Civic, sighing deeply as the humid Atlanta air swarmed around him. Next, he tipped his cap and mopped his brow—as usual, there was no sweat, but tradition is tradition. Finally, the waltz: sluggishly, he ambled up Kai’s winding driveway, each step a marathon, each breath a pull from a toothpick-sized cigarette.

“You look like an asshole,” Kai said when he reached the doorway.

Kai used to believe that all black people had a high tolerance for heat and humidity, or at least a willingness to adapt to it, but Theo had proved her wrong. His suffering was excruciating and singular. He’d lived in Atlanta for five years, and he’d resisted its weather each day. Today, his dumb ass stood before her in a maroon tank top, a burgundy Anaheim Ducks snapback, a gray hoodie, black skinny jeans, and black Vans. California boys were real knuckleheads.

Theo stepped inside, removing his cap and fanning himself. Kai kissed him and herded him into the kitchen. They eased into place at the dining table, sitting apart. The kitchen was the coolest room in the house. Kai’s parents rarely cooked, so they filled the counters with potted plants. Theo liked to call it the Green Room, much to the annoyance of Kai’s father, Mr. Forrester. He’d served time for selling marijuana, so he had no tolerance for references to weed. Kai had once looked up his sentence online and saw that he’d only served 30 days, but she never called him out on it or told Theo. She liked secrets.

“It’s nine o’clock,” Theo said. “Apollo and Zed should be here soon. Sol is working ’til seven.”

“Cool. So what’s the move for today?”

“I’m thinking we’ll just lay low until it’s time for the main event. I’ve got everything set up for tonight. Alibis, van, encrypted laptop, burners. All I need is gas.”

“Are you sure about this?” Kai asked. “This isn’t an ordinary tag.”

“I’m not an ordinary nigga.”

Kai rolled her eyes.

The doorbell rang. Kai jumped up and ran to the door, her curls bouncing in cadence with her strides. She returned with Apollo. “Today’s the day, boss! You ready?” he asked, thumping Theo’s shoulder with his heavy hands.

“I think so. Why aren’t you sweating? It’s hot as hell out there.” Theo threw a light jab, targeting Apollo’s stomach.

Apollo dodged. “Unlike you, I accept that I live in hell, so I dress accordingly.” He slapped his knee then goofily jumped in place, his nylon shorts swish-swishing around his knees.

Zed walked into the kitchen next. “Shut up, Apollo,” she said. “You know you can only handle heat because you’re Nigerian.”

Kai sucked her teeth. “Zadie, you know Nigeria has snow-capped mountains, right?”

“That was good, but don’t call me Zadie. It’s Zed now,” Zed said firmly.

“Zed, Zee, Zade,” Theo joked. “When are you going to go by something that isn’t Z-related? You’re like the X-Men.”

“Ay ay ay, back to business, people,” Apollo interrupted. “Theo, you never answered my question. You are ready, right?”

“We should be asking you. You’re the hacker,” Theo countered.

“Don’t give me that reverse psychology bullshit. This was your idea. Are you ready or not?”

Theo remained silent, his eyes shirking beneath the bill of his hat.

Kai knew Theo wanted her to chime in, but instead, she idly flicked the leaves on one of the kitchen plants. The plan was definitely going down, but she needed to hear Theo admit it to himself in front of everyone else, not just her. Some secrets were better out in the open.

“Yeah, I’m ready. I just need to get some gas first.”

“Let’s ride, then,” said Zed.

They filed out of the house. Zed drove a black 2013 MINI Cooper, a graduation gift. Kai hated the tiny car. Something about its safety annoyed her. Whenever she rode with Zed, she played with the locks and plucked at her door handle, just to see if the car would somehow express disapproval; she felt it had that kind of vibe. 

“I’m riding with Theo,” she announced. No one seemed surprised. She moved Theo’s windbreaker and overstuffed backpack to the back seat before climbing in. Theo started the engine and they were greeted by KEY!, Theo’s newest favorite rapper. Kai smiled to herself.

Theo used to pride himself on how much Atlanta rap he didn’t listen to. He loved the disappointed looks people gave him when he told them he was listening to Kendrick Lamar and Suga Free and Vince Staples. But Atlanta music had gradually managed to slip past his defenses. He had grown to enjoy Lil Baby, Future, Young Thug, Father, and even Gucci Mane. He had fallen so far, Kai had begun to joke that he was about to start selling mixtapes outside of a Waffle House.

Theo slowly backed out of the driveway, lingering for Zed, who was parked in the street. Kai stared at the clock on the dash: 9:22 a.m. She regretted inviting everyone over so early. Zed’s lights flashed and Theo pulled off, breezing past the stop sign at the end of Kai’s block and racing toward the entrance to her subdivision. Kai didn’t see Zed in the side mirror, but she knew she would appear soon. They played this game often: Zed always took the same route.

Plywood dream homes sped by as they zipped around the neighborhood’s wide streets, dodging parked cars and frolicking children. No Outlet signs stood like sentinels on the corners of the subdivision’s multiple cul-de-sacs, intensifying the neighborhood’s overwhelming blandness. When they reached the final stretch, Kai checked the side mirror again. No one was there. Zed usually wasn’t this far behind. Theo must have really floored it, Kai thought.

As the neighborhood sign came into view, Kai pointed at the car parked next to it and laughed. Zed had floored it, not Theo. The car slowed to a crawl as Theo pulled past the MINI Cooper, throwing Zed and Apollo a smirk through the Civic’s sealed passenger window.

“That was different,” Theo lamented.

“Left,” Kai instructed as they approached the main thoroughfare, Bethsaida Road.

“Where are we headed?” Theo asked, always reluctant to navigate without his GPS.

“Gas station,” Kai answered coolly.

“Oh. Can we go to one that’s kind of in the cut? A bunch of teens stopping to put gas in containers probably looks a little suspicious.”

“For sure. The station I have in mind is pretty low-key,” Kai assured him.

Minutes later, they pulled into the lot of a Shell on Old National Parkway. Theo groaned, but Kai knew he only recognized the street name from a 2 Chainz verse.

“This is not low-key. This street is world famous!”

“I think you mean World Star famous. I’ve seen armed robberies, assaults, fistfights, motorcycle races, and three-dollar ribs on this street. Everything is suspicious here. So, nothing is suspicious. It’s perfect. Get the gas, fool.”

Theo sucked his teeth and exited the car, firmly closing the door. Watching him, Kai laughed as he stepped in line and gripped the brim of his hat with both arms, wobbling in place. He was so shook.

With a false coolness, he exited the store, shoulders low and head high. Popping the trunk, he removed two 2-gallon gas containers. Kai wasn’t surprised when he loudly sighed as he closed the trunk. He’d probably just realized he’d have to stay outside to fill up the car.

Kai scrolled through Twitter. Her timeline wasn’t active, but the activity of the previous night was still available. Apollo had been watching anime again, and Zed had been forced to join him. She’d tweeted a string of annoyed rhetorical questions: “Why are their eyes so big? #anime.” “Does everyone need a damn backstory? #anime.” “Japanese voice actors are loud af. #anime.” 

Kai laughed. Zed must have really liked Apollo to be tolerating anime. She typically scoffed at all things she deemed “childish,” and her scorn for childishness had only increased since they had graduated three weeks ago. Not only had her tweets suddenly become grammatically perfect, but when Zed and Kai hit up Lenox Mall a week after graduation, Zed had sneered at all clothing that wasn’t black, gray, or burgundy. “Women’s colors,” she’d called them. Just wait ’til she meets Apollo’s mom, Kai had thought. Mrs. Aleyani dressed like every day was a festival. She had dresses in marigold, rose, amethyst, fuchsia, maroon, lily, saffron, and cerulean. Kai swore that simply looking at this extravagant woman could improve your color vocabulary.

“What’s so funny?” Theo asked, getting back into the car.

“Just Twitter,” Kai replied, noting Theo’s soaked brow. The heat was already getting to him.

He started the engine and waved to Zed and Apollo, who were parked a few feet away. Zed’s lights flashed in response, and moments later, they were on Old National, heading north toward Sol’s Waffle House. Kai gazed out the window, listening to the click of the door lock. She had no illusions about the activity on Old National. She knew about the drugs, the stickups, the prostitution, the shuttered businesses—but it was home, and it annoyed her that Theo kept skittishly relocking the car door. He had been driving to this side of town for years, but he still treated it like some kind of postapocalyptic wasteland. And he still thought a locked car door could keep him from danger. Dumbass. Kai sighed as they approached World Changers Church.

Right on cue, Theo turned down the music and launched into his routine tirade against Creflo Dollar, the church’s founder. “I hate that damn dome! I just don’t get why people go there. He has ‘dollar’ in his name, and he has a fucking record company. He’s like the P. Diddy of an alternate universe, except instead of selling Ciroc, he sells Jesus. He literally pimps Jesus! And look where his home base is. He makes money off black people and presents himself as our savior at the same damn time!”

Kai chuckled. Theo had said “at the same damn time.” Even though he still had a settler’s naive fears, he was steadily becoming an Atlantan. She could do without the rant, though— everybody pimps Jesus, to be honest.

A few minutes later, they pulled into the Waffle House parking lot. It was completely empty except for a bicycle. Waffle House was the premiere breakfast spot, but not at breakfast hours.

“Welcome to Waffle House!” shouted Sol’s coworkers as Zed, Theo, Kai, and Apollo slid into a corner booth. Instinctively, they wiped their sections of the table before placing their phones on its surface. Waffle House served syrup on tap and on tabletops.

Sol emerged from the bathroom and immediately greeted them. “Ayyy, it’s my favorite crew, the Celestials!” she announced to the empty restaurant. “And Apollo,” she added.

“Solara, it’s not my fault you were named after a shitty Toyota instead of a car people actually like,” Apollo retorted, catching her shade and throwing his own. Sol blankly stared at him. She’d spent a year in juvenile, so insults, even ones that should have at least left a dent, simply bounced off her. Apollo should have known better, Kai thought. He’d probably sat on that comeback for months too. Damn shame. It was actually pretty clever.

“Need some water?” Sol asked, addressing the table, but looking at Apollo.

“Yeah, we’ll take some,” Kai told her, admiring Sol’s audacity as she walked behind the counter, confident despite her frumpy uniform. Sol had always been honest, but juvie had amplified that honesty tenfold. Sol never talked about what happened while she was locked up, but it wasn’t hard to guess. She had come back with chiseled arms, broad shoulders, muscular thighs, and an attitude to match. She could escalate situations as easily as she could flex a muscle. Yet she wasn’t visibly intimidating. Far worse, her game was selective intimidation. She never wore her gun on her hip; she just brandished it whenever she wanted to shoot, which was often when Apollo was around.

Returning to the table, Sol smoothly issued four menus and four cups of ice-cold water from behind the counter. Kai chuckled as Apollo checked his for spit, frowning at her and Zed from across the table. Theo dutifully glanced over the menu, making Kai proud. He’d been raised on the gospel of Denny’s, but the transition to Waffle House hadn’t been difficult. Hot plates had nothing on good food.

“You got a minute?” Theo asked Sol.

“Nah, it’s mad busy right now,” she said, stepping back and extending her arm toward the vacant restaurant like a showgirl introducing a showcase on The Price is Right.

The table laughed, settling in. “For real, though, is everything square for tonight? This ain’t no regular fucking tag,” Sol said, bending over and dropping her voice to a hush. All eyes fell onto Theo.

“Yeah, it’s all good. We’re picking up the van tonight as planned, Six Flags is closed all day for emergency parking lot repairs, the movies are still playing so we can get tickets, and McPherson is still in transition. I checked everything. Nothing can go wrong,” Theo said.

“Right,” Sol replied. “I hope y’all have better clothes, though. Nylon shorts, skinny jeans, coochie cutters, and a skirt aren’t the right gear.”

A wave of foolishness washed over the table, making Sol laugh. Kai knew Theo had forgotten something. He’d have to go all the way back to Marietta to get a change of clothes. She looked down, contemplating his wardrobe. It was more uncredited Odd Future member than criminal, but he could work it. As long as you had black skin, being a criminal didn’t take too much work. Kai prayed he didn’t say something stupid.

“We know that,” Theo responded. “I’m just the driver, so I don’t need to be on my cat burglar tip. Everybody else is going to go home and change, though.”

“Sure,” Sol said, skeptical.

“Anything else, Sergeant Sol?” Zed asked, waving the laminated menu. “I’m trying to go in.”

“Yes,” Sol said, standing up and returning to her full height, 70 inches. “Kai, buy a damn wig. I know you think everyone and their mama is going natural, but it’s actually just you and a couple thousand Insta thots, so you natural hoes be standing out. Weave still reigns supreme. Trust me, I work night shift on Fridays.” She removed her hat and pointed at her wavy, imported hair. She practiced what she preached.

Kai laughed and nodded. Sol took their menus and returned to the kitchen, announcing, “Four waffles, three hash browns, and one cup of surprisingly good coffee, coming right up!” Her announcement went unheard by her two coworkers who were smoking out front, but Sol probably didn’t care. She was used to doing things herself.



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