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He saw the lights first. Blue and red, flashing in a regular pattern. Lots of them, scattered south of the station in the parking lot, and he couldn’t help himself.
Moss had boarded the train in San Francisco that afternoon expecting nothing out of the ordinary, just a normal ride home with his best friend, Esperanza. The train was crowded, plenty of people eager to get back home at the end of the weekend. They’d been lucky to find an empty set of seats near one of the doors. Moss had leaned his bike up against the side of the car and scrambled to claim the spot next to Esperanza. But then their luck had worn off. The train now sat motionless, caught between the Embarcadero station and West Oakland, where both of them were bound. Moss closed his eyes and sighed.
“We’re never going to get off this train, I swear.”
He looked over at Esperanza, who had taken her half of the headphones out from her left ear. Moss could hear the tinny sound of Janelle Monáe as he removed his own earbud. His best friend’s head was thrown back over the seat in frustration. She removed her thick-framed glasses and began to rub her eyes. “This is it,” Esperanza said. “This is where we’ll be stuck for all eternity.”
“Well, we can’t be stuck here forever,” he replied. “They’ll do that … that thing they do where they just redirect us around a train.” He narrowed his eyes at her. “Can they even do that here?”
Esperanza sighed while putting her glasses back on. “I don’t know,” she replied. “I haven’t ever been stuck inside the tube itself.”
“It’s giving me the creeps,” he said. “What happens if there’s an earthquake while we’re down here?”
She slapped Moss’s arm playfully. “Don’t say that! That practically guarantees it’s going to happen!”
“Then this really is like the start of all good apocalyptic nightmares,” he said.
“Well, we better get used to living here, Moss. There’s no escape for us. Our life as we know it is over! Which means we need to start planning out how we’ll design our new home.”
She stood up, grinning, her white blouse hanging loose on her body, and she gestured above the BART doors next to her. “We’ll definitely have to install some curtains here,” she explained. “I’m thinking … something that’s gray. To accent the dreariness of this place.”
Moss shook his head. “I am a man of high taste,” he said in the most grandiose voice he could manage. This was always their game. “I cannot rest my body on this filth.” He pretended to be deep in thought before exclaiming, “I’ve got it! Bunk beds. They’ll save us space and give the place a youthful atmosphere.”
Esperanza faked a swoon back into her seat. “Moss, you are just so full of good ideas. Plus, it speaks to the reality of the situation: We shall remain celibate for the rest of our lives, as I highly doubt that there are any cute girls for me on this train.”
“Hey, speak for yourself,” Moss shot back. “I’m pretty sure I saw a hella hot dude with a fixie a few cars down.”
“Gonna corner the hipster market on this train, then? Smart, Moss. Very smart.”
“You think so?”
“Well, they’re young and ambitious. Lots of disposable income. Willing to gentrify your neighborhood at the drop of a cupcake.”
Moss laughed at that. “Well, it otherwise seems like there aren’t any cute guys in this whole city that I can stand for five minutes, so I’ll take what I can get.”
“That is surely a tragedy,” Esperanza said. “Well, after being confined to a train car until you wither away and die, but a tragedy nonetheless.”
The two of them went silent, as Moss often could in her presence. She didn’t expect him to make conversation, letting him fade back comfortably. Moss turned his attention to the vacant and detached stares about the train, a familiar sight on the BART no matter what day it was. It was late in the afternoon, though, and he saw the exhaustion on their faces, in the way they slouched their bodies. He and Esperanza had spent the afternoon at the mall in downtown San Francisco, pretending to be elegant and well-off shoppers, building an imaginary wardrobe full of clothes that they would probably never be able to afford. They had drifted from store to store, Esperanza a successful poet on her book tour and Moss a world-renowned fashion designer helping her with her wardrobe. The last time they’d gone out, Esperanza was a backup dancer for Beyoncé, and Moss played bass in her live show, and they had stopped in San Francisco on a world tour, casually drinking iced tea and wearing the most fierce pairs of sunglasses they could find.
It felt good to pretend. Like Moss had another life, a future he could look forward to living.
The sudden crackle of the speakers in their car startled him. “We apologize for the delay,” said a voice that reminded Moss of his mother’s, “but there’s police activity ahead of us at the West Oakland station. I’m not sure if we’ll be stopping there, but I will let you know once I have any information. Hold tight.”
Esperanza sighed again, though her exasperation wasn’t an act this time. Moss reached out and began to fiddle with the tape on the handlebars of his bike, impatience rushing over him. He just wanted to get home.
He leaned into Esperanza’s shoulder, thankful that they were both the same height. “I don’t want to go to school tomorrow,” he said. “I know, I sound like the world’s most clichéd teenager, but I’m dreading it.” Moss paused. “You ever think it should be two days of school followed by five days off? That’s obviously the best schedule for learning.”
“Oh, come on, it’s not that bad,” Esperanza insisted, and rested her head on top of his. “We’ll get through it fine.”
The train jerked forward suddenly and a couple of people clapped. Moss watched a tall, lanky kid lurch forward and grab for the handhold that was attached to the wall just above Moss’s bike. When he grabbed the top bar instead, he balanced himself and winced. “Sorry, sorry,” he blurted out. “Got surprised, that’s all.”
“It’s okay,” Moss said. “No big deal, man.”
The guy ran his hand over the frame again. “This steel?”
Moss nodded, and he gave the boy a longer look. His hair was cropped short, his skin a deep golden brown, and he had that sort of lean muscle that came easy to some people through the gift of genetics. He’s cute, Moss thought, but probably tragically straight.
“Steel’s a good choice,” the boy said. “Better for the messed-up streets.”
Moss narrowed his eyes at that, surprised that this guy seemed to know what he was talking about. “Yeah, I know! Everyone wants those fast carbon ones, but those things hurt unless you’re on the nice roads.”
“Right?” The guy stuck his hand out. “Javier.”
Moss shook on it. “Moss,” he said. “And this is my friend Esperanza.”
While Javier shook Esperanza’s hand, he stared at Moss. “That’s an interesting name,” he said. “Is there a story behind it?”
The sound that came out of Esperanza was a cross between a bark and a yelp, and Moss glared at his best friend and tried to clamp a hand over her mouth. “Yes?” he said, drawing it out. “Do you have something to say, Esperanza?”
“Oh, please, can I tell him? It’s so adorable.”
“Maybe Javier here doesn’t want to hear adorable,” said Moss, and he shot a quick glance at him. Javier was already nodding, however.
“Oh, I definitely want adorable,” he said, and with those words, it was as if this stranger had found Esperanza’s true calling. Moss watched her face light up in excitement; he dropped his hand, and she spread her own out in front of her.
“Picture it,” Esperanza said. “Moss is much younger and arguably a very cute toddler.”
“I dunno,” said Javier. “He’s pretty cute now.”
Moss’s mouth fell open, and he looked from Javier, who smirked at him, to Esperanza, who also smirked at him. “Wait, what?”
“Never mind,” said Esperanza. “Y’all can have a moment in a second, I promise. I’m telling a story here, remember?”
“Exactly,” said Javier. “And I wanna know what this story is!”
Moss’s heart jumped, thumping in his chest. He was caught off guard, but Esperanza pushed past it, and he was thankful she did.
“So picture it,” she said again. “Moss is learning to speak. He keeps hearing his parents say his name over and over—Morris, Morris!” She leaned into Moss. “And Moss here keeps trying to say it back, as any studious young kid would. But it keeps coming out without those crucial r’s.”
“Moss,” said Javier, as if he was trying it out for the first time. “I get it! Man, that is cute.”
Esperanza stood and bowed. “It is my very favorite story to tell, and now I am gonna leave you two alone because clearly this is a moment.”
With that, she walked away from the two of them, drifting off toward the windows on the opposite side of the train. Javier gestured to the now-empty seat. “Mind if I sit?”
Another burst of nervous energy flushed through Moss’s body. “Yes,” he said. “I mean, no!” He blurted it out, then shook his head. “Please sit down,” he finally said, certain he had embarrassed himself beyond repair.
Javier did, his mouth curled up in a grimace. “I made you uncomfortable, didn’t I?”
“No, no, it’s okay, I just—”
“You’re probably straight,” Javier said, defeat in his voice. “I’m sorry, it just … I dunno, it just came out.”
Moss’s mouth fell open again for the second time in a matter of minutes. Then the laughter followed, and it washed away the terror of the interaction. “Oh, honey,” he said. “I could not be gayer.”
The dejection that lined Javier’s face disappeared, and it was replaced with a playful grin. “Well, you never know,” said Javier. “You gotta be careful sometimes.”
“Oh, most def,” said Moss. “Though I’ve never hit on someone in public like that before. You’re bold.”
“Me? Bold?” Javier laughed. “My mother would have a word or two with you about that.”
“You live in Oakland?” Moss asked, and he felt the train speed up a bit as it made its way through the tunnel underneath the bay.
“Yeah, closer to Fruitvale. You?”
“Next stop,” he said. “West Oakland. Well, assuming we can even get to that station.”
Lights from the outside world then filled the train car as it rose out of the ground and climbed the elevated track. As long as Moss had lived in West Oakland, he’d never tired of this specific view, so he pointed toward the windows. “Check it,” he said, and the Port of Oakland began to pass by them. The sun was already setting beyond the San Francisco coast, so the cranes gleamed from the powerful lights that illuminated the structures. “They look so silly,” he told Javier, “but I love them. They look like children’s toys.”
“Or like a kid built them.”
“You know George Lucas modeled those AT-AT machines after them?”
“No way! You a Star Wars fan, too?”
“A li’l bit,” admitted Moss. “Minus most of the prequels. And you know I got my boy Finn’s back.”
“Dude,” said Javier. “Poe is my homeboy. Latinos in space, man! We made it!”
“That’s dope, dude.” Moss paused and gave Javier a once-over. “You all right, Javier. I admit this is not how I expected my afternoon to go.”
“Well, mine’s just starting. I’m going to that rally in West Oakland. Probably why there’s a delay.”
Moss let a beat go by, and he worried it was too obvious. The spike plunged into him, that familiar anxiety he worked so hard to keep at bay. A rally? That meant one thing.
“What for?” Moss asked, hoping to smooth over his reaction.
“You heard about Osner Young yet?” When Moss shook his head at that, Javier continued. “Older brother of some kid who goes to my school. Got shot a few blocks from the station, and police claim he had a gun pointed on them.” Javier shook his head. “Of course he was unarmed. They usually are.”
“Yeah,” Moss said, struggling to find anything significant to say, but unsure he could. How would I even begin talking to him about this? Moss thought.
“So I’m going to show my support,” Javier said. “I got some friends I’m meeting there.” Javier put his hand on Moss’s leg, and Moss wished this was all happening in a different context. “You should come!”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Moss said, his gaze dropping down.
“Hey, I don’t mean to interrupt your little lovefest,” Esperanza said, coming up to the two of them, “but Moss … we need to be careful getting off at this station.”
“Why?” Javier said.
Esperanza looked from Javier to Moss, and he saw the worry flit across her face. The expression said it all. Cops, he thought. There must be cops. How does she know?
“Is something happening?” Javier rose and walked over to the windows, then whistled, and then Moss stood slowly.
“Is it what I think it is?”
She nodded. “You gonna be okay? I’ll leave the station in front of you if you want.”
Moss took a deep breath. “Lemme see how bad it is,” he said, and crossed the aisle, putting his face close to the windows. He tried to peer toward the front of the train as it approached the West Oakland station, but the angle was wrong. He could see his reflection better than anything outside the train, so he pressed his hands against the glass to block out the light from inside the car.
That’s when he saw them, the red and blue bolts of light, and that’s when the dread filled him, overflowed, squeezed his heart to dust. His hands started to sweat, and Moss backed away from the windows, nearly tripping over Esperanza. She grabbed his right arm to steady him as he stumbled.
“What is it?” Javier said. There it was, on his face. Worry. Confusion.
“Nothing,” Moss said. “It’s okay.”
“That’s a lot of cops,” Javier said, walking over to the window and shielding his own eyes as Moss had done. “Damn. What happened to the rally?”
The train began to slow down as it approached the station, and Moss sat down in the seat nearest the door, taking slow, deliberate breaths. His therapist had taught him this technique, for whenever Moss felt his anxiety getting the best of him. All over some lights, Moss thought. Just red and blue lights. That’s all they are.
He knew this. It didn’t matter.
The train came to a smooth stop at the West Oakland station. The platform was mostly empty, a relief. It meant a quicker exit, and that was the only hope Moss allowed himself. He stood next to Esperanza, who waited by the closest set of doors. “I’m here,” she said, her hand in his. “We’ll just put our heads down and get out of the station as quick as we can. That okay with you?”
He nodded to her, his heart in his throat. Moss wished he could reach inside of his brain and excise the part of it that tormented him. Instead, he had to deal with it every day. He let go of Esperanza and fetched his bike, wishing he hadn’t brought it, certain it would get in the way. They waited. And waited. And waited.
But the doors did not open, and a creeping anticipation snuck in. What if they were stuck here? What if the cops were coming up into the station? The sweat along his hairline just seemed to appear; Moss couldn’t remember it being there before.
“You okay?” Esperanza asked.
“Yeah,” he said, his voice soft, gripped in the fear of the unknown. “Just wanna get off the train.”
Moss caught sight of Javier, who was staring at the two of them. He saw it then, written all over him: pity. It’s starting again, Moss thought.
The orange light above the doors flashed, followed by a short chime, and then the doors slid open. Despite the small crowd, a young man rushed into the train car, promptly dumping half of his drink on Javier’s shirt. “Hey, what the hell?” Javier shouted, but the guy didn’t even look back.
“Well, that was awful,” said Javier, who was brushing off the front of his white T-shirt. They joined him on the platform.
“You could always call it modern art,” said Esperanza.
Javier chuckled. “I like her, Moss. I can see why y’all are friends.”
“He’s winning me over,” Esperanza said. “I hope you two exchanged numbers already. We should go, Moss.”
Javier pulled his phone out, but Moss waved it away. “Let’s get downstairs first,” he said. “I just wanna get out of the station before…” He didn’t finish the sentence. How do I finish that? How do I tell him?
They silently made their way down the stairs, the red and blue lights from the police cruisers on site bouncing off the walls. Two of the station operators stood outside their booth, their eyes locked on the scene to the south of them. Moss turned to head out of the north exit, his bike hoisted up on his shoulder, but Esperanza stopped and grabbed his free arm.
Signs were held high above the snarling crowd. One was of a photo of Osner Young, and it hit Moss: Osner could not have been more than a few years older than himself. His face was open in a joyous smile, and Moss recognized where the photo was taken: Martin’s barbershop, the one not far from where he lived.
There were more signs. STOP KILLING US, read one. There was a tall white man off to the right, his messy hair gray and black, who carried a poster that read, I STILL HAVE TO PROTEST THIS? Moss frowned at that one; it left him with a bad feeling, as if the guy was more concerned with being witty than caring. But then lining the sidewalk outside the station, blocking the entrance to the turnstiles, was a row of cops in riot gear. They stood with their batons hanging at their sides, their helmets gleaming in the lights of the parking lot. Moss had to get out as soon as possible.
“Come on,” Moss said, turning to walk away. “Please.”
He bumped right into someone. Moss excused himself, but the guy examined him, looking him up and down. “Morris?” The man gave him the same look again. Was he from Martin’s shop? How did this man know his name? “Yo, I haven’t seen you in years. How are you?”
Moss backed away. “Um … I think you have me confused with someone else,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve ever met.”
“Maybe you don’t remember me,” he said. “Last time was … damn, musta been five years ago. You were a kid still. It was at that rally outside City Hall!”
Please not now, Moss thought. He hunched down and tried to move toward the exit, but someone else stepped up, an older man with a crown of white hair. He looked more familiar, but Moss couldn’t place him now. “Hey, Moss,” the man said, raising a hand. “You here for the protest?”
Moss tried to form the words, but the darkness appeared. It started around the edges of his vision, it clutched at his chest, and he couldn’t see an escape route. He forgot about Esperanza, about Javier, about anything other than the brightness beyond the turnstiles of the station. He reached into his front pocket and pulled out his Clipper card, held it tightly. But there were more people in front of Moss, asking him about the rally, asking him about his mother, asking him to stay and protest with the others, asking him too many questions, asking too much of him always.
A woman rushed up to his side, her cornrows a tight and intricate pattern on her head. “Hey, we got Morris Jeffries’s son with us!” she shouted out. He tried to focus on her face, but it began to blur, to slide out of his vision, and then it seemed impossible to breathe.
“Please, I just need to go,” he slurred out, and then he was lost, the panic slipping over his whole body. He let go of his bike, heard it clatter against the floor, the echo reverberating in his head. He felt someone grab at him as he pitched forward onto the gray concrete of the BART station, and he hoped the darkness would consume him.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Oshiro