Moss Jeffries is many things—considerate student, devoted son, loyal friend and affectionate boyfriend, enthusiastic nerd.
But sometimes Moss still wishes he could be someone else—someone without panic attacks, someone whose father was still alive, someone who hadn’t become a rallying point for a community because of one horrible night.
And most of all, he wishes he didn’t feel so stuck.
Moss can’t even escape at school—he and his friends are subject to the lack of funds and crumbling infrastructure at West Oakland High, as well as constant intimidation by the resource officer stationed in their halls. That was even before the new regulations—it seems sometimes that the students are treated more like criminals.
Something will have to change—but who will listen to a group of teens?
When tensions hit a fever pitch and tragedy strikes again, Moss must face a difficult choice: give in to fear and hate or realize that anger can actually be a gift.
The paperback of Anger Is a Gift is available now! Please enjoy this sneak peek of the first chapters!
opens in a new window[dropcap type=”circle”] H[/dropcap]e 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 an afternoon 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 out her half of the headphones 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?” Moss shot back.
“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 an 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 pair 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 clamped 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 grey concrete of the BART station, and he hoped the darkness would consume him.
[dropcap type=”circle”] M[/dropcap]oss’s hands slammed into the floor, and his Clipper card jarred out of his hand and flew across the concrete. He chased after it, but then couldn’t pick it up. His fingers felt wrong. Too big. Too round. Irritation flared in him, then turned to rage, and then he was screaming at a card on the floor that he couldn’t grab ahold of, and the terror spread. It washed out from his chest and up into his head, so total and so complete, as if he were under a waterfall that flowed the wrong way.
“Moss!” Esperanza shouted, and he felt his friend’s arms under his. She tried to pick him up, but he was too heavy, and the shame of it pushed him further under. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t think. It was all too much.
“Give him some space,” a voice said, deep and smoky. Moss felt a hand at the back of his head, and then an oxygen mask passed in front of him, and it was fastened behind his ears. “Breathe,” the voice said. “Just breathe deep for me, can you?”
Moss sucked the air in, and the coolness filled his mouth, spilled down his throat and into his lungs. Someone’s hand ran up and down his back, and it felt good. Comforting. He breathed deep again and slowly lifted his head, then shifted his weight backward. He sat on the cold concrete and sucked in another soothing breath. His vision was blurred; he hadn’t even realized that he’d been crying.
Esperanza knelt in front of him and reached out, grasping his shoulder. “You’re all right,” she said.
“How do you feel?”
Moss looked toward the sound of the voice. The man’s facial hair was delicately styled around his lips and chin. His nose was wide, as was his mouth, and when he smiled, Moss felt a pang hit him in the chest. The paramedic’s smile was inviting. Don’t be silly,he told himself.
“I’m okay, I guess,” Moss said, his voice muffled by the mask. “Thank you.”
“You get panic attacks often?” the man asked. “That one was pretty bad.”
Moss shook his head. “I’m usually better at stopping them,” he said, and the embarrassment pumped through his face. Oh god, did Javier see all of this? he thought. He began to look around him, and most of the people who had surrounded him had disappeared. But there was Javier, a few feet away, worry and concern all over his face.
“There’s no need to feel ashamed,” the man with the oxygen said. “I just want to make sure you’re okay. Is there anyone I can call?”
Moss fished in his right pocket and pulled out his phone. Who should I call? he thought. Shamika might be home, and he’d relied on her before when he needed help during the day. Was his mother home? It’s a Sunday, he reminded himself. The mail wasn’t delivered on Sundays. With relief pouring over him, Moss unlocked his phone, scrolled down to “Mama,” then handed it over to the EMT. When the man took it from Moss, his fingers grazed the side of Moss’s hand, and he felt that childlike giddiness again. Pathetic, he thought. Knock it off.
The man pressed the button to call his mom and lifted the phone to his ear, winking at Moss as he did. His mother must have answered on the first ring, as the man began talking shortly after that. “Ah, hello? I’m sorry if this seems alarming, but my name is Diego Santos, and I’m here with your son at the West Oakland BART station. No, no, he’s okay, I promise. He just had a panic attack.”
Pause. Diego handed the phone to Moss. “She wants to talk.”
Thanks, he mouthed to Diego, then took the phone. He lowered the mask. “Hello, Mama?”
“Moss, baby, are you okay?” Her voice wasn’t pitched higher, wasn’t full of terror. Just smooth. Interested. His heart rate began to slow down.
“Yes, Mama, I promise. It wasn’t that bad. I just got . . . flustered. That’s all.”
“Nothing, Mama . . .” The sentence died before he could add any more.
“Morris Jeffries, Jr., you need to be honest with me.”
Damn, she used my full name, he thought. He relented. “I got recognized again.”
“By whom?” Her voice did spike higher this time.
“I dunno,” he said. “The first guy said he was there at that big rally at City Hall. You remember that one, right?”
There was silence for a few beats. He knew his mother was pissed. “Yeah, I do. He say anything else to you?”
“Not really. It wasn’t really his fault, Mama. There’s a rally here for some guy who got shot last week, and a bunch of people from the old days were here. They . . .” He paused and took a deep breath. “They surrounded me. I just freaked out a little.”
She swore. Loudly. He could tell she was holding the phone away from her. “Don’t repeat that, honey.” A pause, and then she swore again. “Or that.”
“I’m sorry, Mama, I didn’t want to upset you.”
“Oh, Moss, it’s not your fault, I swear. I just wish people were more sensitive, you know?”
“You need me to come get you, baby?”
“Nah, it’s not far. I’ll head home right now, I promise.”
She was quiet again. “We can talk more when you get home, okay?”
Moss agreed, telling his mom that he loved her, then hung up. When he looked up, both Esperanza and Diego wore expressions of concern.
“You sure you’re okay?” Diego asked, reaching down to take the oxygen mask from Moss. “I can stay if you need me.” He handed over Moss’s Clipper card.
“No, it’s okay,” Moss replied, and he made to stand up. Diego darted behind him and swiftly lifted him from the sitting position.
Diego clapped him on the back. “Whatever you say, jefe.” The man left an awkward pause in the air. “If you don’t mind me asking before I leave . . . what was that all about?” He gestured vaguely about the station. “That crowd that surrounded you.”
He saw Esperanza shake her head at Diego, and the EMT threw his hands up in a gesture of forfeit. “No worries, never mind. It’s not my business.”
This time, Moss reached out as Diego backed away. “No, it’s okay,” he said. He swallowed, hard, then cast a glance at Javier, who still stood off to the side. Moss could see the uncertainty in the other boy’s body, and Moss jerked his head, gesturing to Javier to join them. If this has to happen, he thought, it might as well be now.
He sucked in a lungful of air before starting. “I guess I got this hella weird celebrity status here,” he said. “Usually at rallies or protests cuz a lot of folks attended rallies for my dad years ago.”
“Rallies for what?” Javier asked.
Moss looked up at him, saw that the pity was still all over his handsome face. This is it, he told himself. Javier’s gonna run screaming in the other direction.
So he focused his gaze on Diego, hoping it would distract him enough. “My dad was shot by the Oakland police six years ago. They said it was a mistake.”
Diego ran his hand over his mouth, which hung open a bit in shock, and then his eyes went down to the ground. Shame. Then the pity came next. Moss was used to it at this point. People stumbled into this revelation all the time. He was surprised, though, that this time he wasn’t recognized by either of the men in front of him.
“I’m sorry, man,” Diego said. “I didn’t know.”
“Are you not from here?” Esperanza asked.
He shook his head. “Moved here from New York coupla months ago.”
“Well, that explains that,” said Esperanza. She turned to Javier. “But what about you?”
“Relatively new to the area, too,” said Javier. “Me and my mama got here like three or four years ago.”
Moss could still see the pity in Diego’s eyes as he spoke. “You know,” Diego said, “I lost a brotha back when I lived in Philly, in the eighties. Cops broke into the wrong house, he pulled a gun on them, they shot him right where he stood. He didn’t stand a chance.”
“Doesn’t sound too much different from my dad,” Moss admitted. “He was coming out of a convenience store, a little market not too far from here.” He pointed off to the side in the general direction of his home. “Had headphones in, didn’t hear the order from the cops to put his hands up. Got shot, and died right there.” His voice dropped. “Turns out they were at the wrong market. Wrong end of 12th Street.”
“It’s a messed-up world, man, that people can die like that,” Diego said.
“Yo, man, I’m sorry I asked you to go to the rally,” said Javier, his eyes downturned, a portrait of embarrassment. “I had no idea, and I wouldn’t have mentioned it if I’d known.”
Javier ran his hand down Moss’s arm, and Moss knew it was just to comfort him, but he still wanted more. That momentary connection made him feel, if even for a second, like he was less alone in the world. But it passed. Moss missed the sensation immediately.
Diego cleared his throat. “Well, I gotta get back to monitoring this,” he said, gesturing behind him to the rally. “Y’all take care of yourselves.”
They raised their hands to him and watched Diego disappear into the crowd beyond the line of cops, protest signs still raised, joining voices still punctuating the early-evening air. Moss leaned over and picked up his bike, which had been lying haphazardly on the concrete. When he looked back up, Javier was staring, his phone in his hand.
“So, I don’t know how to make a good segue here, so I’m just gonna go for this,” he said. “If you’re still interested . . . you wanna swap numbers?”
Responses flared in Moss’s mind. Even after all of that? he thought. But he gave Javier a weak smile instead. “Yeah,” he said. “Sure.”
In another situation, Moss would have been overjoyed at the idea of a cute boy giving him his number. But he just wanted to be out of the station and in the arms of his mama. After giving Javier his number, Moss raised a hand to wave, then turned and walked north into West Oakland. Esperanza trailed behind him at first, but she caught up quickly, a sloppy grin plastered on her face.
He slowed down and shook his head at her. “What? What is it?”
“So he was cute,” she said. “Moss, you got your first number on the train! How does it feel? You’re practically an adult.”
He chuckled at that. “I dunno. I feel weird. Still wired, I guess.”
“You know we don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to,” she said. “We can just walk in silence, if you want.”
He smiled at her. “No, it’s okay,” he said. “I think that talking might be a good idea.”
She reached down and squeezed his hand. “What do you want to talk about? What would make you feel better?”
Moss loved this part of Esperanza. She understood that his ability to socialize after an attack was erratic at times, and she never pushed him to do anything he felt uncomfortable with. As they turned north on Chester, Moss pointed across the street. “There used to be a man there during the summer. Don’t know what happened to him. But my dad used to take us over here when it got super hot and the guy sold piraguas that were so good. You know what those are?”
She nodded her head. “Girl, just cuz I’m adopted doesn’t mean I don’t know about the culture,” she joked. “The Puerto Rican snow cone. I haven’t had one in ages, though.”
“This guy used to make ones with piña juice, and they were dope.” He went quiet. “I miss them.” Another beat. “And him.”
“I know,” she said. “And it doesn’t help when people constantly remind you that he’s gone.”
“Right?” Moss shook his head. “It’s like people want me to be this version of a person that isn’t me. Like, always ready to fight and march and rally, and I don’t even get to be myself.”
They found a silence again for a few moments, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. It was a routine of theirs, one that felt normal and intimate. How many times had Esperanza been there when Moss had an attack? How often had she helped fend off odd questions from strangers who recognized him? More than she should have had to deal with, but Moss appreciated it nonetheless.
He bumped into her and gestured with his head across the street. “We used to make up stories,” he said. “About all the people on the street whenever we walked home from the train station.”
“What kind of stories?” Esperanza asked.
“Weird stuff, sometimes.” He pointed at a flat, off-white house to his left. “Shamika lives there now, but years ago, there used to be this one dude who would always work on his cars in the driveway. And I was convinced that he was a robot.”
“Men who work on cars all the time are robots.”
“True,” he said, giggling. “Papa never discouraged me. He always made the stories weirder.”
He put his hand on Esperanza’s back and turned her slightly to the right. “You ever see the guy who lives there?” They stared at the muted brown home, a tall chain-link fence rising up around it. It looked like a miniature penitentiary. “We used to make up all kinds of stories about him especially. My dad said he was an alien from some distant galaxy, and that’s why he always yelled at everyone who walked too close to his fence.”
“Isn’t he the guy who got that garden up the street shut down?”
He huffed at her. “Probably. We never found out for sure. Apparently it violated some code no one’s ever heard of. Can’t have a garden in the hood!”
She sighed, and they fell back into a stillness. Moss examined each of the houses as he walked, trying to remember who lived in them, trying to remember the stories he used to make up with his father. There was Rosa’s home, with her three boys, Rafael, Luis, and Ramon, and her trim painted bright pink, a Big Wheel long abandoned in the front yard. The two oldest boys, Ramon and Luis, were usually in the middle of the street, kicking around a soccer ball. But last week, Moss had seen Rafael put on his mother’s heels on the front stoop and confidently walk down his driveway, pretending that the world was flashing cameras at him. Moss liked that memory, even if his father wasn’t in it.
Rosa’s family lived next door to Tariq and Eloisa, whose purple house leaned sadly but proudly to the right. They had tried to have a kid for years; then Tariq ended up putting his energy into adopting a blue-nose pit bull from the local shelter. Another memory: Morris letting Moss crouch down in Tariq’s yard while Ginger jumped all over him. Moss loved dogs, and petting Ginger always lifted him up.
They continued up Chester, past the barbershop where Martin did Moss’s fade, then past the only other duplex on the block, the one where a Korean family who owned three squawking chickens now lived on the bottom floor. Moss’s mother’s friend Jasmine lived by herself on the top floor. Moss had seen plenty of people visit Jasmine, but knew that she always lived alone. Moss liked her because she seemed so comfortable being by herself.
Over 11th now, right past the spot where a bunch of the older boys hung out. If you paid attention, you could see what they passed one another during their handshakes. Moss’s mother told him to avoid that corner at all costs, but no one was hanging around that afternoon. When Moss’s house finally came into view, he reached down to squeeze Esperanza’s hand back. His home was small, painted like yellowed eggshells. It had two bedrooms and an attic that unnerved Moss so much that he never would explore it. It sat plainly in between two other small homes, all of them rentals and with tiny but respectable yards, a rarity in this part of town. Moss had desperately wanted a dog, but they’d resigned themselves to the neighborhood cat instead, since they didn’t have time for a pet.
Moss stopped at the chain-link fence, and his mother crossed the yard toward them. Wanda Jeffries was taller than her son, and there were times he wished he had inherited her slender form. He definitely took after his dad in size, and some days, it was another reminder that Morris was no longer around. After Papa had died, Wanda had visited Martin’s shop and had one of the women cut off her long locs. It was a renewal, she had told Moss. When was that renewal going to come his way?
She opened the gate, and Moss fell gently into her arms, wrapping his arms around his mama and breathing into her chest. They stayed that way for a few seconds, and then she pulled away from him. “How you feelin’, baby?”
“Better,” he said. He smiled up at her. “Esperanza helped.”
His mother nodded at Esperanza. “Nice to see you, Esperanza. You staying the night again?”
“Yep,” she said. “Just one more night. My parents get back from their academic conference tomorrow.”
“You know you’re always welcome. And thanks for taking care of Moss.”
Esperanza beamed. “It’s the least I can do,” she said.
Moss looked up the street toward 12th, and his mother let go of him.
“You need to do it again?” Wanda asked.
Her face held no pity, just understanding. “Yeah,” he said. “Only for a few minutes. I’ll be back once I’m done.”
He let Esperanza move past him into the yard, and she winked at him. His mother took hold of his bike and wheeled it up the walkway. He watched them go up into his home, and then he continued up the street to 12th, where the market sat under two streetlights. Dawit, the owner, had painted it in the colors of the Ethiopian flag, all bright green, yellow, and red, and the beaming yellow star on a blue circle sat in the middle, right above the entrance. There were usually a group of men gossiping or playing craps outside, but not that evening, and Moss was grateful for that. As Moss crossed Twelfth Street, he could feel the sadness settle into his bones, pulling him forward and down. The door was propped open with a cinder brick, so he poked his head inside.
Dawit waved and cracked a sharp smile, his long face full of joy at seeing him. But they said nothing. Dawit knew the routine well, and so he went back to watching the soccer match on the tiny television that he kept behind the counter.
Moss sat on the single step outside the door. He reached down and ran a hand over it, remembering the sight of his father stepping out of the market, the paper bag in the crook of his arm. He remembered the excitement he felt as he waited across the street with his mother, wondering what treat Papa had gotten for them this time. Moss tried to forget the sound of the patrol car pulling up, the cop jumping out of the passenger seat and raising his gun, the shouting, the pop and the echo of the gun, the color of the blood. He had tried for many years.
It never worked. But if Moss sat there and concentrated, he could push away the horror and find what he had lost. He tried to forget those horrible images, overlay them with other ones. Today, Moss tried to remember something new, and he shuffled through his mind like a Rolodex. His father’s hugs. His smell. The way a T-shirt sat on his torso. His eyes, impossibly dark, almost black, those wells of kindness and familiarity.
The therapist, Constance, had taught Moss this technique, a way to calm himself whenever thoughts of his father or his anxiety or his terror started to get the best of him. She had gestured to the Rolodex on her desk during one of their earliest sessions, then turned the dial to flip through the contact cards. “Think of your mind as one of these,” she had said, and the sound of the device pleased Moss. “Each card is a memory of your father. Now, I know you were young when you lost him, but your mind is resilient, Moss. You still have a lot of him inside of you. More than you think.”
He was ten years old then, and in the six years that passed, he was still able to remember new things. It kept him going. So he focused again, turning them over in his mind, flipping from one to the next.
There. There it was.
I remember the way you used to give me that side-eye whenever I argued with Mama. You tried to get me to laugh every time. You knew it would trip me up.
He smiled. There. That’s what he needed. He remained there, comforted by the memory, and he must have been there longer than he was aware of. When his mother shuffled up to Dawit’s, Moss rose without a word, let her pull him into an embrace. They walked back home in silence, but just before he shut the gate, Moss looked back at the market.
His father wasn’t there.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Oshiro