Last Bus to Brooklyn
It’s hard to accept the evil in this world. People choose to ignore the horror that occurs on their own streets, preferring to turn a blind eye rather than to admit the depth of darkness that can consume a person’s soul. I’ve worked too long in this profession to deny it any more. I’ve seen the horrors one person is capable of committing when they unleash the monster within. I wasn’t prepared to see that kind of darkness on my first case. It shocked me, disturbed me, and chilled me to my core—just like it would anyone. Now, after twenty years of it, I barely let out a shudder. That kind of constant exposure to the darkness changes a man. He either hardens to the world in order to keep going, or he succumbs to it. I’ve seen one too many good detectives fold at the barrel-end of their own service weapon. That’s why I choose to work alone, now. Not everyone can harden themselves to this work, but I can.
Many men in my line of work keep themselves separate from the streets they have to clean, but not me. I like to swim among the sea of vagabonds I bring to justice. I live among them, walk beside them, and watch them from the windows of an old bus while it ambles by. I take the same bus every night— the last of the line, so if I miss it, I am shit out of luck. Every night it’s the same familiar crew of characters who sit on board the half-full, silent bus as it meanders through the dark and vacant streets. The florescent lights hum while we all stare out the windows and ignore each other’s existence; anyone out past 1:30 in the morning in Brooklyn was not someone you wanted to make small talk with.
The bus lurches to a stop and I watch from my seat in the back as she gets on. She is the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen, and I know she doesn’t belong on this bus. Night after night she gets on this bus, gives me a slight smile, and takes a seat a few rows up. I often stare at her the rest of my trip, wondering what a girl like that was going through to be on a bus like this.
When I first saw her, I was concerned. I thought maybe she had lost her way or her bachelorette party had deserted her, so I kept an eye on her. I keep an eye on everyone, but especially on her. She seemed a little shaken—like she knew she was on the wrong bus going nowhere, but didn’t know what else to do. The old stripper heading to work for the morning shift gave her a reassuring smile, and the girl’s shoulders slumped with ease. That’s when I knew she chose to be on the wrong bus for a reason. Night after night, it became a routine. She would get on at the same stop, ride for about five miles, and then get off. The other passengers didn’t hassle her, threaten her, or scare her. They accepted her as one of their late-night own—which was worse.
She didn’t start smiling at me until I ran into her at the precinct. She had been caught giving a hand job to some loser in a back parking lot for fifty bucks. I wasn’t the officer on the case—I don’t work those kinds of cases—so I wasn’t sure if she would recognize me the next time she climbed onto our bus. Like I said, we all had an unspoken agreement to let each other be. It seems she did recognize me, though. The night after her release, she climbed up those steps and met my observing gaze with a small smile. That was months ago. We never speak a word to each other, just that one tilt of her lips in acknowledgement, and that is it.
Tonight, though, she doesn’t give me that smile. Her hands are wrapped around her and she climbs up the stairs with unsteady footing. Her eyes scan all the seats and finally land on me. I expect the smile, but she doesn’t give one. Instead, she lets out a shaky breath and stumbles her way toward me with a distinct purpose. Her heavy eye make-up is smeared down her cheeks—from rain or tears, I’m not sure. One of her outrageous heels is broken, explaining her uneven steps, but causing me to question why it had broken in the first place. She takes the seat directly in front of me, sliding in so that she is sitting sideways. She looks up at me pitifully, pleadingly, yet doesn’t say a word.
The bus rolls up to my stop and I get off. I’m not surprised to hear her broken heels clopping after me as I descend the stairs to the street. I wait for her to come and stand beside me, but she doesn’t. She stops a few steps back, but I can still feel her watching me. The bus lets out a hiss as the driver closes the door and it lurches forward, continuing on its unsavory route. I glance over my shoulder and she’s still standing there, waiting for me. Her hair is damp and her curls have fallen out, it hangs in dreary waves around her heart-shaped face, making her look more like a soaked mouse than a young woman. There’s the budding of a deep bruise blooming on her cheek, and her eyes are wide and frightened. I tilt my head in the direction of the precinct and start on my way. I listen to her footsteps as she follows me from her safe distance; she still doesn’t speak, and I’m not about to start up any conversation.
She follows silently, three steps behind me all the way to the precinct. I glance back at her only once, the sound of her uneven heels clacking behind me lets me know she is still there. Pulling open the door, the precinct is bustling—as it always is regardless of the time. I weave between officers hustling paper work and dodge criminals begging for their phone calls as they are escorted to their holding cells. I nod to my colleagues as they pass by, tipping my hat to Johnny as he answers another call. Heaving a sigh, I take my seat at my desk and remove my hat, tossing it to the side. I look up into her teary eyes as she makes her way uncertainly through the chaos towards me. I gesture toward the chair in front of my desk, hoping she will sit down and take off those stupid shoes.
Hesitantly, she pulls out the chair just enough for her slight frame to slide into it. She twists her hands in her torn, sodden jacket and her eyes dart around the office. She nibbles on her lower lip, and bounces her knee in an anxious silence.
I lean back in my chair, folding my hands in my lap, and wait for her to say something—anything. Not for the first time, I imagine what her sweet voice might sound like. Eventually, her attention lands back on me and she opens her mouth for a brief moment, before thinking twice and closing it again. Frustrated that she has robbed me momentarily of the opportunity to finally hear her story, I decide to give her a break as fresh tears stream down her cheeks, drawing the black smears of her make-up further down the pale curves of her face.
“Detective,” Johnny says, coming up to my desk. His face is somber as he drops a familiarly thick file on my desk. “He’s back.”
I stare at the file on my desk, worn around the edges from years of handling. I hoped I would never see this file pulled out again. It may be my job to work homicide cases, but this one I want to shove into a drawer and forget about. “How long ago?” I ask, lifting the cover of the folder to gander at the crime scene photos I’ve seen a hundred times. I hear a sharp intake of breath and look up into her wide, frightened eyes as she stares at the disturbed scenes. I close the file to shield her from any more upsetting images.
“About two hours ago. The scene has been taped off and they’re waiting for you.” Johnny says.
I purse my lips, still gazing at the sunken beauty across from me. “I’ll meet you at the car.” I tell Johnny.
Johnny nods and walks away, off to pull the car around front.
Standing, I grab my hat and set it on my head while I make my way toward the door. I pause briefly beside her on my way out, and she looks up at me with such dread that I have to swallow a lump in my throat. “It’s best if you stay here. You can wait for me to get back, otherwise someone else will be capable of helping you with whatever you need.” I say to her.
She doesn’t move or make any acknowledgement as to what I said, she simply continues to gaze up at me like a lost kitten.
Not sure what to make of her, I give her a nod and leave, regretting every step I take away from her.
“It’s his typical M.O.” Johnny says, briefing me as we speed toward the scene. There are few cars on the road, but the flashing red light is still turned on to ensure no one slows us down.
“Victim?” I ask, pulling out a smoke and cracking the window. The car hits another bump and my match slips against the box, not getting enough friction to ignite. I give Johnny a sidelong glance and he just clears his throat, slowing down a little as we hit the next dip in the road.
“A girl—about twenty. She’s only got one prior, but it’s definitely his work.” Johnny says confidently.
I strike my match and inhale deeply as I light the tip of my cigarette, taking the smoke deep into my lungs. “How can you be so sure?” I had to make sure it was him. Not just any case was allowed in that file. Maybe this one was just a coincidence—or a copycat even.
Johnny shakes his head and slows to a stop just outside an alley behind a familiar Chinese restaurant on the East side of town. Both ends of the alley were taped off with a bright yellow barrier and flashing police lights danced across the brick walls. “It’s him. He did her body just like all the others.” He says, climbing out of the car.
I take another puff and open my door. The alley was narrow, only wide enough to fit a dumpster and the truck that picks it up. I follow behind Johnny as he leads the way through the other blue coats and the coroner filling out paper work. I glance at the young man in a white apron talking to one of the officers, giving his statement no doubt. He must have been the poor soul who found her.
Johnny stops a little ways off and gestures toward the ground. A camera flashes and he squints at the brightness as forensics does their best to capture the scene exactly as they found it.
I crouch down beside her and can’t help the exasperated puff of air that escapes my lips. I put my cigarette out in a little puddle of rainwater beside my shoes and try to rub the weariness from my face with both hands. I take a deep breath in and let it out slowly, letting my hands drop to rest on my bent knees. I want to tell Johnny he was wrong; I want to tell him this was just a deal gone badly and it wasn’t our guy, but I can’t. There is no denying the oh-so-familiar style that belongs only to him. I tilt my head and look at the body from every angle I can without moving from my spot.
She was dead before he flung her down on the wet pavement. Her body lay crumpled on the ground, one leg bent under her at an awkward angle with her torso twisted in an unnatural position that only could have happened from being dropped that way. Her cheek is bruised and slightly cut from the impact where it had hit the tiny rocks on the street; he threw her down with a lot of force to cause that kind of injury. The red marks around her neck show the tell-tale signs of strangulation, and the bloody, broken fingernails prove that she fought back. “Well honey, you tried to get away, but it just didn’t work out.” I mutter to myself, taking in her torn jacket and broken heel. I’ll never understand why women wear those stupid things. They’re a death trap.
I take a pen out of my coat pocket and used the tip to lift a corner of her sodden jacket. “Shit.” I cover my face with my hand and groan. “Where are they?” I ask, lifting my head to look at Johnny.
His face went white and he shifts his feet, looking down at the pavement before tilting his head. He clears his throat and glances over at the two, neat piles a few feet from her head. “They, uh, they’re right over there. He left a new list, too.” He says, his voice as shaky as his legs.
I let her jacket fall back down and stand up, craning my neck to peer over her limp curls. “Shit.” I curse again. If those two piles, so perfectly arranged, hadn’t been there I could have said this was a mugging, a crime of passion, anything else but him. But no, there they were—complete with his list—his signature calling card. I walk toward the piles and size them up. One pile consisted of neatly folded women’s clothing. A light pink sweater, a brown plaid skirt, a pair of brown stockings, and a pair of brown, sensible, flat-heeled shoes. Classy. The list was pinned to the sweater on the top of the pile with a pair of women’s glasses resting beside it. “Let’s see what he chose for you,” I say, crouching down. I glance over at the other pile and suppress a shiver.
“Para legal, librarian, secretary, assistant, filing clerk—they’re all nice office jobs he picked.” Johnny says, gesturing toward the list.
I nod my head and look back at her body. My eyes slide over the young woman and I try to imagine her out of those outrageous heels, that sodden jacket and into this classic ensemble he chose for her. I try to picture her without the heavy black eye-makeup running down her lifeless cheeks and with a smile on her lips. I can see what he must have saw. She would have been well suited for office work.
Now, it doesn’t really matter. She’d stain the sweater red if she tried to put it on. My eyes flick over to the second pile. It was just as neatly stacked as the first, but far more upsetting in its contents. He had layered the small intestine on the ground first, followed by the large, then her lungs, her stomach, her liver, and then her heart. They stacked so perfectly—just like a pile of folded clothes. It was almost as if they were accessories he left for her to pick and choose from, like jewelry or a pair of women’s glasses.
“Why does he do it that way?” Johnny asks, his voice soft so the others milling about the scene won’t hear him.
I stand up and return to my spot beside him. I light up another cigarette and take a long drag. I stare at the pile of organs, rubbing the butt of my cigarette across my lips. I see Johnny turn toward the car out of the corner of my eye and realize he had been waiting for my reply. “It’s so he can weigh and measure them.”
Johnny stops and looks at me, his young face twisted in confusion. “Measure them for what?” He asks.
I inhale deeply and feel the smoke burn my throat and lungs in an almost unbearable discomfort that makes me feel alive. I turn away from her and head back to the car, Johnny following behind me. I slide into the front seat and flick the ash from my cigarette before answering.
“For their final judgement.”
It’s raining again, but it doesn’t bother me. I stand outside the precinct, my hat low over my eyes as I smoke another cigarette. Whenever we get a new case file on him, one smoke doesn’t cut it. Whatever resolution I have to quit goes out the window and I find myself going through a pack a night. Oh well. It hasn’t killed me yet. The rain drizzles around me, the molding on the building providing a small lip that keeps me dry. Johnny had parked the car and gone inside ages ago, which is why I knew it was only a matter of time before she came to find me. I took another drag and shook my head. I felt her standing beside me rather than hear her this time, the noise from inside drowning out the click of her broken heels.
“Anubis,” I say even though she didn’t ask. “That’s what we call him. He’s been performing his last rites on victims for fifteen years.” I’m met with silence so I glance over at her and let out a breath of smoke.
She shakes her head and tears drip from her chin and fall with the rain. “Why?” She mouths soundlessly.
Guiltily, I look away from her. I wish I had an answer that would make her feel better—but I don’t.
“Wasted potential.” I sniff, rubbing my nose which is cold from the rain. We stand in silence after that, watching my cigarette burn down in the early morning darkness.
“Detective, the body was identified,” Johnny pokes his head out of the front doors, grabbing my attention.
“Name?” I ask. Taking a long, deep drag.
He flips open the file in his hands and reminds himself of the victim’s identity. “Her name is Anna Fields.”
I give a nod and he heads back into the precinct. I blow the smoke out slowly, pursing my lips and making a smoke ring that dissolves in the wet air. I snuff out my cigarette on the side of the building and drop the butt onto the pavement. I look up at her standing frigid on the front steps waiting for me. “Alright Anna, let’s go back inside,” I say and open the door.
The picture becomes clearer as I flip through the file. I look up at her where she sits across from me at my desk. Age: 23; hair color: dark brown; eye color: dark brown; last known residence: Queens, NY. She ran away at fifteen. She lived with her older, half-sister until she was nineteen, then her sister kicked her out so her boyfriend could move in, instead. That’s when Anna came to Brooklyn. She had only a few hundred dollars to her name—which was enough to find a room to rent but not much else.
Anna shifts uncomfortably in her chair. She wraps her coat tighter around her and pulls her knees up to her chest, curling into a ball on the wooden seat.
“Why did you come to Brooklyn, Anna?” I ask her, my voice low and my nose still buried in her file.
She shrugs and peeks at me over her knees. “Where else was I going to go?” Her voice is soft and hesitant—like a water soaked mouse addressing the cat who saved it.
“You could have gone anywhere from Queens.” I sigh, flipping the page.
“With what? I had no money, no family, and no connections. A girl I met on the streets when I was fifteen said she was heading here because there were jobs. That’s all I had to go on, and I had just enough for a bus ticket.”
I nod my head. “That must have been the first night you were here.”
Her brow furrows and she lets her feet slide off the edge of the chair and fall to the floor. “When?” she asked.
“The first time I saw you on that bus headed nowhere. You looked so unsure—like you didn’t belong. You didn’t belong on that bus.”
Her eyes narrow and her glare is fierce. “You have been watching me since then?”
I nod my head once.
“Do you know how creepy that is?” She spits.
I lift my eyes and fix her with my gaze for the first time since getting her file. “You always smiled back. No one on that bus ever acknowledges anyone.”
Shaking her head she scoffs and lets out a harsh laugh. “I smiled because some creepy old guy was always watching me when I boarded an empty bus. If that nice stripper lady was riding, I always sat near her because she eased the tension.”
I frown and let the file close. “That’s why you sat by her?”
Anna scoffs. “Hell yeah. You freaked me out—for good reason. That first time I boarded the bus it was just the two of you, and you didn’t blink. You just stared at me. When she smiled at me, I felt better because she obviously rode the bus with you frequently and she was okay.”
I shake my head. No. That couldn’t be right. She knew me. She knew I would protect her. She must have sensed that I would save her from a life of destitute. She could be so much more than what she was settling for. I saw the look between her and the old stripper, I knew she thought that was going to be her ticket to a comfortable life. She smiled at me because she wanted me to save her. So I did. “What about when you got arrested?”
She blows air out between her lips. “What? That time I was giving my boyfriend a hand job in a parking lot?”
I shake my head. “He paid you for it. You don’t need to lie to me, I saw the case file.” When I pulled that case file I knew it was her first step down a path to nowhere. She’d be riding that bus for the rest of her days if someone didn’t intervene.
Anna tossed her head back and gave a loud, humorless laugh. “That wasn’t payment for the hand job. That was rent money. I covered for him the previous month and he was paying me back. You cops are all alike. You see a poor couple in a car late at night and assume I’m turning tricks.”
“You do work at a bar off Myrtle Avenue.”
“So what, I’m automatically a hooker for that?” She bites.
I shake my head and take a deep breath in. “No, but we watch that area closely. We’ve caught several women prostituting near there.” I defend.
“You sound just like that square officer who interrogated me. No, I’m not a whore. It was just bad timing.” She sneers.
I glance at her, letting my eyes go up and down her figure—taking in her choice of clothing and make-up, all of which was now torn, soaking wet, and running down her cheeks. “Then why do you dress like that? That skirt is a little too short, those heels a little too tall, and you’ve got an awful lot of make-up on for just working at a bar.”
Anna sneered and pulled her skirt down her thigh a little more. “It’s called making tips. Besides, I wasn’t just working tonight. A few girl friends and I went out after my shift to celebrate; one of them got engaged. Didn’t you ever go out when you were younger? Were you ever younger? You look like you’ve been fifty for the last ten years, old man.”
I ignore her quip about my age—I do feel like I’ve been fifty for the last ten years, but in my line of work the stress will do that to you. I’m not sure why she’s lying to me, she has no reason to lie to me now. I know she was brought in on charges of prostitution. I flip open the file again and read her arrest record.
“Yeah, read it again sweetheart. Charges for prostitution were dismissed. We still had to deal with the whole public lewdness thing, but that was it.” She squares her shoulders and tightens her jaw.
I review the case and she is right. It had been updated after I initially skimmed it. Still, she knew I was a detective. She smiled at me because she recognized me. I know she did. That’s how she asked me to help her; she knew I could.
“So you were just a waitress?” I ask her.
She nods and purses her lips. “Yup. I was just a waitress.” A tear slips down her cheek and she juts out her jaw as she tries to hold the rest back. “I don’t get it. Why? Why did Anubis do this?” She asks, shaking her head.
A lump forms in my throat and I drum my fingers on the desk, itching for a smoke. My voice is steady when I answer her. I keep it void of emotion—hollow, factual. “Anubis selects his victims based on those he believes have wasted their potential.”
She sits silently, her eyes flicking around the room as her mind works to process my simple answer. Her lips part, opening and closing without words. “I just smiled.” She whimpers.
My eyebrows drew together in confusion. Of course she smiled. That’s how I knew. “What do you mean you ‘just smiled’?”
Anna’s eyes lock onto mine and the tears flow hot and heavy down her face. Her chest rises with each breath she draws in and her gazes burns me. “I only smiled. That was my crime. I smiled to avoid an awkward situation. Wasted potential? What the fuck does Anubis know? I was making my rent. I was making enough tips to buy food. My boyfriend and I had problems, but we were working through them. I had more than I ever had in my life. I had enough that I could go out with my friends for a night and not worry about eating the next day or where I was going to be staying. Wasted?”
Standing up she leans over the desk until her nose almost touches mine. “WASTED? I wasted nothing! I fought! I was building myself up the best that I could. I didn’t have any breaks. I didn’t finish high school, I had no other education. That list? That fucking list of jobs? That’s what would have been filling my potential?” She pauses and shakes her head. She straightens and pulls on her hair, her eyes closing at what should have been a comforting sting.
“My job isn’t my potential. Riding the last bus to Brooklyn wasn’t my potential. I am so much more than those things. They do not define me and what I am capable of; neither does my short skirt, my too tall heels, or my heavy eye make-up. Potential takes time, and mine was stolen from me.” She screams. Her voice quivers with agony and pain.
My nails dig into the wood of the desk. I need a cigarette. Pushing myself away from the desk I bolt for the door. The crisp air hits my face like tiny needles. My hands shake as I try to light the cigarette in my mouth. It takes me three tries to get my match to strike.
She is right. She deserved more than that. She deserved to be more than a file on my desk, never to be solved. How could I have been so wrong? She wanted my help, didn’t she? That’s why she smiled. The dawn lights the sky and its soft rays feel like harsh judgement on my skin.
“Hey detective, end of your shift?” Henderson asks, walking up the steps to start his day.
I give him a courteous nod as he passes. “Not yet, but soon.” I inhale the nicotine deeply into my lungs and hold it there until it burns. The cigarette burns down too quickly and I find myself without distraction. I walk through the precinct slowly, dreading seeing her at my desk again—but when I reach my post she’s gone. Her file lays open where I left it, the pictures from the crime scene decorating the surface. The stack of secretarial clothing, her organs, the list. The pictures are silent, but the images are not.
Wasted potential. She could have been so much more. She should have been so much more. A smile. Her crime was a smile. A smile begging for help. A smile begging for more—at least, that’s what I had thought. Was I really that wrong? I close the folder and add it to the rest that belong to him. She will never get the closure she deserves. Neither of us will. I grab my hat and head back out into the cold, morning light.
“Have a good night, Johnny. Say ‘hi’ to the wife and kids for me,” I tell him as we pass each other on our way out.
He gives me a nod and carries on his way, heading toward the garage for the car.
I prefer to take the bus. I like to swim among the sea of vagabonds I bring to justice. I live among them, walk beside them, and watch them from the windows of an old bus while it ambles by. I take the same bus every morning, and every morning it’s the same familiar crew of characters who sit on board the half-full, silent bus. I climb the steps, my eyes scanning all the familiar faces.
“Rough night?” the middle-aged stripper asks me, just getting off her shift, as well.
I give the stripper a tight-lipped smile and look away. “You could say that,” I mutter. I hear a familiar clop down the aisle and turn to see Anna walk toward me. She doesn’t smile at me this time. She doesn’t smile at me ever again. She sits down beside me and looks at the stripper who had offered her comfort her first night, and every night up until her last.
“How are the kids?” I ask, swallowing the lump in my throat.
The stripper beams at me and adjusts her purse on her lap. “They’re good! Thanks for askin’. My sister should be droppin’ them off at school right about now on her way to work. That’ll give me just enough time to get some sleep before I pick them up and we go to the park. After all the rain last night, I hope it will be a sunny day,” she rambles.
I don’t care to listen. I turn away, gazing out the window as she continues to prattle on, avoiding the eyes I feel on my back. The bus comes to a halt and she stops talking, silence descending upon the crowded bus once more. After a minute, no one gets on. The bus driver looks down the sidewalk, checking to see if his regular was running down the block just a few minutes late. The streets and sidewalks were empty, so the driver shrugs and closes the door, continuing his route.
“Do you remember that young girl who used to get on at that stop?” the stripper asks, pulling my attention back to her.
I stiffen, my eyes gliding over that very girl who is seated beside me. “I recall a young woman once or twice. What of it?”
The stripper keeps her eyes on the door, not looking my way and lets out a sigh. “I haven’t seen her. She usually gets on at that stop. I hope she’s okay.”
“I’m sure she’s fine,” I say through pressed lips and a forced smile.
The stripper relaxes a little and smiles back at me. “You’re probably right. It’s the mother in me, I can’t help but to worry.”
A tear falls down Anna’s cheek but she remains silent. They all do.
I tap my fingers on my knee, scratching at the fabric of my slacks. I want to light up, but not here.
“I mean,” she continues despite my lack of attention, “it’s hard not to notice that she’s missing. Maybe she’s ill,” the stripper suggests.
Clearing my throat, I turn and address the woman, but I focus left of her face, my eyes staring into Anna’s. “What makes you say that?”
The stripper laughs and clutches her purse a little tighter, avoiding my eyes as she continues to watch the door. “Well dear, you and I are the only ones who ride this bus regularly. It’s noticeable when someone gets on, or off.”
One by one, I look at all the faces surrounding me. They each occupy a seat. They all sit silently. Distracted, they gaze out of windows or down at their hands. As I focus on each person, they turn and their eyes lock on to mine. A surge of familiarity rushes through me with each pair. He fought. He didn’t. She screamed. He cried. She gasped. He yelled. She smiled.
“Were they all wasting their potential, too?” Anna asks, gazing around at the company she had never seen before last night, but all of whom rode this bus.
The man in his thirties three rows up, window seat: he fought. His folder held three accounts of assault and battery charges. He could have been an athlete. He had had a scholarship for boxing at a state university. He turned it down, but kept fighting on the side in illegal rings.
“Maybe she just moved on. So many of them do, they never seem to ride this bus for very long. Just you and me,” the stripper rambles. Her knuckles are white as they clutch her bag and her jaw is tight as she watches the door.
The middle-aged man the row behind and adjacent to me, leaning against the wall of the bus: he didn’t fight. The market shifted and he lost all his stock. He lost his house, his wife, his job. He had an advanced degree, but he didn’t pick himself back up. He started conning people, giving them bad tips for a large fee; cashing out before they lost what little they had.
The bus slows to a stop and the stripper lets out a soft sigh. “Well, this is me. See you tomorrow,” she rushes off the bus with a wave over her shoulder.
The woman in her late twenties the seat in front of me: she screamed. She was brought in on charges of disturbing the peace and domestic abuse, and she had two prior accounts of hitting a minor, as well. She had screamed at her husband, waking up the neighbors, and was throwing things at him when the police arrived on scene. She gave him a black eye and broke two of his ribs because he wasn’t home on time. He couldn’t lift a hand to defend himself, the last time he had tried she claimed abuse and he spent thirty days in lock down.
I lean back in my seat and watch the stripper walk away until the bus pulls out and resumes its route.
“How long are you going to let her live?” Anna asks me.
I look around at all the other souls and let out a deep breath. He cried. She gasped. He yelled. She smiled. My nails pick at a loose thread in the weave of my pants and I swallow, trying to push down the lump in my throat. “She’s fulfilling her potential. She’s good to her kids.” I tell her.
She falls silent again until the bus gets to my stop.
The teenage boy near the driver: he cried. He ran away from home and started dealing drugs on the street. He targeted kids like him, and dealt near schools. He took what he dealt and would sit on the bus sobbing until his high wore off. He lost half his teeth and the color in his face until the drugs made his skin thin and gray.
I exit and I hear the clicking of her broken heels follow me. I climb up the flights of stairs to my dingy apartment, the rustle of their clothing behind me.
The middle-aged woman who dyed her hair: she gasped. She stepped off the curb too early in front of a cab. It only ran over her foot, but she gasped in pain and the settlement was hefty. Once the money ran out, she tried the same con again but was arrested for fraud: on three separate occasions.
I’ve seen the horrors one person is capable of committing when they unleash the monster within. I’ve worked too long in this profession to deny it any more. That kind of constant exposure to the darkness changes a man. He either hardens to the world in order to keep going, or he succumbs to it.
The man in his twenties, not much older than Anna: he yelled. He screamed at the bus driver for being late to his stop. He yelled at women walking down the street. He yelled at anyone who disagreed with him, or told him that he was wrong. He had a record of harassment—both verbal and physical—that was two pages long, yet he never seemed to learn. He ruined a promising law career and later a career in marketing.
I pull my curtains tight, shutting out the sun. Crawling into bed, I can hear their breathing filling the silent room. They file in and take their posts in the tiny space. I couldn’t have been wrong about all of them. They wasted their potential, I saw it night in and night out on that bus.
Anna takes her spot at the foot of my bed. I close my eyes, blocking them out. I was right to help them. They needed my help and I gave it to them. No longer were they fighting, crying, yelling, or screaming.
“You have been weighed,” Anna whispers in my ear. The weight of her hovers over me.
I shudder. No longer were they smiling.
“You have been measured,” her non-existent breath tickles my ear.
I surrendered to the darkness that lurks within every man. I had no choice, I’ve seen one too many good detectives fold at the barrel-end of their own service weapon—that wasn’t going to be me.
“You have been judged,” she hisses.
I like to swim among the sea of vagabonds I bring to justice. I am just like them. Potential wasted, chasing an illusion that will never be caught even as it stares me in the face.
“Your time will come, and when it does you will burn. We can wait, Anubis, we have no other potential left to fulfill.” She crawls back to her spot at the edge of my bed.
She tells me nothing I haven’t heard before. Seventeen times, in fact. I open my eyes and look at them all. Seventeen lives wasted. Seventeen who could have been so much more. Seventeen who got on the wrong bus to Brooklyn. The last bus to anywhere.
“I know,” I whisper to the empty room.
MY BROTHER AT THE CANADIAN BORDER
Sholeh Wolpé (From The Scar Saloon)
On their way to Canada in a red Mazda, my brother and his friend, PhDs and little sense, stopped at the border and the guard leaned forward, asked: Where you boys heading? My brother, WELCOME TO CANADA poster in his eyes replied: Mexico. The guard blinked, stepped back then forward, said: Sir, this is the Canadian border. My brother turned to his friend, grabbed the map from his hands, slammed it on his shaved head. You stupid idiot, he yelled, you’ve been holding the map upside down.
In the interrogation room full of metal desks and chairs with wheels that squeaked and florescent light humming, bombarded with questions, and finally: Race?
Stymied, my brother confessed: I really don’t know, my parents never said, and the woman behind the desk widened her blue eyes to take in my brother’s olive skin, hazel eyes, the blonde fur that covered his arms and legs. Disappearing behind a plastic partition, she returned with a dusty book, thick as War and Peace, said: This will tell us your race. Where was your father born? She asked, putting on her horn-rimmed glasses. Persia, he said. Do you mean I-ran?
I ran, you ran, we all ran, he smiled. Where’s your mother from? Voice cold as a gun. Russia, he replied. She put one finger on a word above a chart in the book, the other on a word at the bottom of the page, brought them together looking like a mad mathematician bent on solving the crimes of zero times zero divided by one. Her fingers stopped on a word. Declared: You are white.
My brother stumbled back, a hand on his chest, eyes wide, mouth in an O as in O my God! All these years and I did not know. Then to the room, to the woman and the guards: I am white I can go anywhere Do anything I can go to Canada and pretend it’s Mexico At last, I am white and you have no reason to keep me here.