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“Graduation Day”

On his way to graduation, Tion encounters an occurrence at the subway that most young Black men experience– a run-in with police.

12 min read

Shattering glass echoes in my ears, snapping my head up from my phone. Right across the street, the front window of Diaz’s Deli— the neighborhood bodega—lays in glistening shambles on the hot sidewalk. The store alarm blares out catching the attention of bystanders who simply stop, stare, and ultimately keep on their way. I hold my growling stomach as my plan to grab a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich before graduation derails.

The June sun beats down on my crinkled forehead as I watch four guys, my age or younger, speed recklessly out of the corner store, arms filled with bags of chips, soda bottles, and candy– most of it spilling to the ground. Mr. Diaz, the shop owner, runs out after them in a bright yellow shirt and his signature beige fedora swinging his aluminum baseball bat all around. Spanish curse words fly out his mouth like heat-seeking missiles missing their marks. However, he’s too slow to catch up to the young bandits who disappear past the body shop.

Mr. Diaz stops in a huff, walks back, and shakes his head at his ruined business.

This is the third time this month, and sadly, probably not the last.

The incoming 6 train roars above my head, snapping me out of my frustrated thoughts. I turn and run toward the steps of the elevated station to catch my train, but my fitted suit restrains my speed. The steps rumble under my hard-bottom shoes as I zip up, two at a time. My MetroCard swipes smoothly through the turnstiles that lead me up another set of steps.

“Stand clear of the closing doors.”

I chase the faint robotic voice up, sprinting even faster, only to catch the train as it pulls out of the station, leaving an empty platform.

“Nooo!” I shout, slowing to a halt, and exhale deeply.

As I move to the middle of the deserted platform, I peer back for the next train. “This just ain’t my day.”

Both the Uptown and Downtown platforms are barren. Car horns and tire screeches echo from the traffic below the train tracks, filling the emptiness. Another train is set to come in 4 minutes according to the digital sign that’s right on occasion.

Music should help turn my morning around. Moving my bag off my back, I unzip it and dig through for my headphones, pushing around my acceptance and scholarship letters, and dropping wallet in. My cap and ironed gown sit neatly folded at the bottom.

I laugh to myself, replaying Mom’s threatening words in my head:

“If I see any wrinkles when you walk down the aisle, Imma whoop your ass as soon as you get your diploma.”

Only she can threaten me on an important day like today.

The cushion headphones squeeze over my ears. I drop my bag down on top of my freshly polished shoes and swipe through my graduation playlist for the right song to set me back on track. My lips curl up as I tap on the perfect song.

“All I do is win, win, win, no matter what…”

My head bops and foot taps to the melodic beat. As time passes and the song comes to an end, my foot goes from tapping on beat to shaking agitatedly when there is no train in sight.

“I should have taken a cab when Dad offered.”

A swift blur zips past me, sinking my heart into my stomach. I stumble back as my eyes move between the shadow disappearing at the end of the platform to a bag of nacho Doritos and a pack of Skittles that fall and bust open on the ground in front of me.

“What the hell?” I squat down and pick the broken bag of chips. The blur was one of the store bandits. “Seriously? For a bag of chips.”

I shake my head and toss it back to the ground. More orange crumbs spill out.

“Hold it right there!” My squatted body shudders at the harsh voice that booms in my ears. “Don’t move!”

A white male cop stands by the staircase with his eyes locked on me. His bald head and damp flushed face glisten in the hot sun as he slowly moves forward. His brown eyes widen with every step and nostrils flare like a bull in attack mode. My racing heart beats in my ears like a drum. Fear wobbles in my knees making it hard to keep my balance and stamps out the urge to run the opposite way.

“I was only looking at the stuff this guy–” I start, slowly raising back upright.

“Hey, hey. I said don’t move!” The cop stops, steadily bringing his right arm to his side. “Wanna tell me where you got that stuff from?”

“I was saying, this guy ran past me and dropped them, sir.”

“Oh really? So, you weren’t in the corner store that just got vandalized?” He moves closer to me, only leaving a few feet between us. There’s a look in his wide, unblinking glare that triggers something in me.

“Why? Cause I’m Black?” My jaw clenches so tight, a vein pulsates in my neck.

His snarling face scans me from head to toe. Not even a minute has passed, and this cop has put together his own narrative about me.

“Look, man, I don’t have time for this,” I say, dropping my hands. “The person you’re looking for went that way, sir.” I swing my arm to the end of the platform where the bandit vanished down the other staircase.

An indistinct voice calls over the cop’s walkie on his belt through the scratchy radio frequencies. Keeping his eyes on me, he clicks it off. A sinking feeling grows in my stomach.

“Let me see your ID,” he says, reaching his left hand out.

“For what, sir? I didn’t do anything!” The fiery words rush out my mouth without control and echo in the station walls, surprising myself as well as the cop.

He snatches his holstered piece quicker than my eyes can catch and aims it point-blank at me. “Gimme your fucking ID!”

My hands automatically lift above my head, and my body shudders. My chest tightens from the air trapped in my lungs. I do my best to remain as calm as possible like Dad taught me when I was only 10 years old.

“I will get my ID once you lower your weapon, sir,” I say in an easy tone. “I don’t feel comfortable moving,”

“Get your fucking ID, boy!”

The degrading word burns in my chest like acid, but I gulp down my fury.

“My wallet is in my backpack on the ground beside me, sir.”

The cop shifts his eyes to my bag down on the ground then back at me, never moving his gun.

“Get it– slowly.”

I bring my hands down with ease, taking in a small breath, and move back slowly. With every stride, my stomach grows weaker and the urge to throw up grows stronger. “Officer, one of the guys in that store ran past here moments ago with those items. He is who you are looking for.” I kneel beside my backpack.

“I didn’t ask for your account. I asked for your ID, boy! Get the fucking ID.” Tacky pieces of spit shoot out from his mouth and hang from his lips.

I slowly place both hands on my bag while keeping my eyes on the agitated cop. I grip the zipper with my right hand and pull it across slowly, stopping halfway.

“Officer, I am going to reach in and grab it.”

He nods. The hand holding the gun begins to shake sending a chill over my hot skin.

I reach in the bag and grab for the leathery square. When I pull, something snags onto it keeping it trapped down. I coolly tug, keeping aware of any quick movements that will make the cop uneasy, but it won’t loosen up.

“Come on, come on,” I mutter and shake a bit harder.

“Hurry the hell up,” he yells.

“I’m trying, sir. It’s stuck.”

With one hard tug, the wallet releases from the grips of the bag. My arm heaves out fast, tossing the wallet into the air.

BANG! BANG! BANG!

Three piercing shots ring out and echo off the surrounding buildings.

My body falls and curls up on the ground. I shake uncontrollably, holding my left arm across my face. My jagged breaths fill my ears loud and quick. In and out. In and out.

I remain still until my brain decides if I’m alive or not. After a second, I move my trembling hand from across my face and onto the warm wetness running down my leg.

Am I bleeding?

Looking down, a dark wet stain covers the crotch of my navy pants. Urine burns my nostrils. My quivering lips part, letting out a sigh of relief.

I glare up to the officer still holding the gun out over me between his stiff hands. His bulging eyes stare down at me in a daze. Smoke trails off the muzzle of his gun.

The incoming train rumbles in the distance, growing nearer with each tense second.

 

Smooth air flows in my lungs, fanning the flames of my anger, and circulating blood back through me. He was ready to kill me off of one botched movement that startled him. Despite being unarmed, dressed in a suit, and telling him what I witnessed, all he sees is a threat in me. Pushing myself up on my forearms, my body jolts forward, and I shout.

“What the fuck is wron—”

BANG.

I stand over my lifeless body, watching as if it’s a movie.

A pool of deep red blood swells under me, absorbing into my crisp white shirt, and spills over the yellow platform edge onto the tracks. My barren open eyes stare into the clear sky. The overwhelming sight dries my mouth.

I look to the cop who looks around, scanning his surroundings for witnesses then lets out a deep breath. He grabs the walkie from his belt, bringing it to his lips as the train rushes into the station like a rocket.

“SHOTS FIRED! SHOTS FIRED! Suspect is down.”

Hard footsteps advance behind him, snapping the cop around. He quickly raises his gun in his trigger-ready hand in the direction of the staircase where his partner emerges.

A horrified look covers the young officer’s dark skin as he peers down at my body beside the feet of his anxious partner.

“What the hell happened?” His partner asks in an uncertain tone.

The cop’s eyes move between his partner and my body appearing to float in a red pool. Securing the gun back in his holster, he approaches his apprehensive partner.

“I feared for my life,” he says in a flat tone and continues past him.

The young officer scowls and looks back at the cop.

“What did you just say?” His irate voice eerily mimics my own.

A sudden flash of blinding white light washes out the horror movie, causing my eyes to shut. The sound of my heartbeat returns to my ears. My eyes peer open and sunlight seeps in. The cop’s sinister face goes from a blur to a crystal clear focus.

Trapped air expels from my chest as I consider my living, breathing state.

 

“I said hurry the hell up!” The cop’s harsh voice confirms I am, in fact, still alive.

I look down to the floor where I kneel with my hand inside my bag, realizing that fearful and fatal occurrence was all in my head.

“I’m, uh, tr-trying, sir,” I say and begin to tug. “It’s stuck.”

After one hard yank, the wallet loosens. My arm hoists up fast, tossing the wallet into the air. I tumble to the ground, slamming onto my left hip just as I had foreseen. Immediately, I throw my trembling hands back up in the air for him to see and shut my eyes, fearing my fateful vision.

Quick footsteps in the distance click in my ears.

“Officer, Officer! Hold your fire,” a voice yells. I open my eyes and spot a young Black officer approaching us. He reaches out, pushing down the arm of the cop with his gun on me.

My shoulders slump, folding my body over, and hands drop flat to the gritty floor. My muscles quiver as relief washes through me.

The armed cop yanks away from his partner and steps within inches of his face, bumping into his chest.

“He is a suspect!”

“We have all the suspects downstairs,” the arriving officer says, calmly. He looks at his furious partner with an unflinching expression. “I called on the radio.”

The armed cop breathes deeply through his nose as he looks back at me on the ground. He places his gun in his holster, looks back to his partner, and heads down the station stairs.

My body ignores my brain telling me to get up. Instead, my head looks up to the young officer walking over to me. His eyes hang heavy and chest heaves with anguish.

“It’s all right. You’re okay,” he says, reaching out his hand.

My lips quiver as the sight of the passive officer blurs from the tears brimming in my eyes. Slowly, I reach my hand up and lock on to his. He pulls me up to my feet with a firm grip.

The platform vibrates under us as the overdue train rolls in the distance. The officer reaches down beside me and picks up my backpack. My lustrous blue graduation gown crumples out of the side.

“Are you graduating today?”

My mouth is too dry and throat too tight to speak. I nod and look away, sniffing back my despair. The train rushes into the station, blowing the tears out of my eyes and down my face.

The officer sighs and places his hand gently on my shoulder. A small smile struggles onto his lips that melts away just as quickly. He opens his mouth for a moment then closes it. He pushes down my gown, zips up the bag, and hands it back to me.

“Good luck out there, son.”

************

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Samantha Guzman

Samantha is a New York designer by day, and a fiction writer by subway commute, lunch, and night. With two featured short stories, Yzabella and Visibly Invisible, Samantha captures the raw and unique experiences of Black and Latinx people through a fictional and sometimes fantastical lens. She creates impactful and relatable characters of color, reflecting real life ordeals that often go unnoticed in the world. When Samantha is not writing or designing, you can find her most likely binge-watching sci-fi and fantasy shows on Netflix.