“Two patties please.”
I tell myself I’ll avoid grabbing any this time, but it is a tradition now. I get my haircut at the spot three stores down, then stop in here before getting the bus home.
“2.50,” the clerk says.
His face says he is in his fifties, but the hunched back makes him seem older. His movements are slow and I feel a pang of guilt for forcing him to move more.
I give him a $5 bill and he gives the change back before turning to the rack holding the patties. Normally I focus on the patties, pointing out the ones that look the fattest. This time, my eyes go to the clerk’s back.
His shirt is gone. The red fabric that was there just a few seconds ago has disappeared as if he’d never been wearing it. His bareback is facing me: dark skin marked with deep lashes running down the back.
They were whip marks. I’ve never seen any in-person. History books were my only reference, but they were unmistakable. Some ran across, some ran up and down, like a macabre tic-tac-toe table.
Some were older than others. They were now keloid scars, forming thick ridges on the flesh. Others were new cuts, showing pink flesh underneath. As I focused on the fresh ones, they started to bleed, running down the clerk’s back and hitting his pants and shoes.
Maybe that’s what he says, maybe my mind made that part up. I started running for the bus stop.
It has a bench and I collapse onto it, feeling my stomach turning. The heat was bearing down. I could see heat waves shimmering above the pavement.
I close my eyes, hoping the darkness could help settle my stomach. Everything feels real, but it can’t be.
I’m on autopilot when the bus pulls up. The design is retro, with a simple grey metal exterior and a flat front. When I get on, the design looked like every other bus I’ve taken, except for a sign at the back.
There are four Black people at the back, all about my age. They’re in their twenties but were dressed like they were eighty. Instead of caps they were wearing wide-brimmed hats. They had old, short-sleeved dress shirts tucked into khakis. Their dress shoes reminded me of what my grandpa wore to church.
The one in the middle spoke, but the others were all staring at me. Their clothes were back to normal now. Jeans, T-shirts, Adidas, Nike.
I take a seat ahead of them, ahead of where the seating sign was. Ten minutes, that’s all it would take to get home.
I look out the window, focusing on the sky. The feel and sound of the bus’s air-conditioning is exactly what I need to relax. I slump back in my chair, closing my eyes.
The people at the back of the bus are still talking, but quietly, and I drown them out. I have peace for a short while before I hear something else.
It’s coming from outside. It sounds like the distant hum of construction; drills and hammers toiling away at something.
Opening my eyes shows that the source of the sound wasn’t distant. It is twenty feet away from me and makes my mouth go dry.
A chain is dragging against the pavement, tied around the ankles of three Black people being led by a white one. The white man looks to be in his fifties, bearded, sweaty and wearing black dress pants and a stained white shirt. The stains formed big brown blotches on his stomach, and something told me they were bloodstains. He has a whip in his right hand, while he holds the chains in the other.
The youngest Black person is a child, no more than ten. The oldest is probably the white man’s age. They are naked, with their necks shackled just like their ankles were.
My stomach starts to turn again. My heart goes from beating slowly to beating so fast that I feel like I’ll suffocate.
The child trips, bringing down the others with him. The slave master stumbles but regains his balance and looks back at the culprit. By the time he raises his whip I am keeled over in my seat, trying not to vomit. Dry heaves follow, but nothing comes up.
I hear the whip landing and I hear a child scream. I hazard a look back up, only to see an older white man giving a Black child a hug. The older Black man had his arm around the woman next to him, the child appeared to be theirs.
The bus drives off from the intersection and I wipe the sweat off my face with my sleeves.
It’s the driver this time.
“I’m fine.” I take a quick look at the intersection. I am only a few blocks away from home now.
I run off the bus at the next stop and don’t stop running once I hit the sidewalk. I’m running full speed, hoping to get home and shut the outside world out.
The bus’s engine roars as it passed me. My peripheral vision shows it looking older again. I pass by a diner on the way, with a sign that says “Colored Entrance” hanging over one of its doors.
I lower my gaze, keeping it on the street.
The crosswalk has its “Do Not Walk” sign on, and stopping only makes me realize how out of shape I am. I savour the moment and get my breath back, quelling another wave of nausea washing over me.
The stoplight to my left is turning amber and two cars stop beside me. One of them is a Mustang, one of my favourites. It looks like an older one, truly retro instead of something trying to copy that aesthetic. Behind the wheel sits another man with a wide-brimmed hat, with Coke bottle glasses.
He is staring right at me with a look I’ve seen from passersby, bouncers and cops. A look that holds anger and contempt in equal measure.
The car’s engine idles loudly, distracting me from the footsteps around me until they are close. I look behind and see three white men dressed in white shirts and black dress pants. Each had signs draped over their shoulders. Two say “Race Mixing is Communism” and the third says “I Won’t Send My Children to School With Negroes.”
History books are coming to life again, but I don’t want to acknowledge them. I turn around, but the man in the Mustang is out of his car now, leaving his vehicle sitting in the middle of the road.
Other cars are pulling up behind him. They are all older models that would stand out on any highway in this day and age. None of them honked. They all come to a stop and their owners get out too. Some come from behind the Mustang, some come from across the street. More were coming from my left.
The cars block the intersection and some pull up on the sidewalk, blocking any way out.
I close my eyes for a few seconds and reopen them, seeing the horde pulling in closer.
“We bleed through trickle by trickle, killing you one by one.”
There are at least fifty people surrounding me. The voice sounds like it’s coming from behind, but I don’t bother trying to find the speaker. Something I see in the hands of one of the horde steals my attention away: a rope.
I start pushing through the crowd, only to feel icy hands grip me by the shoulders and pull me down.
Feet and fists follow, hitting me in the face, stomach, legs, ribs; anything they could reach.
“We bleed through trickle by trickle, killing you one by one.”