Shoulders huddle together, enclosing two boys inside a jagged circle. Shouts and laughter is heard down the hall. Bodies shuffle with heads turned, ignoring the event taking place in the center of the ring, blocking the gym, out of sight, out of mind. The huddled mass of students becomes the focal point of Marco’s eyes. He watches, processing every minute of the abuse taking place before him and the other students, onlookers frozen in space, unsure how to react. Some join in, chanting and jeering; others stare, inactive robots waiting to be powered on. The profane words spewing out of the mouths of the others around the two boys only add to the torment coming from within the circle, a virus attacking the nucleus.
“Why don’t you just drop out of school and help your dad mow lawns. I know you all are good at that, right,” the stout boy says, sending a punch to the gut of his target. “Look at that. Brown is down.” The stout boy spits on the boy lying on the floor. “Next time, watch where you’re walking, you idiot. Yea, go ahead and cry. Waa waa. You don’t even belong here so why don’t you swim back across the river,” he says with a smile that goes from ear to ear, the Cheshire Cat with his devious grin.
Marco and the others continue staring unmoved by the words and the beating that transpired before their eyes. Shame fills his lungs as the beating of his heart intensifies. He wants somebody to do something; he wants to say something. But he stays rooted in his position like everyone else around the two boys. The rapid scattering of feet and disbursement of the circle snaps Marco out of his trance; someone finally called a teacher.
Certain moments define us, for every action, there is a reaction; for every inaction, a ripple in the cosmos. As a young boy, Marco rarely thought of the color of his skin or his heritage. He was born in America, so—to him—he was an American; he was able to blend in with the crowd. Not many kids teased him in school because there was someone always more different, less than he was. What he was witnessing, though, was what most kids thought of as normal. The boy left huddled, clutching his stomach, was just a typical case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, a mantra the halls of the school would repeat throughout the years.
The feelings that arose when witnessing the suffering left in the aftermath disturbed him. Will this be another ghost to haunt his soul, he thinks. The ghosts would manifest over the years, and they would return to this moment, watching the abuse children are capable of, frozen with guilt and fear.
Middle school is tough, especially if you’re the outsider, the different one. These differences don’t go away, though. When you’re younger, you see the world through a different lens, not rose-colored but still tinted, blinding you from reality. The images and events we hold onto have an impact on who we become, hidden agendas pushing us towards an unseen outcome. The transition from middle school to high school and then into adulthood intensifies these memories, tattooed in the unconscious.
The ghosts appear like a fleeting thought, bound to disturb him, to paralyze him. It happens fast, and in those moments, he stays struck with fear, struck with guilt. He’s rummaging through the aisles of a convenience store, after walking home from school; cafeteria food never satisfies his stomach.
With his hands full of sweets and starches, he walks over to the counter. Two guys stand in front of him, one wearing a green jacket and the other one wearing a gunmetal grey thermal with a red cap. Green jacket turns around and gives Marco a glance, then taps his friend on the shoulder, nodding his head in Marco’s direction. His face is unmistakable, John Reeves, a senior and a football player (not a star player, but the entitlement shines through his personality, an aura entrancing those around him).
The words John is saying aren’t apparent at first, but Marco realizes what is going on; the store is operated and owned by David Kim, a man of Korean descent but a second-generation American and a lover of basketball. The words spewing out of John’s mouth are not the same friendly words Marco uses to converse with Mr. Kim when he visits the store on his usual walks home from school.
“Hey, chink, who do you think we are? Just give us the cigarettes. It’s our right to be able to buy whatever we want. This is America. Or did you forget that being stuck in the boat over here,” John says while slapping his friend’s shoulder.
Mr. Kim is frozen and so is Marco. Marco wants to intervene, but the ghost in his mind invokes a paroxysm of fear over him. Besides, these guys are just jerks, right? Marco is sure Mr. Kim deals with detestable behavior all the time, he must be used to it.
“What, you got no words to say. Cat got your tongue?” John says, letting out a chortle.
“Na, man, they eat cats, that’s what I hear,” Red cap says.
“Whatever, let’s get out of here. This prick doesn’t know how to respect people, much less this country. My grandfather fought for our freedom, fought for you to be able to work over here,” John says, grabbing his cash off the counter and stuffing it in his pocket, as if he was a child upset his parents wouldn’t let him have a new toy.
The two boys walk out the door, the ding snaps Marco into reality. He doesn’t know what to say, so he just places his items on the counter. Mr. Kim rings him up, his hands shaking, not out of fear but of anger and pity. Mr. Kim will get past this moment—this wasn’t the first, and it will not be the last—but for Marco, another ghost set to inhabit his soul further down the road. Marco looks at Mr. Kim in the eye, a haunting glow casts over him. Marco pays and exits without saying a word.
Time is supposed to heal all wounds, but there are some so deep only scabs form, waiting for the right moment to be picked at, to open the wound once more. Over the years, Marco would encounter more situations when these wounds would open. He never took much thought to them, for his body would always freeze at the sight of the phantoms that manifested. It wasn’t fear that made him freeze; it was the loss of pride. He was made to feel less than even though he wasn’t being tormented directly. In some way, he felt a connection with the people being attacked, but he couldn’t bring himself to stand up for them; inaction was easier to accomplish.
Marco was working at a Pizza Hut during college when one of his coworkers, Claudia, was being teased, her Spanish accent an unwelcome mark. Claudia was taking an order over the phone, and when she repeated the order back to the customer, there was a noticeable issue; she had to repeat herself four times, and with every repeat, she talked a bit slower, stressing syllables trying to rid herself of her accent. As soon as she hung up the phone, two male coworkers, both blond haired, both blue eyed, were staring at her; one was whispering to the other with a smile. They repeated the phrase Claudia said with high pitch voices and did their best to make her sound like a cheesy Mexican cartoon character. She stood there, unsure how to take the mocking.
Marco had enough, though, he couldn’t stand by any longer. This wasn’t just an attack on her, but him as well and the others that worked with him who were not seen as equal. It was the time for action, so he steps forward and clears his throat. The words roll off his tongue, but nothing comes out. Ghosts have a way of disrupting moments of clarity, moments of integrity.
“Oh look, the raza sticks together,” one of the coworkers says, stressing the syllables in an attempt to purify the word. Marco shut his mouth, and the others around them did nothing; some just went about their duties, not wanting to be a part of the whole situation. There would be no restitution for Marco or Claudia or any other person of color that day, even the manager just told them to get back to work, unmoved by the unconstitutional act.
Marco would do his best to move on from that incident, another specter waiting for the right moment to paralyze him with shame. All of these events preyed through the shadows of his mind, and when it came time to reflect upon these situations, he felt complicit in the intolerance. Fighting for his right to be him—to live in the color of his skin and be proud of his heritage—was put on the back burner; he witnessed enough negative conduct to justify not standing up, to justify not telling the aggressors they are wrong.
Differences pervade just about any society, and, unfortunately, some are more praised than others, and in many cases, they are used as a way to subjugate others. Marco had his share of missed opportunities, which he was certain were fueled by bias; bias against who he was seen as, not American, not White enough. He wouldn’t stand up in those situations either. His wife questioned him about his inaction to stand up for himself but didn’t know how to explain it to her. Everything that he has experienced has told him to not act. The ghosts mocked him and troubled him, motivating him to do nothing.
Inaction is something people resort to in a moment of crisis, in a moment of intolerance. They put the responsibility of justice on others, for who are they to enact such a cause. The ghosts of persecution also pervade their mind, ceasing any want to help those in need.
Inequality is a reality, but it doesn’t always have to be. This is something Marco failed to realize all these years. He never felt he had a stake in the outcomes of defeating any disparities that were subjected to him or others around him. People with privilege always got the final say, so it seemed to Marco. The ghosts that formed in his mind would agree with that statement, but staring at the video of his son being tormented and not one person acting changed his attitude.
The jagged circle of kids dispersing and the teacher approaching the commotion didn’t bring him hope, though. He knows now this persecution would continue, and it will not stop unless he confronts the phantoms plaguing him. The feeling in his gut sunk low—somehow, he feels karma caught up to him. All his life, he has been living down those moments of inaction, and here it is, staring him in the face with his son clutching his stomach.
In that instant, he chooses to face the ghosts of the past; there will be no more hauntings, no more hiding. For too long, he blended in. For too long, he remained ignorant. Seeing his son on the floor being dehumanized ignited the spark within him. He didn’t act before, but he doesn’t want his son to grow up in a place where people choose inaction over justice.
They say it takes courage to stand up for others—this is true—but it also takes a sense of duty. We have a responsibility to our neighbors, our friends, our families, and strangers to fight for justice, to fight for the dispossessed. A single person being pushed down by the weight of privilege is all of us being pushed down. When one doesn’t act, then there can be no reaction, just stagnation. Marco will not allow the world to stay stagnant, he embraces change. He opens the door to his son’s room and looks at him lying on his bed. Marco didn’t practice a speech, but he knew what he had to say. He holds his son tight and tells him all the things a father would say in a moment such as this. There is crying. There is hugging. But there are no ghosts, nothing stopping him anymore.
The words will not be enough; he knows this now, so he finds himself with his son in front of Lafayette Park. There he doesn’t just say what he wanted to all those years but now acts. The sign he holds up reads “Black Lives Matter.” He knows if one group is down, then all groups are down. Fighting for justice and equality starts with a cause, and if this is the cause that will bring about change, then this is where the war must be won.
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I liked this story, but I found the sequences flowed together a bit and I found it hard to follow what was happening from section to section. I'm not sure whether the answer is simply to have more obvious section breaks (and whether it was different if you typed it up somewhere different and cut and pasted it, as I have had trouble with the submission window) or to use the words themselves to indicate a new event, and really emphasise it at the start of a paragraph?
Thank you, and I get what you mean. I noticed when I do copy and paste it into the submission window it does change up the way I have it originally typed out, it seems to condense the text a bit closer. I didn't realize it until I tried looking at it through my phone, and I saw how it could be look like there isn't section breaks. Next time, I'm making sure I check the readability of the story. Thanks again for your input.