about the author

Vinay Krishnan writes fiction and lives in Brooklyn, where he works as a policy lawyer for Housing Works, a non-profit aiming to end the AIDS epidemic in New York by 2020. He holds a JD from the Duke University School of Law. Find Vinay on Twitter here: @vinayrkrishnan.

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Penn Station (Take This Brown Off or Hurt Me)

Vinay Krishnan

The officer tells him to calm down, the agent to speak slowly, but he knows what they’re thinking. He knows what they’ll do. His fingers numb and their faces flush. He stares on with envy as their white turns to pink turns to red, and now he can’t hear a word and can’t shape a sound. His gaze drifts south and his hands squeeze to fists and he sees the noise he can make and the moment he’ll create, and he feels it and wants it and wants it.

At thirteen, he’d scrub his hands with soap and alcohol every night to rinse the color free. He wanted beautiful ivory hands like his friends had, then arms and legs and the rest. The white kids got the girls, and that’s all there was. The pretty ones just laughed when he tried to flirt, and even the nicer ones wouldn’t think to touch him, like the brown would rub off on them or something. So he’d soap up and wash and scratch every night after his parents went to sleep, but he couldn’t shed the family ink.

At twelve, they’d all play tag or capture the flag together during recess, but instead of chasing each other, they’d all chase him. Twenty white kids running after him, screaming: “Osama. It’s Osama. Catch him. It’s Bin Laden. I caught Bin Laden. He’s right here.” They’d stick their chests out and whistle and holler and dance like they’d just won the war.

After the 11th, his father took him and his sister by the shoulders and told them that everything was about to change. He said, “The white man’s scared the black man will rob the store. Now he’s scared the brown man will blow it up. This is how things are. Nothing will ever be the same. Do you understand?”

He thinks of these moments often. He’s thinking of them now, but the conductor says they’re almost in, so he finishes reviewing his maps. Every time he comes home, he takes his tour of the same spots. Financial centers, tourist attractions, iconic areas, vulnerable areas. He stays close to the masses, stays close to the cops. If something does happen again—God forbid—he’ll be there to feel the heat. He’ll have a story to tell. He’ll bruise red, white, and blue.

The honest truth of it, and this is something he tries not to tell anyone, is that he wasn’t even in the state on the 11th. He was in Connecticut visiting his sick grandmother. People talk about survivor’s guilt. This was something different. This was survivor’s guilt once-removed. He didn’t get the opportunity to survive, the chance to bear witness. He didn’t smell the fire or taste the ash, didn’t lose a single friend or uncle or neighbor. He missed the whole damn thing. Oh what he would give to have been one of those faces on television, running from fireballs and ghosts and those hungry gray fumes from hell. He just can’t shake it, that gnawing need to feel the pain, to have been through something.

They’ve changed things. He pops up the stairs in front of the Amtrak big board, then walks across the building to the 7th Avenue side and hovers near the exit above the A/C/E. It’s here that he notices something is different. The officer in front of him always works with another man about six inches shorter, but the smaller guy is nowhere in sight. The two officers walking across from his right to left always carry assault rifles, but today only holstered pistols.

He pulls out his green pad to make a note of the changes, but he’s so frazzled that he forgets to zip his bag, and a water bottle rolls out and bounces down the stairs. He starts chasing it, still watching every policeman, searching their faces for fear. He picks up the bottle and rises to see an officer in front of him, a rounded pale man who meets him at his nose, along with a tall woman in a tight suit and what looks like a fedora, a G-Woman from the wrong decade. She starts the talking.

“Excuse me sir, do you have a minute?”

“Oh um yes. Yes, Officer. Is it Officer? Agent? What can I do for you?”

“Well your behavior has been alarming some of the other travelers. We’ve had a few complaints.”

“Complaints? About what? I’m just. I didn’t do anything.”

“Maybe we should continue this conversation in the office.”

“No, no. Absolutely not. I know I haven’t done anything.”

“Is your name Pratik Chadha?”

“Yes, how did you—”

“Then we’re going to need to move into the office.”

The agent puts her hand on Pratik’s shoulder, but he shoves it off harder than he should. He’s heated, and the agent matches his demeanor.

“We’ve been watching you Mr. Chadha. You’ve been following us.”

“Oh. Well yes, but I wasn’t—”

“All you do is follow us. You travel to and from this city dozens of times a year. You never see any friends. All you do is visit tourist attractions, follow police officers, write in your books. We know you. You communicate with a Mr. Sudeep Chadha, is that right?”

“That’s my cousin.”

“That’s fine. Sir, we would like to talk to you about your activities and your intent here. If you could just come with—”

“Oh no no no. You don’t think. You don’t. Oh my.”

“May we look in your bag, sir?”

“Oh, yes yes. Of course. I will fully cooperate. Oh my. You don’t understand. It’s not like that at all. I’m one of you. It’s funny, really.”

“It’s not funny sir.”

“No, no I suppose it isn’t.”

The officer empties the bag, and out fall bandages and gauze and medical tape and a pocket knife and protein bars and a camera and three spiral journals. He opens a flagged page to find detailed sketches of Times Square, clicks on the camera to find pictures of cops patrolling various tourist hot spots, years’ worth of pictures. That’s nothing, he says. But they keep looking at it. That’s my journal, he says. But they ignore him. He hears the officer say some code into his walkie, and he suddenly becomes aware of the three drummers playing by the juice vendor not far behind them. They thump and rattle and lay a rhythm for his thoughts. He’s fighting the urge to walk over and place two quarters in the hat when he hears two voices calling for him. Stand still, they tell him. Don’t speak, they tell him. Yes I see that I see that I see that. But that doesn’t mean you can just. You can’t just. The drawing was so I knew where to be. Knew where to stand. It’s just a drawing. You can’t arrest someone for a silly drawing. Not silly? Very serious? Well it’s just ink on paper after all, isn’t it? Listen. You’re not listening to me.

The man looks on. They keep turning the pages.

Sir you’re going to have to come with us—No no. You don’t understand. You don’t see. I promise. Just wait. I can explain—Sir, calm down—I needed to feel it, okay? What you felt. That day. God bless you, by the way. All of you. What you did. I can’t thank you enough. I’m one of you. If I could just—You need to slow down and breathe—I’m fine. I didn’t do anything. I wasn’t going to do anything. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t do anything.

The agent and the police officer exchange glances, and the man grows disoriented. He retreats a few steps and shakes his head to slow. He drops his gaze for a moment to the six shoes before him and speaks in no particular direction.

“It’d all be easier, wouldn’t it? If it were a little tougher?”

And he’s off again. His hands shake and his vision blurs and his mind skips seconds, skips beats on the record, but he finally settles and focuses on the small black item attached to the officer’s side. It’s right there on his hip, unguarded. That small little thing. A tiny, dangling object that can rip through whole bodies and walls. All that potential energy just waiting and waiting and waiting, forever waiting to be unleashed. He wants it. Wants to feel that energy. To see it. He sees soda spilling on a white couch and a baby falling from his mother’s hands. He sees that boiling water dropping over the hot dog vendor, the lead drummer cracking through the tarp and cutting his hand red. He feels a phantom blade slide through his back as a young traveler brushes past him, feels a group of officers beating him black with their batons, the videos streaming into news stations almost immediately. His eyes refocus on the dark fruit hanging in front of him and he wants it and wants it and wants it. The officer sees he’s slipping under, and he takes out his handcuffs, the agent her cell phone. The man keeps staring at that black mass, beautifully shaped to the point. It’s all he can see now. The rest is all fog. His heart’s near his throat and his knees buckle to hold him and those young girls wouldn’t touch him and those old women wouldn’t trust him and that black mass of energy is all there is in this world. He stares at it and stares at it and stares at it and stares at it, and then he grabs it.

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