I could tell it was her, even from afar: the self-serviced closecropped hair, her zany leggings, and the neon Nike Flight windbreaker she always wore, no matter the season. And since Raven had no business being on campus, I gave it all a second look, knowing something was either off or about to go off. She looked wild. Like she was ready to kirk on someone, pacing up down the path like she had all this extra energy. Then Mr. K stepped out the school and saw her, and when she saw him, she mean-mugged him so bad I had an oh-shit moment: the whole time she’d been waiting on a teacher, and it kinda made sense it would be him. He ain’t stop or approach her or nothing though; acted like he ain’t even know her and walked the path across the lawn to where I was, with other students, waiting to catch the D2 bus to DuPont Circle. Clearly, he had nothing to say to her, which also kinda sorta made sense. She wasn’t even a student at the school anymore.
At the bus stop, students bounced off the fencing and fooled around dangerously close to the road, like hardheaded monsters— their mama and all them PSAs ain’t teach them nothing about nothing. Everyone shouting too—like they couldn’t hear themselves speak. A mash-up of fluorescent leggings, slides with mismatched socks, stonewashed denim jackets thrown over hoodies. We were an arts school, so we wore what we wanted, sans uniform in the name of self-expression and all that, forever pushing the limits, bending shit where it won’t break, driving the dean crazy with pants that hung too low and designer tears that revealed too much thigh. And we got out late because of our arts classes, so we were always hungry, an appetite for home, for the skate park, or to link up with friends who already had a two-hour head start. I was never pressed about it, I didn’t have anywhere to run to. My day ones were a geek squad, boys who’d set themselves up with a homework club, math, English, algebra. No thanks. I just wanted to write. And home was never the ideal place for that after school, because by the time I made it back northeast, my nana would have all these different chores waiting on me.
I watched Mr. K scan the bus stop, searching for any kids from his department. Students he had lectured, argued with, drilled the importance of writing into—show not tell; make it clever, cool, and meaningful. His words. He was pressed, too, about us acting accordingly in the communal parts of the school. We were not to comport ourselves like them thirsty Studio Tech kids, to be as showy as the vocal department, or as outwardly tormented as the theater kin. That was their bag. We were young writers. Hard workers who shunned the spotlight.
He brushed his pencil tie, locked eyes with me. I nodded and he nodded back. Then he did this thing he does, where he’d say your name to formally acknowledge you. Because he was British, though he’d want you to tell it how he saw it: Black British of Nigerian descent. But whatever, too many words. On the one hand, weren’t nothing African about the way he said “Malik,” all extra like, as if he was the host on Masterpiece Theater, but on the other hand, there was something distinctly African about his being, his belief in education, about having a pick-yourself-up attitude and dusting yourself off no matter what got the drop on you; something about the way he looked through you and judged what you could do, not who you were. He was against laziness, against too much pleasure. His whole thing was “Just listen to me and you’ll be okay.” I could deal most times, but sometimes that shit be annoying. Acting like immigrants have a monopoly on hard work or something. Go on with that mess.
We didn’t talk until the bus arrived. He checked his phone. I checked mine. It was 5:48. He watched me checking my phone. “If everything goes my way,” he said, “I might still be able to catch the 6:30 MARC train.”
The MARC to Rockville was a commuter train, the last one left at 7:30. He didn’t want to have to wait for that one. But catching the 6:30 was ambitious, because first he needed to ride the Metro to Union Station and there was always some shit wrong with the Red Line. Trains not working, car doors not closing, fires, sometimes even rush-hour suicides. I always factored in delays.
We joined the crowd hustling to get on the bus. Mr. K gave me a knowing look as he climbed on, and I sighed before shuffling to the window to make room for him. He glanced around as he sat down. Maya Moreno was a few rows in front of us. She smiled quickly, as if she was embarrassed for me. I’d tell her about those sideburns of hers, just to set her off, but Mr. K wouldn’t be down for that. There were too many Maya Morenos at school, and I’d be glad to be free of them at the end of the day, free from their hipster vibes, their highwaters and expensive headphones, their suffocating self-assurance. I thought of Raven again, standing in the yard; you couldn’t say she was a fit at the school any more than I was. I searched the seats for her. There were so many students on board. There was no way of telling if she was on the bus. She could’ve come around to collect a transcript, I supposed, but I didn’t think some paper that let the world know you were pushing a D to D+ average (tops) was worth crossing town for. If I had been transferred out, I wouldn’t have shown my face back on campus. But shame runs different for some people and Raven never seemed to feel its sting.
She and I were part of this freshman group that applied to join the department late, more than a couple of weeks into the school year. I wasn’t feeling my situation over at Tech, and besides, I thought I could write and the school’s Creative Writing Department seemed like a good fit. We were invited in by Mrs. Cosgrove, the director of admissions. There was four of us, and we all came in with our moms. We sat around a table in the Media Center while Mr. K, in pinstripes and brogues, introduced himself as the department chair. All he asked at first was, “Why do you want to be here?” It felt like a trick question, as if I was supposed to say something other than writing, and I spat some corny lines about being a better person, whatever that meant. Raven and her mother were next to us. Both of them looked like the kind of people who held in their face all their problems and all their anger, as if everyone around them was itching to scrap with them. And you wouldn’t have been able to tell them any different. Raven was too young for worry lines, but there they were. Too old to be so loud, but she seemed to get a kick out of filling the room with raggedy-ass questions. Nothing adventurous— shit she didn’t need to ask, like were we gonna get breaks and what classes are on a Monday; shit that didn’t make a difference, that we’d find out anyway, so it was as if she just wanted to be heard. But when Mr. K got done talking about a writer’s life, a work-hard ethic, and the department’s ethos of Humility, Intelligence, and Respect—how you can’t have one without the others—she turned around and said, “Mister, I want you to make me a better writer.” And we all waited to hear what he would say, because I think we expected him to leave it to Mrs. Cosgrove to step in, since there was no way Raven was getting admitted. Or maybe deflect, to talk shit about how it was in our own hands or we could achieve this if we wanted it badly enough. But then Raven’s mama went ahead and snatched the moment, because Mr. K’s silence kinda bothered her and so she took it out on her daughter, told her to be quiet and to quit asking stupid questions. Shit, I think we all wanted to tell Raven that, but none of us were gonna come out and say it. So for her own mother to shame her publicly like that, I thought that was off. Mr. K didn’t like it either, I could tell by the way his face turned nasty when he looked at her, like she was some kind of embarrassment to her daughter. Sometimes we see what we want to see, though. Mr. K always had a bad case of that. He wouldn’t have cared for Raven’s mama’s soft talk and poor eye contact, or the way she looked, like she just ran out the house for a quick run to the corner store, a winter coat thrown over house clothes. In hindsight, I realize he was on a Jesus-flex when all he did was fix his face and smile and say, “Well, you’ve come to the right place.”
And fuck, come my first day at the school, at two p.m., the top of the arts-block period, she’s standing next to me in front of the entire gathered department, five teachers and forty-plus students, waiting for us to be introduced as the two new heads. She’d made it, and all I remember thinking was, Goddamn, her writing samples must’ve smoked.
But they couldn’t have. She was bad in writing workshop, in playwriting, in journalism seminar, in poetry class. Really bad. Incomplete work full of grammatical errors and clichés; a trash op-ed against school uniforms; a scene with verbatim-like dialogue, umms and aahs included; poetry with flowery lyrics, facing-adversity type shit, predictable rhyme schemes, a poor person’s Maya Angelou. I’m talking really really bad. But I don’t think she cared a whole lot about the writing. Execution didn’t matter. Shit, completion didn’t even matter. Sista just wanted the belief, you know? For someone to feel like she could do it. Enter Mr. K. He set himself up to be her uber-teacher, you know? Gifted his time. Took a special interest. Made her a project. Gave her worksheets. Found her books to read. Slim things. The Fire Next Time, Sula, Frankenstein. She’d turned down Things Fall Apart. Said her mother, a Christian, forbade her to read it. No one who sat next to me that day will say they heard it, but I swear to God he lowered his voice and muttered, “Did being a Christian mean not putting a roof over your child’s head?” The sting of it made me feel as if he was less than a teacher, you know? Like he’d stepped out of himself and become something else. Something bigger, but at the same time something smaller. She set herself up as Robin to his Batman. Followed him around. Rushed to make photocopies. To collect classroom guests from the reception area. But for all her exuberance, her work did not improve. Homework remained nonexistent. Unexcused absences stacked up. On one occasion, she didn’t make it to school for four days straight. Mr. K asked why, during writing workshop, in front of the rest of us, and all she said was, “I couldn’t afford to.” None of us knew if that meant financially or otherwise. For someone who ran her mouth a lot, she knew how to play with silence. There was this one time during lunch when she asked if she could trust me, and I said yes, expecting her to say something more, but I wasn’t super surprised when she didn’t. That was just Raven for you. Hard to figure out what she wanted, because you could never tell what she didn’t want.
The bus wound its way through the back streets of Georgetown, a neighborhood that didn’t feel as if it belonged to the city, not my city, not the DC I knew, which was a place without all this design, without the red-brick paving and overpriced row houses. We reached Dumbarton House. Then we were at the apartments and soon the buffalo sculptures at the Q Street Bridge. It was only after this that it ever seemed I was back in DC and could breathe again while still being young and black. The bus pulled up with a hiss in DuPont Circle outside the Q Street Metro entrance. Mr. K just sat there and damn near let every other person pour out before us, the bus like a pinata punctured in two places. Shit, how he know I ain’t have places to go too?
“Mr. K,” I said, “ain’t you say you have a train to catch?”
“Didn’t you say,” he replied. “Have a good evening, Malik.” And with another formal nod of the head, he skipped off the bus and down the escalators, which were almost two hundred feet long. Hell, I was not in that same kind of hurry.
I could hear the rumble of an oncoming train as I came down the escalators, so I hustled at the fare gates, touched my pass against the reader, and took the next escalator to the platform. I squeezed onto the train and nudged my way down the aisle for some standing room.
DuPont Circle. Farragut North. Metro Center. It wasn’t until the train left Gallery Place that I realized Raven was in the same car. I could see her reflection in the dark windows, eyes about to pop like she was ready to smash something. She was so close it startled me. I tried to make eye contact, but she didn’t look my way. Maybe didn’t want to. I felt sorry for her then, you know? For the way that we, the people at school, treated her. She was sensitive, I thought. She’d desperately tried to overcome it. Her every step at school was masked with this blatantly fake enthusiasm.
At Judiciary Square, the makeup of people in the car got kinda shuffled around as commuters got on and off, and that’s when I saw Mr. K in one of the seats. That’s who Raven was watching. He must’ve seen her then too, because he stood and moved down the car, apologizing as he squeezed past people. I watched him check his phone for nothing in particular, a commuter flex, the whole time resisting the urge to look back as he waited for the next stop. I considered stepping over to Raven, just to ask her what all this wild shit was about. But then I seen that bulge in her jacket pocket, a phone, or something else? Can’t be too sure. You read news stories. Student assaults, sometimes worse. There were teenagers who went to great lengths to avenge bad grades. Just doing the most. Part of me wanted to sound the alarm there and then. But man, I thought, Raven could never. She weren’t about to do anything for real-for real.
Then the doors opened at Union Station, and Mr. K buss out the car and hurried for the passage to the station concourse like it was no longer just about catching the early train. Every evening there was a collective rush towards the commuter rail, but knowing Raven was behind him, seemed like there was an extra step in his pace. Homie looked like he was ahead of everything, and I wondered if he saw what I might be seeing, like maybe both of us can’t be tripping, you know?
It was none of my business really. I was three stops away from a short walk home, from Nana cranking Whitney Houston or Jody Watley or, worse still, those Anita Baker songs that you’re only supposed to drop when you’re fucking. Three stops from feeling compelled to complete algebra worksheets that were two days and ten points late and having Nana interrupt the process just to tell me to rake the winter leaves or carry the trash out or get the grit from the stove, like grit couldn’t wait. It was either this shit or follow the story, like Mr. Allen would say in journalism class, stay with it, see how it all plays out. But I only needed half a reason, if I’m being real. I stepped off the train just as the recording began: “Doors closing.”
Raven was at the sliding doors that led directly from the Metro exit to the MARC. It wasn’t hard to catch up with her in the crowd, her trademark neon pink and yellow windbreaker stood out among all that brown and black winter wool. Some wild rumors used to go around the school. How she only had a handful of clothes. How the DC government put her family up in motel rooms. Sick gossip, and yet, between the windbreaker and her need to hear herself speak, you could tell she was pushing for visibility, you know? And I’ve got to admit, that alone had me wondering if the rumors were true. If wretchedness was maybe the only thing she managed to pull off with a slick understated hand.
But she wasn’t slick slick, you know? I thought Mr. K could easily shake her. She had yet to spot him again. But I did. I watched him make a sharp right and head to the station concourse. He stopped to check the departures screen. I moved closer. Train 881 was getting set to leave. Train 883 was scheduled for 7:30. I could’ve told him back at the bus stop that he was gon’ wait for the last train.
He waited in line at the Starbucks, ordered, and moved to the barista counter. I was surprised he didn’t see me. I was that close. Once he collected his coffee, instead of heading straight to the waiting area, he edged toward Starbucks’ entryway and peaked his head out. The 6:30 train was long gone and Raven must’ve known he hadn’t boarded, because she was by the gates, sitting next to this crazy-looking old couple, the wife all furred up, the pimp-looking husband a barefoot gangsta on the station’s nasty-ass floors. That’s white people for you.
There was an information desk further down the concourse, manned by an Amtrak police officer. Mr. K could walk there, but say what, though? A fifteen-year-old girl is following me? Raven ain’t do nothin’ yet. And what all was she about to do? She had some bark in her, but our entire freshman year went by with no sign of any bite. Not when people joaned on her hair, her clothes, her Foreman Mills threads, her local-mall sneakers. All she’d do is mutter some shit back. I couldn’t see Raven’s weak ass wielding a gun. Not likely a knife either. Mace, then. But that was hardly reassuring. Imagine Mr. K being like, Oh I don’t mind being maced. No one ever said that.
Yeah, she had him spooked, because instead of just coming out, he backed into the Starbucks and left through the rear entryway. I followed him, I dunno, maybe twenty yards back or so, thinking I was just gonna go ahead and head home, that the entire thing was ridiculous, sad but funny too. He went out through the station’s main entrance and then stopped for a minute. I watched through the glass as he looked up and down the taxi rank. Is he crazy? I thought. A cab fare to Rockville, over a li’l-ass girl? Was he that shook? As if he heard my thoughts, he turned around and walked into the station again. I scrambled back from the doors and followed him as he circled the shopping area for a while, staring into the Body Shop window and then sitting at a table outside Au Bon Pain. At this point, I just wanted to see what he was gonna do. Around 7:25, he made his way back to the station concourse. As he started down the aisle, Raven was waiting for him, this time outside Hudson News, where she had a good view of all the gates. She was pressed, I’ll give her that. So instead of heading straight to the entrance that led to the trains, he went back to the Metro entrance, because there was a passageway that led to the platform over there. Now I thought about all the shit he talked in class on how to carry ourselves, but here was a grown man “comporting” himself like this, hiding in the cut, and as I watched him wait by the self-serve ticket machines, in the small space between the sliding doors, waiting until it was as close as possible to departure time, all his bougie airs seemed to have fallen away. He bolted onto the platform alongside the last of the people rushing forward to make the train, and it was like he was all just fear now. And that was never a good look in front of anyone, far less your students.
I hurried to catch the train too, and there were all these faces at the windows, staring out, gawping at me, and I’m pretty sure they were all writing their own story, black boy running for the train, must be fare dodging or something, which, once I jumped on board, I kinda realized I was. But this was different though. I was trying to show up for Raven. I finally got what she meant by trust, you know? She and I came in together and were linked, a class of our own, Class of 2010¼, and whole time I just sat back and watched her do her thing, not giving a shit. But even not giving a shit has its limits. I knew Raven would get on the train, and it was like I’d been folded into their drama. I had to be a witness on Raven’s behalf, you know? Like there should be more than one side to this story and the Ravens of the world sometimes don’t get their version out there, unless other people are there to confirm it or tell it for them. She was a barely competent student, true. Her grades less than average. But this seemed to be the result of a lingering distraction, a life beyond school that demanded her complete and constant attention. I don’t know what. Homelessness. Hardship. At some point it doesn’t matter. Raven should never have been accepted into the department. I heard her middle school grades were terrible. Her creative writing portfolio was sloppy handwritten poetry that was, even for her age, amateurish—hastily written for the audition only. I heard Mr. K went against most of the department faculty with the decision. Mr. Allen was always pretty chill about everything. But you could see Ms. Scruggs had no patience for Raven from the jump.
Mr. K. started losing patience with her too as the months went by. You could see it. The way he barked at her, calling on her to read aloud, knowing she would struggle with it. Progress wasn’t happening fast enough for him. Like she’d done touched the hem of his Zara threads, you know? Miracles should’ve come and gone. She should’ve damn well been walking on water by now. There’s this time, in workshop, after he dressed her down—for what, the millionth time?—when she spat back, “If you really want to help, you’d take me home with you.” The whole class started whooping and laughing, straight joaning on the both of them. Dropping insinuations and shit. But he didn’t find any of it funny. Their conversations were shorter after that, or brought to an abrupt end. He sent others to make photocopies. He avoided her in the hallways.
And when it came time to discuss transfers, as we learned they did every year, we caught wind that Raven was on the list, that as the chair of the department Mr. K had already signed off on it, that he couldn’t justify keeping her to the rest of his staff. Ms. Scruggs blatantly apologized to her this one time, early summer, as we sat in media class. Said this was never the right environment for her. Said she should never have been here in the first place. Totally unprofessional. Raven just smiled though and bowed her head.
I heard they pull you and your parents into a meeting with the dean of students and the dean of arts and break the news to you just weeks before school end, then you get an official letter sent to your address. We all went our separate ways for the summer, then came back for sophomore year knowing she wouldn’t be there. I hadn’t laid eyes on her since, until now.
Mr. K was in the third car I entered. He gave me this puzzled look as I came down the aisle, like I wasn’t the student he was expecting. Don’t worry, she coming, I was sure of that. “Malik,” he said, trying to pull composure from thin air, “what are you doing?”
I told him that I had heard from my mom, and that I was meeting her at my aunt’s place. Take in mind, I actually thought that shit through, and this was the best piece of bullshit I could come up with. He ain’t look like he believed me, but what were the chances of two students following him on the same evening? And ’cause he was distracted, he kind of dismissed it all with an “Oh” and went back to looking at messages on his phone. I sat on the other side of the aisle and stared out the window to avoid any awkward eye contact. Wasn’t even there five minutes before I heard her.
“Mr. K,” she said. I don’t know why we never bothered to use his last name; that African-type shit, I suppose. Too many syllables to learn. He looked up. He must’ve thought he’d shaken her, because there she was and homie looked like he didn’t know what to do with himself.
“You mind?” she said, and gestured to the seat in front of him. Now that it was dark out, I was able to watch this all play out in the black of the window reflection.
“You live outside the city now?” he asked.
She sat down. I glanced over toward them. She had a pained expression on her face. Like she wanted to cry. But she didn’t, thank God, and it occurred to me that I had never seen her do so, despite everything she’d been through at school, and I’d seen a lot of students cry. We had fountains on campus. Mr. K straightened up. He was sure she was there to start something.
“I’m going to get a conductor,” he said.
I almost buss out laughing.
“And tell them what?” she replied. “That I’m riding the train? That a crime?”
She reached into her side pocket and he gasped. He real live gasped. She withdrew her phone. The same iPhone with the cracked screen. I turned back to the window. There was still that other pocket and that bulge. Too large, I saw now, to be a can of mace, too broad to be any kind of concealed weapon. A book, probably.
“Sometimes I think it’s you types who get in the way of my chill,” she said. “You. The social workers. The mentoring program. Y’all do too much.”
“What do you want, Raven?”
“We just ridin the train together, Mr. K.”
“To where? You can’t follow me home.”
“I’m not tryin to.”
They were quiet for a minute.
“How many kids you got, Mr. K?”
“Three,” he replied. “I have three.”
“Three,” she said, as if tossing the word around her mouth, tasting it for the first time. “Did you know I’m an only child? Did you know that?”
He shook his head. “I didn’t.”
“See? That’s why it would be great to meet your family. Fake like they’re my siblings, gee.”
“What’s in your pocket, Raven?” I turned to look at them again.
She was suddenly giddy in her seat as she pulled out a copy of a book, a call number on its spine. I couldn’t see the title. “See? I’ve been reading. Slim stuff, just like you said.” She began to list everything she’d read so far, making a horribly fine job of doing so, confusing titles, crediting books to the wrong authors. Her eyes were on fire, but in the mechanical way I’d always known. It blew me to see it again, to listen to her brittle enthusiasm as she talked about her summer reading, recounting books in a way that felt like she’d only skimmed them. Man, I was hot. Disappointed at the lack of drama. The fuck was this? If you were gonna do revenge, you better do it well, you know? And what she was doing felt foolish instead, and I felt foolish for her, like I needed to rescue her from this pathetic shit. I hated to make a scene, but I was ready to drag her off the train.
“Raven,” I said, and would’ve stood, I swear, but then I saw the conductor coming down the aisle and knew he was about to do my dirty work for me. I wasn’t about to use any of the little money I had on me for no ticket to nowhere and I was pretty sure she didn’t have the spends too. So I sat back as Raven—confused as hell to see there was a third playa in all of this—asked what I was doing on the train. It didn’t matter. The conductor would kick us off at the next stop. I would explain to her then. Try to talk to her about pride and shit, how there was no going back, how I was pretty sure she was better off being out the school.
We were nearing the Silver Spring station. Like I said, the sun had fallen and it was dark out, the glass mostly reflections. The two of them were visible there, staring at each other, and the last train’s empty seats between them. But beyond the window I saw a faint reflection of a changing city. And I wondered, briefly, where this left people like us.
after John Cheever
Koye Oyedeji’s writing has appeared in Ploughshares, AGNI, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Believer, Wasafiri, The Good Journal, and elsewhere. His stories have been included in such anthologies as IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain (2021) and Closure (Peepal Tree Press, 2015). He lives in Washington, D.C. (updated 4/2022)
Read Mariana Villas-Boas’s review of Oyedeji’s “The Last Train” in the folio “AGNI 95 Reviews AGNI 95”