I’m late. It’s already dark. I didn’t mean stay out for so long. Trips to San Francisco are the highlight of my week, but they’re measured by the daylight. The city itself is fine – it’s got the splendor and filth of any major city – but it’s the commute back home that’s the problem. An hour on the BART train system, getting off almost at the end of the line. Waiting for the next bus to arrive for up to thirty minutes, depending on traffic, delays, or if it even shows up at all. It’s ridiculously hit-or-miss, especially on the weekends. Getting off at the closest remaining bus stop to my house (the city shut down the one just down the street, of course), and walking nearly two miles from the outskirts of town. One marshland/construction zone to pass, two hills to climb, three stoplights to cross. Dozens of minutes, thousands of steps, all while keeping an eye on the setting sun and silently praying I make it back before the light disappears. Those minutes add up fast, and I can’t afford waste a single one.
It’s not safe here at night.
The thing is, it’s actually better than riding all the way into town. Most of the buildings on the old main street are boarded up and riddled with graffiti. Only the seedy lounge, an adult novelty shop, and a grimy convenience store on the corner are active at this hour. The rest know better than to keep their doors unlocked for too long. Most businesses packed up and left when the city declared bankruptcy years ago, opting instead to seek fortunes on the other, still-developing side of town. Drunks and drug dealers reign supreme over the remnants. A man was murdered in broad daylight not a year ago, his body splayed and bleeding in the street about four houses up from mine. Thievery is practically a given. The police only show up in extreme circumstances; their budget has been recently slashed. They don’t have the resources to stem the flow of daily crime. In the deepest, darkest hours before dawn, you can hear sirens and alarms on the wind. Sometimes gunshots.
And rarely, a scream.
So, I take the slightly less dangerous route. It’s longer, but there’s less of a chance of me running into someone or something unpleasant. But now that the sun’s gone, all bets are off. It’s okay, just have to focus and keep a low profile. I get off the bus, shove my hands in my pockets, and start walking. There’s a homeless man reclining in one of the construction site tubes, and I hope he won’t try anything as I pass. The street running alongside the former marshland is lined with lights, but there’s a narrow sidewalk on only one side. I have to walk against speeding traffic, shielding my eyes from the glaring headlights of passing cars. It’s too dark for them to notice me. Good, that means less chance of catcalls and muggings.
I reach the first light, punch the signal button, and wait. It’s freezing out here. I can just make out the vapors of my breath in the pale light. But I’m burning up; I can feel the sweat coming off arms, and the blood pulsing in my ears. A guy pushing a shopping cart full of odds and ends passes the other side of the intersection and vanishes into the shadows. The signal beckons me forth, and I practically leap into the crosswalk. I stride briskly to the other side, feeling the eyes of the drivers on my back. Don’t turn around. Don’t turn around, it’s okay, just keep going. I make it to the second intersection and do it all over again. I turn right and start climbing the hill.
Now that I’m off the main drag, it’s much quieter. But somehow, it makes things even worse. This neighborhood is one of the oldest in the entire city. The pavement is uneven, cracked, and weedy. Its houses are grand, rotting relics…and so are its streetlamps. There’s a sickly yellow glow coming from each lamp, but they’re way too far apart. There are long stretches of dark in between, abysses that seem to devour everything that gets too close. There could be anyone – anything – in those pockets of nothing.
And there’s no way around them.
I take a few deep breaths and sprint up the hill. I spare a glance at the old, hollowed furniture shop as I pass by – someone cracked its front window recently – and hope there’s no one lurking inside. None of the houses on this street have their lights on. Not a single sign of life. The other side of the hill is much more inviting. Brighter streetlights! Cars! One last intersection! And…Mexican music playing somewhere up the street? Fine, I’ll take anything over the silence.
I shuffle down the slope and make it past the final crosswalk. I stride past the rumbling vehicles without a second glance. I pass by a house with a fenced yard, and a little white dog yaps at me from the shadows. Someone left a couch on the corner; it’s laying on its side, stuffing bulging out and cushions faded with dirt. It’ll be gone by morning. It’s okay, doesn’t matter. I’m too close to care. I turn left and start making the final climb up the hill. My house is only a few hundred feet away. I look up the street in eager anticipation…
There is only one old streetlamp on my block. It’s halfway up the hill, right in front of my house. And in its splash of muted light, I can see two cars parked with their engines running. A blue pickup truck and a brown, rusty sedan. Neither of them belong to anyone in this neighborhood. There’s a guy sitting in the pickup, and he’s talking with the guy leaning against his window. Most likely a drug exchange.
And they’re parked right in front of my house.
To Be Continued