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The SkyTrain redemption

My unforgettable conversation with an ex-convict

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Image Credits: Paige Smith

Lost in the wallows of two bombed midterms, I nearly miss the voice of a forty something Fijian-Canadian man beside me as he sparks a conversation on the Expo line. 

“It’s so weird,” he says in what begins as a muffled whisper.

Worlds away, I look up from my phone, still orbiting the sphere of my own self-pity, “Pardon?”

“I haven’t been on the SkyTrain in a long time — it’s so different.” His eyes drift forlornly out the window before locking onto my gaze with intensity, “I just got out of prison.”

My eyes widen slightly and my grip tightens around the corded straps of my school bag.

“I killed a guy.”

I slowly nod, trying to keep calm. I can feel my cheeks begin to heat up and my pulse quickening. I had come to observe a chilling assortment of characters on transit over the years, but even the most abrasive paled in comparison to this man adjacent to me, and his resonating force of intimidation.

A shiver drifts down my spine. I feel frightened. More than I have been in a very long time.

I start preparing contingencies in my mind. My eyes dart back and forth for the nearest exit. Calculations swirl as I measure if my arms can reach the yellow security strip above the window. Blood flows fast throughout my body. I have never been in a fight. I dread to think my first might come at the hands of an incarcerated criminal. I go over every scenario — good and bad — in preparation for the events to come.

What happens next catches me off guard.

Around his eyes, glistening tears begins to materialize. He fights them back with what I can only imagine is all the willpower he can muster.

“When you’re in prison they tell you when to eat, piss, and shit,” his voice waivers as he speaks, like a worn out record. “Now, I’m out. I’m free. But I’m not. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”

My grip loosens on the straps of my back pack. My heart rate, once a Buddy Rich drumline, shifts back to its regular calm tempo.

With some hesitancy and just enough courage, I slide my phone into my pocket and turn my body to face the man. I put aside my fears and begin to talk with him, albeit cautiously.

It doesn’t take me long to realize that I have given the man what no one else had seemingly given him in a long time: acknowledgement.

He confides in me his past, and the lifestyle he endured for 10 years behind bars. He tells me that he is remorseful of his actions and ready to take the first steps towards a brighter tomorrow. However, he confesses that he is lost in this world he has returned to. Even with a second chance, part of him still wishes he was in prison amidst order and routine.

After a heartfelt back and forth, the man stands up as the train halts at Surrey Central. His eyes, still lined with weariness, glint for a moment with optimism. He clasps the top of my hand and thanks me for listening.

“Keep your chin up,” I call to him as the doors open.

As the doors close, I think back to the universe I was lost in only 10 minutes prior. Suddenly, two bombed midterms don’t seem to matter all that much.

  • Meguido Zola

    A powerful piece, Justin—worth the wait, mine and yours.
    Felicitously written: present tense that creates immediacy and suspense; stark simplicity; spaciousness for the reader who is allowed to make his/her own judgements. Then there’s the iconic line: “Now, I’m out. I’m free. But I’m not. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.” It has resonance for the reader because it’s the cri de coeur of a generation of young (and not so young) people.

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