It is late afternoon aboard the 57 bus, and as the sun dips low in the sky, a diverse group of passagers make their evening commute home to Oakland. While most passengers stare at their phones, pockets of rowdy school kids make the bus “loud but not as loud as sometimes.” Sasha sits alone at the back. Wearing a black fleece jacket and white skirt, Sasha is agender—“neither male nor female.” Sasha is reading a copy of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but puts down the book and falls asleep.
The setting sun reflects the darkness of Sasha’s upcoming assault and the discrimination that fuels it. Sasha will be targeted because of their skirt, and the passengers, engrossed in their phones, will barely notice, and few will come to their aid. Additionally, Sasha’s copy of Anna Karenina is assigned reading for school, but it hints at Sasha’s obsession with Russia.
Richard, a sixteen-year-old junior from Oakland High School, stands nearby wearing a black hoodie and baseball cap. Richard and his friends loudly play around, pretending to fight, and his cousin Lloyd runs back and forth to the front of the bus trying to flirt with a girl. As Sasha sleeps, Richard “surreptitiously flicks a lighter” at the fabric of Sasha’s skirt.
Richard’s black hoodie and baseball cap reflects the stereotypical dress of urban youth, which America’s racist society often views as the official uniform of criminals. The word “surreptitiously” suggests that Richard is hiding the lighter and flicking it out of plain sight because he knows that it is wrong to target and bully others because of their perceived sexuality—just as it is wrong to assume Richard is a criminal because of his race.
“Wait,” writes Slater. “In a moment, Sasha will wake inside a ball of flame and […] everything will be set in motion.” Sasha will be severely burned and require multiple surgeries at a San Francisco burn unit, and Richard will be arrested and charged with two felony hate-crimes. If Richard is convicted of hate-crimes, he could be facing life in prison. “But,” writes Slater, “none of this has happened yet.” There must be some way to stop it, she argues. “There must be something you can do.”
Slater’s use of the word “you” has the effect of making the reader feel as if they can personally intervene and stop what is about to happen. Of course, what happens to Sasha and Richard can’t be stopped, but similar discrimination can be avoided in the future through empathy and education, which, as a form of social justice, Slater’s book attempts to accomplish.