It’s strange. Since childhood, I’ve believed I would die in my sleep.
Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep…
In my mind’s eye, I picture myself sandwiched between Mama and Daddy as we knelt beside my bed, speaking the prayer together. It always seemed like they were sucking up all the oxygen, leaving me with none. I thought I might suffocate. But I could smell Mama so well. She hadn’t had her nightly bath yet, so she still smelled of southern cooking and a hint of Chanel No. 5. The smallest amount behind her ears and inside the crook of her arm was enough for it to linger wherever she wandered in the house. I loved the smell of Mama.
I remember the expression on her face when she opened the box one Christmas morning. By the look of wonder, I knew she loved it. She blushed under Daddy’s admiring gaze as she dabbed some on her wrist and lifted her arm to his face. As I watched, a bubble, like the ones I used to blow with those huge pieces of sugar-coated bubble gum, started deep inside me and got bigger and bigger. It was a rare moment of sheer joy in our family.
A few years later, a pin of reality burst the facade, but in that moment…joy. I’m glad my mind took me back to that place, if only for a minute. I can remember Daddy as he was. And forgive what he became.
…and if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Claudia hated this moment. Stopped at the tracks, watching the lights flash and hearing the bell clang. First in line, as the wall forms in front of her. The whistle growing louder as the engine nears. The rhythm of steel against steel, the train racing by, beating in her ears. Other cars had lined up behind her, hedging her in. Suffocating. Blocking any chance of escape.
Could a heart really pound right out of its chest? She felt her breath coming in short bursts. Her phone beeped, but she couldn’t bring herself to look for it. Closing her eyes tight, she gripped the steering wheel.
Her chest hurt, and she could smell the metallic tang of blood. The rest of her senses picked up the sensation. She could taste the iron, way back in her throat, and her ears pounded with the rhythm of her heartbeat. Then her hands felt a sticky warmth—BJ’s blood, soaking her cheerleading skirt. The wetness spread over her legs. She gasped and stared down at her lap. Her Diet Coke had spilled on her light tan linen pants. Still, she couldn’t move.
No matter that the train had come and gone, still she sat, staring at the bare metal tracks. Her body shook all over. Vehicles sped around her, blaring their horns. People glared at her, some even shouting obscenities at her, but it was no use. She’d become paralyzed. She didn’t know how many minutes she sat there while the world swept by her, a still body in a raging storm.
A dull tap registered in her brain. She turned toward the sound and tried to focus on the man outside her window. He reached out and made another clipped, three-rap knock on the glass. Finally, recognition flashed, trying to convince her that everything was okay. She pressed the button and lowered the window for the waiting police officer.
“Claudia?” His voice sent a shiver down her spine. Images sped through her mind, blurring her focus. “Is there something wrong with your car?”
His voice was a little deeper now than it had been ten years ago, but she could still hear it screaming, “Leave her alone!” And then the gunshot. She could feel herself fading again…
“Claude!” He reached in through the window and shook her shoulder. “Come on, girl. I know what this is. I’ve been there too. But snap out of it. You’re in the middle of the street.”
She felt herself slowly ascending, as though swimming from the bottom of a deep lake. At the surface, a ragged, cold breath filled her lungs. “Casio.” Tears filled her eyes.
“It’s okay, baby,” he said, his voice soft, taking her back to the days when he was quarterback, she was cheerleader, and everyone said they’d be America’s sweethearts. “Can you drive the car into the parking lot?” He pointed to the right where a mom-and-pop café sat practically empty.
“I’ll be right behind you.”
It took every ounce of willpower to slide the Tahoe into gear and drive toward the parking lot. Once she stopped, her lungs screamed and she could feel the breath-stealing, muscle-seizing horror of hyperventilation coming on. Casio appeared at the passenger side door. Clutching her chest, she pointed toward the glove box. “Bag,” she managed to gasp.
“A bag. In there!”
“Oh! Okay! Are you okay?” Hang on.” Casio opened the glove box and pulled out a paper bag, then brought it to her mouth. “Breathe. In-out-in-out.”
She did. Her lungs felt like they might burst as the panic spiked. “Oh, God. It’s just like that night.” A scream vibrated in her throat, and she squelched it before it could pierce the air inside the Tahoe.
“No.” Casio’s hand pressed against her clammy neck. “Now, listen, Claude. Keep breathing.” His smooth-as-silk tone calmed her and evened out her breath. She tried to focus on his tone. “This isn’t like that night on the bus. No one is after you. The person with a gun was after BJ. No one else. It wasn’t a random act or I wouldn’t have just been shot in the arm. Right? If that man was on a killing spree, we’d all be dead right now.”
His voice was beginning to soothe her, and slowly, the words sank into her muddled brain. She set the bag in her lap and filled her lungs with a cleansing breath. “Thanks, Casio,” she whispered and tried to smile. “You’re a hero.”
His jaw clenched as he inhaled from a freshly lit cigarette and then passed it to her. “Yep, that’s what I am.” He expelled a stream of smoke. “A real hero.”
At the sarcasm in his tone, Claudia regretted her choice of words. She reached across the seat and took his hand. “We did what we could.”
“Too bad that doesn’t make the dreams go away.”
She stared into the horizon where clouds were beginning to roll their way. Silently, they sat, hand-in-hand, passing the cigarette between them, remembering that they shared a bond of pain and loss.
Somehow, for the moment, it made things calmer.