“We’re out of lemons for lemonade,” I tell my dad as we munch on cereal. “We’re also out of sandwich meat, spaghetti sauce, bread, milk… basically anything we can use to make dinner.” He nods, unconcerned and I sigh.
I feel like he’s been slipping. Like he cares less and less about real life issues every day, and more on his grief about mom. He cares about his job, of course. But that’s nothing new. He’s always been a workaholic. In fact, that’s where he was the night mom died. In town, picking up a body.
I force my attention from that, onto anything but that.
“I’ll go to the store today,” I tell him, getting up and stretching. “Do you know where Finn is?”
My father keeps his face buried in his newspaper, but still pulls out his wallet and hands it to me. “No.”
I sigh again. “Ok. Well, if you see him, tell him I’ll be back later.”
I take his wallet and slip out the door, grateful for a chance to be away from his blank expression. I know we all cope in different ways, but Jesus.
The mid-day sun gleams on the wet road as I steer my car down the mountain. The birds are chirping in the trees, and I roll my windows down to let the brisk air in. I take a deep breath, then dance in my seat as a happy song comes on the radio.
Thank you, God, I whisper in my head. Happiness, in any form, is hard to come by these days and I’ll take it where I can get it. Reaching down, I roll the volume dial up, pumping up the music, filling my car so that happiness is all I hear and all I feel.
I only look away from the road for a second.
For one brief moment.
When I look back up, a tiny animal is sitting in the middle of the road. It happens so fast that I only see two green eyes looking at me, and gray fur, and I yank the wheel hard to avoid hitting it.
My car rumbles off the road and I slam on the brakes, my wheels skidding in the dirty gravel on the shoulder.
I skid to a stop, at least a foot from the edge, but still, I’m horrified and frozen. I can’t breathe as I sit still, as I eye the edge and suddenly, it seems very close to me. Like I could’ve plunged over the side, just like my mom.
My breath comes in heavy gasps, my heart flutters in my chest as I hear her screaming, as I see the rain from that night, the steam rising from the road, the sound of her shrieking tires in my ear. It all swirls around me like stuttered pictures from a movie, re-living itself in ways I can’t stop. I put my hands over my ears to block out the screaming, and my chest contracts and contracts.
I’m having a heart attack.
But I’m not.
It has to be a panic attack.
I can’t breathe.
I throw open the car door and the roar of it is loud. I scramble out, and bend over, trying like hell to breathe, and failing miserably, my hands on my knees, my mouth open, gasping impotently.
“Stand up,” a calm voice says quickly. “If you can’t breathe, stand up.”
I do, arching my back with my hands on my hips, my face turned up to the sun.
By five, I can breathe a small breath.
By six, I take a large one.
By seven, I’m able to move my head, to look and see who is with me.
Dare stands in front of me, concern swimming in his dark eyes, his lithe form hovering by my car. It’s like he’s afraid to approach me, afraid that I’m a wild animal poised to attack.
“I’m sorry,” I tell him, my lungs still feeling fluttery. “I don’t know what happened.”
He takes a step, his eyes wary and concerned. “Are you okay?”
I look around, at my car, at my open car door, at the way I just melted down in the street. But I nod, because I can’t do anything else.
“Yeah. I just… there was something in the road. I almost hit it. I think it might’ve been a kitten. I might’ve even hit it. It happened so fast, I don’t know.”
I bend over again, and Dare pulls me up.
“Stand up,” he reminds me. “It opens your diaphragm up.”
Right. Because I’m melting down and can’t breathe. For a minute, I decide this must be how Finn feels all the time. So crazy, so helpless.
“I’m sorry,” I mumble, my hand reaching back for my car fender to lean on. Dare cocks his head, so calm in the face of my panic.
“For falling apart,” I whisper. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
He’s unfazed. “Tell me what happened,” he suggests softly, and his hand is on my back now, rubbing lightly between my shoulder blades, reminding me to breathe.
“I told you… I was driving down the mountain and swerved because of a cat. I… don’t know why I panicked.”
“Maybe because your mom just died in a car crash?” Dare prompts gently, more gently than I would’ve ever guessed he could. “Maybe it scared you?”
“I don’t know,” I admit. “I just kept hearing her scream. She… I was on the phone with her when she died.”
I whisper that like a confession, because I know I’m the reason she’s dead. Dare doesn’t lower his gaze and once again, he doesn’t judge.
I nod. “Yeah.”
I realize suddenly that the roar I’d heard a minute ago wasn’t my car door, of course. It was Dare’s motorcycle. “Were you going to town?” I ask him half politely, half truly curious, but mostly just to change the subject.
He shakes his head. “No. I was coming back. I returned a library book.”
I’m not sure what I’m more focused on, the fact that he reads, or the fact that he was coming up the hill and I was going down, just like the night mom died.
She was coming up, someone else was going down.
“We could’ve hit,” I realize, a chill running down my spine.
Dare looks confused, his full lips parted. “Pardon?”
I shake my head. “I’m sorry. I was just…I’m happy I steered over to the side, rather than to the middle. Or you might’ve hit me.”
It’s a morbid thought and what the hell is wrong with me?
Dare stares at me, probably worried that he’s with some sort of psychopath, but he hides it nicely. “But I didn’t,” he points out. “We’re both fine.”