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  • Play it Safe
  • Michelle Ross

Jessie once drove through a hurricane because, stupidly, she'd thought the eye of the storm was far enough away that returning to her apartment in Tallahassee—she'd been staying with a friend four hours away in Atlanta—was safe. By the time she realized her mistake, it was one in the morning, and turning back with no place to stay—her two cats were in the car with her, screeching all the way—seemed even more precarious than continuing. Driving to her daughter's school carnival, where she'd have to socialize with the parents of Ellen's schoolmates in the service of raising funds for new playground equipment, felt kind of like that drive through heavy rain and wind and felled trees and the impending threat of more falling trees. She couldn't relate to these people. Take Ava's mom, for instance. Sharon was the PTA committee member in charge of organizing this carnival. The woman ended every email with "Smiles, Sharon."

Jessie puzzled over this letter closing for longer than Gabe thought warranted. "You overthink everything," he said from the passenger seat. He was drinking a vodka tonic—out of a regular drinking glass, too, not even trying to conceal that he had an open container of alcohol.

"I'm not the one driving," he said when she eyed his drink. Then he said she was just jealous and not to worry, he'd brought a flask and a small bottle of tonic water and she could have a drink in the parking lot when they got there.

Their eight-year-old daughter, Ellen, had her headphones on in the backseat. She was watching a cartoon in which the main characters changed size and donned various techy animal suits. In a Sonoran desert episode, one of the few episodes Jessie had watched with Ellen, the men transformed themselves into faux rattlesnakes and then observed a real, albeit cartoon, rattlesnake go after a squirrel. Cornered, the squirrel pumped extra blood to its tail and shook the tail so that in the snake's infrared heat vision, the squirrel's tail appeared to inflate like a balloon, fooling the snake into striking at the tail rather than the vital organs. Jessie had cheered when the snake missed and the squirrel escaped. Ellen had said, "Yeah, but maybe the squirrel living means the snake starves to death." That was Ellen for you. Her capacity for empathy extended even to venomous predators.

What was different about the dread Jessie felt for this particular school event versus school events of the past was that three days ago she'd been attacked while out running. She'd been running along a residential [End Page 59] street, not a remote location, such as the trails in Saguaro National Park East, where she was always scanning the desert scrub for rattlesnakes and mountain lions. It hadn't even happened particularly early in the morning. The sun had already started to peak over the Rincon Mountains. When she heard footfalls and turned, even though the man was dressed in jeans and was looking right at her, still her brain reasoned he must have a good reason for seeming to lunge towards her that she had simply failed to decipher. She thought he must be trying to protect her from something. A mountain lion perhaps? Though rare, mountain lion sightings did occasionally occur in town. Or maybe he was running from a mountain lion; he needed her help. But then he crashed into her and one hand went directly to her breast, the other over her mouth, and she understood that this man was the mountain lion she'd imagined.

She'd fought him off and other than a few cuts and bruises, and the memory of his hands, she was fine really. But in her post-attack shock, adrenaline high, she'd allowed herself to be interviewed by a local reporter, who'd arrived nearly as soon as the police, and almost an hour before Gabe. He'd inadvertently left his damn cellphone in silent mode again.

The only sentence from Jessie's mouth that had not been too...


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pp. 59-70
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