Wednesday: Call it a cosmic mulligan; the worst moments in life have always seemed short to me. Then why do those few seconds stretch into interminable time warps?
Linnea King had one hand full of the past week’s mail and the other held a cell phone to her ear while the world’s slimiest lawyer explained the destruction of her life in legalese. When her six-year-old daughter rolled down the driveway on a scooter just as a Suburban whipped around the corner, Linnea could only stare in horror.
Too late, too fast — she screamed “Avery! Stop!” and dropped everything. A mad dash for the street was futile, but she ran anyway. No no no. Please no. Tunnel vision — blond pigtails in focus. Shrieking brakes, tires skidding. Chrome interrupted the frame, and she knew the world was well and truly shattered—
Wait, what was that blur of motion? She shoved against the fender to get past, rubbed the moisture from her eyes, then froze. Pavement. Crashed scooter. One pink Mary Jane, flattened and smudged black. Where’s Avery?
The horrid silence was worse than the noise that followed. Car horn blaring. Shouting. Barking. Why barking? She couldn’t stop shaking. Linnea dropped to the ground and made herself look under the car. Four tires. More pavement. No child. The burn from the baking asphalt seared though her stupor, and she scrambled to her feet.
“Here,” came a raspy male voice. The speaker cleared his throat. “Ma’am, over here.”
On the opposite curb, sticking out from a bundle of large male limbs and a cloud of fur: the other pink Mary Jane. On the wrong foot, as Avery always did no matter how many times Linnea switched them back.
Avery’s shocked face peeked out. She blinked and looked around.
A man caged her in his arms as he rolled from the pavement to sit on the curb, keeping an enormous, hyper dog from licking her. A sharp whistle, and the dog-beast sat.
Linnea’s brain went from DEFCON-1 to just plain panic, which she could handle. “Avery, are you okay?” A lame thing to say. She held her arms out and crouched down, wondering why her daughter only blinked instead of throwing herself into an embrace. The occupants of the Suburban slammed doors. Linnea tuned out their shrill voices. “Avery?”
“She’s all right, ma’am.” Awl-raht. Texan drawl. “No harm, I think.”
The man holding Avery finally registered. The Marlboro Man’s ringer on a bad day. A really bad day, as in, the morning after a full moon and a lycanthrope gene. Linnea resisted giving him a blatant once-over and tried not to act startled, but he had the scraggliest, longest salt-and-pepper beard she’d seen since Duck Dynasty, and huge arms. Dirty, scraped, and his gray T-shirt smeared with grease. Pebbles stuck to the fabric, embedded in his skin. Sweat and blood and asphalt — proof of the devastation that so nearly could have been.
He leaned to wipe his head on his sleeve, leaving a smudge of blood from the scrape on his forehead. He probably thought it was just sweat. “Miz Avery—”
“I said my name is Rapunzel!” Avery protested, her lisp more severe than usual.
“At least you’re not named after a ski resort. Or an Irish pub. Girls these days are all Aspen or Boston or Riley. I don’t get it.” He pried the clingy little girl from his lap and held her out as though she had a toxic dirty diaper. “Sorry. That was inappropriate. I’m freaked out right now.”
Linnea crouched and patted Avery down and turned her around, finding not a scratch. One pigtail hung low, falling out of the rubber band. Even her glasses sat perched on her face, secured by the pink lanyard. A smudge of black caught her eye: a pattern of diagonal lines down Avery’s leg. Tire tread, from the sidewall. The tire had scraped her leg. Linnea’s breath hitched, and her gut twisted in knots. Not inches away from the unthinkable, but millimeters.
She muttered a curse that had never before come from her mouth, and her knees buckled. A strong arm supported her back and righted her balance. “Baby,” Linnea muttered and crushed Avery against her chest. She was so small. Tiny. One little girl versus a thousand-pound truck… She groaned — so close. Unbelievably close to the worst. She couldn’t handle the what ifs sneaking in, playing horrible images in her head.
“Hey, lady. So, the kid’s all right, huh?” A young man shuffled his feet. His SUV made an irritating beeping noise. He stuffed shaking hands in his pockets and averted his eyes once she straightened and turned her gaze on him.
She didn’t know why, but she looked to Werewolf Man for the answer. Good grief, he had a severe sunburn everywhere but the circles around his eyes, like goggles. They traded glances. Old-soul eyes, hard eyes, but not unkind. He had the look of authority, and his calm was exactly what she needed to keep from falling apart.
He nodded. Yes, Avery was fine.
“Yes, she’s fine.” Her voice sounded hollow to herself.
“Cool. Great. I mean…” The kid shook his head and blinked back tears. “Sorry. But I—” He smacked his forehead, a gesture meant to hide wiping his eyes. “I saw it, but I couldn’t stop.”
She noticed how young he was. Baby-faced. High school age, as was the girl huddled against his side, shivering despite the hundred-fifteen-degree Las Vegas weather. She sobbed quietly, mascara tracking down her face.
“I know.” Linnea had to swallow twice before she could say, “It wasn’t your fault.”
Felt weird saying it, which made her realize she did blame him for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Easier than blaming herself for being so distracted she let her special needs daughter out of her sight. She knew better. “It’s not your fault,” she said again to convince herself.
He made a laugh-cry sound. “Incredible, man. You were boss. I can’t believe you did that. Ninja skills.” He nodded at her Harley-biker-on-steroids neighbor, who unfolded from his crouch to stand. The dog moved to flank him, scanning the strangers warily then settling on its haunches.
Her neighbor seemed big. Not tall, not bulky — he was quite rangy, really — but a big presence. She felt like she should salute or something. The kid shuffled back a step and stuttered over what he’d started to say.
Sirens had been whining, but not until two patrol cars, a fire truck, and an ambulance crowded the street did she pay attention. Someone from the crowd of neighbors huddled across the street must have called 911.
Avery chose that moment to be frightened, first whimpering then bawling, clinging to her mother’s neck. Warm damp seeped through Linnea’s shirt and down her hip. She should’ve been ready for it, because Avery wet her pants whenever she got overwhelmed.
Her two older brothers Caleb and Jacob came running out of the house, staring wide-eyed at the flashing lights and crowd of anxious people. Linnea had to threaten to ground them for a month if they didn’t go back inside while she spoke to the police officers.
No, Avery didn’t appear to be hurt.
Yes, she had Down syndrome. Of course she was current on her digoxin meds for the heart murmur.
No, Linnea hadn’t really seen what happened. Why? Because she’d taken the mail from the box, turned her back and answered the phone. Mother of the year right here.
No, she didn’t want to press charges against the driver.
It had seemed to Linnea the kid was driving way too fast, but the officers determined from the skid marks it had been about twenty-five miles per hour. Legal.
Finally, Tara Tanner, her one friendly neighbor on the street, came over. She got Avery a change of clothes then went inside to keep an eye on the boys. A female paramedic gave Avery a fluffy pink rabbit, which finally made her stop wailing. Linnea tried to ignore the musty sunbaked urine smell in her nose, but the headache starting to throb behind her left eye demanded attention.
The professionals agreed no one was hurt after lots of poking and prodding. A twenty-something blond paramedic seemed to take her job seriously as she dabbed the scrapes on Wolf-man’s arms and head. He looked annoyed. The dog never left his side.
Linnea still hadn’t heard the story of what exactly had happened; everyone was too busy asking her questions. Judging by the handshakes her neighbor got and how everyone stopped to scratch behind the dog-beast’s ears, they were the heroes. Not hard to deduce the neighbor had been repairing the motorcycle in his driveway — tools and parts lay scattered there. Apparently the dog had alerted him to the danger in time for him to grab Avery out of the way. It had been close, obviously. A miracle. She owed him a world of thanks for risking his life to save Avery’s.
It didn’t really sink in, because nothing did right then. She was numb, except for Avery’s warm hand tucked inside hers. That felt real.
“Your dog is gorgeous. Full-bred?” one paramedic asked.
“German Shepherds have incredible instincts,” said one of the loitering neighbors.
“She’s an IED dog. Afghanistan,” Werewolf Man answered the people crowded around him. “Couldn’t leave her behind.”
She shouldn’t call him that, even internally. No one else seemed to find his disreputable appearance daunting. This was Las Vegas, after all. Land of plus-size spandex. As long as a person wasn’t streaking — all one could hope for in the dress standard — one got by.
Linnea declined an ambulance ride to the ER and signed a waiver, promising not to sue the city if Avery were to die of complications from the accident. What accident? Last thing she needed was to give the lawyers more ammo to prove her incompetence.
The kid’s grandmother arrived on scene and bawled him out, complete with a wagging finger and a smack on the shoulder. Not that he’d done wrong, but he was in trouble for scaring the bejeezus out his grandma. Linnea had the presence of mind to give the kid and his girlfriend a hug before they were herded away. No need for them to feel guilty over a tragedy that didn’t happen.
LV Metro was the last to leave, and Linnea stood clutching a carbon copy of the incident report, the most recent in a tall stack of papers proving she was a failure. She tried to convince herself she was the luckiest girl alive, having Ninja Man and his Super Dog sidekick for neighbors, and most importantly, an unharmed daughter. Thank God.
available Oct. 14, 2014 from esKape Press