It’s the cigarette smoke that trails off the lit end and never gets inhaled. It’s the deer that hesitates beside the road instead of jumping into your headlights. To Grandma Cass, life was the sum of all the things that could have killed you, and didn’t.
When I was eight, Grandma Cass took me for my first trip into the city, an hour away by train. Waiting on the platform she smoked unfiltered Camels and told me at least half these rides ended in catastrophe. Her face looked skeletal in the sunlight and she gazed down on me with pale eyes.
“I been in one once,” she said, “a catastrophe that is. Only thing kept me alive was I didn’t have the panic in me.”
“What should I do?”
“Nothing you can do.” At that the locomotive skated into the station and she handed me my ticket.
We sat in one of the crowded cars and I looked around to take stock of the people on board. The weather had been dry for a while, and everyone’s traveling clothes were tinted brownish gray with dust. Except for a worried-looking young mother, these didn’t seem like the kind of folks who had the panic in them. They looked tired and bored, just like Grandma Cass.
I don’t think I said two words that whole ride. Trains sound different to me now, but on that day the whistle was a trumpet, the wheels clacking along the track were the hoof beats of the very end itself. I sat bolt upright, so still I didn’t even dare pray.
Once – only once – I braved a look sideways. I turned my head to the window, but before I could face the glass the world went black. Our movement felt unbroken and the sounds were closer in the darkness. I was dumbfounded by how smooth our transition had been. There hadn’t been time for fear, but cold guilt swallowed me so that I was numb. When we burst forth into renewed daylight I was confused, but filled with the second breath of redemption. I wanted to inspect the other passengers to see their reaction, but I dared not twist my head again.
There was a flurry of new sounds, and a spike of anticipation as we finally slowed to a stop. I looked around, expecting everybody to cheer that we’d made it alive, to hug and shake hands, but like Grandma Cass, nobody seemed too inspired by the luck of it all.
They all filed past, not one recognizing my confused and plaintive looks. Grandma Cass had fallen asleep and so I nudged her once the car had emptied and the fear of the train leaving with us still aboard surpassed my hesitation to wake her up. She was smiling, and it occurred to me I hadn’t ever seen her do that.
Everything was still, except for my eyes as they searched the car, my person, and Grandma Cass for some sign of what to do. My fists clutched her coat sleeve and I felt the baking flush of fever on my forehead.
But it was worse than that. I smelled urine and figured I must’ve wet myself, like a baby, Daddy always said. One shameful hand pulled itself away from my grandmother’s coat and searched the creases on my lap.
I was dry. And so I fell backwards against the window, my body limp as the panic flashed through me and evaporated like river water off skin in summertime. The air sat heavy and I realized that this here would be my very first catastrophe, and it had come to sit along side me, silent, without flames or screams or chaos.
[This story originally appeared in Amarillo Bay Literary Magazine]