Safety First

Disclaimer: All names have been changed to protect the innocent from my mind.

I wish my daughter would run out of her classroom and up the cement path, or fly. I wish she could fly from her school to my arms. I want to bypass the awkward waiting with adults that I only vaguely recognize as the parents of so-and-so. I nod pretending to know the kid they reference. All the kids look too similar; I blame the masks. Tobi is the last one, usually the very last one out of her class, packing up her backpack. 

“Who should I call for?” The yard duty asks me, but I can’t see Tobi. 

“She’s not out yet,” I say with my unseen smile. The smile is not genuine, so I know my eyes aren’t reflecting an inner spark. 

It’s my least favorite time of day, listening to small talk and if, gawd forbid, somebody should attempt to make small talk with me. Two parents seem to really enjoy their ongoing conversation. Every morning they pick up in a similar place and chuckle at their accounts of the happenings the day before: 

“Oh, Jimmy is so funny!” 

“So is Lucas!” 

“Jimmy hates wearing pants even in freezing weather—” 

“I know, right. That’s my Lucas.” 

“Yesterday, get this, as soon as we get home he takes his sweats off and puts his basketball shorts on! It was 38 degrees outside!” 

“No!” 

“You know what I did?” 

“What?” 

“I folded those pants and put them back in the drawer.” 

“Hahahahaha, oh, hahahahaha, so good!”  

I analyze their laughs and determine they are genuine. Unlike our weather changes, 38 degrees one day and a high of 80 the next with high winds. One winter day does not a winter make.  I amuse myself thinking about the drastic weather shifts in California, until I notice Marshal’s mom inching towards me, at least I think she’s inching towards me. It’s a phenomenon I’ve been noticing over the last few days.  

Marshal’s mom arrives at the exact same time as me and has a daughter who’s as slow to leave as mine. We are probably close to the same age, but I do that thing where I feel younger, so I make same-age women a little older in my mind. During Covid, it’s easy to tell when somebody is inching closer because distance is a mandatory thing, hypersensitivity to it is the norm. Nobody says a thing, but the first to cross the street isn’t a game of chicken, it’s a courtesy acknowledged with both head nods and a wave. Waving is back in style as a result of Covid. Waves are the equivalent of shaking hands in the air. 

“This is crazy, right? All of us waiting out here; doesn’t seem safe,” the woman who’s been inching closer says to me like we’ve been in conversation. I’m not sure how to respond, so I nod. “My daughter’s in third grade; we came from Bellflower. This is her first year here, I think she’s happy. Is your daughter happy?” “I think so.” C’mon, Tobi, come save me from this banality! I seem nice. That’s my problem. On the outside, I must look inviting. It’s an odd conundrum. Odder still that I feel the way I do, yet continue talking, “Yes, we’ve been happy with this school. It’s her first year too. We really look forward to the end of Covid, so she can have full days and play on the playground.” 

Why did I share so much?! It’s my other curse. I try to hold myself back but put me in the heat of a moment and I go overboard… overshare…overdo…I’m overdone.  

Finally! I can make out Tobi’s pink vest and cowgirl boots. She’s loading her turquoise backpack; the distance gives her a watercolor effect. Then again, it could be my eyes. I’ve been blinking more to ward off the blurs as they come. Sometimes they aren’t blurs, but light prisms that appear in the corners of my vision. These are harder to blink away, but never last. Strange mysteries start taking residency in my body after forty, I’ve coined them UFOs (unidentifiable failing obliques). I’m using obliques loosely here because I need the acronym and that’s how my brain works. What are words really if not something to play with? 

An odor suddenly singes my nose hair; I jolt my head from side to side trying to identify the culprit. I turn a complete 180 and am face to face with a trashcan fire. Loose embers whip in the wind’s fury. Sparks shoot towards rooftops and the dry Pines on schoolyard grounds. Where was our warning? I can hear sirens in the distance. The parents are in slow motion scrambling around me, yelling—I can’t make out words—I’m focusing on Tobi’s pink vest, as I sprint past the gate, down the ramp, and across the blacktop with its painted lines marked for fair play. Three kids are left waiting for pick-up and mine is one—a branch crashes down in the four-square area I left moments ago, the flames heat the asphalt, “Tobi! Tobi!” I’m screaming her name, but I don’t know what I expect her to do. The heat is blazing. I wonder if my hair is on fire when I am finally close enough to grab Tobi’s wrist. 

“We have to get out of here!” Tobi’s scream matches my own. 

“What about Marshal? Did her mom come?” 

“Yes, we were just talking!” I run, clinging to Tobi’s wrist. I look over my shoulder and see Tobi’s hair bouncing in my peripheral vision as my gaze finds Marshal’s mom frozen where we had both been standing; I can’t tell if she’s on fire. 

“I’ll call them when we’re safe,” I yell returning my focus to the direction we’re heading—opposite our house—opposite the fire. My plan is to make it to Rancho Wash, run alongside it and if need be, jump the fence and hunker down close to the water. I’m outta my head with crystal clear thoughts. Tobi is leaping behind me, taking longer strides than natural as I pull her off her feet. Her eyes are open so wide, the color seems rescinded into black sockets. My imagination terrifies me as I turn my daughter’s face into a hollow mass of orifices that are swallowing her freckles, her flesh, the joy that keeps her aglow. I can’t look at my fear’s feast. “Pretend we are flying!” I yell to the space in front of me while the fire’s crackling deafens my senses. Tobi trips, my back foot kicks her inadvertently. I feel the thud against my heel, the crack. Is it an ember in the tree bark or a bone in her face? We have to survive. You have to be okay. Tobi’s not yet to her feet, crying out for me to stop, but I can’t. I’m a gazelle, no, I’m Bambi’s mom rushing out of hell’s fury. 

By the time I stop, the smoke is not accosting my lungs, my eyes no longer burn, but my entire body is convulsing. My teeth are chattering from the settling shock. “Tobi?” “Tobi, honey, we made it. We’re safe now.” I say, reaching to pull her close. She recoils like she used to as a toddler when a stranger would kneel to talk with her. “Tobi?” I see her for the first time now, dirt and blood smeared across her face, eyes hollow sockets, and a bright red handprint where my grip seized her wrist. “Tobi? Love? I want to keep you safe; I had to get us to safety,” my voice breaks mid-explanation. Tobi inches closer to me, timidly, like she wants me back but doesn’t know me. After fifteen minutes in silence, aside from our labored breath, she rests her head on my chest, putting her limp arms around my waist. She whispers: “Safe? From a trash fire? You hurt me the whole time.” 

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