Only One

“There was only one dead. Thank god.” The women spoke, phones lighting their faces vaguely blue, even with the harsh light of morning streaming through the train windows. They didn’t lean into each other. Just sat there in their seats, asses spread around their hips, talking about my dead wife like it was nothing. Just another news item.

Last night it was chaos. Twitter lit up about 6:42pm with reports of a shooter at the Pines Mall. For the next hour and a half, misinformation after rumor after joke spread across Twitter. It trended at #4. Not #1, not #20. A nice, innocuous, #4. I scrolled past it at least twenty times. Sitting in a train seat just like the one I was sitting in now. Only way I know it wasn’t the same one was I was going the other way.

The women chatted. One scrolled with the tip of her finger, her besparkled nail sticking up over the screen. It, too, bathed in pale blue light and assaulting my eardrums with its clicking as she tapped it on the screen. “Look at this. He tried to kill himself. Missed.”

The other one chuckled. “Couldn’t even do that right. He’s lucky more people didn’t get hurt.”

I sank further into my seat and tried to stare out the window. Watch the city pass.

Probably I didn’t have to ride the train all the way in from Mesa. Lora would have brought me at least halfway. There’s a train stop not three blocks from the school where she teaches.

Shit. Taught.

But I hated putting her out. 

“You’re not putting me out. I like riding with you. As long as you don’t talk to me until after coffee.”

And then she’d wink, and smile, and help me put my hair up. Always mothering me. She’d do my makeup for me if I let her.

You should see my hair today. I can see it in the window of this godforsaken train. Not a single strand stayed in the damn braid. 

Just once I should have gotten off at her stop and met her with her pile of papers to grade as she lugged her wheeled milk crate to the car. Just once. Maybe if I’d met her more, she would have waited more, and whatever it was she wanted at the mall would have been there another day.

“Oh look,” the other woman said, “looks like the little girl who got injured isn’t going to have any permanent damage.” She scrolled. Ghostly blue light shining in her eyes.

“Thank god. That’s a blessing. This could have been so much worse.”

I covered my mouth. Worse? For who? Didn’t they see my face?

The tears splashed off my bare arm. No need for jackets in Phoenix in, well, any month. But I shivered anyway. Lora would have been so glad the little girl was OK. Just out for ice cream.

And what was Lora there for? Who knows. Even I didn’t. There were a thousand and one things she wanted to get. Wanted to have. But living on a teacher’s salary, a thousand and two things she couldn’t have.

Oh god. Her salary.

My heart-rate raced. How was I going to pay the rent without her? 

I sat straight up, wet eyes wide. I couldn’t even make next month’s. If there were ever two women living paycheck to paycheck, it was us. Nothing even in savings.

Chest tight, I leaned forward. Fist balled in my gut and pressing my hot, empty insides. After everything we built together, I was going to lose it in…I pulled out my own phone to check the calendar.

I wish there’d been a time when her face was my lock screen. I’d like to tell you I was all sweet like that. Mine certainly was on hers often enough. I think the last one she set was the one where we did a couples zombie costume. Fake blood, about the only makeup I was ever any good with. That was a fun time.

I unlocked the screen, going for the calendar. But Twitter had a notification. And damned if I didn’t click on it.

It was nothing, of course. Just one of the people I’ve got on notify. A celebrity with a marathon to run. But I was there now, the app open, the news feed scrolling. Trending topics.

The shooting had been relegated to “what’s happening.” Beneath the trending topics. “One dead in Pines Mall shooting.”

Don’t click it.

I clicked it.

They hadn’t plastered her face all over the internet. Not yet. I guess I counted as next of kin but I asked them not to release her name until I called her mom. Not that we’d spoken to each other, my mother-in-law and I, in less than three years. The last time I tried, she made me feel bad for not spending enough money on her daughter. And for being gay. But that was more an undertone than anything. Something she’d been making me feel bad about for close to a decade.

God, close to a decade. Just one dead, and it had to be my Lora.

The slick feeling wormed around my stomach. Those chatty women smelled like that powder people wore. Had a slight after-smell of toilet paper. I could never figure out why they liked it, why they wanted to walk around smelling like a restroom. 

I should have let her drive me in. Then she would have waited to drive me out. We could have ridden together. Maybe she would have taken me to the mall.

Yeah, come to think of it. I wish I’d been with her. I would rather have died with her than be here, feeling this, right now. If I’d been the praying kind, I would have prayed for that. Let us die together.

I kept scrolling the story. Why.

His face popped up. Some stupid scowl on it. They mentioned some kind of manifesto. I didn’t want to read it.

Why I clicked on it and read it you can ask yourself while I don’t tell you what was in it. What does it matter? He took that anger and turned it inside out and shoved it at other people. But he was no good at it, and he only killed one of them. 

Only.

My eyes unfocused, I drifted. Planned to start packing tonight. That nice apartment all for nothing now that I couldn’t afford it. Back to that shithole we used to live in. But without her, it really would be a shithole. At least when Christmas came, she’d put up some cheap bulbs around the window, the three-foot-tall fiber-optic tree beneath them. Make homemade hot cocoa. Force me to pour it into little styrofoam cups for both of us as she drove us around all of Scottsdale, looking at lights on the fancy houses. 

Don’t forget the mini-marshmallows. Those had to go in the top of the little foam cup. Melt into the hot chocolate. Give us both mustaches that glowed green in the dash lights.

Fuck, what fun would Christmas be without her?

There was no way for me to ever know why they were in that mall at the same time. Ever. No one could tell me. She didn’t text me. She didn’t leave a note. She didn’t unpack her papers. Maybe she just wanted a damn Starbucks. It was her favorite kiosk within twenty miles. Despite the fact they couldn’t remember her order, at least it was the closest one with decaf espresso. She loved her decaf and wouldn’t let me or any other caffeinated asshole take it away from her. She said at thirty-seven, she couldn’t drink regular coffee at night anymore. Between never going to bed and getting up to pee she’d get like four hours sleep and that fifth hour was her heaven. 

“Oh, see, the woman who died was thirty-seven.” The phone crept ever-closer to the woman’s scrunched face. The train jostled her, but did she lower her voice when I sobbed into the palm of my hand? No. 

“That sucks. But that’s not too bad, thirty-seven.”

I clenched my phone hard enough to break it, it felt like. What was not too bad about never having another chance to ditch papers for just once and run up to the mountains with your best friend? The one who’d agreed to marry you and everything. What wasn’t too bad about never being able to finish the pile of papers at all? Never being able to see another student shine when you told them how wonderful you thought they were at writing? 

Because she did that. She made them feel special. She taught them about English but she also taught them about themselves. She listened to them, silly teenagers, when no one else would.

And she made me feel special. Like I meant something. My own mom hadn’t talked to me in a lot longer than my mother-in-law. I don’t even think she knew our new address. But Lora thought I was perfect, even though she knew damn well otherwise.

Oh, the life insurance.

My stomach leapt to my throat and stuck. 

The one thing we hadn’t cashed out to cover my student loan. The one thing. I could pay rent with the life insurance for a couple months while I worked on downsizing. 

Downsizing.

What an innocuous word for such an ugly thing. 

The train rolled to its next stop and I hit my head on the window hard enough to bring tears to the corners of my eyes. 

The cursed women spoke again as they stood, dumping their phones in their purses. “He came with so much ammunition. It’s such a blessing only one person died.”

Only one.

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