The lettuce I was pushing around my bowl on lunch break was becoming less and less appealing. Breathing became a task as the familiar feeling of a vise grip around my chest hit me. As I jumped out of my seat, I was suddenly thankful to be the only one who had brought their lunch and stayed in class to eat. With no idea where I was going, I flung open the door and ran down the empty hall. The walls were closing in and I just needed some open space, because I was suffocating in a room full of oxygen.

I knew it was a panic attack, having had enough of them in my life to recognize them by now. But that doesn't make it any less terrifying, nor does it do anything to calm me down. And this was my first attack in years.

My thoughts had been all over the place during my solitary lunch. Here I was sitting in school for cosmetology while my grandfather was wasting away, the hole in the side of head growing bigger and deeper, the smell of death ever-present.

And he'd started hemorrhaging Blood would start pouring from his head, and there was no way to stop it. The doctor had already told my grandmother that that might be the way he goes.

How could I be sitting here studying the science and structure of hair, waiting for that phone call that he'd bled to death? I couldn't handle it. It was eating me alive. This anxiety. I'd started questioning my desire to do something so frivolous as cosmetology. My thoughts had become hell. And I'd never learned the art of reeling them back in.

Pulling my cell phone from my scrub pocket, I dialed my dad's number with stars in my peripheral, struggling to breathe. Maybe he could calm me down. Having suffered from them severely in his twenties and off and on all his life, he knew what it was like to have a panic attack.

I winced when it went straight to voice-mail, which meant he was somewhere on the farm that didn't have cell reception.

At a new wave of panic over not being able to get a hold of my dad, I reminded myself that Alex was just on the other side of campus and if I really needed him, he'd come.

But I didn't call him. I had to get this under control myself.

So I told myself I was okay, in this moment right here, even if the near future was already crumbling. I was okay.

For now. For now, I was okay.

Clinging to that thought, I walked back to class and tossed the rest of my lunch in the trash.


The Fifth

The wooden steps bowed and creaked as I ran up them and across the front porch, looking like a gothic nurse in all black scrubs.

Alex was following me, covered in petroleum. We were on a mission to get this Friday night started, but I needed to lose these clothes and he was in need of a shower.

It was February of 2009 and Alex and I had just gotten out of school, where we were both enrolled in technical college. Alex for diesel mechanics and me for Cosmetology. Since that past summer I'd been working in a hair salon, shampooing and bookkeeping, and I loved it.

So, we had stopped by my dad's house first for me to grab clothes. After running up to the front door, I swung it open and left it that way for Alex.

About to sprint down the small hallway to my bedroom, I was stopped by my dad, who turned around in his chair at the kitchen table to give me the kind of look you never want to get from your dad. "Hey, come in here. We need to talk."

As he walked through the door, Alex's eyebrows shot up as he heard my dad's choice of words.

I was mentally going through every possible thing I could've done in my entire 19 years that my dad didn't already somehow know about. I'd obviously done something.

My dad turned back around as he heard Alex come in. "You too, Alex."

Scratch that. We'd obviously done something.

Alex looked like a deer in headlights.

My step-mom Marcia, brother Marvin, and sister-in-law Shayna were all sitting at the kitchen table with my dad. What looked at first like a family meeting, turned out to be a game of Rook, as I got closer and saw my dad dealing out cards for a new hand.

As Alex and I came to stand beside my dad, Marcia eyeballed me closely with a hint of a smirk on her face, eyebrows slightly cocked.

Oh, boy.

Continuing to deal out cards without looking at us, my dad asks, "You got anythin you wanna tell me?"

When I looked at Alex for help, he was mirroring my panic. Next, I tried my brother who was giving me the you're-about-to-step-in-shit look.

"Uh, no... I don't think so?" Brilliant.

Dad looked at me from the corner of his eye without turning his head, eyebrow raised. "You don't think so?" Heavy emphasis on the think.

Shayna was covering her face trying to stifle a giggle. Glancing at Alex, I saw he was just as confused as I was.

Stone-faced, my dad shook his head at her and her laughter dried up, "Nothin new with your sister?" He asked me.

One sister in particular, the one who barely measures five feet tall and in her senior year of high school, was the topic of which I was trying to avoid because I'd been sworn to secrecy or eternal damnation. So, I played dumb. "Which one?"

"Which one?" Both of my dad's eyebrows were now up high. "Which one, she asks?" He was talking to the audience at the table who hadn't even bothered to look at their hands now that dad was through dealing out the deck. The cards remained where they'd landed.

Marcia was trying not to giggle now, but my dad's death stare doesn't work on her and she can't stop.

I'm so confused. And so is Alex who is half-smiling, half-grimacing, unsure of what kind of situation he willingly walked into.

"The pregnant one." My dad turns and looks at me now.

"Oooohhh." Alex slips.

Laughing in mock disbelief, my dad looks at Alex. "Oooohhh?"

Desperate, I chance another look at my brother who just shrugs his shoulders and laughs.

Finally feeling some pity for Alex and me, my dad lets up. "Your sister came by a little earlier to spill the beans."

Well, that explains it. I let out a sigh of relief. "Oh."

My dad eyeballs me. "Said you and Alex knew long before anyone else."

"We were sworn to secrecy." I look at Alex who backs me up with a nod.

"Sworn to secrecy..." With a laugh my dad shakes his head.

After everyone had a nice laugh over Alex and me sweating bullets, I changed clothes and hightailed it back out the door to Alex's car.

"God, that was awful. She could've at least warned me!" I muttered as Alex slid into the driver seat, me into the passenger.

He was shaking his head as he jammed the key in the ignition, "I'm gonna kill Kim."


Strange Creatures

My PawPaw is the white haired boy on the far right, sitting on the railing next to the post.

Stumbling a little, he was trying to walk to the house, my dad and uncle Dwight on either side ready to catch him if needed.

Kim's voice broke as she put her arm around my waist, "We're really gonna lose him aren't we?" And she began to cry. Putting my arm around her shoulder, I led us off from the crowd.

My dad's brother, his only sibling, my cousins, my siblings, parents, and grandparents were all gathered at an old country home that had been owned at one time by my grandfather's family. Because it was on land originally belonging to the Cherokee before they were forced out during the Trail of Tears in 1838 and 1839, the house had been restored in the 50's and made a part of a historical site, called New Echota, for the Cherokee. There's a picture from 1928 with my grandfather's family all gathered around the front porch of that house.

And the reason we were back now, in the fall of 2008, was because my grandfather was going to die. Recreating that picture from 1928 with all of us before my grandfather was gone was important to my grandmother.

His lifetime was spent in the sun, breaking his back as a poor southern boy, a young WWII infantryman, and a farmer until the day he could no longer climb into a tractor. Though an intelligent man, he lacked the desire to wear the chains of a 9-5. And so, built a life with his blood, sweat, and tears.

Dad had barely been able to get the words out of his mouth, "Your PawPaw's got skin cancer. Its gone too deep this time to do anything about. Doctor said he's got six months to a year left," before I was attacking him.

"How could you not make him go to the doctor?" I cried.

My grandmother tried interjecting, "Baby, we tried."

With his face red and his nose flared my dad fired back, "You try makin your PawPaw do somethin he doesn't want to!"

"He was tired of being cut on." My grandmother said, as if that should explain why the man outside feeding the cows was going to die.

I'd been so angry. So angry that no one had dragged that stubborn man to the doctor, kicking and screaming. I didn't care what he'd wanted.

But my grandmother didn't want to lose her husband of 62 years. Neither did my dad want to lose the man that'd raised him. They'd done all that they could.

Strange creatures, us humans. Lashing out in pain and inflicting pain, like it solves anything.

My grandfather was already struggling, a slacked face on one side, a hole forming in front of his left ear where they'd done radiation. It had taken away his ability to taste and he'd cursed the whole damned process, and was growing weaker everyday.

And as I watched him being helped by my dad and uncle, stumbling from the golf cart that had driven him out here to the house; that's when I realized it was over. The stable, unchanging foundation I'd found in my grandparents was crumbling. Because people die. Even when we don't want them to. And no matter how hard we fight it, we can't avoid change forever. This is life, not some storybook where everything turns out okay by the last chapter. Sometimes in life, the ending sucks.

My family posed for that picture. And it and the original picture from 1928 were framed in huge frames and gifted to my grandfather, his last Christmas present.

You should've seen his lopsided smile.



Sitting in the library, I was attempting to accomplish something in one of my on-line classes, wondering what the point was when I heard her behind me.

"Amanda?" The sound of her saying my name made me cringe inside. I'm not sure if she was an intimidating woman or I was just easily intimidated. Probably both.

Turning around in my seat, I looked up at her. She didn't smile.

"I talked to Ms. ----- [my guidance counselor] and I've decided if you finish the class project and have it turned in by Friday, I'll pass you."

Relied, shock; I'm not sure what was registering on my face. "Do I come back to class?"

She shook her head. "No. Just finish the project." And then she turned to leave.

"Thank you." I don't know if she heard me, but I'd never meant those two words more than in that moment. And I had no idea if my guidance counselor had gotten down on her knees and begged on my behalf or if perhaps Mrs. Burten was more merciful than she seemed. Whatever had happened, I thanked the Lord that I still had a chance at that diploma.

And at the end of May in 2007, when my principle called my full name from a stage that nearly all of my 320 classmates had already crossed, it sounded like the entire stadium erupted. Shaking, I reached out for my diploma. My principle surrendered it with raised eyebrows at the volume of screams from the stands, "You're popular."

I smiled. To count the friends I'd managed to make in my graduating class, I only needed both hands. But I had a big family, a church family, and an even bigger Mexican family in the crowd. And one really loud boyfriend sitting directly in front of the stage. For all my social awkwardness, I was still loved. And those people out there screaming for me knew just what it had taken for me to get here.

The ceremony ended soon after that.

As my class proceeded out of the stadium, our teachers lined up in rows on either side of our procession line, smiling and congratulating students as they passed. I hadn't been there long enough to have a relationship with many of them, I'd done my best to keep my head down and just graduate. But as I passed Mrs. Burten, we made eye contact and she raised one eyebrow.

And then to my disbelief, she smiled.


Mud and the Muck

I slammed my hands against the steering wheel as I sat under that red light in the dark. The green glow of the clock in my dash told me I was late. Too late.

The urge to slam my forehead to the steering wheel as well was strong. It was my own fault. Nobody but my own. I'd turned the alarm clock off, I'd rolled back over and accidentally gone back to sleep.

If it hadn't been for my dad checking on me this morning, I'd never have made it this close. But not close enough.

"Three strikes and you're out," she'd said. This was my third strike. "Don't even bother showing up late the third time," she'd warned the handful of us that were taking her zero block economics class at the ungodly hour of 6 in the morning.

It was still dark. And it was raining. Of course it was raining.

Was there a more fitting way to kiss my chance of a high school diploma good bye? It was my senior year with two months left until graduation. Not enough time to fix this.

When the red light turned green I could turn left and sit alone in the school parking lot for 2 hours until school started or I could go home and explain to dad how I was a massive failure. Or I could turn right and be in Alex's driveway in 90 seconds. He wouldn't be awake this early, but I turned right anyways.

I killed my headlights before I pulled in, parking close to the road at the end of his drive trying not to wake anyone. Two unanswered calls assured me he was still sleeping or had lost his phone, which happened with decent frequency with Alex.

After slipping across the muddy yard and finding the front and side doors both locked, I headed towards the back of the house, bypassing the sliding glass door that would wake the dead in China. My sweatshirt was getting heavier the longer I was standing in the rain and my shoes were a mess. Alex's house was all one level but his bedroom window was still way above my head. So I ran across the backyard for the garage and found an old metal chair that I dragged under his window.

Alex never locked his window, so it gave when I started pushing the pane sideways. I leaned my head in, and saw that his bedroom door was open. I'd have to be a ninja not to wake the entire house. I pushed into the window, my backside and legs still getting drenched. His bed was directly under the window.

"Alex," I whispered but as I watched he didn't stir. So I whispered a little louder, "Alex!"

That did it. He bolted upright and his eyes looked a little crazy as he registered someone hanging over his head. "Daddy!" He yelled. I'd never heard him sound so terrified.

I nearly choked laughing. "Shut up, Alex!" I hissed. "It's me!"

His eyes adjusted and he realized it was me. "What the-?"

The tension fell out of his shoulders and he collapsed back onto his bed. "Ay Dios..." After taking a few deep breaths, he looked up at me. "What're you doin? Get in here." He rolled over giving me room to get in.

Reaching back through the window, I slipped my shoes off before half climbing, half falling into his bed. After dropping my shoes to the floor, I walked over to his door and peeked into the dark hall to make sure his dad wouldn't be coming to shoot me with the shotgun, then closed the door and locked it.

My teeth were chattering when I turned back around. Alex held the covers up in invitation. I shook my head. "I'm soaked."

He gave me a sleepy grin. "Lose the clothes."

"Yeah and when your sisters break in, that'll be great."

"Well, just get over here."

Tossing my sweatshirt to the floor, I crawled into his arms wet, cold, and deflated.

"What were you doing screaming for your dad?" I laughed.

"What else was I s'pose to do? Yell 'mommy'?"

I shook my head and smiled as he hugged me closer.

"What're you doing here anyways?" He whispered into my hair.

"I was late. It was my 3rd strike."

"Did you even go to class?"

"So she could just throw me out? No."

"You don't know. Maybe she woulda let you in."

"No she wouldn't. She already kicked Gary out for being late the third time."

"You never know."

"She hates me."

Alex sighed.

"What am I going to do now?" I whined.

"We'll figure out something."

"What is there to figure out? I'm done. I'm not going to graduate on time. I can't do anymore time next year. I wasn't cut out for high school." I started crying.

"Shhh," Alex squeezed me.

"All this time I've wasted-"

Alex cut me off. "Hush, Mandie. Being so negative is bad for you. Just calm down." He kissed my forehead. "Go talk to your counselor this morning."

I mumbled an, "Okay."

But it wasn't okay. I was scared and it was all my fault. I'd done it to myself, solidifying the fact that I was incapable of getting it together. The chance I'd had to graduate on time by taking this extra class, online classes, and summer school had been a giant waste.

Alex fell back to sleep as I laid on his chest listening to the rain. As tired as I was, I couldn't relax enough to sleep. An hour or so later, alarm clocks starting going off down the hall and his parents and sisters started stirring.

Someone tried the knob and then there was a bang on Alex's door. "Get up, Alex!" His sister shouted as her footsteps pounded down the hall.

Giving me one last squeeze, he slipped out from under the covers, cussing and shivering in his briefs. He started pulling jeans and shirts out of his closet in a fury. Dressed, he headed for the door and paused with his hand on the knob. "You coming?"

"Maybe I should sneak back out the window."

"Unless you parked down the street, they've already seen your car."


Alex grinned. "Come on, I'll make you pancakes." He threw the door open and was gone.


Fast and Hard

I fell in love with Alex. It wasn't the slow, burning kind. But the fast, and hard, and intense kind. The kind that had our parents shaking their heads and muttering things under their breath. He wasn't white. And I didn't speak Spanish.

But despite their hesitancy to like any member of the opposite sex their kids brought home, Marcia and dad liked Alex. Everyone liked Alex. It took concentrated effort to not like Alex.

It was like he knew, that given enough time, everyone was helpless to his charms. I'm not sure he ever met a person he didn't like.

Before Alex, I'd never ridden in a car with every part of my backside touching the seat. The fastest he could go was never fast enough. A grease monkey, he'd take anything that would crank apart just to put it back together again. The endless hours of joy he could find under the hood amazed me. His hands and forearms were a permanent shade of black no matter how hard he scrubbed.

Alex loved life. The way I'd never seen anyone before. There was a fire in him. He was like a little kid, excited and amazed by everything.

And he loved me. I never did figure that one out.

Whatever we were made of, Alex and I were different. I carried a lot of ugly around with me, and Alex carried none. Where I resisted, he accepted with open arms.

But he loved me. Damn, he loved me. My heart never stood a chance.

Because his was so big.

A year or so later, we were racing down the back road from my dad's house, headed to town when he slammed on the breaks. I couldn't see anything wrong that the headlights were illuminating.


"You see that bunny over there?" He pointed into the opposite lane. And yes, he used the word bunny.

Sure enough I saw what looked like a bunny. A dead bunny. "I think it's dead."

"I swear I saw it move." Alex leaned over the wheel, eyes squinted.

The bunny moved.

"There! It's alive!" Alex threw his door open and was almost to the bunny when a car came flying around the corner.

Alex waved his arms like a madman, yelling for the oncoming car to stop. But he had to dash back out of the way as the car never slowed down and ran right over the bunny.

I slapped my hand over my mouth.

Alex hung his head, bent down, and gently picked up the now, positively, dead bunny. He walked over into the grass between the road and the woods and laid it down.

My hand was still clamped over my mouth when he climbed back into the car. I handed him a bottle of anti-septic and he looked over at me.

His face was completely devoid of expression, but his eyes were staking me. "Are you laughing?"

Unsure of the answer myself, I shrugged my shoulders and said, "I love you," muffled against my hand that I refused to move.

He just shook his head. "I'm not sure I still love you."

But his mouth was tugging up at the corner as he put the car in first.


Picking at Threads

That January, mom called. "I'm coming home for a while."

Back to Georgia.

She'd said my grandmother needed help for a while, and that she and my step father were having problems that she hoped space would somehow solve. Which didn't come as any surprise since they'd been having problems long before there had been a marriage to blame them on.

"Does this mean y'all might move back to Georgia?" I was praying I was wrong.

"No, Ward will probably never leave Colorado."

I'm not sure how obvious my relief was. If I never saw the man again, it would be too soon.

"I don't particularly care for Georgia myself." She'd continued. But she was stuck. Everyone that cared about her wanted to be here, even if she'd wanted nothing more than to leave.

When I'd walked onto that airplane, bound for Georgia, I'd accepted that my mom might always be with Ward. And I'd told her I was never coming back, that I would never have anything more to do with that man. I'd accepted that whatever relationship I had with my mom from that point on would be strained. That I'd only want to be a part of half her life and that her husband was never welcome in mine.

And I drove it home when I told her that one day when I had kids that they were never going to visit their grandma's house, because my kids would never be exposed to that man.

"Okay." Was all she'd said.

I'd told myself it would be enough. That if she always chose him over me, that I'd accept it.

But it all started to feel like a lie. Because it would never be enough and it would never be okay.

Mom came home that February, moving in with my grandmother. As weeks turned into months, I started asking her when she was going back to Colorado, to which she always replied, "I don't know."

Soon, she had a job and had moved into an apartment 20 minutes from my dad's house. For the first time since I could remember, my parents lived in the same town. I could see both of my parents in the same day. I could eat breakfast with one and dinner with the other. I could wake up at my mom's house and go to bed that same night at my dad's. Was this what normal kids' lives were like?

And as time went on and Winter turned to Spring and Spring into Summer, my mom stayed. I started to hope that maybe the marriage that had been the worst thing to ever happen to me was finally receiving the justice it deserved.