When they asked, I said the woman looked like she was sleeping. She looked like I did every night in my living room, dozing beneath the flickering glow of the television set. The clear morning light lit her hair a deep blue-black and etched shadows on the apple of her cheek. It was a very sweet scene, and I felt weird looking at her through the van’s back window, like I was spying on her in a private moment. That’s exactly what I told the paramedics. For all we knew, she could have been napping on her couch.
Except the woman wasn’t asleep. She was dead.
We were clumped around the beat up gray minivan in the middle of the shopping plaza parking lot. There were three of us still standing there, asking questions, not including the paramedics or the fireman. Only three of us, not including the dead woman, who was pulled from the van and hoisted neatly onto a stretcher not ten feet away from where we stood.
“Asphyxiation.” The fireman was in his early twenties. His red face glistened with sweat, brown hair slicked flat against his round skull. The sun baked off the pavement in hot, wavy lines, but he still wore his rubbery fireman’s coat. It smelled a little like a burnt tire. “It’s extremely dangerous to stay in a car in this kind of heat – it’s why it’s against the law to leave your dog out here, even if you’re only running into the store for a minute. It’s never okay, but especially not June in Florida.”
I nodded, though I already knew all this. It gave me something to do besides stare at the paramedics, who were taking vital signs in a slow, methodical way that implied the woman would never need them taken again.
“Did she kill herself?” Deanna was sixty-something in a pink velour tracksuit and bright white sneakers; the kind that looked like they’d been scrubbed clean with a toothbrush. She’d been the first to notice something was wrong with the woman, her scream as shrill as a scared child. A full grocery bag of produce was lumped on the asphalt next to her feet. The heat would likely bruise her apples.
“I’m not at liberty to say.”
“You’re not at liberty, or you just don’t know?” Bob’s hair was combed over in a way that showed wide stripes of scalp; it had flapped upright as we’d run across the parking lot, after Deanna had screamed and pointed at the van. Bob’s cologne smelled like the kind sixteen year old kids wore, an aerosol spray assault on the body before it assaulted anyone’s nose. “I bet you just don’t know. Covering your bases, right?”
The fireman shrugged. “I’m not at liberty to say.”
“Typical.” Bob crossed his arms. He was holding an electric blue Gatorade that sweat fat drops onto the front of his navy blue suit jacket.
The woman lay dead under a sheet while the paramedics prepared the emergency vehicle. They loaded their gear slowly and talked to each other, the woman’s body between them, on the stretcher, propped on the hot asphalt.
“This kind of thing happens more often than you’d think. Way too often.” The fireman jerked his thumb at the minivan with its wide, untinted windows and its bald tires, as if the shitty car was the root of the problem, and not the sweltering heat that was burning the soles of my feet through my thin canvas shoes.
I hadn’t thought I’d be out this long; I wasn’t even wearing a bra under my t-shirt, and the shorts I was wearing were actually boxers I’d slept in the night before. Marissa had asked me to pick up some orange juice and the tubed cinnamon rolls she liked, the ones that came capped with a miniature tub of frosting. Ever since my wife had gotten pregnant, I was at her mercy when it came to mid-morning cravings. I was a web consultant and worked from home. It was the second time that week that I’d been in the parking lot.
“Will we need to provide a statement?” I asked. My eyes kept drifting to the sheet, then skipping over it and settling on the paramedics. Safer to glance at their faces. Easier to look at things that were moving like they should, muscles bunching and contracting, their arms moving in perfect unison as they put away their equipment.
“No, I don’t think so. Maybe just you, ma’am.” The firefighter motioned toward Deanna, who was looking down at her bags of groceries, still sitting clumped at her feet. She couldn’t put them in her car. Too hot to keep the fruit from going bad. “The rest of you, we just need your contact information.”
My phone vibrated in my pocket as I wrote my name in all caps across the top of the fireman’s clipboard. The buzzing cut off then started up again almost immediately. Marissa, wondering about her cinnamon rolls. Probably imagining me dead in a ditch somewhere, or being put onto a stretcher. Like the one that held the dead woman, who was casually hefted by the two attendants, and put into the back of the ambulance.
“You all should move along. Go home or to work, wherever you’re supposed to be.” The firefighter wasn’t looking at Bob or me when he said this; he was guiding Deanna over to a bench cloaked by the parking lot’s solitary tree. I wasn’t looking at him, either. I was staring at the ambulance as it pulled carefully onto the street, no lights or siren.
While I surfed the TV for breaking news, I explained everything to my wife. She sat with her swollen feet up on the couch, clutching our ginger tom, Samson, who was so overweight that he had recently developed sleep apnea.
“Oh my god,” she said, convulsively stroking Samson’s fat, furry back. “Oh my God.”
“I know. It was awful.”
Marissa closed her eyes and squeezed the cat to her chest, his fat belly perched on top of her own, five months full of baby. His strangled mewls gurgled in his throat and she let up on her grip, but not enough to let him loose. “I can’t even imagine what that would be like. God. Dead! Was she young?”
“Yeah. I mean, our age. It was hard to tell, but I think so.”
Looking through that van window, what had struck me most about the woman was her profile. That’s what I thought of while I waited and watched hours of clips, sports scores, repeats of the daily weather report. Her image flickered over top of everything: dark ponytail spilling over the ratty cushion of the minivan’s backseat, her lips a soft, sticky red, cheek downy as a ripe peach. The stillness of her chest had unnerved me before I’d even understood what was wrong; the inaction superimposed over a bustling parking lot rammed full of carts and cars. Someone had laid on the horn while we’d peered in the woman’s backseat, which had scared me horribly. I’d put a hand up to my chest while Deanna shoved her own buggy out of the way, giving them the middle finger. Asshole, she’d yelled in her high, childlike voice. Everyone’s an asshole today.
The segment aired in the middle of the eleven o’clock news. Marissa had gone to lie down after heating up a rice sack for her back. Samson had followed her out of the room, his broad belly swaying just above the floor. The clip was so brief that I rewound it a few times to understand that was all there would be. The anchor with her blonde cap of hair sat perched behind the desk, a box reading “worked to death?” hovering overhead like a dialogue bubble from a comic strip. She passed off the story to a reporter on the scene, an eager young guy with dark, slicked back hair and a bright blue tie. He stood in the empty parking lot, near where I’d parked my sedan just that morning.
Where was the van? I wondered. Did they haul it to a wrecking yard?
Her name was Sylvia Rodrigues. The man gestured vaguely to the Dunkin Donuts on the corner of the lot, noting that the woman held three different part-time jobs in the area. She had a couple of kids, no husband. She was working to help support her elderly parents, who lived out of state and had health problems.
“It’s thought that the woman decided to take a nap in the hours between her shifts at Walmart and at this local Dunkin Donuts. Medical authorities suspect that her body succumbed to the heat while she slept, slipping into the coma that ultimately led to her death.”
A picture flashed on screen. I rewound and paused the frame, trying to correlate the two images in my brain – the woman shown on TV and the one I’d seen in the minivan. She had very white teeth and dark eyes that crinkled in the corners. The photo was grainy and looked out of date. I wondered who’d submitted it, if she was all alone, except for the kids. Did she have friends who helped her out? Then the segment was over, and it was time for the weather report again.
“Looks like some rain this week, huh? I could have told you that.” Marissa stood behind the couch, rubbing her temples. She got sinus headaches whenever a front came through, and they’d gotten worse with all the pregnancy hormones.
Her stomach was gently rounded at this point – five months along, her first pregnancy, my first pregnancy. We weren’t supposed to worry about money, but I did, constantly. Wondered about whether this baby would go to grad school or if it would need braces. How we would pay for things if my wife decided not to go back to work, and from the way she talked, it seemed like she wouldn’t.
“Can you pick up doughnuts in the morning?”
“I have a meeting with my clients.”
Marissa frowned. “That’s not until eleven. I didn’t even get cinnamon rolls today.” She cupped her belly, thumbs stroking circles at either side of what could be a boy or a girl. We wanted to be surprised.
No reason to say no. “Yes, okay. I’ll get them.”
Sylvia Rodriguez had one of both, a ten-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl. Maybe they would go into foster care. I wondered if Sylvia usually brought them doughnuts home from work, something sweet to wake up to for breakfast. If she leaned over them in their beds and kissed them goodnight, her breath smelling of coffee and her skin like cooking grease.
The Dunkin Donuts drive thru had a line that snaked around the building and into the parking lot, nearly blocking off the entrance to the street. The cars idled there, coughing exhaust in tandem, drivers hunched over their steering wheels and creeping along with no end in sight. I took one look at the mess and pulled into the nearest parking spot in front of the grocery store.
Locking the doors, I looked out across the lot to where Sylvia’s minivan had sat the day before. A puddle of dark, oily liquid stained the ground. It was the kind stuff that spit and seeped when the air conditioning wasn’t running properly; my old car had done that until Marissa had taken it in for a tune up. I stared at the spot for so long that another person pulled out of the line and into the parking spot beside mine. It was a mother with an SUV full of children, three of them in car seats. I waved to the kid nearest me, a little blonde boy with tufted hair sucking a pacifier. He stared at me blankly until his mother dragged open the sliding door and pulled the seatbelt over his head.
There were people five deep waiting to order, but only one person behind the counter. I stood at the back of the line and watched the doughnuts plucked from their wire baskets; plain cake, chocolate, seasonal varieties with red, white, and blue candy stars sprinkled across their tops. Sausage biscuits whirled and heated in the industrial microwave. Overlarge plastic containers churned milky frappuccino mixes that people ordered in plastic cups with domed lids. The woman behind the counter filled boxes, stuffed bags with paper napkins, poured coffees with cream and artificial sweetener. She swizzled stir sticks into cups before shoving them into outstretched hands.
Bright red hair frizzed underneath her brown visor. She looked at me expectantly as I approached the counter, brushing powdered sugar fingerprints off the front of her apron. Her nametag read Helen, but the tape that secured the name had peeled up at the back end until it read “Hel.”
“What can I get you?”
I looked at what was left and couldn’t decide. “Dozen, mixed. Whatever you have left.”
The pink and orange boxes were stowed under the counter. She assembled one without looking at it, staring through the plate glass window at the line of cars piled up at the drive thru window. She carried the box open-faced to the back counter, grabbing a tissue from a nearby bin and rapidly chunking doughnuts into the bottom. A bell dinged in the back. Through the gaps in the doughnut bins, a shadow figure darted toward the window.
“Pretty busy today, huh?” I debated asking for a coffee, even though I knew there would be a full pot waiting at home. There was just something nice about having someone else make it, having them mix in the cream and sugar.
“Yep. We’re short staffed.”
That was all she said about it, but I noted the missing half to her sentence: short-staffed because an employee had passed away very suddenly in the parking lot. Short staffed because Sylvia was never going to make her shift again. Hel handed me the box and I decided to go for the coffee after all, even though I knew Marissa would have something to say about it. As Hel poured and stirred, slipping on the plastic lid, I listened to the grumbles coming from behind me. A car horn sounded in the drive thru, two staccato bursts.
“Are you guys hiring?” I asked.
For the first time, she looked at me. Took in my face – my heavy make-up, my sensible gray business suit with the high-necked blouse. I had a meeting scheduled via Skype in an hour and the top half of me had to look presentable, even though I’d just put my sleep shorts back on and not wear any shoes, unless Marissa asked me to go out and get the mail.
Hel’s eyes narrowed. “For your kid? They gotta be eighteen, we need someone to pick up night shift.”
“Right.” I shook my head. “No. I mean, for me.”
She squinted further and I realized she was probably nearsighted. Her eyes were small and deep-set in her pinkly flushed face. She reached beneath the counter and handed me a paper application. I hadn’t filled out something like that since I was in high school, working at the ice cream place owned by my best friend’s parents. We’d both worked very limited afternoon hours, smoking weed in the back office and eating tiny bites of ice cream from the sample cups when we got inevitable munchies. I took my stuff and sat down at a pink and brown booth lodged one of the front windows. The table was still damp from where someone has swiped at it with a wet rag; the application dampened in one corner and I dragged it to a spot I dried with my sleeve.
Almost everyone who came inside took their stuff to go, in a hurry to get to work or back home. I sipped my coffee slowly and opened the doughnut box; selecting one of the patriotic sprinkled ones. I ate one bite of doughnut for each step of the application – where I lived, my last employer, my social security number. It was relaxing to sit while the world moved around me. My phone buzzed in my purse, but I ignored it. I ate another doughnut, a chocolate cake with sticky glaze that made my hands tacky and coated the pen I was using with sugary dust.
By the time I finished filling out the paper, I’d eaten four doughnuts and the line had dwindled to just a single customer waiting for his egg and cheese croissant to finish twirling in the microwave. The front of the store smelled like someone’s old running shoes.
I handed the application to Hel and she stared at it blankly. “You could have taken it home, filled it out there.”
“I can start as early as tomorrow.” I finished the last of the coffee – syrupy-sweet with the dregs of the sugar grainy against my tongue – and tossed it into the trash, which was near to overflowing.
“We’ll let you know.”
Hel called less than an hour after I left. I was in a meeting with my clients, a married couple who ran a gym. They were arguing over the web page header; the husband wanted something with weights in the image, while the wife was trying to promote for stay-at-home moms. It was the same argument they’d been having for three weeks. I left them to their squabble and muted myself out of the conversation.
“Would you be able to pick up a night shift tomorrow? I know that’s soon, but you said you could and we need someone right away.” Hel’s voice was tinny over the background noise of traffic. I assumed she was calling me from a cell phone out in the parking lot, maybe around the back where I’d noticed an employee entrance.
I rolled my chair over to the window and looked out to see Marissa clipping the side of one of our large bushes at the side of the house. She was in a one-piece navy bathing suit. With her pregnant belly, she looked a little like that girl from the movie who’d swelled up like a big balloon. “Yeah, that should be fine.”
“I’ve got an extra uniform here. Might be too small, but it’s all we’ve got. I’ll put in an order for you after you get here and fill out the rest of the paperwork.”
It could have been Sylvia’s. Maybe one that she’d left in the store, so she could change in the back, out of her other work clothes. “Okay.”
Marissa carried the clippings over to her little green wheelbarrow and dumped them in. As she brushed off her arms, clippings slipped onto the paved walkway and into the pool. I’d have to dig leaves out of the filter that night – the last time we’d had to call out a specialist to clean it and he’d given us a lecture. Ladies, you can’t just throw anything in this thing. It’s a filter, not a garbage disposal. He’d smiled as he’d said it, but it bothered me to hear him say “ladies,” like I’d go around just throwing banana peels down the damn thing.
“I guess I’ll see you tomorrow night. Call if you change your mind, I can’t do another day like today.”
“Sure thing.” The husband and wife were still arguing, both pixelated and angry on opposite sides of my screen. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but they were both making a lot of emphatic arm gestures. They hadn’t even noticed I’d left the conversation.
“Can I ask you something?” The sound of a car horn blasted through the phone. I wondered if the drive thru was backed up again.
“Yeah, of course.”
“Why are you doing this? I mean, we need the help, but your references show that you could get something better.”
Marissa waded into the pool, slowly, lowering her body down into the aqua until her head disappeared below the window frame. When I looked back to the computer, the husband and wife had finished arguing with each other and were staring at me.
“I need it.” I held up my finger to the couple, just one second, and the wife’s eyes narrowed. They paid me by the hour. “I don’t know why, I just do.”
“Fine. Don’t be late.”
Water lapped onto the deck as Marissa suddenly resurfaced, mouth-blowing mist as she exhaled. She collected the stray leaves and sticks, piling them at the pool’s edge. Then she rolled onto her back and floated to the center of the pool, her feet kicking lazily, arms churning white. Her belly poked up from the water like a dark island.
I unmuted myself from the conversation. “So, what did we decide?”
The apron was already stained with someone else’s grease. It was too tight in the waist, although maybe I’d just put it on wrong over my khakis. The visor’s brim made my hair puff strangely from the top of my head, resembling a mushroom’s cap. I thought Marissa would laugh if she could see me, but she wouldn’t. She thought I’d gone to book club.
Hel walked me around the front of the store, showing me how to work the register, talking to me about the process for operating the drive thru.
“Late night menu’s pretty basic, see?” Hel pointed to the illuminated sign over the drive thru – orders were limited to beverages and hot sandwiches, plus the ever-replenishing doughnuts. The whole store smelled like powdered sugar and leftover cooking oil. It made me feel hungry and sick.
Sylvia had come here at night and manned the counter, probably dozing under the humming buzz of the overhead fluorescents. My eyes felt dry and wanted to close against the electric brightness of the place. I wondered how often employees must have curled up in the sticky vinyl booths and just gone to sleep, waiting for the ding of the alert to let them know someone was waiting in the drive thru.
Hel was glaring at me, eyes narrowed into pie slits in her doughy face. I realized she must have been talking to me the whole time I’d been zoning out.
“Could you repeat that?” I asked.
“I said there are a lot of other people who could use this job, people with bills they gotta pay.” With her arms crossed, I could make out dense lines of muscle beneath the freckled flesh.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ll do better.”
“If I didn’t need someone right away, I wouldn’t have hired you.” She jerked her thumb toward the back. “Go get the mop and clean up, the whole front and behind the counters.”
Her face softened. “The good thing about this job is you get all the free coffee you want. You drink coffee?”
“Yeah, I’d love some.”
Hel pulled one of the big plastic travel mugs from beneath the counter and filled it from the oversized metal coffee urn. “This one’s yours now. Just bring it back with you, fill up whenever you want. Cream, sugar. Whatever. We even have those flavored syrups, if you’re into that.”
We spent the rest of the evening manning separate parts of the store. I cleaned up the back with the big mop and bucket, redolent of Clorox. The scent reminded me of the janitors in grade school when they’d had to mop up messes – spilled milk or vomit. Kids overflowing with fluids, all the time. Messy children that had no idea how their own bodies operated.
As I mopped, methodically, slipping the wet head from one corner to the other, I thought of Sylvia. How had she mopped the floor? Diagonally? Without thought for the task, maybe thinking of the next job she had to run to? About her kids at home, waiting in bed, wondering when their mom would be home to tuck them in? The pattern on the floor was alternating squares of beige, interspersed with a chocolate brown the exact color of my apron. I took sips of coffee every third swipe, the caffeine carrying me to a dizzy place that put me on edge. My phone buzzed in my pocket, again and again, and I ignored it, moving the wheeled bucket with my foot, slopping dirty water down into my socks.
“Can you pour me two large cokes?” Hel leaned back from the window. “Bring them to customers while I grab a dozen.”
The coke machine slurped cold fizz into the large paper cups. I pressed on the lids and carried them over to the window, opening the glass doors and letting in the heat and damp. The car was lower than the sill, and I had to lean through the window to pass the cups to the hands stretched up from the driver’s seat. It was a car full of teenaged guys, indistinguishable from each other in the dark, except for the driver. He had close-cropped hair and wore a red and black Bucs jersey.
“Straws?” he asked. The stubble on his chin competed with the white-capped acne.
“Right! Sorry, let me get those.” I could hear Hel constructing the paper box for the doughnuts—the flip and slide of the thick paper against the countertop. I grabbed a couple paper wrapped straws from the dispenser and headed back to the window. Leaning through, I saw the wide mouth of the cup was open. The lid was in his other hand.
Soda doused my face and head, the cold sweetness splashing in my mouth. I yelled, a strangled half-shout, half-yelp. As the car squealed past, the boys inside hooted and laughed. Ice rained down the collar of my shirt and into the front of my apron.
Hel ran in, took look at me, and ran back out. I followed behind her.
“Fucking animals!” Her face was smashed against the glass. When she looked back at me, there was a greasy print in the shape of her cheek smudging the window. “I got half their license number this time.”
Coke was dripping all over the floor I’d just mopped. Soaking through my shirt and pants. My ear began to feel numb, and I realized that ice was lodged in the crown of my visor. I threw it off and it skittered across the tile, sliding beneath the cash register. I shook off like a dog, walking into the back to wash my hands and face in the bathroom sink. After a minute of scrubbing, I dunked my head under the tap, too, just to rinse the stickiness from my hair.
Hel was mopping the floor when I emerged, wet and bedraggled.
“I can get that,” I said, but she ignored me.
“This is maybe the fourth time this year those little pricks have done this.” Her face was red and sweaty. She shoved the mop across the floor, throwing it back and forth, a near chokehold on the handle. “They got Sylvia last month. Someone posted a video on the internet.”
“Sylvia?” This was the first I’d heard anyone speak of her, someone who actually knew her.
“Sylvia Rodriguez. You probably saw on the news, she died in her car last week waiting for her shift.” Hel shook her head, mopped harder. The muscles on her arms stood out in angry, stark lines. “Dying in your car, waiting for some stupid job you don’t give a shit about that won’t even pay for groceries.”
Hel dumped the mop back into the bucket. “At least she got some rest.”
I remembered what it had looked like to see a woman sleeping in a car like that, the sweat making her hair cling to her neck. How the dampness made her skin looked soft and dewy, the same sweet sugary texture of a doughnut.
On the drive home, I shifted uncomfortably against the collar of the sticky uniform and watched the glowing gas stations zip past with their bright white lights and smudged concrete. The world felt hollow and empty, everyone mostly asleep, except for the few of us out driving carefully in the center of our lanes. In that dark span of time between waking and sleeping, my whole body was jittery and ill at ease; as if it knew what it was doing was wrong – a computer overriding the natural state of things, my brain was programmed to slide into unconsciousness.
I showered and fell into our bed, disrupting the cat. He mewled pitifully and wandered out to the living room while I bundled in behind my wife, trying to calm my shivering body. I fell in and out of sleep, bad dreams and thoughts crowding into my brain, a bubbling pot that wouldn’t quite boil over.
Marissa had left the bedroom curtain cracked, and some light from a street lamp puddled yellow on the floor by the side of the bed. I sat up and rubbed at my right shoulder, which throbbed in the socket, aching like it was ready to pull loose. Mopping the floors had left my muscles tender and wobbly, like gelatin that wouldn’t set properly. I was embarrassed. I couldn’t remember the last time my body hurt like that, as if it were punishing me for not working harder.
We needed a new mattress. The movement of my body rolled Marissa over into the deep groove in the middle. She rubbed at her back constantly, the pressure from the baby inside already pulling hard on the muscles at either side of her spine. Light from the window etched a wide white curve into her forehead. She looked very young, the glow smoothing out the tender, pale skin around her eyes. We had not touched much lately. Every time she came close to me, pressed a hand to my face, or rubbed fingers across my arm, I shut down, as if there was something in me that couldn’t bear skin-to-skin contact. She rolled over again in the bed, her hair spilling down between our pillows in a dark river.
It was no use staying in the room. Marissa was already murmuring something, on the cusp of waking, too, and she’d never get back to sleep. I got up and went out through the hall, leaving off all the lights. The door opened smoothly as I walked out of the house and onto the back porch.
There were noises puncturing the night air, crackles in the trees overhead, and sharp scrapes against the pavement that could have been pets or wild animals. Maybe a possum trying to dig into our trash. I wanted to go back inside the house, to lie down beside my wife, but I couldn’t make my mind shut down. I walked around the side of the house, barefoot, in only my sleep shorts and sports bra. The grass felt terrible beneath my feet, crunchy and full of dead things. Out front the cars sat, side-by-side, bathed in the lemon-yellow lamplight from the street. My car was locked, but Marissa’s was open. She had a shiny black SUV, purchased two months ago, back when she’d decided we should be sport utility moms.
All noise ceased when I closed the car door behind me. It felt like a vacuum; my own breath harsh in my head. I lay down flat, the center belt buckle digging into my hipbone. My muscles hurt. I turned onto my side and shut my eyes, envisioning what the morning would look like from the inside of the car, looking out at the sun from beneath dark tint.
Shadows flickered through my closed lids, and then there was a sharp tap against the glass. I sat up choking on air, my wife’s shape taking up the window. She opened the car door and the humidity spilled inside with me as she reached in a pulled me upright. My knees touched her stomach. Her sleep shirt was worn through – an old relic from a trip to the Bahamas with her parents after she graduated high school.
“What is this?” she asked, wrapping my arms around her waist. “Are you okay?”
Her belly sat between us like a warm lump of dough. I strained my own stomach against it, to see if I could feel movement, something tangible that could root me in the moment that already felt dreamy and disconnected from reality.
“I’m just tired,” I said. Her eyes were wide and scared, I kissed her cheek, rubbed my thumb across her bottom lip. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“Please come back inside. Come back to bed.”
“I can’t sleep.” I said. My eyes were hot and my cheeks throbbed. “My brain won’t shut off.”
Marissa led me back to the house, this time through the front door. Back into our bedroom with the light spilling through the curtain. I crawled up on the mattress, felt the weight of her dip behind me. She pulled the sheet up over our bodies as our legs tangled together. Her belly pressed against my back, a solid, reassuring weight. The baby nestled between us; I covered her body with my own, protecting everyone while I could.