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In Case of Emergency, Good Luck

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I wanted to throw the book out the window. I wanted to stand up between the seats and shoulder through the sunroof and yell that I'd married a sissy. Maybe that would make Nathan drop the please from his words and just take charge of things one damn time.

I got more serious about Nathan the first time he showed me Dance of Death. His hands dwarfed the small book as he laid it out before me, like a giant might hand you the heart of a dragon he stepped on by mistake. Nathan is a bigger man than most. Not fat, but broad-boned. I thought I'd found a man who could make me feel small, fit me fearlessly in a single hand. Now, though, Nathan wasn't looming like I thought he would.

"Nathan, look!" I held the book up in front of the mirror, bending the spine so far that it almost opened flat. "Death and the cobbler!" In the engraving, Death in his black robe peers over the cobbler's shoulders.

"Bess, the binding!" He looked sideways again, as if hoping to teleport the book out of my hands. Traffic sped around us, cars sliding back and forth between four lanes. Nathan gripped the wheel until tendons popped from the backs of his hands. He hunched forward like an old woman, unable to take his focus from the road.

The book opened wide with no resistance. The binding stretched and pulled like dough. I found it easy to forget, as I often did, that this was all that remained of someone else's mortal body. We were skirting reservation land, the casino billboards already flashing and burning even though it was far from night. Not a single person on this highway had human skin on their minds, even though we were all wearing it. Not even Nathan, not really, since all that mattered to him was preservation.

"Nathan, can we stop? I need to go to the bathroom."

He sighed and twisted his wrist until he could read his watch. Plenty of time before the famed conservator rested his tools for the day.

"All right," he said. "And then will you put the book back?"

"Make me," I said, snapping it shut.

A bus with a Dead Man's Hand painted on its side pulled into the Mobil station behind us. I waved the book at the Aces and Eights. Yellow letters on the front of the bus read FOXWOODS CASINO! Before Nathan even set the brake, I flung myself from the car and headed into the convenience mart. Across the lot, older women debarked in numbers from the gambling bus.

I strolled between the racks of Slim Jims and sunflower seeds, pressing the book to my chest. Plaster lighthouse sculptures perched on craggy granite bases lined the shelves, crafted in a wide array of sizes, the highest three feet. Death buys a bandanna. Death, for the first time, chews on Turkey Jerky. Through the station window I saw Nathan stand to stretch his legs, which would be cramped in any human vehicle. He turned in a slow circle by the front passenger window, shaking out his calves in careful jerks.

In the bathroom, I needed both hands to unbutton my jeans, so I lodged the book under my chin, gripping it to my chest until my jaw ached.

"Death takes a pit stop," I thought, thumbing through the book while I peed. This is the kind of woman I've become. My sister stuffs her magazine rack with Ladies Home Journal. Christmas isn't Christmas without a dessert to serve in flames is the kind of thing you learn while shitting at my sister's house. Nothing adorned the walls of this bathroom except for a medicine cabinet above the sink. A dog-eared bumper sticker slanted across its mirrored door: IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, GOOD LUCK.

People who purposefully abandon valuable books in interstate bathrooms shouldn't throw stones, my sister might say, if she saw me putting the book into the medicine cabinet. Once the cabinet door closed on the book, I washed my hands for a long, long time.

The next woman in line slipped in the bathroom before I left it. "Today," she declared, from somewhere below my shoulders, "I'm going to walk away with enough cash for a high-def TV."

"Really?" I said, "You know that?" But the bathroom door closed over any possible answer.

"Ignore Annabelle," said another woman outside, wearing rollers and a fur coat. "She judges her luck by which joint aches. Lumbar? It's all in, but ankle? Honey, don't even get off the bus."

Death rings out the slot machine. Death sees and calls. Casino-bound women crowded the hallway, and Nathan hovered beyond them.

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