A SINGLE BREATH • by Rasmenia Massoud

Somewhere between sculpting spray and shampoo, he blips onto my radar. Shiny white hair like a quartz stone. A shabby olive cardigan and standard brown grandpa slacks. In a breath, he levels up from another faceless shadow in the background to uncomfortable menace.

That’s how long it takes to swing from ordinary routine to absolute dread and anxiety. A single breath.

The squeak of his loafers becomes a threat somewhere around the moisturizer. I glance up from the list of ingredients on the tube, blinking at him without interest or curiosity. I offer a pleasant smile. The kind you give strangers without involving any thought or feeling. A defensive reflex masquerading as a cheerful greeting. I drop the lotion in the red plastic basket hanging from my elbow and move on to the next aisle.

Leaning over to pick up a toothpaste, here come those noisy shoes again. I straighten and there’s the old man, grinning. His own basket is empty, except for a lonely box of tissues. I scurry around a display of meal replacement bars, making my way over to cosmetics, sure that whatever is going on with this guy won’t follow me to lip gloss and eye shadow.

But he does. Holding his sad little basket out to me with one hand, he grips some crumpled dollar bills in the other. The wad of bills looks damp.

“Excuse me,” he says, “but I was wondering if you could help me. If you could carry my basket through the store… I’ll pay you for your trouble.”

“Oh, uh… I’m sorry.” I’m conscious of my face twisting into a tight, consoling smile. “I have to… I mean, I need to be somewhere. Maybe one of the employees can–“

He waves his hand. His head droops, chin falling to his chest. “That’s all right. Thank you anyway.”

Sucking in a big inhalation, air has become a solid, uneven thing that resists my effort to pull it inside my body. That’s how much air it takes to plummet from a bit nervous to sweat-soaked panic. A single breath.

At the register, I struggle to avoid looking at him, at the spots on his forehead, on his shiny skin, as he shuffles in and out of aisles. Making small talk with the cashier and doing my best impersonation of me as a relaxed person, I pretend I don’t notice him staring at me over the top of a pyramid constructed of humidifier boxes. I wonder why he isn’t asking another shopper or an employee to help him. Why he isn’t using a cart. Why he chose me. Predators don’t wander drugstores dressed like doddering old grandfathers. Monsters aren’t frail and aged with shuffling feet and cloudy eyes.

In the parking lot, the heavy weight of the help I didn’t give pulls from the inside and I begin to sink. I tell myself not to feel ashamed, that self-preservation comes first. I tell myself an old man acting weird in the store doesn’t equal danger. Keeping my eyes on the automatic glass door of the drugstore, I tell myself there’s no way to be certain, only animals have a clear understanding of which among them is predator and which is prey.

The amount of time it takes to regret mistaking one for the other: a single breath.

Rasmenia Massoud is from Colorado, but currently lives in England, where she writes about what she struggles most to understand: human beings. She is the author of three story collections and some of her other work has appeared in places like The Foundling Review, The Lowestoft Chronicle, Literary Orphans, The Molotov Cocktail, Sunlight Press, Flash Fiction Offensive and Underground Voices. Her novella, Circuits End, is forthcoming from Running Wild Press.

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