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Real fear

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It was 6:15 p.m. and The Observer, on the road for work, had just settled into a motel room when the text arrived from a friend: Are you hearing this Paris shit? In fact, The Observer was not hearing it, having spent the afternoon driving through the Delta and poking around Lake Chicot and now gearing up for a wild Friday night of Pringles and Miller Lite in bed at the Lake Village Days Inn. Whatever this Paris shit was, it seemed unlikely to make the evening any better, and so The Observer narrowed his eyes, put the phone face down on the table and cracked open a beer.

The thought lingered: How long could one sustain a deliberate ignorance? Could news media be avoided until bedtime? Turn off the phone and the computer, buy more booze and stubbornly watch fake disasters on the SyFy channel all night. A motel room is made for denial, anyway: illicit affairs, dead-end drug binges, fugitives. Isn't that what you're paying for — opacity? Seize the wand and whisk those burgundy drapes shut across the face of the world; this Paris shit is gonna come seeping in sooner or later, so why not at least keep it at bay for the rest of the night?

That resolve lasted perhaps 90 seconds or so before curiosity and habit won out. Laptop cracked opened and there it was. "Scores." Not "multiple victims," not "up to a dozen," but "scores." A page refresh and the headline morphed and swelled to fill the top of the screen, blared in 72-point disbelief: Over a hundred. Over a hundred dead. Over a hundred.

And then, abruptly, a realization: Wait. What about Liz?

See, The Observer has a friend living in Paris. Someone who likes a good concert. Someone who'd check out a soccer match. Someone who'd love to try a popular Cambodian restaurant. Someone who'd go out on a Friday night and be alive in a beautiful, global city. Her Facebook wall was already sprouting a growing huddle of anxious posts, people in Little Rock and elsewhere, telling her to hurry up and check in, please.

There in the Lake Village Days Inn, The Observer sat alone and felt just the tiniest whiff of what was choking France that night: actual terror. Real fear, for a real person, not just the vicarious ache of strangers' tragedy. The obvious reason why Liz wasn't online was that she was probably asleep, given the seven-hour time difference. But The Observer had been schooled from infancy in the fine art of concocting irrational fears, taught by a master practitioner — a woman whose considerable creative potential is almost wholly devoted to imagining hideous deaths for her two children. The Observer's mother can spin the most banal occurrences into gargoyles of certain calamity. An unreturned phone call? There's been a home invasion. You've got a cold? No, sorry, I'm afraid you have leukemia. Many years ago, when The Observer's much-older brother was away at college in Fayetteville, his weekend visits home were inevitably prefaced by anxiously awaiting his belated arrival late into the night. He was supposed to be here two hours ago, she'd say, eyes red and raw. Those roads are awful. I know he's dead. I just know it. So Liz, of course, was doomed.

The Observer compulsively checked Twitter for news updates — a bad idea generally, and especially ill-advised when one is tense and angry. Several unfortunate social media engagements later, The Observer switched to watching grim faces on cable news rehash the slow drip of facts out of France, then talked online to another friend equally upset about Liz. This turned out to be helpful, since the best way to stop worrying is to be forced to soothe someone even more worried than you. You'll see. She's just asleep. A few beers later, The Observer fell asleep, too.

Around 2 a.m., a messaged buzzed in the dark, and there was Liz — in bed the whole night, of course. Safe, like so many others weren't. There, in Paris, she'd pulled off the trick that couldn't be managed in Arkansas: of knowledge deferred, of remaining blissfully ignorant of the latest atrocity for just a few hours longer. Now, while we slept in the U.S., there she was, waking up into a new day full of war and murder and fear, real fear.

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