After she’d been murdered…

My gut clenched and my heart gave a hard thump. The agony of that thought still caused me physical pain three years later.

The elevator vibrated again, strong enough to pull me from my thoughts.

The lights flickered overhead then went out, and my heart gave a hard lurch right before the small space plunged into darkness.

Pure panic washed through me, robbing me of my breath as I stumbled back. My hand hit a wall, and my imagination insisted I was trapped inside a coffin. Alone and surrounded by the stinking corpses of those I’d once loved. Blackness closed in, slowly choking me as I clawed at the roof of my casket like a crazed animal.

“Hey!” A woman’s voice, husky and beautiful, pulled me out of my waking nightmare. “Sir? Are you okay? Sir? ¿Hablas español?”

I tried to answer her, but the unrelenting black and the walls behind me furthered the illusion—trapped in a coffin, swaddled in wet cotton, drowning with weights strapped to my body. The air was thick—so fucking thick—and I couldn’t catch my breath. I swear, my heart felt like it was going to pound its way out of my chest, and I thought for sure I was about to die.

Then a miracle happened. A wet, cool nose nudged my hand. A dog’s nose. An unexpected sensation, it made my panicking mind slow down and process my environment. The blessed, solid weight of a good-sized dog leaned against my leg, and I let out a shuddering breath. A wet tongue licked my wrist, further pulling me out of my fucked-up head.

“Vali,” the woman in the elevator with me hissed, “Get back over here. Sir, please don’t be afraid. I know he looks scary—”

My voice sounded like I’d been gargling glass, but I managed a shaky laugh. “I have no idea what he looks like. I’m not a bat. I can’t see in the dark.”

“Oh, I thought you saw us when we got on. We…kinda stand out.” Her voice broke at the end before she quickly added, “Because of his size and his bright red service vest. Plus, he’s half lab, half pit bull, so some people tend to be a little intimidated when they see him. He’s all black except for a big white blaze on his chest. And he’s big, but I promise he’s a marshmallow. He’s the kind of dog that just loves everyone. I mean, I guess he intimidates people because he has an overbite and his teeth stick out sometimes. Wonder if I should get him dog braces? Do they make dog braces?” She gave a short, forced laugh, then said in a higher pitched voice, “Uh, I think I’m babbling, which I normally don’t do, so I’ll shut up now, but I promise he won’t hurt you. Please, don’t be afraid of him. It breaks his heart when people are scared. He’s got a gentle soul.”

The dog at my feet lightly butted my hand with his head, and I scratched behind his ears with trembling fingers. I didn’t want to admit it, but I was extremely grateful I wasn’t alone. If this mystery woman and her dog hadn’t been with me, I might have had a panic induced stroke. I had to get ahold of this shit. Take some damn pills and pass out for a few days to give my brain a fucking break.

“Are you okay?”

“Fine,” I growled as suspicion crept into my exhausted mind. “Why do you care?”

She sucked in a quick breath, one that somehow conveyed a sense of hurt. “I’m sorry…I just wanted to help.”

Guess her dog wasn’t the only gentle soul. Shit, I was acting like a complete asshole to some random lady trapped in an elevator with me. If Gracie was here right now, she’d cuff me on the back of the head for scaring the woman. It wasn’t the mystery woman’s fault fate stuck her with me in a broken elevator.

“Hey,” she asked in a tense voice, “Do you have a phone?”

Once again, the paranoia that came from feeling vulnerable reared its head. “Why?”

She gave a soft, nervous laugh. “I wanted to see if the cell towers were down, or if we could get a message out to someone that we’re stuck in here. The battery on my phone is dead, otherwise I would have used the flashlight during your panic attack.”

“I wasn’t having a panic attack.”

She cleared her throat. “Of course.”

Anger, and a big dose of denial, made me growl. “I wasn’t.”

“Look, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.” Her lush voice took on a soothing tone that made my bones want to melt. “I used to have them all the time. That’s how I recognized the sound.”

“The sound?”

“Yeah, the sound of your breathing. There’s…how to describe it? There’s a certain pitch to your gasps, a feeling of desperation like you just can’t get enough air in your lungs. Like you’re drowning. It’s a terrible feeling. I hate it.” The sound of a dog’s tag jingling along with a dog’s panting filled the small space. “Vali here has been specially trained to help me through my panic attacks. Honestly, if you’re claustrophobic, or afraid of the dark, or whatever, you couldn’t have asked for a better pair to be trapped with.”

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