David was standing at the counter at the cafe -- waiting on his burger and fries, along with a tuna melt and a side salad for his pragmatic, sometimes health-conscious husband -- when he heard it.
A godawful screeching noise, then a crash and a murmured, “Oh my goodness,” from the old woman at the table by the front window, followed by a much more urgent and substantially less well-mannered, “Holy shit,” from Ronnie, who had been having lunch with Jocelyn on the other side of the restaurant.
By the time David had turned to look over his shoulder toward the windows, Ronnie was halfway across the cafe, her jog quickly turning to a dead run as she pushed her way through the door and headed straight for Rose Apothecary, which now had what appeared to be half of a sensible, beige sedan sticking out of one of the front windows.
David blinked twice, just to make sure that what he was seeing was real and not some bizarre nightmare of a hallucination, and when he opened his eyes a second time and the world had still not righted itself, he felt his fight or flight instinct take over. His heart pounded in his throat as he ran across the street without even checking for traffic, his racing thoughts focused on one thing and one thing only: Patrick.
Patrick had been on a stepladder by that very window, dusting the shelves and stocking the bath bombs, when David left to pick up lunch. David had teased him about his choice of a side salad instead of fries, asking him if he was trying to stave off the “marriage fifteen” now that they’d tied the knot and settled into their perfect little cottage in the country. Patrick had rolled his eyes and said, “No, I happen to like vegetables, because they’re good for you. You should try them sometime.” David had jokingly threatened to order him fries anyway, justifying it by saying they’d just be fat and happy together, as he’d left the store, maintaining eye contact with Patrick as long as possible on his way out the door, watching his husband shake his head and smile as he went back to dusting and stocking.
Now, the stepladder was nowhere to be seen, and neither was Patrick, as David neared the front of the store they had both poured so much of their hearts and souls into over the past couple of years. David careened toward the door -- or what was left of it -- at full speed, crashing into Ronnie, who intercepted him and held him back, her hands gripping his wrists tightly.
She said something to him, but her words failed to compute amid the melee in David’s head, which was currently feeding him one catastrophic scenario after another at breakneck speed as he struggled against her. All he wanted was to get inside the store, so he could find Patrick and see that he was okay. So he could feel Patrick’s arms around him, a calming presence assuring him that everything was going to be alright. So Patrick could take charge, in the way he always did, and David could breathe again.
Then, he caught a glimpse of brown hair with the slightest tinge of auburn, and all of the air went out of his lungs. Slowly, as if he was afraid of what he might see -- and maybe he was -- his gaze traveled down from the familiar coif of short curls that he’d run his fingers through that very morning, to Patrick’s face. His eyes were squeezed shut, brows furrowed and lips pressed tightly together in an expression of obvious pain as a small trickle of blood made its way across his forehead and down his temple. He was breathing hard, clenching his jaw, and seemed to be trying to open his eyes but was apparently unable to do so for more than a second or two at a time. Broken glass, remnants of shelving, and ruined inventory were scattered around Patrick’s head, shoulders, and torso, while the bottom half of his body appeared to be under the front end of the car.
“Patrick!” David’s voice came out shrill and desperate, his throat straining to put out the volume he needed to get past the sounds of the pandemonium around him -- urgent voices and sirens and the engine of the goddamned car that had just driven through the front of their store.
David continued to fight against Ronnie, even more desperately now that he could see Patrick and knew that he was in pain and needed help.
“It’s -- not -- safe!” Ronnie’s words, spoken through clenched teeth as her fingers dug more deeply into David’s forearms, finally broke through his consciousness just as Patrick’s eyelids fluttered open one more time, this time managing to stay that way.
Patrick’s eyes darted around, seemingly taking in the scene around him before settling on David, who felt like he might as well have been miles away from his husband instead of only a few feet. Patrick lifted his right arm and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger as he closed his eyes briefly, the muscles of his jaw twitching beneath his skin as he breathed. He opened his mouth like he wanted to speak, but all that came out was a pained moan.
“The firefighters are coming,” Ronnie said, her mouth mere inches from David’s ear as she adopted a calm, even tone that David knew was probably supposed to help calm him as well, though there wasn’t much of anything that could have calmed him in that moment. Ronnie loosened her grip on his wrists just slightly, but didn’t let go, and she didn’t move out of his way. “They’ll be able to make sure the building’s stable, so they can get him out. He’s breathing, and he’s moving his arms. That’s good. Those are good signs.”
David felt like the world was spinning around him, colors and objects blurring into one another as sounds blended together into a cacophony of chaos that only seemed to be getting louder and louder inside his head, when the only thing he wanted to hear was the one thing he couldn’t -- Patrick’s voice. His chest felt tight and tears pricked at the corners of his eyes, and he didn’t even realize he was gasping for air until he heard Ronnie’s voice in his ear again: “Breathe, David. Nice and slow. That’s it. There you go.” He felt her tug him away from the door and down the sidewalk a few feet, her touch now much more gentle, but still firm, with no room for escape. He wanted to fight her, to stay right where he was and somehow break free so he could get to Patrick, but he felt like every ounce of strength had drained out of him in the last several seconds. (Or were they minutes? He couldn’t tell.)
“Let’s sit down,” she said, her voice still steady and calm. “They’re almost here. I can hear them. It won’t be long now.”
It wasn’t until Ronnie had lowered him to the bench that he realized he was trembling, and that his face felt damp. He’d barely managed to take another slow, shaky inhale and exhale when Stevie’s voice broke through the bedlam.
“Oh my god, David! Are you alright? What happened? Were you in there? Where’s Patrick?”
Stevie’s barrage of frantic questions -- far more words than she usually spoke at one time -- pelted against David’s consciousness, bouncing around in his brain as his grip on reality became more and more precarious by the second. Giving in to the panic wasn’t an option, though; he had to stay strong -- stay present -- for Patrick. He wanted to answer -- to tell Stevie that yes, Patrick was in there, and he was hurt -- but he couldn’t make his voice work, and trying to speak only made his breathing speed up again. His heart was still pounding in his chest as a fire engine came screaming around the corner, sirens blaring and lights flashing, only adding to the overstimulation of David’s senses and making him want to curl up into a ball to get away from it all, even though he knew he couldn’t, because Patrick needed him.
David wasn’t sure of exactly when Ronnie’s hands had transitioned to Stevie’s, running lightly up and down his biceps, grounding him as his best friend crouched in front of him, concern clearly etched on her face as she glanced back and forth between David and the firefighters gathered at the front of the store.
“Is Patrick still in there?” she whispered, as if she was afraid of the answer.
David closed his eyes and nodded, bowing his head as he tried to just fucking breathe against the heavy weight that seemed to have set up permanent residence on his chest, making that simple task all but impossible.
“Oh god,” Stevie murmured as she moved to sit beside David on the bench, wrapping her arms around his shoulders and pulling him into a hug.
She sat there and held him for what felt like an eternity as the sounds of power tools screeching and grinding melded with urgent voices shouting to one another.
“Just a little bit more!” one voice said.
“We need to stabilize that beam first!” said another.
More thumping and hammering and sawing followed, and David still couldn’t bring himself to look. It wasn’t the fact that their livelihood -- their pride and joy -- was being destroyed. That didn’t matter. What he didn’t want to see was his husband’s face through the window, screwed up in pain as firefighters and paramedics worked frantically to get him out.
Stevie’s arms around David kept him grounded; kept him from spiraling out inside his own head, following worst-case scenarios down a never-ending rabbit hole of death, despair, and destruction, uninhibited by the fact that he’d literally just seen Patrick with his own eyes and knew that he was breathing and moving around. A lot could happen in just a few short minutes where trauma was concerned. David knew that. He’d watched enough rescue shows on television to know that every second counted and things could turn on a dime, especially if there were internal injuries. He tried to push those thoughts away, knowing that he couldn’t go down that path because he’d probably never find his way back, and instead chose to focus on the feeling of Stevie’s body against his own, holding him close, as he breathed. Slow and steady. In and out.
He focused his attention on counting each inhale and exhale, and he’d just made it to 29 when Ronnie’s voice broke through his awareness once again.
“They’re in,” she said. “But it’s going to take them a little while to get him out from under the car. He’s asking for you. You can sit with him if you want, until they get him out, but you’ll have to wear this.”
David raised his head and focused his gaze on the firefighters’ helmet in her hand. Under normal circumstances, there was no way in hell he’d be caught dead with a dirty, yellow plastic hat on his head, probably full of sweat and germs and god knows what else, but these were not normal circumstances. With still-shaking hands, he accepted the helmet and put it on, trying not to think about what was mingling with his hair or what he must look like, but at the same time finding that he didn’t actually care, if it meant he could be with Patrick. Touch him. Know that he was okay.
Ronnie’s arm guided David through the gaping hole at the front of their store where the door had once been, almost holding him up as his legs trembled, threatening to buckle under his own weight.
Patrick’s lips turned up into the tiniest of smiles when he made eye contact with David, the ever-present warmth in his whiskey-colored eyes still tinged with pain.
“Hey,” Patrick whispered, his voice gravelly. “I’m alright.”
David huffed out a wet laugh as he knelt down carefully beside his husband, trying to avoid as much glass and debris as possible. “You most certainly are not alright,” he said, the corner of his mouth twisting upward into an ironic smirk. “Nothing about this is alright.” He waved his hand in a circle, gesturing toward the ruined shelves and the broken jars to their right, and the car that still concealed the lower half of Patrick’s body. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you’re under a car, and there is a car inside our store.”
Squeezing his eyes shut for a moment, Patrick sucked in a sharp breath through his teeth before letting it out slowly and shakily, blinking his eyes open again, this time with a sheen of unshed tears. “I know,” he breathed. “Believe me, I know.”
A paramedic on Patrick’s other side clipped a pulse-ox monitor to his right middle finger and said something to him in a low voice that David couldn’t quite hear, before she slipped a cervical collar around his neck and clipped it shut, adjusting the straps as Patrick closed his eyes and breathed through what looked like another wave of intense pain.
“You can feel your legs, right?” David whispered, almost afraid of the answer.
Patrick tried to nod and couldn’t, responding instead with a breathy, “Yeah. A little too well.”
David let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding, as Patrick reached his left arm up to wrap his fingers around David’s. The paramedic continued monitoring Patrick’s vital signs while a pair of firefighters moved closer to them, jacks and jack stands in-hand. David couldn’t miss the way Patrick’s eyes widened when he realized what they were about to do, so he elected to continue trying to keep the mood light, for Patrick’s sake.
“You know, I leave you alone for five minutes…” he teased, giving Patrick the wry grin that never failed to make him laugh or at the very least smile.
“Well, Twyla’s tarot cards failed to predict this one,” Patrick said, through gritted teeth as the firefighters slid one of the jacks under the car in a position that was very, very close to Patrick’s right hip.
“If I’m remembering correctly, you told me those cards were, ‘Hooey,’ and I immediately asked you if I’d married an 85-year-old man by mistake.”
“What can I say; I grew up in the sticks, with June Cleaver for a mother.”
“I’m pretty sure your mom is way more progressive than June Cleaver. And I bet her chocolate chip cookies are better too.”
Patrick laughed, then grimaced. “Fuck, that hurts.”
David tightened his fingers around Patrick’s, stroking his thumb over the back of Patrick’s hand. They both watched the firefighters for a few moments, silently observing as the floor jacks were operated in tandem, moving the car upward at a glacial pace, stopping after every inch to further examine the situation and make sure Patrick was doing okay. David’s gaze was aimed at the slowly growing gap between the car and their beautiful hardwood floor -- trying to get a good look at Patrick’s legs while attempting not to catastrophize based on what he could or couldn’t see -- when Patrick’s voice suddenly drew his attention back.
“You know, the hat’s a good look for you. Very… rugged chic. You should ask if you can keep it.”
“Mmm… I’m well aware that this look is all sorts of incorrect, thank you very much. But I did it for you.”
“Your noble sacrifice is greatly appreciated,” Patrick deadpanned, drawing a laugh from David that honestly, they both probably needed. “You know,” he continued, a mischievous grin playing at his lips, “I would totally… you know...” He let his voice trail off, but the twinkle in his eye told David exactly what the rest of that sentence would have been, were they not in what Patrick would term “mixed company.”
“Are you seriously coming on to me, when the required extremity is categorically inaccessible right now? Need I remind you that you are currently under a car?”
“Not for much longer,” one of the firefighters cut in, causing David’s cheeks to warm slightly at the idea that he might have overheard the rest of their exchange.
“Did you hear that?” David asked, knowing full-well that he was pointing out the obvious, which made him cringe a little, but he wanted to distract Patrick in whatever way he could. “They’ve almost got it.”
“Good,” Patrick grunted, before closing his eyes and taking a few pained breaths. “I feel like I’ve been here forever.”
At that moment, the car moved upward a few more inches and one of the firefighters shone a spotlight toward Patrick’s legs, illuminating what looked like quite a bit of blood on Patrick’s Levis, particularly the right leg -- the lower half of which laid at an angle that was rather disconcerting, to say the least. Patrick tried to sit up and look too, but the paramedic quickly yet gently pushed him back to the floor and onto the backboard that she’d already placed under his upper half before David got there.
“I need you to stay still,” she said calmly, keeping her hand on his shoulder. “I promise we’re going to take good care of you.”
Patrick closed his eyes and took another unsteady breath, prompting David to squeeze his hand one more time. “I’m right here,” David murmured. “I’ve got you.”
Patrick kept his eyes closed the entire time they were sliding the backboard the rest of the way under his body, squeezing them shut just a little bit tighter and groaning through clenched teeth when they got to his lower legs and inadvertently jarred the right one a bit.
“Sorry, sorry,” another paramedic said. “I know it hurts. We’ll be able to give you something for the pain once we get you out of here.”
Patrick swallowed hard, and David reached out to smooth Patrick’s hair back off of his forehead, which was sticky with sweat. “You’re okay,” David said softly, choosing to ignore the fact that that was absolutely a lie, in favor of continuing to offer comfort to his husband in whatever way he could. “You’re gonna be okay.”
Patrick didn’t respond verbally, but he did squeeze David’s hand, and that was enough.
Seconds later, they had Patrick completely out from under the car and were transferring him to a stretcher and taking him out of the store while David followed, his legs still more than a little unsteady. He hadn’t realized just how many people had gathered on the street outside until they all gave a collective cheer as Patrick emerged from the store on the stretcher, moving and breathing and just fucking being alive.
A part of David wondered what had happened to the driver, who was nowhere to be seen, but he knew no one would be able to tell him anything anyhow, so he shook his head and chose to focus on Patrick -- on holding his hand as they loaded him into the ambulance, and keeping him calm. Stevie had tears on her cheeks and in her eyes as she stood close by, chewing on the edge of her thumbnail. David gave her a tight smile, and she nodded -- both of them participating in a wordless conversation that conveyed a simple message: “It’s going to be okay.”