I shook my head and stood up straight before pushing through the kitchen doors and waiting on my tables as if my heart weren’t broken.
I lay in bed that night, swearing to banish every memory of Taylor—the way he’d held me, the way his lips had warmed mine, and the way his voice had softened whenever he told me he loved me.
It was better than the agony of mourning him.
That went on for days, and each day he came in, I would tell myself it would get easier to see him. But it didn’t.
Just like Taylor had said, I had to accept that the constant ache was going to be a part of my day. I couldn’t waste another moment, another tear, on thoughts of him. His life had veered off the path we were on. If he wouldn’t let me forget him, I would learn to live with the pain.
The skies grew hazier every day, and reports on television were circulating the globe. The wildfires in our area were at a peak, the firefighters and hotshot crews seeing more occurrences than they had in a decade. Still, Taylor didn’t miss a lunch—sometimes, coming in as late as two or three, and other days, hurrying in while covered in soot and sweat.
By mid-July, Chuck and Phaedra were considering banning Taylor from the restaurant, but no one could justify it. He never caused a ruckus, he always ordered a meal, he always paid and tipped well, and he was always polite. He never approached me or even tried to initiate conversation.
Taylor would simply show up, waiting patiently for me to give in.
The Bucksaw had been closed for half an hour, and Kirby and I had just finished our nightly duties when Phaedra broached the subject of how to handle Taylor.
“You can’t ban him for loving Falyn,” Kirby said, disgusted with our conversation.
“It’s just not natural,” Phaedra said. “And it damn well isn’t healthy for either of them. He’s got a baby on the way. He needs to be preparing for that.”
“He’s a good kid, Phaedra,” Chuck said. “He misses her. He’ll go back to Estes after the season, the baby will come in December, and he’ll be busy.”
“I have always been honest with him. I want nothing to do with adoption,” I said.
“But this is his child!” Kirby screeched.
“No, you’re right. I don’t,” she said. “But that’s because it makes no sense.”
“We might be talking about his child, but it poses the same risks as adoption—risks I’m not emotionally capable of taking. She could come back. She could want joint custody or full custody. She could win, Kirby, and she could take the baby to California. I’m not willing to lose another child.”
She paused. “What do you mean … another child?”
Phaedra put her hands on my shoulders. “Falyn had a baby just after high school. She gave her daughter up.”
Kirby stared at me for a long time. “I’m so sorry.” Once the shock wore off, her expression twisted into revulsion. “I’m sorry. I really am. But he was willing to forgo a family for you, and you won’t even entertain the idea of a family for him?” she asked. “You think you’re saving him or whatever, but you’re covering your own ass. You’re scared.”
Kirby hopped off the stool, looking for something to clean. She turned up the volume on the small overhead television in the corner. Looking up at it, she crossed her arms.
“Leave her be, Kirby,” Chuck said.
“Falyn?” Kirby said again, scrambling for the remote and turning the volume to the maximum level.
The rest of us watched in horror as a female reporter stood in front of tall grass and burning trees not two hundred yards behind her while the words ALPINE HOTSHOT CREW FEARED MISSING scrolled across the bottom of the screen.
“That’s correct, Phil. The Estes Park crew who have traveled to the Colorado Springs area to help control this fire have not returned or reported in, and officials have listed them as missing.”
I rushed to the television, standing next to Kirby. In the same moment, everything I swore to forget came back to me—the way his skin felt against mine, the dimple that sunk into his chin, his laugh, the security I felt in his arms, and the sadness in his eyes when I’d walked away from him in the hotel.
“Cassandra, do officials have an idea where the crew is?” the anchorman asked.
“The last reported communication with the Estes Park crew was at six o’clock this evening, right about the time the two main fires converged.”
I grabbed my keys before sprinting out to my car. The moment my seat belt clicked, I twisted the key in the ignition and stomped on the gas.
Less than ten minutes later, Taylor’s hotel came into view. I parked and ran inside, immediately seeing Ellison standing with a crowd of firefighters and hotshot crew members from the entire state. She was watching the large flat screen with her mouth covered.
She ran to hug me, nearly knocking me over. She squeezed me tight, sniffling.
“I just heard. Any news?” I asked, trying not to panic.
She released me and shook her head, wiping her nose with a tissue she had tucked in her palm. “Nothing. We arrived just after seven. Tyler drove like a maniac. He’s out there with the crews, looking for them.”
“Because they have to be.” She held me at bay, forcing a brave smile. “I heard about the baby. First Maddox grandbaby. Jim’s ecstatic.”
“Oh God. Oh, no. Did you … are you not pregnant anymore?”
I stared at her, utterly confused and horrified. She mirrored my expression.
“You’re right,” she said. “This isn’t the time. Let’s go sit. Trex is getting updates every half an hour from his people.”
Ellison shrugged. “I don’t know. He just said his people.”
We sat together on the couch in the lobby, surrounded by firefighters, hotshots, and various officials. As the night wore on, the crowd thinned.
My eyes felt heavy, and every time I blinked, it seemed more difficult to open them again. The desk clerk brought us coffee and a plate of doughnuts, but neither Ellison nor I touched the food.
Trex came over, sitting in the chair adjacent to our sofa.
“Nothing,” Trex said. “I’m sorry. My guys only give visual confirmation, and they haven’t seen anyone in an hour. The helos are up with spotlights, but the smoke is making it difficult to see.” He glanced back at the desk clerk and then shook his head. “I’m going to call them in ten minutes. I’ll let you know the moment I hear anything.”
Ellison nodded, and then her attention was drawn to the entrance.
Taylor walked in, his skin caked in dirt and soot. He removed his bright blue hard hat, and I stood, my eyes instantly filling with tears.
I leaned forward, my body half-frozen, half-screaming at me to run to him.
Ellison jumped out of her seat and rushed past me, throwing her arms around him.