It wasn’t Taylor but Tyler. I’d only felt that much devastation one other time in my life—the moment Olive was pulled from my arms.
Matching clean streaks ran down Tyler’s cheeks as he hugged Ellison, shaking his head.
Tyler rushed over to me. “Taylor’s crew was cut off when the fires converged. It’s possible that they could have backed themselves into a cave, but … the temperatures are … it doesn’t look good, Falyn. I tried. They dragged me out. I’m sorry.”
He hugged me, and my hands fell limp at my sides.
There were no tears, no pain, no waves of emotion. There was nothing.
And then my knees buckled, and I wailed.
By morning, Ellison was lying on Tyler’s lap, asleep, while he sipped his fourth cup of coffee. His eyes had been glued on the television screen, just like mine.
Fresh crews came downstairs, ready for a second search-and-rescue mission. Tyler’s team had all trudged in and gone upstairs to catch what sleep they could.
Trex stood at the desk with the woman who had brought us coffee all night. His team had turned in two hours before, waiting until daylight before resuming their air search.
“I have to go to work,” I said. “I can’t sit here anymore. I have to stay busy.”
Tyler rubbed the back of his neck, like Taylor would when he was upset or nervous. “I’ll let you know the moment I hear something.”
“I’m not sure they’ll let me. I might have punched one or two people before they removed me from the area.”
Tyler’s eyes glossed over, and his bottom lip trembled. His head fell forward, and Ellison touched his shoulder, whispering words of comfort.
I made my way out to the parking lot, moving in slow motion.
The drive to the Bucksaw was a blur. I had no thoughts. I didn’t cry. Everything was automatic—breathing, braking, turning.
My parking spot was taken, so I parked elsewhere, but by the time I stepped onto the tiles of the dining area, I had forgotten where.
I shuffled across the floor in the same clothes I’d worn the day before, my apron still tied around my waist.
“Dear Jesus,” Phaedra said, rushing over and hooking her arm behind me. She escorted me to the kitchen. “Any word?”
Kirby burst through the swinging doors, covering her mouth when she saw me. Chuck, Hector, and Pete stopped what they were doing and stared.
“Nothing. They forced Tyler to … they called off the search just after midnight. They headed out again this morning.”
“All right. Kirby, there’s a bottle of pills in my bag, point five milligrams. Bring it upstairs. C’mon, baby girl, you’ve got to sleep.”
I slinked out of Phaedra’s grip. “I can’t. I have to work. I have to stay busy.”
Chuck shook his head. “Honey, you’re in no state to wait tables.”
“Then Kirby and I can trade for the day.” I pleaded with Kirby with my eyes.
“Please!” I screamed, closing my eyes. “Please. Just let me work. I can’t go upstairs and lie in that bed alone, knowing he’s out there somewhere.”
Chuck nodded to his wife, and then she dipped her head.
Kirby pushed through the double doors, going straight over to the tables. I tended to the hostess station, bussing tables and cleaning the floor between customers.
A family came in—a father with tattoo sleeves on both arms, the mother with no tattoos, and two girls and a boy, all three kids under six. The youngest, maybe six months, was snuggled against his mother in a Boba Wrap as he slept, and I choked back the unexpected emotions that seeing him induced.
I seated them at the back table where Taylor had been seated for the last two months and handed them menus. “Kirby will be your server this morning. Enjoy.”
I froze when I recognized the man standing by the hostess station as Taylor. Covered in thick mud, he was still wearing all his gear, including his pack and hard hat. The creases next to his eyes were the only skin on his face not covered with soot.
He took a step, removing his hat. “They said you waited all night at the hotel.”
I couldn’t respond. I knew if I opened my mouth, all I would be able to do was bawl.
“Is it true?” he asked, his eyes glossing over. He fidgeted with his helmet.
Everyone in the room was staring at the filthy man who reeked of campfire, and then they all looked at me.
As soon as I nodded, my legs gave way, and I fell to my knees, my hand still cupped over my trembling lips.
Taylor rushed to the floor, falling onto his knees, too.
He touched my cheeks, and I hugged him, pulling him to me, grasping at his clothes like he might be taken away from me at any moment. I let the sob break free, my cries filling the café.
He held me as long as I needed, allowing me to hug him as tightly as I wanted. His coat and pack were hard to navigate around, but I didn’t pay attention to that. I just grabbed whatever my hands landed on and pulled him against me.
“Baby,” he whispered, looking down at me. He wiped my face, probably smudged from the layers of ash on his skin and clothes. “I’m okay. I’m here.”
“Yeah. He’s the one who told me you were at the hotel. Who knew he would be such a big fucking baby when it came to me?” He smiled, trying to lighten the mood.
“We holed up. Let it run over us. Used our fire shelters. Finally crawled out this morning.”
I hugged him again and then pressed my mouth on his, not caring that his skin was black with thick soot. He wrapped his arms around me, and everyone in the Bucksaw let out a collective sigh of relief and sentiment.
When I finally let him go, his eyes sparked. “Christ, woman. If I’d known I’d have to have a near-death experience to get your attention, I would have jumped into a fire months ago.”
“Don’t say that,” I said, shaking my head, tears blurring my vision. “Where are Dalton and Zeke? Are they okay?”
Taylor smiled, his teeth gleaming white against his dark face. “Everyone made it out. They’re back at the hotel. I came straight over when Ellie told me you’d waited up with them.”
Chuck and Phaedra approached, both relieved and happy to see Taylor.
“Take him upstairs, Falyn. Get him cleaned up, so we can make him some breakfast. I’m sure he’s half-starved,” Phaedra said.
Taylor stood, bringing me with him. “Yes, ma’am,” he said, pulling me toward the stairs.
I followed him, still in shock.
When we stepped inside the loft, I closed the door behind me, leaning my back against it. It didn’t seem real. All night, I’d thought he was dead, mulling over the idea of truly losing him forever. Now, he was standing a few feet from me, and although the circumstances hadn’t changed, everything was different.
“Can you hand me a trash bag? A big one,” Taylor said, careful to stand on the tiles in the entrance.