Authors: Earl Emerson
For Sandy, who keeps me sane.
For practical purposes, we have agreed that sanity consists in sharing the hallucinations of our neighbors.
Adapt, migrate, or die.
LIEUTENANT JAMES MULDAUR, SFD
n later years Zak Polanski found it odd that he could divide his life into chapters separated by fatal or near-fatal automobile accidents. The first occurred when he was eleven, and it reflected in the dynamics of his family even today. Wreck number two was the accident that catapulted him into an unexpected summer romance with Nadine Newcastle.
The call had come just after twenty-three hundred hours on a cold night in February. There were only three firefighters riding Engine 6, so after they arrived Zak quickly laid a hose line in the street while the driver put the transmission into pump; the lieutenant scouted the wreck to see how many patients they had, and whether or not any of them would require extrication. Then came the part Zak dreaded, the part where he flopped onto his belly and squirmed into the vehicle to tend the patient.
Everyone on the crew thought Zak exhibited an uncanny bedside manner at wrecks, displaying a sense of calm to patients that helped pull them through the ordeal in a way nobody else in the department could. It was a tribute to his ability to sequester his feelings and get the job done, because around a car accident Zak was actually the most insecure person in the fire department.
Zak wouldn’t get the tremors here in the bowels of the wreck, but he would later at the station when he slipped back into his bunk. It was his practice afterward not to think about any of the auto extrications he’d been involved in, for every one of them terrified him. His auto-crash anxieties were something he would never confess to a buddy, nor to a priest, and probably not to a wife. For all of his adult life and the bulk of his childhood Zak had entertained an abnormal fear of dying in the tight confines of a car wreck, trapped, defenseless, perhaps even bawling. For as long as he could remember, his mental picture of hell was the scrambled interior of a wrecked vehicle, and here he was inside his worst nightmare once again.
It was a Lexus SUV, upside down, a car–pole accident. After Zak had crawled in and turned on his flashlight, he saw his patient’s leg trapped in the crushed door and realized that the weight of her body, as she slowly slid out of the seat, would soon be wrenching her pinned leg. If the pain wasn’t excruciating now, it would be within minutes. He removed his helmet and flung it outside the vehicle, then scooted under her and gave support to her shoulders, easing some of the pressure off her leg while doing his best to keep her spinal column aligned. It wasn’t an elegant position for either of them, but as soon as he had his hands on her, she ceased whimpering.
She was young, and he had the feeling his touch was both a surprise and a novelty. He explained what he was doing and why, and then told her how many more firefighters and machines would be arriving, warning her there was no place noisier than the interior of a vehicle with a crew of firefighters working to cut her free. “You okay with all that?” he asked.
“I guess I’ll have to be.”
“Good. What’s your name?”
“Hello, Nadine. My name is Zak. Now, I don’t want you to worry. I’ve been to dozens of wrecks, and most were a lot worse than this one, so we’ll get you out. Actually, this will be fairly easy.”
Zak could see her breath in the dark interior of the car. Even though it was early February, she was clad in shorts and a short-sleeved blouse and was shivering, partly from the influx of cold night air and partly from shock. Her femur looked intact; her knee was aligned and normal looking, but below that her tibia and fibula were not visible in the twisted metal.
She started crying again, a desperate series of hiccuping sounds that almost resembled giggling, tears glissading off her upside-down face. “I want out. I want out of here.”
“Don’t worry. It’ll just be a few minutes. Then we’ll both be out of here, but we’re going to have to be patient.” He smelled gasoline, and even though the motor was off he had an ominous feeling that the car was going to flame up with them inside, a feeling he always entertained while working inside a wreck. Without letting go of her, he reached up with one hand and tried to remove the keys from the ignition, but they wouldn’t come loose. Even with the car off, he would feel better with the keys in his pocket.
“Can you wiggle your toes?”
“I think so.”
“On both feet?”
“Yes. I’m so scared. Please get me out, Lord. I know You know what’s best, but I don’t want to die like this.”
“Listen to me,” Zak said. “Nobody’s going to die. We’re getting you out, and I’m going to stay right here with you until it happens.”
“Of course. That’s my job.”
“Pardon my saying so, but I think you have a lousy job.”
“Well, I’m glad I have it tonight, because it offers me the chance to help you through this.” As he spoke, her cheek brushed his, her long hair falling into his face. Her teardrops cooled his neck as if they were tiny splashes of alcohol.
“Do you ever get scared?” she asked. For a moment he thought maybe she’d felt something in his touch that conveyed his own terror. “Of course you don’t. You’re a trained professional. It was stupid to even ask.”
“No it wasn’t. But listen. You’re going to be fine. Let’s just try to keep weight off that leg. That’s our goal right now.”
As they waited for help and as Zak inhaled the aroma of shampoo from the girl’s hair, his hands felt a steely strength in her shoulders, and he wondered if she was a swimmer. He explained that a truck company would arrive with a Holmatro tool, which they would use to strip the door off its hinges, that the car would shake and there would be noise, and that once they had her leg free she would be lowered onto a backboard and removed from the vehicle. All standard operating procedure.
“Jesus, just please let me get out of this. Please, Jesus.”
“We’ll get you out. Jesus and me,” Zak said, with a pinch of sarcasm she either didn’t notice or noticed and refused to be offended by.
A minute and a half later a lieutenant he didn’t recognize poked his head inside and eyeballed Zak and the patient. “Wha’dya got?”
“Her leg’s pinned under the door. Everything else is free. Tib–fib, I’m thinking. No loss of consciousness.”
The officer stood up and shouted something to his crew.
“I’m not feeling so well,” the girl said.
“These guys will have us out of here in a couple of minutes, Nadine.”
“I like how you say
“That’s right. I’m not leaving until you do. You and me all the way.”
As soon as the power unit for the Holmatro started up, the noise level increased tenfold. It was always somewhere around this point, always with a lot of people looking on, that Zak began to get overwhelmed with a desire to scramble out of the vehicle and run away. He had never been to an accident scene without the sense of wanting to flee, but so far he never had, at least not in the fire department; still, that didn’t mean it wouldn’t happen tonight. His vision of sprinting down the street was so clear and stark, it might as well have been a recent memory instead of a fantasy.
Peering around the interior of the cabin, Zak spied a Bible, some schoolbooks, a handful of CDs, and a tennis racket in a monogrammed leather case.
“I’m going to die. I know I’m going to die,” she said.
“Nobody’s going to die. We’ll have you out of here in minutes. After that you’ll be on your way to the hospital, and everything will be hunky-dory. I’m sure your parents or your boyfriend or whoever will meet you there. You’re doing just fine.”
Zak wasn’t sure what the truck officer’s plan was, though he could hear the crew talking it over as they worked, shoving blocks of wood inside, cribbing the vehicle lest the weight cause it to sink onto Zak and his patient. Getting crushed by an SUV was just one more thing for him to think about.
“You guys were out late.”
“We were at Bible study class.”
“It goes on for hours sometimes.”
“There’s a tennis racket here, too. You play tennis?”
“I live for tennis.”
“So you’re pretty good then?”
“Third seed on the Seattle U team, but I’m going to challenge and take second. I’m pretty sure I can. By the end of the year I’m planning to be first.”
“You ever play guys?”
“I play anybody.”
“Good. I bet you can’t beat me.”
“You’re on, buddy.”
“What do you want to bet? Lunch?”
“It’s against my religion to actually wager. But I’ll play you anytime you want. And you won’t win.”
“Okay, then. We’ve got a date.”
“Not a date. I have a boyfriend. Just a tennis match.”
When they began using a small electric saw to cut through the sheet metal, it got significantly noisier inside. It didn’t take long before Zak saw large slabs of the night sky appear, and it wasn’t much longer before Nadine’s leg was free. Somebody slid a backboard partway into the car and asked Zak which direction was most appropriate for sliding her out of the vehicle. He directed them toward the passenger’s side, knowing it was crucial to keep her spine aligned and immobile. Another firefighter grasped her leg, and they carefully eased her out of the driver’s seat and onto the backboard, which made harsh sounds against the particles of broken glass when they slid it out. Nadine blew air through her clenched teeth but other than that was silent, holding Zak’s hand until they pulled her from the vehicle.
Zak crawled out in time to see her placed on a gurney and wheeled toward the back of a nearby medic unit, another firefighter having taken traction on her neck. Even though they’d agreed to play tennis, he doubted she would remember it or that it would actually take place. She was a Bible thumper, and he’d already had one too many Bible thumpers in his life.
Perhaps because he’d grown up in a household full of women, Zak never had any trouble talking to them, which was a good thing, because Zak lost girlfriends almost as quickly as he acquired them. Muldaur, his lieutenant, once said he was so relaxed around the opposite sex it was almost as if he were gay. “Zak could pick up women in a garbage dump,” Muldaur said. “And they’d be gorgeous, too.”
Though he’d had plenty of relationships, Zak would have given anything for a stable situation that would endure as long as the twenty-five-year marriage Muldaur basked in. What he got instead was one unsatisfactory fling after another. Zak’s routine was to meet a woman, take her out a few times—or once—before falling into bed with her, and somewhere in that twilight space after they’d become intimate but before they became friends, he would simply forget her. It wasn’t exactly that he lost interest; he actually
. It was pathological and he knew it, but so far he’d done nothing to stop it.
At twenty-eight, Zak had never moved in with anybody and never let a woman move in with him. He’d never been close enough to loving someone to contemplate it. He wasn’t proud of the multiple liaisons and did not boast to his friends about them the way some men did; he was in fact embarrassed by the relentless train of relationships, viewing each as another dereliction in a long line of derelictions. In view of his history, he found it odd that he’d become so attracted to a patient he’d been with less than ten minutes.