Sirens and Hospitals
Please guys, when you read, let me know what you think. There are two things to remember here. The first is that I am not a professional as I often remind you all. The second is that this is a slow burn romance. But to those of you anticipating it, the burn is coming...soon.
There are sirens!
Panic strikes Lucas like a physical blow.
Although the blaring, foreboding whine of the warning bells have been silenced, there is no mistaking the multiple red and blue lights swirling starkly – hauntingly – against the dark, wintery backdrop.
It’s the first alert that there might indeed be calamity up ahead. The second is the barricade erected at the entrance of the street on which Mona’s little flower shop is situated – Alaine’s last known location.
The third and most distressing sign is the thick pillar of black smoke stretching toward the sky, it's anvil spreading out into the surrounding atmosphere.
Seth slows the SUV as they approach the barrier. Lucas straightens in his seat. His brow creases with concern as alarm seizes his spine with a firm grip. Leaning closer to the window, he tries squinting his eyes to peer deeper into the darkness.
All the while he’s been thinking that something might have happened to Alaine. He'd still been holding on to hope that she may, in fact, just be careless with her phone like she confessed. Now it seems like he had good reason to be worried. He doesn’t need to see anything more for his blood to run cold.
Very easily, he imagines that whatever is going on could involve Alaine, hence the reason she can’t be reached. Acknowledging the futility of his efforts before he does it, Lucas tries her number again.
He studies Seth’s reaction in the front seat and tries to imitate his calm demeanor. Then again, with his military background, his driver must be seasoned in functioning under duress.
Seth hovers forward over the steering wheel. He too wills his eyesight to pierce through the night. Seeing beyond the large, red fire engine stationed diagonally in the middle of the street, behind the ‘road closed’ sign is impossible.
“What the hell is going on?” Lucas mutters behind him as he eases into the space between the two front seats.
A police officer positioned in front of the barrier waves them towards the detour. Seth accelerates to obey the instruction but a sense of urgency to find Alaine pounds incessantly on Lucas’ heart.
“Stop,” he orders Seth.
Intent on asking the officer a question, Lucas rolls down the window and is assaulted by the pungent odour of smoke sailing into the car. The burning invades his airways and lungs. Trying to breathe around it is futile and both Lucas and Seth break into fits of coughing.
“Jesus,” Seth groans, as a sense of dread pervades him.
“Hey buddy,” the officer calls to them. The lower half of his face; hidden behind a gas mask, lends more severity to the situation. “You can’t be here,” he orders. “Keep it moving.”
Ignoring the directive, Lucas shrugs out of his jacket and places it over his face. His eyes sting and well with tears but there is nothing he can do about that. All he wants to know is that Alaine is okay.
“What happened?” he asks the officer. “Was...was anyone hurt?” he questions, though he is unready to hear the answer.
As he stops next to the SUV, the man takes up the stance of a typical cop. He secures both hands over the holster secured around his hip with his legs spread akimbo. Sizing up the posh exterior of the car and its rider, his eyebrows raise thoughtfully.
“You’ve got people back there?” he asks doubtfully.
“A girl,” Lucas answers. “Do you know...”
His inquiry is cut off by the rude, persistent honking horn behind them.
With his palm raised, the officer turns to the other driver. “Just hold on,” he barks before shifting his attention back to Lucas. “I haven’t heard of any casualties,” he says. “But I’ve been busy with traffic duty. I hope she’s alright. I’m sorry, you gotta keep it moving.”
“What building?” Lucas asks, but the man has already left them to resume his post in front of the roadblock.
Thinking it’s a bad idea to close up the window with gray smoke circulating around them, Lucas keeps his down and tries to see further up the street.
Seth pulls into the designated detour, leaving the macabre scene behind them.
“I’m getting out,” Lucas says impatiently. “Stop the car. I don’t care where. They can have it towed.”
Because that’s exactly what he was going to do anyway, Seth breathes with relief. He was afraid that dictating to his boss his intention to go in search of his cousin whether he liked it or not would result in him being fired. Anxiously, he rides the curb and unlocks his seat belt at the same time before shifting the gears into park.
Together they sprint out of the vehicle and back in the direction they came from.
The rock sitting in the pit of Lucas’ stomach grows heavier with each step that takes them closer to the hub of activity past the fire engine that has been set up as a second roadblock.
Alaine, his mind, calls. Over and over again, her name repeats like a prayerful recitation. Please, be okay.
He doesn’t know how it happened, but in the short space of time he’s known her, Alaine has come to mean something to him. When exactly, she started taking up residence in his world is a mystery --the answer to which is not as urgent as his need to find her.
Up until now, amidst his fear, he truly tried to believe that she was okay. Lucas slows his stride as the horror he’d been trying so hard not to imagine starts to become a reality.
The small flower shop where Alaine works is consumed by a monstrous blaze. Tongues of fire lick at the windows and climb into the stories above. The glass storefront crackles under the intense heat and pressure. Even from a safe enough distance across the street, Lucas can feel it warming his skin.
Buildings in close proximity have been evacuated as firefighters try to beat back the expanding flames. Frantically, Lucas weaves his way through the crowd, searching for a pint-sized fairy.
She has to have made it out. But why else would he not be able to reach her? Why isn’t she home as yet? There can only be one conclusion.
Lucas’ mind protests against his fears. Alaine is alive. She has to be. He won’t accept anything less. People like her are supposed to outlive the rest of the world. People who are inherently good and can walk into any terrible situation and somehow make it better. The rays of light she exudes into his dreary existence is as necessary as the sun. He needs it -- her.
Growing dread causes him to tremble. There is no sign of her anywhere in the darkness. Everywhere he looks he sees the worried, frightened look on so many faces. None of which belong to Alaine. How he wishes that one of them would be her.
A low-pitched hum starts in his ears, increasing steadily to a piercing whine that covers every other sound as he spins in every which way, still trying to find her.
“Come on,” Seth says, grabbing Lucas by the arm, his voice already raw and cracked from inhaling the thick, billowing, black smoke. “We’ll try the other side.”
Although he has no real clue what Seth said, Lucas follows his driver. Each group of terrified onlookers they meet yields no results in his quest to find Alaine.
On the border of hysteria, Lucas shouts her name and coughs with the effort to push the sound beyond his gritty throat and above the cacophony of noise.
“Alaine!” he calls again.
Then he waits, praying that he hears her reply.
They jog past an ambulance angled across the sidewalk. Locked in the box, Alaine bolts upright from the gurney, ripping the oxygen mask off her face in the process. Her name coming from Lucas causes her heart to leap. The sudden motion and surge of blood to her oxygen-starved brain cause her to tilt unsteadily sideways.
She wants to respond to him – to the desperation in his voice – to let him know that she is okay but the EMT is insistent in his pursuit to see her oxygenated. Struggling against him, the exertion makes her cough violently.
“Jesus lady, relax,” the man warns as he sets his rotund figure on the bench in front her.
Thinking that she has the upper hand now that he is seating, Alaine shoots to her feet but her swaying hinders her progress.
Weak, she leans against the cold metal interior of the ambulance’s door for support. In the little glass window, she peeks outside to see Lucas and Seth sneaking across the street, heading towards the inferno.
“No,” she rasps, tears stinging her eyes while she reaches for the handle.
Strong arms suddenly close around her waist, forcibly removing her and placing her back on the gurney.
“Relax, or I will sedate you,” the paramedic admonishes.
Too exhausted to fight him, Alaine lies back and closes her eyes. Lucas, I’m here, she thinks.
“Hey, get back. Get back. You guys can’t be here.”
The warning comes from a firefighter dressed in full gear. He approaches Lucas and Seth with determined strides and an axe swinging by his side. “I said you can't be here," he asserts when they make no move to veer in another direction.
“Was there anyone inside?” Lucas shouts the question.
He doesn't know it, but the fire officer has heard the kind of desperation his voice carries many times before. That's the only reason he makes no attempt to physically remove them from the scene.
Though he knows it's dangerous to be soft in this type of situation, he can't help the way his defensive air fizzles out just a little.
“Look…,” he begins to say.
A loud explosion drowns out the rest of his words. Debris carried by a gust of hot wind rains down on them. Both firefighter and Seth tackle Lucas to the ground, their bodies serving as human shields.
No! Lucas’ mind screams while he tries to wrestle them off him. “Alaine,” he cries softly.
Any hopes that she might still be alive inside the building dies and is replaced by a deep sense of sorrow, unlike anything he’s ever known.
“You can’t go in there,” a garbled voice says above him.
The way every sound seems to blend with another, Lucas can’t tell which man issues the caution.
Giving up the fight, he lies flat against the asphalt, feeling numb. Now that he is calm, one man rises off him. Then the other. Together they pull Lucas off the road and onto his feet.
Woodenly, he follows them to the other side of the road to stand behind the ambulance.
“Are you alright?” the fireman asks him. “You?” he addresses Seth when he doesn’t get a response.
“Do you know if anyone was inside?” Lucas questions in a voice laden with grief.
How could this have happened? He just met her. It’s a cruel hand that fate dealt to introduce him to someone so wonderful only to wrench her away so quickly. “Was there…” he tries to ask again.
“I don’t know,” the fireman answers solemnly. “My team was secondary on scene. We just got here. “Look I’ve got to go. Stay away. If I can, I’ll find out if anyone…”
A fit of coughing in the back of the ambulance draws all three men’s attention. They walk slowly to the closed door, listening intently since the hacking sound has stopped. It starts up again and all three jolt as if startled.
“Hey,” the officer calls and bangs on the door. “Open up. Fire department.”
“Jesus Christ,” someone gripes loudly inside the heavy hunk of metal. “This is an ambulance,” the paramedic says angrily when the door swings outward. “We’re treating…”
Everything else tunes out when Lucas sees her lying there. His eyes rove quickly over Alaine’s small body, drinking in the sight of her.
“You’re okay,” he marvels.
The second paramedic trying to hook Alaine up to an IV is knocked over as she jumps off the small bed and leaps outside. Before Lucas knows what is happening, before he can order his legs to take another step, she is in his arms, a series of tremors rocking her small body against him.
“Thank God,” he breathes above her while sense trickles back to him.
Closing his arms around her, he leans down to lay his head against Alaine’s hair and inhales deeply. The smell of smoke overpowers the fruity fragrance of the shampoo he associates with her. Somewhere beneath it all is the essence of Alaine. To have her in his arms like this after everything he feared is a miracle.
“I thought,” Lucas says but trails off. It doesn’t matter what he thought. She’s here. The longer she remains in his arms, the faster the horror of thinking that he’d lost her to an inferno recedes.
When she begins to cough into his shirt, Lucas reluctantly sets her back. Still holding on to her, they walk to the impatiently waiting EMT and he assists her clamber back inside the ambulance.
“Sit down, lady,” the man grumbles.
Though Lucas doesn’t appreciate the tone used to address her, he waits silently as an oxygen mask is secured over Alaine’s face once more.
He wants to ask her if she’s okay. He wants her back in his arms. He wants to look over every inch of her skin. He wants to kiss her to know for sure that this isn’t just a hopeful hallucination. Unable to do any of those things now, he just stands and stares.
“Is she okay?” he asks the paramedic, though his eyes refuse to leave Alaine’s soot-stained face.
“She has smoke inhalation,” the man explains. “How bad? They can only determine that at the hospital but she’s...” he starts to complain.
Changing his mind about whatever grievance he had been about to air, he offers instead, “she seems fine to me.”
Sighing with relief, Lucas nods his head. With the adrenaline finally wearing off, the effects of the night’s events and the fact that he hasn’t eaten anything since breakfast converge causing the world around him begins to swim.
Aware that Alaine’s eyes are on him Lucas staves off the wave of exhaustion. He straightens his spine to keep from swaying on his feet. Now is not the time to show weakness. Not when she might need him.
“We’re going to Jamaica hospital,” the paramedic tells him, his eyes following the unbreakable, invisible tether that ties Lucas’ gaze to Alaine.
“I’ll be right behind you,” he says to her.
After nodding her reply, Alaine leans her head against the elevated headrest on the gurney. Feeling a sense of peace, she closes her eyes. This time when she cries, her tears are not controlled by pain and fear. Lucas came here. For her.
As the doors close, she looks at him and gives a little wave. He can't tell if she is smiling but there is a twinkle in her eyes. Lucas responds to it with a small smile of his own.
When the ambulance reverses off the sidewalk and pulls away, he frowns. A hospital is the last place he wants to visit. It makes no difference if it’s in another country half a world away or on home soil, they’re all the same. They are a reminder of his past. The secrets of his childhood haunt the halls.
He remembers that before his mother was willing to seek medical attention for his latest grave injury or injuries, he would have had to align his story of how he came by them with hers.
She cared little about the agony he was in. Claudia would press and shout until he was able to tell it convincingly.
It's not hard to imagine how she'd gotten away with it for as long as she did. Who would have believed that a supermodel, once married to Arlington Bright, condoned the abuse of her only son?
In public, she knew how to play the doting mother so well. She still does. And he, the loving son, allowed it. He still does.
But it had happened one day. Lucas got older and the looks on the faces of medical practitioners, while they treated him, was no longer awe directed at her. Rather, it was doubt and concern aimed and him and scorn she was faced with. It had scared her.
After the last visit when someone actually dared to oppose her account of the events that led to his broken finger, they never went back. Instead, she hired a private doctor to make personal home visits.
Lucas has held on to that habit as well. It’s not often that he needs medical advice but whenever he does, he prefers if it's a house call.
Tonight his hatred for hospitals plays second string to his need to be there for Alaine. He waits until the ambulance drives off, its lights and siren fading in the distance before allowing himself to move away.
Seth walks alongside him. Considering tonight’s drama and their joint efforts to find Alaine, he did not expect the silence between Lucas and him to be as strained as it usually is. Maybe camaraderie is a little too much to hope for, but a slight thawing of the ice should at least be on the table.
So far Lucas gives no quarter. His boss is his usual quiet, stiff self, albeit not as composed and meticulous as Seth is accustomed to seeing him.
From his observation, Lucas is really rattled by the events of the night. His usually neat hair is disheveled, his immaculate dressing rumpled and dirty and there is a little tremor in his hands.
Seth doesn’t really know what to make of this reaction to Alaine but he is grateful for it. Another person in her corner in this city cannot be a bad thing. He wants to say exactly that.
Unsure about offering some word of comfort or for solidarity, he chooses to keep the silence going.
The SUV is exactly where and how they left it. That surprises them both. They turn to each other at the same time, wearing similar expressions. Strangely it is the notion that, apparently, in some parts of New York, five minutes is not enough time to get ticketed or towed for parking illegally that breaks the ice.
They both chuckle. That is about the amount of time they’d spent scared out of their minds but it was just enough to shave ten years off their lives.
Thankfully that part of the night is over. The further they drive away from the scene, the more it seems that way.
Finally giving in to the relief he feels, Lucas leans back against his seat and closes his eyes to ward off a headache. Right now, he just wants to see her.
The ride is a long one during which Lucas swears that someone at traffic control was deliberately trying to slow them down by messing with the lights. Frustratingly, they hit every single red along away. Seth finally makes it to the hospital and squeezes into a small available parking space.
Knowing that Alaine will be there on her own, they both bolt for the entrance.
The clinical smell inside the bay, when they get there, brings back a deluge of horrible memories. The doctors in the white coats and nurses in their scrubs scurrying about their duties produce the same effect. Lucas is a fish out of water.
Over the years, he's succeeded in gaining mastery over his emotions. Tonight, gladly, he takes a step back and lets Seth have the lead in this new, slightly less daunting quest to locate Alaine.