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the stick-around

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Buck takes it to the grave.

He doesn’t mean to. It’s just—with all that time he spent teasing death, all the motorcycles and factory fires and blood-coated grenades—death gets impatient, in the end. Right as he’s starting to take life seriously. After he puts his name on the lease, buys life a ring, like, I’m in this for the long haul. Death gets jealous, and Buck falls through a second-story floor onto a derelict wrought-iron stair rail, and his femoral artery begins the quick but methodical work of leaking out the next fifty or sixty years of his life onto the charred tile floor.

 

It’s mid-afternoon by the time Victor Tolomeo finally gets out of bed.

“Mornin, sunshine,” Annie says warmly. “Breakfast?”

They used to be so impossibly tight on time when the girls were little, but with Rowan in first grade–perish the thought–sometimes he’ll wake up at odd hours to find his wife home and his daughters still safely tucked away at school. It feels like an unbelievable luxury.

“Thank you, baby,” he says, as he always does, and she ruffles his hair as she does in a good mood, and she makes him a hot sandwich with the leftover chicken.

“Should I?” she asks, wiggling the leftover mac-and-cheese at him.

“Yeah, why not,” Victor says, and instead of spooning the noodles onto the side of the plate she puts them in the sandwich too.

“When do we have to leave for the concert?” he asks. 

She purses her lips at the calendar on the fridge. “We leave at six-fifteen, we’ll be fine.”

“Y’ever think their school is too far away?”

“The school’s fifteen minutes,” Annie says, pushing her chair back from the table. “Parking is thirty.”

“I guess I have to go straight to the station after.”

“Yep.” She pops her p’s, sometimes, in a way the girls like to imitate. “I have a four o’clock, but the elementary bus should be here soonish, and Celie’s going home with the Marcuses.”

“I know,” he says, sparing a moment to be annoyed–because he already knows all of that without reminding, because he should’ve just left Angelica out to dry instead of picking up her shift, but she’s a friend, you know, and her girlfriend has bronchitis, and he remembers what a honeymoon phase felt like. Plus he’ll get teasing rights for weeks.

Being sleepy feels warm and comfortable and content when he can just sit at the kitchen table with his wife and she scratches his head. He enjoys it somewhat less when Celie calls, panicked, because she left her black dress pants at home, and quite a bit less when he’s got a pounding headache on Ventura with pants that he is pretty sure are the right ones, but eleven-year-old girls are a tough crowd on the best day. Only Celie accepts the pants with a very slightly teary hug, and then he has forty-five minutes to dick around before Annie and Rowan even get to the middle school parking lot, so he goes to the grocery store for flowers and one of those horrible cold brew coffees in a plastic bottle.

Rowan, bless her, falls asleep not five minutes into the concert. She’s just a warm good-smelling lump in his lap, like both the girls used to be when they were babies, and when Celie’s choir sings a charmingly tuneless rendition of “The Circle of Life” he rocks her, humming, as if the entire sixth grade class has joined him for a lullaby.

“Is this silly?” he asks after the show, considering the flowers.

Annie gives him a look, petting Rowan’s hair–she is nearly asleep again on her feet like a horse, this time leaning against her mother’s knee. “It’s very sweet.”

Even after the choir kids come shrieking into the lobby of the auditorium, white shirts and black pants like a herd of little cater-waiters, Celie only talks to them for a few minutes–she lets them congratulate her, and she says a brisk thank you when he hands her the bouquet. But she does tuck it carefully in her arms when she runs off to talk to her friends. Victor still does not speak fluent preteen, but he thinks she might be showing off.

In the dimming parking lot, he says: “It’s just a twelve. Unless we get another tsunami, I’ll be home by nine.”

“Don’t even joke about that,” she says with a shudder.

The girls are both cranky and overtired as they load up into the Subaru, and Victor does not envy Annie the task of handling bedtime alone. He clenches his teeth on the guilt, but he’s already running late. “Bye, honey,” he says, sliding in behind his own steering wheel as she buckles the last buckle on Rowan’s carseat.

“Bye,” she replies, distracted. “Be safe.”

He would like a goodbye kiss; this is not always in the cards. He turns over the engine and puts it in park, and there Annie is anyway–she presses her fingertips to the car window and looks at him warmly. She started doing it when Celie was little and they were constantly running late for their separate commutes: Annie to the office, Victor to kindergarten. I love you, she would say silently, with that careful tilt of her head and that unconscious scrunch of her left eye. He taps the car window on the other side, feeling somewhat like an enamored goldfish

“Someone’s la-ate,” the new EMT sing-songs as Victor crosses quickly from the station entrance to the locker room door.

“Well, Sammy,” he says. “I lead a very full life.”

It’s really not a bad shift, until the end. There’s a heart attack in a parking lot, which is quick and painless–from a treatment perspective, of course; it definitely doesn’t look comfortable. They bring the patient to Adventist and he’s clearly going to be okay, his daughter clutching his hand with white knuckles even as she teases him about his Denny’s Grand Slam habit. Someone who looks like a granddaughter, maybe, tosses keys up and down at the emergency room entrance and puts an arm around her mother’s waist.

The minutes tick by, and they attend a fender bender with cuts and bruises, and Victor gets a solid three hours’ sleep sometime after midnight. By the time the sun comes up, he’s tired again, but okay this time, perched in the back of the bus at a house fire forcing probies to sit and suck down some oxygen before they put their helmets back on and run back into hell. They get into a nice rhythm, on big structural scenes–once everyone is out, the severe injuries already on their way to the E.R., his job is downright relaxing. He hums Otis Redding to himself and kicks his feet, watching streams of people move around the steaming carcass of the house.

Only then all of a sudden someone is shouting to him–one of the fire captains, face like a rumbling train track–and he rushes a gurney out to meet a backboard full of firefighter–not inhalation, not burns, not at this point in the routine, but still. Something bad, with the frantic way Hen Wilson looks at him. She’s so close–he can’t figure out why, at first, she’s so close to him. He tries to shoulder her aside to get a look at the patient and realizes that she can’t move. She’s got one bloody hand inside the guy’s leg, holding on so hard she ought to be shaking.

“Clamps,” she’s saying to him. “We need clamps. Artery’s clipped.”

His crisis response snaps into place like the little helmet on Rowan’s Space Discovery Barbie.”Severed?” he asks, and Wilson sort of pauses, tilts her head in concentration, and he realizes she is trying to feel the ragged ends of the blood vessel.

“Not quite,” she says, “I think,” and as Victor shouts for a crile clamp that Sammy, bless her, is already handing him, Wilson’s face starts to crumple that way a face does when you pull the load-bearing emergency out from under it. He looks away.

They get a couple of forceps into the wound, sticking out ugly and unnatural like they were the shrapnel that tore him up and not the thing holding him together. There’s a bump as they load him up into the bus and Victor nearly has his own heart attack but there’s no geyser of blood. He’s stable, maybe, for the ride to the hospital–he doesn’t look great; people never do. The left leg of his turnout pants is burgundy, like he spilled a bottle of wine in his lap

Sammy’s banging on the inside wall of the ambulance. “Alvarez, hey, Chippy, radio and make sure they know we’ll need an OR and a trauma surgeon. This guy can’t wait.”

Victor goes to close the doors and they’re all staring up in horrified disbelief–a couple of stunned firefighters with 118 on their helmets, Wilson barely standing with her captain behind her to catch the weight, some horrified babyfaced paramedic with arterial spray across his forehead. “One of you coming with?” he asks, hoping they can process the urgency, and they do. There’s a flurry of movement as half the group steps forward, and then a short guy with spiky black hair is dragging someone toward him by the arm–wide shoulders, brown eyes–he glances backward at the captain and the captain nods at him.

“Go,” he says sharply. “Diaz, you need to get in the damn ambulance.”

 

Buck isn’t usually good with secrets. He’d almost told Hen. That day, even. Hour six of a twenty-four hour shift; most of the day still ahead but just enough behind that he’d had time to go a little nuts.

“How old are you supposed to be when you start getting colonoscopies?”

Hen’s coffee dribbled over her lower lip and into her lap. “Buck?”

She was trying not to laugh at him, which he never minded. Hen was especially good at parsing what was a joke and what was a real question and what was both.

“What?” Buck asked. “I don’t wanna die of cancer in my ass. That’s a horrible way to go out. It’s inside your ass.”

“Why would you say it that way?” Chimney complained from somewhere in his peripherals.

“You had a colonoscopy recently?” Buck called, legs sprawled gracelessly over the couch arm. He had to crane his neck backward to make eye contact.

Chimney blanched. “God, no.”

“You should probably get a colonoscopy, Chim.” Hen almost never grinned mischievously; she had a million-watt smile when she was happy or laughing, but her teasing face reminded Buck of a classical painting. Like if the Mona Lisa liked you and thought you were stupid.

Throwing his arms up in mock offense, Chimney said, “How old do you think I am?”

“You’re young at heart, gramps.” It was worth getting flipped off. “Hen, colonoscopies. How old?”

“Forty-five,” she said.

“No, you have to give it to him in dog years,” Eddie interjected, lightfooted on the stairs in that way that meant he was in a good mood. “I think you’re supposed to get them with your heartworm medication.”

Buck turned his face back up toward the ceiling. He wasn’t sure what it was doing. Best not to point it at anybody. “You gonna make fun of me for going to the dentist next?” he protested.

Eddie tilted his head—Buck couldn’t see it, but he knew—and said, “I’ll make fun of you for looking like a capuchin monkey next.”

Buck scoffed. “We all look like capuchin monkeys. Everybody knows that’s their main thing, looking exactly like people.”

“Everybody doesn’t know that,” Chimney said.

“I know that,” Hen said.

“Well, your kid’s old enough for the Discovery channel. Mine’s still stuck on Nick Junior.”

“Don’t blame Jee-Yun for your taste in TV,” Eddie said.

He floated upside down into Buck’s field of vision like a very handsome Hindenburg, leaning over the arm of the couch to set fire to Buck’s pulse, his airways. Little screaming crowds of onlookers in Buck’s stomach noticed the weight of Eddie’s eyelids and the fine lines at the edge of his smile. Eddie tilted his head just slightly, exactly how Buck had pictured it, as he grinned. Oh, the humanity.

“Why am I, in a roomful of medics, the only person who cares about preventative healthcare?” he complained.

“You don’t need a colonoscopy, Buckley,” Eddie said, already pleased with himself. “Your head’s up there so often you could probably just look around.”

Buck flailed his arms up at Eddie’s face with no real agenda, not really sure what he’d do if he made contact, and Eddie started hissing in the back of his throat like he was about to hock a loogie down onto him. “Fuck you, Eddie, you’re disgusting!”

He finally got a piece of Eddie’s nose with the back of his hand, and Eddie straightened up as if he’d never devolved into playfighting. “Chim, Cap said you’d show me how to fix the fluorescents in the ambulance?”

“How many firefighters does it take to change a lightbulb?” Chimney grumbled, but Buck could hear him getting up.

Eddie leaned over one last time to make that scrapey booger noise–Buck’s face became impossibly warm just from watching his mouth work–and then he was gone.

“He is such a pill,” Hen said.

Watching him disappear back down the stairs, his six-lane Texas shoulders and the clean back of his neck, Buck wanted inexplicably to tell her. He wanted to make that middle school heart-in-your-throat confession like the secret was exciting instead of slowly killing him. Was something to be proud of, almost, the first green things coming up after a forest fire. Like it all made Eddie belong to Buck in some small way, reciprocated or not.

“Some pills are nice,” Buck said instead.

“And some are laxatives,” Hen replied gamely.

“Advil.”

“Don’t get in this arena with me. I was a pharmaceutical sales rep.”

“Penicillin.”

“Isotretinoin.”

“Trazodone.”

“He’s an antidepressant, huh?” Hen said. “That’s kind of sweet.”

Buck rolled his eyes at her. She raised one eyebrow. Mona Lisa again. He could hold her gaze for five, maybe six seconds before he blinked. The urge to tell her swelled, filled his chest cavity, then passed.

“Viagra,” they said in unison.

 

Buck is in the bunk room when the call comes in. Not asleep, really; he never quite got the hang of sleeping at the drop of a hat the way Eddie learned in the army or Chim and Hen did from having newborns. He’s just drifting. Eddie rips the blackout curtains back with a manic grin, as if Buck could possibly have missed the sirens and flashing lights.

“Ándale, lazybones,” he says.

“Cleaning crew duty,” Bobby explains in the truck. “Building has been abandoned for several years, downed power line caught some dead foliage and porch furniture. Between five and eight people sleeping inside. One-sixteen and one-twenty-one got the fire under control, but it was a fight, lot of smoke inhalation on the crews and most residents needed medical attention. They can’t spare anybody for a sweep.”

“We looking for casualties, cap?” Eddie asks.

“We don’t think so, but we can’t be sure,” Bobby replies. “And we are looking at severe structural damage, so watch your step. Nobody be a hero.”

He glances in the rear view mirror—at Buck first, then Eddie, but he catches Chim and Hen in the crossfire too, a little look on his face like he knows that’s a silly thing to ask the denizens of one-eighteen.

 

He almost told Maddie, too, which is one of the saner choices he made about the whole thing. That was the closest he’d ever gotten. Almost a year to the day before his death, Buck was laid up with a wrist fracture—about as minor as you can get, but enough to keep him out of the truck for two weeks. And out of the truck means no random drug tests. One of the few things about firefighting that had felt like a real sacrifice when he joined the academy.

“Did you know that Mrs. Lee is taking burlesque classes?” Maddie asked, dangling her legs over Taylor Kelly’s balcony.

Buck blinked out at the sunset hazily and released a plume of vapor, walking himself carefully through all the steps of compressing his ribs, uncorking his trachea, pursing his lips. “I did not.”

He passed the pen back to Maddie. “Neither does Howie,” she said with a giggle, pressing the button and taking another pull. Then she looked very serious all of a sudden. “You can’t tell him either,” she said, little white streams coming out around her teeth like she was some kind of Buckley-shaped incense burner.

“Swapping secrets with Mrs. Lee, huh,” Buck said. “You really did win over the mother-in-law.”

“When someone watches you apply nipple ointment, you have a special bond,” Maddie agreed solemnly.

“Nipple,” Buck said, then giggled.

It was possible the vape pen was Maddie’s. It was possible also that her tolerance had outstripped his in the years since she had become a very cool Los Angeles mother and he’d had to piss in a cup anytime the ladder truck hydroplaned.

The railing around Taylor’s balcony was painted a glossy bronze, but it was chipping just in front of Buck’s face, and he scraped the black felt of his wrist brace back and forth over it to see if the paint flaked more. “Stop that,” Maddie said, pulling his elbow away. “Stop fiddling with your medical device.”

“You don’t have to babysit me!” Buck protested. “I’m, like, a full-on adult.”

“I know I don’t,” Maddie said.

Buck turned his eyes so far sideways to her that he could swear he felt his optic nerve stretching. “When I get hurt you do.”

It’s not really what they were talking about, but it’s what Buck was thinking about, as Maddie bullied her way into Taylor’s apartment with an armful of takeout and her Chromecast. It was the reason, he thought, that she did not comment whatsoever on his history of house-sitting for women he slept with but couldn’t quite convince to be in love with him.

She blinked widely, big curly eyelashes reminding him of how she’d looked as a kid, improvisationally mothering him with the aplomb of a jazz musician. “I really don’t,” she said. “Not anymore. You don’t run around on your broken legs so much now.”

Buck felt suddenly like crying, the tears knocking at his sinuses with sharp little fists. “That isn’t true,” he said, or maybe thought about saying–it got a little hard to tell after a while.

“It isn’t,” Maddie prompted, nudging his knee with hers.

“I would if I had someplace really important to get to. Like parent-teacher conferences.”

“Very mature of you.”

“That’s good, I guess,” Buck said. “I am a full-on adult.”

“Did I say that?” Maddie teased. “You want any more?”

Buck squinted at her hand holding out the pen, then back out at the skyline. “Ask me in a minute,” he said. “I’m busy.”

Maddie laughed at that, huge and airy.  “What are you busy doing?”

“Thinking,” Buck said decisively.

“And what are you thinking about?”

He thought about telling her the truth–he thought about it hard. It might be a relief, he reasoned with himself, for Maddie to know–for anyone at all to know. To describe the shape of the thing that pressed into his chest like a cookie cutter every time Eddie handed him a dish without looking. How he had grown up, in a lot of ways, but how Eddie’s smile hurt sweet as hot honey, sweet as a bee sting, and how Buck kept sticking his hand right back in the hive to make him laugh again. They’d gone out for ice cream the night before, and Buck was still on painkillers so he couldn’t drive. He pretended not to see the text that said We’re here :). He pretended because he wanted Eddie to have to walk up to the door and knock–he wanted to see Eddie look around her place with poorly-hidden disdain; he’d never liked her, even when Buck was enamored.

It had worked. Buck looked back at the black stone counters in the kitchen. One of the corners was still smudged with Eddie’s thumbprint where he had looked skeptically at the matte finish. Buck would not be wiping it off.

He didn’t tell Maddie any of that. He decided not to, then felt a little guilty, then decided to stick with it. Instead, he rested his head on her shoulder. She brought her opposite hand up to pat him gently on the face.

“You remember when I was twelve,” Buck asked, “and I built that BMX ramp in the woods?”

“I do,” Maddie said solemnly.

“And like the second or third time I used it I landed on a log with a beehive in it?”

“Your arm looked like a pink corncob,” she replied fondly. “It was so gross.”

Buck nodded. “It was terrible. I felt like my whole body was going to pop.”

“What about it?” Maddie asked.

The city blinked sleepily up at them, mercury orange and halogen white. Cars whizzing by gave them flash-soundtracks, Bad Bunny and Fleetwood Mac and Cher. “If I had to live that day again, I’d still take that jump,” Buck confessed. “I got crazy air. It was so cool.”

“Yeah?” Maddie tilted her head to rest on top of his.

“Oh, yeah. Felt like I was flying.”

 

Eddie bumps their shoulders together as they hop out of the rig. He smiles back at Buck over his turnout collar, that little come-on grin that says I know you’re not excited about this call, nobody’s fuckin’ excited, but we’re hanging out so that’s not so bad. The crack-of-dawn light flatters him, but then again that’s not too difficult. He would be beautiful in an airport bathroom.

The end stages of a significant structural fire look like a haphazard RV park. Couple of ladder trucks, couple of ambulances–more for the responders than the residents, who are long gone–and the hoses snaking across a yard layered with footprints, debris, puddles. Bobby, head tilted over a clipboard with Captain McMahon from the 121, directs them to different ends of the house with the same mild seriousness that he’d use on someone stuck in a tree. “Be thorough,” he says. “But there’s no need to take any risks.”

The house was in bad shape before the fire, which makes it harder. When fire rages through a well-loved, white-walled family home, it isn’t hard to trace its charcoal path from room to room. Sometimes that gives you a false sense of security; the carpet can look untouched over a floor that’s been scorched to hell from below. But that’s still more predictable than this is–the exposed subfloor dark with soot in some rooms and dirt in others, the graffiti here and there flash-burnt with black stripes that almost look like another tag. He and Eddie skirt gingerly from the south entrance to the second-floor hallway. One half is worse than the other; the rooms on the front of the house are seared so badly they can’t justify stepping inside. Most can be cleared with a quick sweep of the flashlight. One is full of misshapen furniture. “Second floor, west side, third window from the south,” Eddie radios down to Bobby as Buck pokes his head into the room opposite. “Can we get a ladder up to take a look around? I can’t get to it from the hallway, and I got debris blocking most of my eyeline of the floor.”

“Affirmative,” Bobby says. “And go out the back door if you can. I don’t like the look of that entryway.”

“LAFD!” Buck calls through the next doorway, but there’s very little to see. He crosses carefully to the closet and flicks the door open: empty.

A few steps down the hallway, he can see the yellow remains of a half-melted raincoat and feels nauseatingly sad. He wonders, as he always seems to nowadays, if there were any kids staying here. Like he can hear Buck thinking–as he always seems to nowadays–Eddie says, “I’m glad it’s just things and not people, but I fucking hate this.”

“Yeah,” Buck says, and his throat hurts like there’s no face shield between the smoky air and his lungs.

The hallway ends abruptly in a hollowed-out half-circle in worse shape than almost everything else. Through the lingering haze Buck can see the telltale teetering drywall and splintered two-by-fours of dogshit renovations.

“Cap, should I be seeing a back door?” Buck asks. “We should be over the entryway ‘s far as I can tell and it just ends here. No stairs, no nothing.”

“Back the way you came, boys,” Bobby says. “Looks like someone chopped the place into rental units that were never up to code in the first place.”

Buck fingers the raw edge of gypsum that couldn’t have been anchored with much more than wood glue and chewing gum–it takes a moment to swallow down his abstract but bitter anger at whoever decided a person could live somewhere so clearly designed to fall apart.

“On our way down now,” Eddie says into his radio, then turns to Buck. “Hey, you think if we found that landlord’s phone number, Bobby would let us watch while he beats the shit out of him?”

“Watch?” Buck says, inching back across the ersatz landing with a guiding hand on the east wall. “I’ll piledrive that fucker myself.”

“I know you would,” Eddie says, and Buck doesn’t have to look up to know the shape of the smile in his voice. It follows him everywhere–the highway, the grocery store, physio and the dentist and the pickup line at Christopher’s school. Eddie’s smile lines are Buck’s eternal art project. Those will be on your face forever, he thinks sometimes. No take-backs.

The plywood gives under his foot.

I guess you know me pretty well, Buck almost says, and that damned stair railing rises up to meet him like the antlers of some terrified, firebitten elk.

 

The worst part was that he almost told Eddie. Just the once. Years ago. He wouldn’t have had the words but the urge to kiss him and then refuse to take another step until Eddie understood what, exactly, he meant by that was overwhelming.

Oh my god, he’d thought. Oh my god, Eddie Diaz.

“You want any?” Buck asked.

“I don’t burn,” Eddie insisted. He would, Buck knew from experience, insist this all the way from blush to strawberry. Unfortunately, he was still good-looking with a sunburn–something about his bone structure, the line of his nose.

They both lingered in the shadow of the entry gate slightly longer than necessary, the claws of two enormous blow-up lobsters waving gently overhead.

“So we go food, band, rides,” Eddie said, arms crossed over his Willie Nelson t-shirt. He looked on with skeptical fondness as Buck contorted his face to make sure he didn’t miss a spot with the sunscreen.

Buck could not be wound up by Eddie. He was unwindable. He was– “I know you got all of those wrong on purpose.”

“Okay, line whisperer.”

“I’m right about the lines.” Buck made a lemon-mouthed face in his direction.

“You gonna be saying that when we miss the beginning of that one band because we’re still waiting to get lobster rolls?”

“No, I would get out of line for that.”

“You’d skip dinner?” Eddie asked.

More and more lately, Buck noticed the lines in Eddie’s face–just the soft beginnings of crows’ feet, the marks that lingered when he smiled and frowned and mean-mugged, as now, with one eyebrow halfway to his hairline. He was as golden and god-kissed as always, glowing gently like the moon or maybe Marlon Brando in a fifties movie–because Buck had seen one before, thank you very much , Chimney. But getting older looked good on him.

“To be honest,” Buck said, cringing, sort of wanting the eyebrow to go higher, “I don’t even know if I like lobster that much. I know it’s supposed to be amazing, but I don’t get the appeal.”

Eddie looked sideways at him, then sideways the other direction, at the sign welcoming them both to Lobsterfest 2020. A grin burst onto his face fast as a suckerpunch. “Fuck,” he said. “Me too.”

Buck’s arms dropped, defeated, to his sides. “Man, is it sad that we end up like this the minute Christopher leaves town?”

“I’m having fun, Buck.” Eddie flipped his sunglasses onto his face. “Are you not having fun?”

“Yes, I’m having fun with you, Eddie. You happy?”

“As a pig in shit,” Eddie said.

“As a–that was so folksy.” Buck pointed the sunscreen tube at him in offense. “You’ve been holding out on me.”

“Yeehaw,” Eddie deadpanned, turning on his heel. Normally, Christopher reminded Buck of his dad, but just then, marching off toward the frankly sickly-looking Ferris wheel with complete confidence that Buck would follow, Eddie reminded him of Chris.

He did, of course. Follow.

The line wasn’t terrible, because Buck actually did know what he was talking about, but they still had a little wait. Eddie settled against the barricade, his casual lean belied as always by his perfectly level military shoulders. “You have a smudge,” he said, gesturing to his own left cheek.

“I would have rubbed it in a little better,” Buck complained, swiping around for it, “if someone hadn’t been in such a big hurry for the Ferris wheel.”

“It’s still there.” Eddie gestured at his own cheek again. “You know, I don’t know why I did that. I think we should ride the Fireball. Why am I not in line for the Fireball?”

“Because you don’t have a death wish,” Buck said.

Eddie snorted. “Well, not anymore.”

Buck shrugged, like, fair enough, because Eddie used to cage fight for fun. Not that Buck could judge, because there had been a time–he hadn’t tried anything, not actively, but there had been a time. Somewhere close to the border of Uruguay, he’d run out of I’m gonna be something, Maddie, really, and stopped picturing himself older than thirty. He’d thrown himself into danger over and over, feeling less a desire to die and more an ambivalence towards the fact that he was alive. It was still there in his head, somewhere, but it seemed unbelievable that afternoon. Unbelievable, when it felt so good to be on some stupid day trip he’d planned for his best friend, getting a farmer’s tan in the Los Angeles summer heat, the breeze smelling like salt air and sweaty crowds and a shrimp boil.

He took another swipe at his cheek just for something to do with his hands. “You think we should get some of those hats?” he asked. “The lobster head ones?”

Eddie pushed off the barricade with an eye roll, and Buck felt a sudden inexplicable terror at what he might be coming closer to do. “How are you still missing it?” Eddie asked, and he reached out with his own thumb to rub in the sunscreen, lips pinched, serious as a sculptor.

Which was, of course, when it hit him. The oh my god. Buck thought: oh my god, Eddie Diaz, and the bottom fell out of the world.

There was contained in it almost every feeling he’d ever felt, jumbled together and roaring like a hurricane on fire, and Eddie’s thumb was still rubbing circles on his cheekbone near his ear. “I will not be paying money for one of those hats,” Eddie said. His face was so close Buck could see his eyelashes through the sunglasses. “If someone drops theirs, I will steal it for you.”

Buck swallowed. It was almost impossible, not kissing Eddie. He held himself back by the skin of his teeth. He felt like a car bumper, as Eddie said “there you go” and peeled away from his personal space, leaving all these painful bits of adhesive in his wake.

“Don’t steal anyone’s hat,” Buck chastised.

“Not off their head,” Eddie countered. “I’m an honest guy.”

Buck was used to learning things more than he was used to knowing them. But this knowledge blossomed instantly, without any real doubts and without showing its work. All the things that he wanted to be to Eddie, that he wanted Eddie to be to him. The years and how good they would be. The foundation he wanted to set in before it started.

Wait right there, he thought, as he watched Eddie’s mouth move around some joke about pilgrims and hermit crabs. I’m not ready yet. But I will be.

 

So he is in love with Eddie. He is in love with Eddie as they cut him out of the stair railing. He is in love with Eddie as Hen and Ravi slide him onto a backboard, Hen’s hands applying desperate pressure to the really absurdly small hole in his leg. He is in love with Eddie as the pitted ceiling gapes blackly down at him, then as the lavender morning sky pulls over the blackness like a bedsheet. He is in love with Eddie as they pass him to the nearest med unit, because Hen can’t in good conscience work on him, and he is in love as he blinks the sky away into the metal roof of the ambulance, and as someone says “no, go, you—“ and Eddie appears in his vision next, Eddie is everything and all of it, the sun the rest of the ambulance spins around, the voice urging him away from the precipice of the cliff, the tightness around his hand that means someone is holding on to him. The best friend Buck’s ever had and the lover he won’t get to. He’s growing cold and the cold wicks through him fast, jumping from fiber to fiber of his muscles.

Buck is in love with Eddie Diaz as he soaks a second, a third wad of gauze with the contents of his heart. He is in love with Eddie Diaz to the erratic beeping of his doomed vitals. He is in love with Eddie Diaz as everything goes black. And then Buck is dead, and he still loves him.

 

There’s an odd privacy in the top half of the ambulance when paramedics are working on the bottom. It happens with people in labor, with appendixes, anything below the waist–there’s a certain kind of calm to it. Victor Tolomeo is in one world with Firefighter Buckley’s femoral puncture, and in another world someone touches his sweaty hair with a tenderness that Victor only looks at sideways.  “You with me, Buck?” Diaz asks, and the patient makes a guttural noise of agreement. “Yeah, that’s good. You close your eyes, I’ll let Chimney draw dicks on your face.”

The USC hospital is just a few minutes down the road, thank Christ, and commute traffic hasn’t yet started in earnest. Victor cleans the wound, cutting clothing back, and Sammy hooks him up to a bag, because God knows his blood pressure is a losing game. The artery is pinched off, but the gash is still ugly and still bleeding. With the amount he’s already lost, even the slow weeping of the damaged skin is enough to make Sammy look at Victor nervously as he compresses it with gauze, trying not to jostle the clamps. “You know his blood type?” she asks quietly, and with a strangled kind of laugh Diaz says “B positive.”

She radios that to Alvarez up front; Sammy hasn’t been at this too long, but Victor’s noticed that she gets like that when she thinks someone won’t make it. Reserved.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Diaz says quietly; Buckley’s ghost-blue eyes are on him with the impatient grief of someone running out of time. “I know I should be down there helping out, but you didn’t let me get enough sleep last night. I mean, look.”

He holds up a hand, flat, in Buckley’s eyeline. It’s shaking. Buckley’s brow furrows for a half-second before it goes limp, like he’s too weak to hold an expression.

The hospital is still four minutes away. The monitors have been leery since they hooked their patient into them, but now they really start to complain. Eighty over forty. Seventy-five over thirty-five. Victor grabs onto Buckley’s left wrist with his free hand, thumbing at his pulse, as if it’s going to tell him something different than the machine does. Thready and getting worse. He wishes there was something else he could do, at this point, besides wait to see if the boat sinks. 

“Hey, no, come on,” Diaz says. “If you’re gonna close your eyes, you at least have to squeeze my hand. Let me know you’re still listening. I got shit to say to you.”

Mercilessly, the monitors pitch to a tachycardic scream.

Diaz backs up to give them room to work, but he looks like he’ll break into pieces if Victor asks him to drop Buckley’s hand, so he doesn’t. Sammy rushes to set up the AED, and Victor puts all his weight into chest compressions. After the first round of rescue breaths get them nowhere, Diaz hunches over the top of the gurney, lips pinched white and silent.

The thing Victor never gets used to is how pale a person goes. Under his fists, jolting with every push, Buckley looks like he’s already dead. When Sammy’s ready with the pads, Diaz spares a glance for the two of them, watching with wet pleading eyes Victor raises his hands. No one breathes as they wait for the shock button to turn green.

“Clear!” Sammy shouts, and the AED discharges.

No change. Victor starts compressions again.

“Come on, Buck,” Diaz says, looking back down. “Come on, Evan. You have to pull through for me. I know I already ask you for too much, all the time, but don’t start saying no to me now.”

It’s anticlimactic, the way a heart stops. It sputters and sprints before the flatline, but you can’t let it get that far: you crawl over the body to tie a pulse back into it with your own bone and muscle. Only the heart is tired. Death is comfortable, and life is like a double-dutch game, that endless whir-thud, whir-thud –the rhythm of the chance to jump back in. You can’t make the heart do anything. You can’t hear it say it’s over, I forfeit my turn. All you can really do is hold the ends of the rope tight and beg.

All the heart can do is wait for you to give up.

Diaz ducks down, pressing his forehead to Buckley’s temple, one hand on the opposite side of his face as if keeping pressure on a wound.

The shock button flashes green again.

 

Evan Buckley only ever kept one secret successfully. He tried for a while to bury it, but that didn’t last. It demanded to be held in his cupped hands, instead, every minute, and it wasn’t heavy but he still shook with the effort. He kept the secret in this way for two years, ten months, and a couple of days. And then he took it with him to the grave.

The grave lost its grip on him after thirty-one seconds.

 

Buck is not unfamiliar with waking up from general anesthesia. The strange nakedness of the hospital gown, the ergonomic tilt of the bed, the childhood-sounds of someone trying to be quiet while you sleep. The world, when he opens his eyes to it, is fuzzy and dove-gray. His throat hurts. He’s not too bad off everywhere else, though, besides the general sensation that he’s been decanted out of his body, stirred around, and poured back in. Here and there he finds patches of something that will become pain later, once the good stuff wears off.

He’s so warm. It was work, he’s pretty sure. He remembers the house fire, remembers the floor so black with dirt it was hard to see the charring. He remembers following Eddie up the stairs.

Something is pulling at him. Gently. Something about Eddie. What was it?

Oh, no, the pulling is literal. When he rolls his head away from the window he sees his right arm snaking over the edge of the hospital bed and a dark head of hair so familiar and dear that he can hear his own vitals change on the monitors. His right shoulder shifts a few more times without his prompting.

Why are you tugging on my hand, he tries to say, but when he blinks a few more times and really focuses, he realizes that Eddie’s fingers are laced through his, and he’s dragging Buck’s knuckles gently back and forth over his left eyebrow, that spot he always worries when he’s–well, worried.

“What’s cookin’, good lookin’,” Buck croaks, feeling several starbursts of love in the neighborhood of his lungs.

The skin under Eddie’s eyes is red, but his smile rises easy as a weekend sun. “Hi, stupid.”

Buck twitches a smile back. “Were you scratching your face with my hand?”

At this Eddie’s face crumples in fond annoyance, like a Kleenex, because Buck is being a snot. “I have to save one for my phone. If I don’t keep texting abuela back she’ll come storming down here to make sure none of the nurses suffocated you in your sleep.”

“You could’ve let go of my hand,” Buck says.

Eddie just looks at him. Okay, dipshit. The yeah, whatever face. Like he makes when Chris asks if they can have ice cream for dinner.

There is something very important underneath Buck’s tongue, and he swallows hard, trying to get the shape of it. Eddie nudges a little rolling tray up the bed. There is a cup of water on it. It is the best water Buck has ever had. The bendy straw gets stuck to his upper lip when he tries to put the cup down, and Eddie laughs his hot-honey laugh as Buck unsticks it, puts it back on the table, and brushes at the little trail of water it left on his gown.

“No wonder you busted your ass this morning,” Eddie says. “You’re a menace.”

Ah. There it is. The thing under Buck’s tongue is metaphorical, this time.

“Maddie should be back in a minute,” Eddie says.

“Okay,” Buck says, looking at him harder than he’s ever looked at anyone in his life. “Hey, listen. I love you.”

And that’s–it’s so simple, the smile that returns immediately to Eddie’s face like he’s forgotten how to put it away. It’s so simple, how Eddie meets his eyes and says, “I love you, too.”

Buck paws at him with his opposite hand, feeling the minor not-pain in his ribs as they curve toward this, the star that keeps him in orbit. “No, Eddie,” he says, hoarse. “Eddie, I don’t mean, like, you’re my best friend. I mean I’m in love with you.”

Eddie props his chin on the siderail of Buck’s bed and keeps looking at him–warm, quiet, steady. “I know,” he says again. “Me too.”

This feels in Buck’s chest like baking powder, a cake lifting up and turning golden on top.

“That’s really good.” He curls in a little further towards Eddie, just moving his head on the pillow so they aren’t so far away.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, it is,” Buck says, then blinks slowly, aware all at once that he is still worn-out and comfortable. He wonders if Eddie would get in bed with him, but asking sounds like a lot of work.

“I hope you remember this one,” he hears Eddie saying as his eyes close. “This one is nice.”

Sleep recedes as fast as it came. “This one?”

Eddie cringes.

“You’ve woken up… a couple of times so far,” he says. “And every time you do, you. Do this.”

Buck flops back onto his pillows. “I’ve been scooping myself?” he asks, distraught.

“If it helps, I’m getting a lot out of it.”

Buck pouts. “I hate you.”

“Too bad you already love me.” Eddie’s eyes glitter. “You’ve told me, like, six times.”

“That’s so many,” Buck says. “That’s, like, a whole blooper reel.”

“It’s pretty cute,” Eddie replies. “And I mean, the first time, I was so surprised that you passed out again before I could say it back. So. There are worse times to get a do-over.”

“I can’t believe you watched the bloopers without me,” Buck says. And then–“Fuck, did I hit my head?”

“No.” Eddie squeezes his hand. “It’s just the anesthesia. You fell onto a broken banister and got your thigh pretty good. Pretty sure your leg looks like Frankenstein’s neck.”

Fascinating. “They get pictures?” Buck asks, lifting the edge of the hospital blanket, and Eddie reaches out with his phone hand to push it back down.

“You can’t see it without flashing the nurse’s station, man,” he says. “Maybe wait till they let you get up and walk to the bathroom.”

“That gross, huh?” Buck asks.

Now that he’s thinking about it–the morphine drip is still a little too heavy to think all that much, but he tries–the majority of the confusing not-pain is emanating from sort of high up on his inner thigh. High enough to make him concerned.

Buck is not sure how long it took him to think all of that. Eddie’s still looking at him soft and final, like he’s tried out a bunch of different ways to look at him and this is his favorite.

“Is my dick okay?” Buck asks.

Now the expression on Eddie’s face makes a sound. Kind of like the one window blinds make when you let go of the pull-cord too quickly. “What, you want me to check on it?”

“Well, not now.” He itches his other hand, the one with the IV line, against his sheets. “Now I’d be embarrassed by it. Kind of wish you would have when I was asleep though. You must have known I’d want to know.”

“Oh my god,” Eddie says. “Yeah, first priority when I thought you were going to die on me and I’d be alone forever was ‘is his dick okay?’”

“You wouldn’t be alone.” Buck taps the heel of Eddie’s hand with his pointer finger. “You have lots of other people.”

Eddie smiles at him close-mouthed. “No, I would.”

And Buck knows what he means. Because alone isn’t lonely, not always, and if Eddie died Buck would keep walking and talking and breathing, eventually, but when he’s around Eddie he’s not-alone in a way that doesn’t happen with anybody else. That never happened before him.

“I wanna kiss you so bad,” Buck blurts.

“You’re pretty high right now.” Eddie is shining like a lightbulb. Like the Pacific. “I don’t know if I can do that.”

“No, it’s okay, you don’t have to do anything!” Buck says fervently. “Just put your face closer and I’ll do it.”

“Still a no, pendejo,” Eddie says, looking pleased anyway. “For today, at least.”

“Are you not kissing me because of the cannula? I can move the cannula.”

“Do not move the cannula,” Eddie orders, resting his chin on their interlocked hands. “Keep the cannula on, and when they switch you over to Tylenol, you can kiss me as much as you want.”

“You promise?” Buck asks urgently.

“I promise,” Eddie says, and Buck snuggles down into his pillows, victorious.

“Hell yes.”

 

Eddie makes good on his promise.

Well, Buck makes good on Eddie’s promise, anyway.

He’s in the hospital for four days–amazing, everyone says, a fall like that with just the gash and the bruised tailbone, no concussion, no infection. Doctors that Buck is pretty sure aren’t involved in his case at all keep coming by to look at his chart, like he’s a giant panda who gave birth in captivity.

Chim tries to get everyone to call it pulling a Chimney. “Can’t believe you got stabbed with rusty metal from a trap house and you’re just going to look more like Captain America afterwards,” he says, to which Hen says, “that was not a trap house,” and Eddie says “he's just blond and built.”

“None of you have any appreciation for dramatic effect,” Chimney complains, before taking an unflinching slurp of the horrible hospital coffee.

Chris comes by for the first time that night, and Buck yells “Superman!” as he careens over the floor to the bed.

Eddie, pausing in the doorway to let Chris get there first, says, “Avengers assemble, huh?”

God, but he’s cute.

Chris’s little head swivels against Buck’s shoulder to give his dad the trademarked Diaz stinkeye. “Superman isn’t an Avenger,” he says.

“Sure he’s not,” Eddie agrees.

“No, Eddie,” Buck says. “Please tell me that you know this.”

One arm still around Chris’s bony shoulders, Buck holds the other out, palm forward, in a dramatic little stop motion. Eddie just walks over and takes it.

“Sorry I was cool in high school,” he says, and Buck raises his eyebrows.

“Are you telling your son that superheroes aren’t cool?” he asks.

Eddie gives him a bitchy little nose-wrinkle before he turns back to Chris, who is now haphazardly cross-legged on the bed, elbows knocking against Buck’s knees. “Superheroes are very cool,” Eddie says seriously.

They can only stay for a few hours; Chris has to be at school for a field day at the crack of dawn. He gamely ducks his head so that Buck can kiss the top of it before he leaves. Eddie just presses his forefinger into the spot between Buck’s knuckles, once, twice, like Morse code. He turns in the doorway as Chris starts to clatter down the hall and says, simply, “You look good.”

Buck goes hot all over. When he blows Eddie a kiss, trying to one-up him, maybe, Eddie catches it with a goofy little baseball pantomime that makes Buck need to be out of the hospital bed, like, yesterday.

So, it’s four days, but he feels every minute of it. He is not a model patient. He follows instructions, takes everything seriously, but he’s keyed-up and crabby and there’s just so much to get to that every accumulating drop of energy he can't use feels like it’s mocking him. There is definitely a shade of relief in Nurse Allison’s face as she tells him that as long as he promises not to do anything strenuous (Eddie studiously avoids eye contact), he can continue his recovery at home.

Home, of course, being the Diaz house.

Buck hates the big walking brace that they strapped him into to keep him from popping a stitch, but he does not mind the amount of manhandling it requires. Bed to wheelchair, wheelchair to truck, Eddie pushing and pulling and lifting him with a hundred gentle little adjustments. “This wouldn’t be so hard if you didn’t drive the over-compensation-mobile,” Buck says, hiding a wince as he shoves himself across the seat. Failing to hide it, really, based on the annoyed-worried look Eddie shoots him.

“Funny how I don’t hear anyone ragging on my truck when they need help moving furniture,” Eddie says.

“When was the last time you helped someone move furniture?”

“Oh, so I should take your shower chair back to the store?” Eddie snips, pretending like it’s not a thigh workout to get into the drivers’ seat.

“You bought me a shower chair?”

“I bought a shower chair–” Eddie turns the key in his dorky-dad way, putting his whole shoulder into it– “for whichever member of this miserable fucking family gets in a freak accident next.”

Buck’s cheeks hurt from smiling and his body hurts from moving and his heart hurts from the face Eddie keeps making. Buck wants to lie on top of him like a hot water bottle. He settles for squeezing Eddie’s right wrist and turning on the seat heaters.

They are in the drive-through line at CVS when Eddie says, abruptly: “I already had an appointment with Frank about it.”

Buck squints at him; Eddie looks steadily through the windshield. The Hyundai Sonata in front of them inches forward. “About what?” Buck asks.

“About you almost–you know. Seeing the–” Eddie flexes his fingers off the steering wheel, then grips them again. “You getting hurt. I don’t think I can talk about it with you yet–I mean, I want to–later–but I just wanted you to know I, uh, learned my lesson. In case you were worried I would join another fight club. Because I love you, and I watched you flatline, and I don’t historically handle that well.”

Buck’s very bones shiver when Eddie says love, even though he believed him the first time he said it. And he–well, he hasn’t been expecting this talk, exactly, but he has been thinking about it. Every time Eddie startles awake in that chair next to his bed, eyes darting around like Buck might have quietly left the room.

“Okay, Ed,” Buck says, trying to be brave the way Eddie is brave these days–less soldier, more himself. “We can talk about it when you’re ready. And I, I’m glad you told me about Frank. But I just want you to know that that is the last one. Ever. Cross my heart.”

Eddie glances at him for a very concentrated second, one that feels as loaded and weightless as leaving the atmosphere. When he speaks, his eyes are back on the Sonata’s bumper. “You can’t promise that you won’t get hurt again. They’re called accidents, Buck.”

“I can promise I won’t leave you, though,” Buck says, and he watches Eddie swallow in a way that looks like it hurts. “And I don’t mean–whatever we look like, you know, I’m just. Not gonna leave you guys.”

“You’re gonna opt out of the laws of physics,” Eddie says, that little twist to his lips belying a certain depth of emotion.

“I am!” Buck says. “No going toward the light. The Grim Reaper can bite me. I’ll kick his ass.”

“And how are you going to do that?”

“Leg drop,” Buck says, demonstrating poorly with his arms. “Vertical suplex. Clothesline. Give ‘im the flying elbow.”

“The spinning bird kick special combo,” Eddie says.

“Yeah, exactly,” Buck says. “I got moves. I’ll stick around.”

He darts another glance to the drivers’ seat, and he isn’t sure what he’d call Eddie’s expression, but it fills him with a shaky electricity. He feels intensely proud to be the kind of person that Eddie believes when they promise not to leave him.

“That would be nice,” Eddie says, just a little hoarse.

Five or so years ago, Buck probably would have tried to get out of the car by himself. This time, as they pull into the driveway, he waits patiently for Eddie to come around to his side, pharmacy bag hanging off his arm. “I could have gotten the door for you,” Eddie says.

“There’s no pleasing you, Diaz,” Buck says, twisting his hips to prepare for the journey to the ground, and Eddie sort of snuggles into him to add support for the descent. With the unbelievable size of the truck, they are for once the exact same height. “You ready?” Eddie asks, still somehow looking up at Buck with his big doe eyes.

And bent close like this, tucked between Buck’s knees, arms outstretched, it’s too easy. Buck grabs Eddie by the collar and kisses him.

First comes a wounded, sharp little inhale against Buck’s upper lip, then a stillness, and then Eddie opens his mouth just slightly as if to accept the kiss as a gift. He makes a soft hesitant noise that Buck will be hearing in his dreams for months or decades. Then there he is, all of him, Eddie’s lips slipping past Buck’s cheek and arms tight around his waist, Eddie’s cut-grass-and-clean-laundry smell flooding over his skin like the warmth from a shot of whiskey. Big hands make fists in the back of Buck’s t-shirt.

He spares a moment to be embarrassed at how immediately he melts into it, how he throws all his weight into Eddie’s body. How, for all the times he has felt this particular set of hands on him, it always makes him feel like he’s never been touched in his life. But then Eddie tucks his nose into the crook of Buck’s neck, and he exhales long and slow and shaky, and Buck can feel his own pulse beating in every corner of his body. He knows that he’s doing it right. This is how Eddie Diaz is meant to be held.

They cling to each other like limpets in the driveway, Buck’s big stupid cast sticking out into the hot afternoon sun.

There’s one false start–Eddie lets him go, and Buck looks at him with wet eyes for just a second and then he’s suddenly being kissed back into the last century, a real silver screen kiss, his arms looping around Eddie’s neck just so he doesn’t fall over. Buck goes buzzy and lightheaded; he wonders if he’s on the brink of passing out, except the feeling continues. It might, he realizes, just feel like this. Forever.

When Eddie finally does lean back, he’s blushing to the roots of his hair. His hands rest on the waistband of Buck’s sweatpants. “Okay,” he says, huffy, as if that last one had been Buck’s fault. “Now are you ready to get out of the car?”

“Yeah,” Buck replies easily. “Yeah, I’m ready for you.”