For a few seconds after the vehicle had stopped moving, Brian sat stock still behind the wheel, frozen in a state of shock, the airbag slowly deflating in front of his face. Then, when he realized he was still alive, he called out to his passenger. “AJ?” As his lungs filled with dust and chemicals from the air bag, he began to cough. “You okay?” he choked.
At first, there was no answer. Brian’s heart felt like it was about to pound right out of his chest as he looked over at AJ, afraid at what he might find. The haze of dust made it even harder to see in the dark, but by the faint glow of the dashboard, he observed AJ sitting upright, holding his belly. “Yeah...” Brian heard his hoarse reply. He could tell by the sound of AJ’s voice that he was in pain, but at least he, too, was alive.
“Are you hurt anywhere?” Brian asked.
AJ groaned. “I hurt everywhere.” Brian saw him shift slightly in his seat. “I think I broke my wrist… and maybe dislocated a couple of fingers. They got caught under the seatbelt.” Fighting with the airbag, he held his right hand up in front of his face. Brian could only see its silhouette, but AJ’s wrist seemed to be hanging at an odd angle. He hissed in a sharp breath as he tried to bend and flex his fingers. “I can’t really move them. And my stomach hurts like a son of a bitch.”
“I bet.” Brian cringed as he imagined the seatbelt cutting into AJ’s already tender abdomen. He felt bad for insisting that he buckle up, but if he hadn’t, AJ might have been hurt a lot worse. “But you’re okay otherwise?”
“I guess so. What about you?”
The adrenaline coursing through Brian’s body had kept him from feeling anything at first, but gradually, he became aware of various aches and pains. His face hurt, and when he brought his hand up to feel it, his fingers came away warm and wet with blood. “My nose is bleeding,” he said, touching the tip of it gingerly.
“How bad?” AJ wanted to know. “Do you think it’s broken?”
“I dunno,” said Brian, as blood dripped down his chin. “I hope not.” He unbuckled his seatbelt and balled up the hem of his shirt, using it to mop up as much of the blood as he could. His nose felt tender, but he couldn’t tell if it had been broken by the force of the airbag deploying in his face. More troubling was the throbbing sensation radiating from his right ankle. “I think I did something to my foot,” he added. He tried to rotate the joint and flex his toes, but the slightest movement sent shockwaves of pain running straight up his leg.
“Damn. What are we gonna do now?”
Brian shook his head. “I dunno.” Relief turned to alarm, as he realized they had crashed in a remote area and may not be able to call for help right away. “Where’s my phone? I wonder if either of us have a signal.”
“Sorry, bro; it must have flown out of my hand. I can’t find it,” said AJ, looking around the front seat. “Here, I’ll try mine.” He unbuckled and reached across his body to pull the phone out of the pocket of his shorts. Brian saw him frown as he looked at the screen. “No bars.”
“Try dialing 911 anyway,” Brian suggested. “You never know. Aren’t cell phone providers legally obligated to transmit emergency calls, even if the phone’s not connected to their service? You might pick up a signal from a different company’s cell tower.”
“Worth a shot,” said AJ with a shrug. He pulled up the keypad and punched in the numbers, then put the phone to his ear. Brian held his breath, silently praying for a signal, but after a few seconds, AJ shook his head. “Nothing.”
Brian let out his breath in a low sigh. “Let’s find mine. Maybe it’ll work.”
AJ turned on his phone’s flashlight and used it to sweep the floor. “I see it,” he said after a moment. “Now if I could just… get it…” He grunted in pain as he bent over with difficulty, cradling his injured right hand close to his belly while he reached down to retrieve Brian’s phone with his left. Brian watched helplessly, wishing there was something he could do, but he didn’t think crawling across AJ’s lap would be any more comfortable for him. Finally, AJ straightened up, breathing hard. “Got it,” he gasped, handing Brian his phone.
“Thanks, Bone.” The screen was cracked, but Brian was relieved to see that the driving directions were still displayed behind it. At least his phone hadn’t been destroyed in the accident. But when he minimized the app and tried to make a call, he discovered that he was also without a signal. “Mine’s not working either,” he said with another sigh of disappointment. “Now what?”
AJ glanced at the steering wheel. “Will the engine start?”
Brian looked doubtfully at the button that started the Range Rover, which had stopped running. He didn’t remember turning off the ignition, but he thought some vehicles were programmed to shut off automatically when the airbags were deployed to prevent fires. It was worth a try. “We’ll find out,” he said. He took a deep breath and held it as he pushed the button.
“Is your foot on the brake?” AJ asked. “Sometimes you have to have your foot on the brake before it’ll work.”
Brian’s right foot was still resting lightly on the brake pedal, but it hurt too much to press down. He lowered it gingerly to the floor and used his left foot to apply the brakes as he pushed the start button again.
“It’s dead,” said Brian, disappointed, but not surprised. Staring out the cracked windshield, he could see that they had hit the trunk of a large tree. The hood of the SUV was crumpled up like a piece of tin foil, and he was willing to bet the front end had been damaged beyond repair. “Guess I shoulda bought the insurance car rental companies are always trying to sell you, huh?”
AJ let out a humorless laugh. “Don’t worry about that now. It wouldn’t help us get out of here even if you had.”
“How are we gonna get out of here?” Brian was the first to ask the question that he assumed was on both of their minds.
“I guess we’ll have to walk,” AJ answered uncertainly.
Brian had been afraid of that. Looking out his rain-soaked window, he saw only the dark silhouettes of trees. No houses, no lights, no sign of civilization within his line of sight. He remembered how long the drive up the mountain had been and how far apart the houses had become the further they got from the town of Bethlehem. It might be miles to the next cabin. Normally, this would not be a big deal for two men in good shape, but he wasn’t even sure he could put weight on his right foot, let alone walk that far on it. And with as much pain as AJ was in, Brian didn’t see how he could get much farther before passing out.
“I think that’s a bad idea,” he replied, shaking his head. “It’s pitch black and pouring rain out there.” His point was emphasized by a sudden flash of lightning, followed by a low rumble of thunder. “We should probably wait a while.” He looked down at his phone, checking the time. “It’s almost two a.m. It’ll be light in a few hours, and hopefully the storm will be over by then.”
“Hm… I seem to remember saying the same thing back at the cabin,” AJ reminded him.
Brian felt a stab of guilt. Was AJ suggesting this was his fault? “Well, excuse me for wanting to get you to the emergency room before your appendix burst.”
“I’m not blaming you,” AJ said quickly. “I’m agreeing with you. We should wait till morning.”
But Brian didn’t feel good about this decision either. “Do you… do you think you can wait that long?” he asked hesitantly, worried about what would happen if AJ didn’t get to the hospital that night.
AJ shrugged. “I sure wish I’d taken some Tylenol before we left,” he confessed. “But I’ll live.”
“Maybe you should lie down. Try to get some sleep,” Brian suggested. “You can stretch out in the back seat.”
“Nah, bro, you should take the back seat so you can elevate your foot,” AJ insisted. “I’ll be fine up front. I can just lower my seat.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah,” he grunted, already reaching across his body to push the buttons on his door panel with his left hand. Brian wasn’t sure they would work, but with a low hum, the back of AJ’s seat gradually began to recline. “It’s all good,” he added, lowering it as far as it would go. “Now get your ass back there and put your foot up.”
Brian had to admit, the throbbing in his ankle was getting worse. He could tell his foot had started to swell, for his shoe felt tight. “Thanks, Bone,” he said gratefully. Now how was he going to get into the back seat? He debated trying to climb between the two front seats to avoid going out in the rain, but ultimately decided to use the doors. Aside from not wanting to jostle AJ, he was curious to see what the damage looked like from the outside and anxious to find out if he could walk on his right leg.
It took him throwing his weight against his door to force it open, but he finally managed it, stepping out with his good foot. Then he lifted his right foot over the threshold and gingerly lowered it to the muddy ground. The moment he tried transferring the slightest bit of weight to it, excruciating pain shot up the length of his leg, causing his knee to buckle. Hissing in agony, he grabbed the car door to steady himself and hastily shifted his weight back to his left leg, raising his right foot off the ground. It was too dark to get a good look at the front end of the SUV, for the headlights had gone out. It was still raining hard; he was getting soaked. He gave up on assessing the damage and hopped on one foot back to the rear door. Thankfully, it opened easily, and he scrambled inside, taking care to keep his right foot from touching anything.
“You okay, Rok?” AJ called back to him.
“Not really,” replied Brian, breathing hard from the effort it had taken just to get into the back seat. “I think my ankle’s broken, or at least sprained pretty bad. I couldn’t put any weight on it.”
“Shit… I’m sorry, bro.”
“It’s not your fault,” muttered Brian, as he propped his right leg up on his left knee and loosened the shoelaces on his sneaker. He knew once he took it off, he might not be able to get it back on again, but he was worried it would cut off the circulation to his foot if he left it on any longer.
“Well, actually, it kind of is,” AJ said. “I’m the reason we went out in this storm, remember?”
“Yeah, well, I’m the one who crashed the car,” Brian countered bitterly. He wished he could go back in time and be more cautious… drive even more slowly than he had been.
“It was an accident. If anything, the fucking moose is to blame.”
Brian had almost forgotten about the moose he had swerved to avoid. “Yeah… blame the moose!”
“I wonder where it went,” said AJ, looking out his window as if expecting to see wandering in the dark woods. “We didn’t hit it, did we?”
“No. We must’ve scared it off. Good thing, or we’d probably be in worse shape than we are,” said Brian with a shudder. “That thing was huge! Can you imagine those antlers crashing through the windshield?”
“Yeah, no wonder that girl at the tree farm told us to watch out for them. She wasn’t kidding!”
“Wow… was that just yesterday?” So much had happened in the last hour alone that their trip to the Christmas tree farm felt like a lifetime ago.
“Technically, it was two days ago,” replied AJ, “but I guess you didn’t really go to sleep last night, did you?”
“Oh... right,” said Brian, remembering what time it was. He was tired, yet he didn’t see how he would be able to get any rest in the back seat of the Range Rover with his foot throbbing the way it was. He cringed as he carefully pried off his shoe and sock. Then he pulled up the flashlight on his phone and shone it over the lower half of his leg. Sure enough, his foot and ankle already looked swollen. He prodded his ankle gently, trying to feel for broken bones, but it was too puffy to tell if anything was out of place through the surface of his skin, and it hurt too badly for him to press any deeper.
He stretched his legs out across the back seat, wishing he had a pillow to prop up his bad ankle. But there was nothing in the rental car - no pillows or blankets, no food or water, no supplies of any kind. They were thoroughly unprepared for a survival situation.
That’s not what this is, Brian argued with himself, as he lay back and closed his eyes, trying to will his body to relax. We just have to wait until the sun’s up. Then either AJ will go get help, or someone else will come along and find us. Either way, we’ll be fine.
He wasn’t worried about himself. Even if both his ankle and his nose were broken, those weren’t life-threatening injuries. But in the back of his mind, he knew that if AJ’s appendix burst, it could cause a life-threatening infection if left untreated.
I won’t let that happen, he vowed. One way or another, I’ll make sure he gets to the hospital.
He just wasn’t sure how.