NO EASY CHOICE
*This story was inspired by Story Starter Number #7 as submitted to Tigger’s E! Site by Jean and Lisa. Though I do not classify this as an alternate universe story, it does alter the Emergency timeline a bit. It’s set in 1982, and rather than being station captains, Johnny and Roy are still partners at Station 51.
Johnny sat alone in the dark nurse’s lounge. He didn’t know why he’d turned off the overhead light. He couldn’t remember doing it, but he must have. Other than Hank Stanley for a few brief seconds, no one else had been present since Dixie brought him in here an hour ago, and Cap hadn’t turned the light on when he’d stuck his head in the door to speak with his paramedic.
During periods of time when Johnny’s nerves wouldn’t allow him to remain seated he would walk over to the window and gaze at the parking lot. It was still raining outside. The drops bounced off the glass, reflecting like tiny jewels with the aid of the parking lot lights. Anyone looking in wouldn’t be able to tell where the rain on the glass left off, and the trail of tears on Johnny’s face began.
The paramedic shuffled back to the table where a cold cup of coffee awaited him. Even though he’d tossed his turnout coat into the squad he still smelled like smoke. The darkness outside reminded him it was late. He should feel tired, but he didn’t. Or at least he told himself he wasn’t tired. He had no desire to fall asleep and risk dreaming about the events of tonight. If he did, he knew he’d see Roy’s face again. The horror of that sight had been bad enough the first time.
Johnny put his head in his hands and stared at the floor. Did he do the right thing? Did he make the right decision? No answers were forthcoming. If Roy should die, he would have to tell Joanne. Roy’s death would be his fault, and the responsibility of telling Roy’s family would fall on him. Or would he have to tell Joanne her husband would never be the same? Would he have to tell Chris his father could no longer go camping with him? Would he have to tell Jennifer she’d attended her last Father/Daughter dance in February? Would he have to tell John...good Lord his namesake was just three years old. What the hell would he tell John? That his daddy was never going to pitch a ball to him, or teach him how to ride a bike? Maybe not be able to say his name or communicate with him? Johnny knew those possibilities for Roy would be worse than death.
It’s my fault. It’s my fault. Whether he dies, or whether he lives with severe brain damage, it’s my fault. It’s all my fault.
Johnny heard the click of the doorknob turning. A strip of light suddenly illuminated the room. Out of the shadows he saw a woman’s form in white. As his eyes adjusted he could tell it was Dixie.
It didn’t surprise Johnny that Dixie McCall wasn’t going to allow him to sit in the dark. As the door swung closed she hit the light switch on the wall, again causing him to squint for a few seconds. He jumped from his chair and crossed the floor. He wanted to ask her how Roy was, but at the same time he didn’t want to know. What he really wanted to do was turn back the clock. Go back to supper at the station when they were all sitting around the table teasing Chet about something he could no longer recall. Johnny did recall Chet pointing a finger at him and telling him the Phantom would get even.
Geez, Chet, if this is the Phantom’s idea of a prank it’s time everyone comes out laughing, agrees you’ve pulled another one over on Gullible Gage, and then we’ll all go home. I don’t even think I’d be mad if only you guys would tell me this entire night has been some kind of elaborate practical joke.
Dixie’s hand on his arm brought Johnny back to reality. No, of course this wasn’t a joke. The look on Dixie’s face told him that much.
Johnny tasted smoke when he tried to swallow the lump in his throat.
The paramedic could hear the quiver in his voice and hated himself for it. He knew he had to be a lot stronger than he was feeling right now if he was going to make it through the rest of this night.
“I don’t have an answer for you yet, other than to say they’ve got him stabilized for the moment. His left arm is broken, though at this point it doesn’t look like surgery will be necessary. He’s got three cracked ribs, and some internal bruising. All in all he’s lucky as far as that goes. Those injuries aren’t life threatening. But the smoke. . .”
Johnny nodded. The smoke. Roy had inhaled so much smoke. And because of him, for so long. Even in a house fire like the one they fought tonight smoke collects toxic fumes as it burns carpets, furniture, draperies, and walls. They weren’t really certain how long Roy had been without oxygen. How long his air tank had been empty before Chet found him.
“He hasn’t regained consciousness then?”
“No. And his neurological responses are almost non-existent at this point.”
Johnny took a deep, shuddering breath. He squeezed his eyes shut, but when he did all John saw was his partner’s death-like face as he hunched over him performing CPR in the ambulance.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have even tried,” he muttered.
Johnny opened his red rimmed eyes. “Maybe. . .maybe death would have been better than the life he’ll have now.”
“Johnny, you don’t know what kind of a life Roy is going to have now. None of us do. He might make a full recovery and--”
“Or he might not. I. . .I keep asking myself if I did the right thing.”
“By working on him? By bringing him back?”
Johnny could hear the shock in Dixie’s tone.
“No. I . . .Roy. . .the boy. . .I was the only paramedic on the scene. I knew when I carried that boy out of the house he was going to die. He was burned so badly, Dix. I knew. . .I just knew. But I had to work on him. He still had a pulse. It was my job to do everything I could.”
“Of course it was your job. And you did what anyone else in your position would have.”
“But I knew Chet and Cap needed help with Roy. I knew he had arrested, but I couldn’t stop working on the boy. Maybe if I’d gotten an airway in Roy
sooner . . .but the boy’s brother and sister. . .they were standing there watching me. Crying. . begging me to save their little brother . . .I. . .”
The details Dixie knew about the house fire were sketchy at best. The house had been huge, nothing less than a mansion she’d been told. The father was involved in the movie industry in some capacity. A producer or director someone had said. He and his wife had gone out for the evening leaving their seventeen-year-old son in charge of his fourteen year old sister and eleven year old brother. All three children were sleeping when the girl woke to the smell of smoke and the crackling of fire. She and her older brother had fallen asleep in the sunken family room watching TV. They managed to grab the family dog and get out of the house. The eleven year old was up on the third story of the house in his room. The stairs were already so engulfed in flames that his older siblings were unable to get to him, let alone rouse him.
“Johnny, you did what you had to. God left you few choices tonight. You have to accept that. You were the one who got to the boy first. He was your responsibility.”
“But I should have realized Roy wasn’t behind me. I thought he was. I thought he knew I’d found the kid. I made a stupid rookie mistake. The smoke was so thick. I should have grabbed Roy’s coat to let him know I’d found the boy and we could leave. He was standing right there in the hallway when I stepped from the boy’s room. I thought he looked right at me. But. . .but I guess I was wrong. I’m trying to remember now and I’m not even sure if. . .God, Dix, I can’t even remember if he was really was looking at me. Maybe his back was to me for all I know. Maybe--”
“Johnny, stop it! Stop it now. You’re second guessing yourself and you know as well as I do how detrimental that is in our professions. You’re tired, you’re worried. . .just give yourself a break here, Johnny. Just realize you did everything you could and quit berating yourself for the things you couldn’t.”
“But what if one of those things would have saved my partner’s life? Or would have kept him from living the rest of his life crippled by brain damage?”
“We don’t know yet that either of those things are going to happen.”
“Maybe not,” Johnny said as he turned away from the woman and crossed to the window once more, “but they’re both a strong possibility.”
Dixie had no reply for the paramedic because unfortunately, he was correct. She allowed the silence in the room to linger a full minute before breaking it.
“Joanne and the kids just got here. I put them in Kel’s office.”
Johnny turned. “The kids came with her?”
“Chris drove her. And I assume she didn’t want to leave Jenny and John home alone not knowing when she’d be returning.”
Johnny nodded. At thirteen Jennifer was now old enough to baby-sit John for a few hours at a stretch, but Joanne and Roy would never leave her and John alone throughout the night if sixteen-year-old Chris wasn’t going to be home as well.
“Chris. . .God, where have the years gone? To think he’s old enough to drive Joanne anywhere boggles my mind.”
Dixie smiled. She knew Chris had been five when Johnny and Roy teamed up as paramedics for the first time back in January of 1972. Now it was November of ‘82, and the boy was just a year and a half away from high school graduation.
“I haven’t given them any details other than to let them know Roy is holding his own. Both Kel and Joe are with Roy
so. . .”
“So I need to talk to them.”
“I thought you’d want to.”
No, Dixie, this time I don’t want to. This time I wish to God I didn’t have to.
But Johnny knew the job was his. Captain Stanley and the rest of the A-shift had left a few minutes ago to return to the station. Cap had called a replacement in for not only Roy, but for Johnny as well. Hank didn’t have to say anything for Johnny to know the man realized he was no shape to return to work.
Maybe Cap had seen the way Johnny’s hands were trembling, or maybe he’d seen the vacant look around Johnny’s eyes. Whatever it was, Johnny appreciated the man’s thoughtfulness. He doubted he’d ever work for a better guy than Hank Stanley.
Johnny swallowed more smoke and nodded. “They’re in Brackett’s office you said?”
“Yes. I carried a couple extra chairs in there, and had an aid bring down a few toys from Pediatrics for John.”
Johnny smiled. That was so like Dixie. Rather than think of an active three old as an intrusion, she went the extra mile in order to make the vigil more comfortable for the little boy and his family.
“Thanks, Dix. For everything.”
“Hey, only the best for my two favorite paramedics, you know that.”
That remark usually got a grin out of Johnny, but tonight it didn’t even earn the nurse the slightest of smiles. It did; however, earn her a subdued kiss on the cheek as Johnny passed her on his way out the door. For some reason on this night, Dixie would have rather been the recipient of the famous Gage grin.
Johnny had barely stepped in Brackett’s office before a bundle of energy launched himself across the floor.
“Unca Johnny! Unca Johnny!”
The paramedic scooped Roy’s youngest child up and forced himself to smile.
Little Pally. How’s my guy?”
“I good. I wearin’ my firemen ‘jamas. Da ones you give me. You see?”
Although John had tennis shoes and socks on, he was dressed in his favorite pajamas that were white and adorned with bright red fire trucks. Johnny knew Joanne must have gotten John out of bed after Captain Stanley called her. For that matter, at this hour, more than likely the whole family had been awakened by the phone call. But at least Chris and Jenny were old enough to throw some clothes on and assist their mother with whatever needed to be done before they rushed from the house.
“Yeah, I see you’re wearing your firemen pajamas,” Johnny responded to the boy in his arms.
John wrinkled his nose as he placed a kiss on his uncle’s cheek.
“You ‘mell like ‘moke, Unca Johnny. And you wearin’ you clown pants. Was you at a fire?”
To John bunker pants were clown pants. Johnny supposed the child made that association because of the baggy fit and the suspenders the firemen wore to aid in holding them up.
“Yeah, Little Pally, I was.”
“Was my daddy dare, too?”
Johnny refused to meet anyone else’s eyes when he replied, “Yes. Yes, John, he was.”
my daddy now, Unca Johnny?”
John DeSoto wasn’t quite certain why his uncle gave him a long squeeze then, or why the man placed a kiss on top of his auburn head. His mommy must have known the reason though, because her voice sounded funny when she said, “Let Uncle Johnny sit down now, John. He’s tired. You come back over here and play with the toys Nurse Dixie got for you.”
Johnny placed his young namesake on his feet. The boy did as his mother requested and scampered to the middle of the floor where three Golden Books, a wooden train set, a handful of Matchbox cars, and a Playschool work bench were scattered about. He got down on his knees, his attention immediately taken by the small metal cars just the right size for a three year old’s hands.
The family had formed the chairs Dixie brought for them into a circle. Johnny grabbed a fourth chair from in front of Doctor Brackett’s desk and joined the circle. He sat down and scrubbed a hand over his eyes. They burned from fatigue, smoke, and unshed tears.
Johnny didn’t realize how much his actions, and demeanor, were scaring Roy’s family. Jennifer and Chris exchanged wide eyes looks while Joanne questioned, “Johnny? Johnny. . .Roy? Is he. . .”
The paramedic dropped his hand. His gaze took in Roy’s two oldest children and Joanne.
“He’s alive, Jo.”
Chris took his Mom’s hand as she whispered a heart felt, “Thank God.”
The woman took a moment to compose herself, then resumed her questioning of her husband’s partner.
“How badly is he hurt?”
“His left arm is broken, though Dix doesn’t think surgery will be necessary. He’s got three cracked ribs and some internal bruising. Something must have fallen on him, but what I don’t know.”
“You weren’t with him?” Joanne asked, though the question held no accusation.
“No. I. . .there was a boy. . .an eleven year old boy who had been trapped in his room. I was taking care of him outside.”
Joanne put on a brave face for her children and did her best to sound up beat.
“Well, if a broken arm, some bruising, and a few cracked ribs are the worst of Daddy’s injuries then we can be thankful. He won’t be feeling the best for a while, but we’ll take care of him and pretty soon he’ll be as good as new.”
“Remember when I broke my arm, Uncle Johnny?” Jennifer asked. “You took me for ice cream after I got my cast on.”
John looked up from where he was playing with the toys. “I help take care of Daddy, Unca Johnny. I big boy now!”
“How long do you think Dad will be in the hospital, Uncle Johnny?” Chris asked. “Will he be home by the weekend? I’m supposed to go to a basketball clinic on Saturday, but if Dad won’t be home I’ll tell my coach I have to stick around so I can help Mom.”
Without thinking about how his actions would be perceived by Roy’s family, Johnny leaned forward in his chair and buried his head in his hands.
Oh, God. Oh God oh god oh god.
The paramedic reluctantly brought his face out of his hands.
“That’s not all is it? There’s more? Something else you’re not telling us.”
Johnny hated the fear he heard in Joanne’s voice, and the fear he saw in the eyes of Chris and Jennifer.
“I. . .Doctor Brackett and Doctor Early will be in to talk to you as soon as they can.”
“Why? What else is wrong?”
“Roy. . .he was without oxygen for a while.”
“How long is a while?”
“I don’t know, Jo. I. . .I don’t know. But. . .”
“He arrested twice. Once at the scene, and once in the ambulance on the way here.”
“Arrested?” Jennifer looked at her mother. “What’s that mean?”
When Joanne didn’t answer Johnny found his voice. He leaned sideways and took the girl’s hand in his.
“It means his heart stopped and he quit breathing, Jenny Bean.”
“And, depending on how long he was without oxygen it means . .it means his brain might have been damaged.”
“Jen, I can’t say for certain.”
“Yes, you can. You’re a paramedic. You know the answers to my questions.”
“Jennifer,” Joanne scolded with just that one word.
The girl was immediately contrite. She’d been the same age as John was now when Uncle Johnny started working with her father. She didn’t remember a time when he wasn’t part of their lives. He was one of her favorite people, and someone she’d never intentionally hurt.
“I’m sorry. I just. . .please, Uncle Johnny, I just need to know. I’m not a little kid anymore.”
“No, sweetie, you’re not. As a matter of fact you and Chris are growing up a lot faster than I want either of you to.” Johnny waited for a nod from Joanne before continuing. “The term ‘brain damage’ encompasses a lot of possibilities. Sometimes it’s as simple as someone having occasional memory problems. Like forgetting a friend’s phone number or where they laid a book.”
“Grandma DeSoto does stuff like that all the time.”
“Yes,” Johnny nodded. “Some memory loss is a natural part of the aging process. It’ll happen to all of us. But sometimes, when the brain suffers an injury or is deprived of oxygen, memory loss can happen a lot sooner than it normally would.”
“That wouldn’t be a big deal,” Chris said. “If Dad forgets some things I mean. Me and Jen are always helping Grandma find her glasses.”
“No,” Johnny smiled slight at the boy’s words, “it probably won’t be a big deal if your dad forgets some minor things like that every so often. But. . .but sometimes brain damage can be a lot more severe than that. Sometimes the person will have large portions of their memory missing that they’ll never get back. Similar to amnesia. Sometimes the ability to do certain things. . .like tie your shoes or brush your teeth will be gone. Sometimes the ability to speak clearly will be effected. Sometimes. . .well sometimes it’s even worse than that.”
“How much worse?” Chris asked in a voice that sounded just like Roy’s.
“Chris, maybe it would be best if we wait until the doctors talk to us.”
“No. I wanna know how much worse. Me, and Jen, and Mom. . .we need to be prepared.”
“Go ahead, Johnny,” Joanne said softly. “You can tell them. They’re both old enough now to understand.”
Johnny found himself wishing Chris and Jennifer weren’t both old enough to understand. He found himself wishing they were little like John. Little, and innocent, and engrossed in play, and too young to be forced to bear the worries of the adult world. But that was no longer the case. They were teenagers and deserved to be told the truth.
“Your dad. . .your dad might end up an invalid.”
“What’s that mean?” Jennifer asked, though she had a feeling she knew.
“It means. . .it means his ability to function on a adult level will be greatly impaired. It means he might need the kind of help John needs to do things we all take for granted as we get older such as dressing ourselves, tying our shoes, feeding ourselves, walking--”
“Walking? He won’t even be able to walk?”
“Jen, I don’t know. I’m just telling you what could happen. Your dad might not suffer from any of those things. He might even be home in time for Chris to go away to his basketball clinic this weekend.”
“But you don’t think so,” Chris surmised. “You think the doctors are gonna give us bad news.”
“I. . .Chris, all I’m saying is that there’s a lot of possibilities here. There’s no use jumping to conclusions at this point.”
“Uncle Johnny’s right, kids,” Joanne said with every ounce of bravery she could muster. “Jumping to conclusions will get us nothing but a lot of needless worry. We’ll just have to wait now until the doctors come talk to us.”
Johnny gave Jennifer’s hand a final squeeze then leaned back in his chair. He closed his eyes, wanting nothing more than to block out the upset faces surrounding him.
I wish it was me. It should have been me. Roy’s got a wife and children. It’ll be my fault if they have to go on without him. Or if Joanne has to go forward with, for all intents and purposes, a fourth child. If that happens how will they ever make ends meet? His care will be so costly. Disability pay will never be enough to cover their bills and raise three kids.
Johnny startled when he felt someone climb into his lap.
“I wike ‘dis book, Unca Johnny. You weed to me?”
“John, no,” Joanne said as she rose to retrieve her youngest son. “I already told you Uncle Johnny is tired. He had a long day at work. Now I want you to go back over there and--”
“He’s okay, Joanne,” Johnny reached down and stroked a hand through John’s soft hair that smelled of baby shampoo. “He can stay here.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure.” Johnny opened the Golden Book that detailed life on a farm. “How about if we look at the pictures, John? You tell me what these animals are and what sounds they make.”
“I can do dat. I can do dat real good.”
“Then prove it to me.”
Listening to John rattle off the names of animals while imitating their sounds was just the type of mindless activity Johnny needed while he waited word from Roy’s doctors.
Johnny wasn’t sure how much time had passed when Doctor Brackett and Doctor Early finally stepped into the room. He knew John had grown bored with the farm book and exchanged it for one about a little boy taking his first trip to the barber shop. He was aware of Chris getting up from his chair and pacing the room in a way that made him seem far older than his sixteen years. He also knew Jennifer and Joanne were talking quietly, but the paramedic’s mind was full of too many worries to really focus on these activities.
Johnny had long thought Joe Early missed his calling as a doting grandfather. The doctor immediately stooped in front of Roy’s youngest child who still sat on Johnny’s lap.
“Well, who’s the handsome young man who came to visit us tonight?”
“Hi, Docor Early. Is me. John. John DeSoto.”
“Hello, John DeSoto. You get bigger each time I see you.”
“I know. I be big as Unca Johnny soon.”
“Yes, I bet you will be. And I also bet I know what a big boy like you could use right about now.”
John’s eyes lit up. “A canny bar?”
Doctor Early laughed. “Now how did you know that was exactly what I was going to say?”
“ ‘Cause I berry smart.”
Again, Joe laughed as he fished in his back pants pocket for his wallet.
“John, you’ve got a lot of your Uncle Johnny in you.”
Joanne smiled her agreement.
“Yes, Doctor Early, as odd as it seems he does. From his energy, to his charm, to his quirky sense of humor.”
John titled his head and looked up into Johnny’s face.
“Dey talkin’ ‘bout us, Unca Johnny?”
Johnny gave the boy a soft smile.
“Yeah, Little Pally, I think they are.”
“Dat’s otay, ‘cause we’re bestest bubbies, wight? An bestest bubbies stick ‘gether.”
Once again, Johnny ran a gentle hand through his namesake’s soft, straight hair.
“Yeah, John, we’re best buddies.”
Doctor Early stood and turned to Jenny. He handed the girl a ten dollar bill.
“Jenny, why don’t you take John down to the cafeteria. I’m sure you’re both hungry. Your midnight snack is on me.”
Jennifer wanted to tell Doctor Early she wasn’t a little girl any longer and shouldn’t be dismissed from the room, but she’d been taught to respect adults. She turned pleading eyes to her mother.
Joanne gave her daughter an understanding smile, but nonetheless reiterated Joe Early’s request.
“Please take your brother to the cafeteria, honey. The doctors need to talk to me and Uncle Johnny without an active little boy in the room.”
“I’ll tell you everything when you get back.”
“Yes, I promise. Everything.”
Jennifer gave a quiet, “Thank you,” to Doctor Early as she accepted the money he handed her. She held a hand out to her baby brother.
“Come on, John. Let’s go.”
Johnny comin’, too?”
Johnny lifted John from his lap and set the youngster on his feet.
“No, Little Pally, not this time. You go with your sister. I’ll see you later.”
John willingly took Jennifer’s hand. Johnny gave his ‘best girl’ a smile.
“Thanks, Jenny Bean.”
Despite how scared she was for her father, Jennifer couldn’t help but smile in return. She’d always felt so special whenever Uncle Johnny called her Jenny Bean, just like she imagined Chris felt when Uncle Johnny called him Sport, and how John felt when Uncle Johnny called him Little Pally. Uncle Johnny was a great guy. Jennifer’s mom had always said he could light up a room by just entering it, and over the years the girl had come to learn that was true.
Jennifer felt Doctor Brackett give her a gentle pat on the back as she passed him, and saw his hand briefly caress the top of John’s head. Those actions alone from the normally reserved doctor made the girl certain the men had brought bad news. As much as she didn’t want to leave, Jennifer knew her father would expect her to take care of John if that’s what her mother asked of her. So for her beloved daddy, Jen exited the office with her little brother in tow.
Once the door closed the doctors crossed the room. Chris reclaimed the chair he’d been seated in, while Doctor Early sat in the one Jennifer had just vacated. Kelly Brackett made a detour to his desk. He wheeled his chair over to the circle and stopped it in the spot Johnny made for the doctor between himself and Joanne.
As subtly as he could, Chris DeSoto wiped his sweaty palms on the thighs of his blue jeans. Just the fact that he hadn’t been dismissed from the room with Jennifer and John indicated to him these two doctors his father had worked with for so many years no longer viewed him as a boy, but rather as a young man. Chris appreciated the respect they were giving him, as well as the respect his mother and Johnny were giving him by not suggesting he wait out in the hall. His eyes flicked to Brackett’s face, and in that brief moment Chris knew the man was bringing them bad news. He took a deep internal breath and willed himself to be strong.
I gotta keep it together for Mom. I gotta be strong like Dad would want me to be. I can’t cry like a little kid, or even get choked up. If they think I can’t handle what they’re gonna tell us they’ll make me leave the room. I know they will.
Kelly Brackett’s eyes traveled to each of the faces in the room before he began to speak.
“I assume Johnny has already told you the basics about Roy’s physical condition?”
Joanne nodded. “He said Roy’s left arm is broken, and that he’s got three cracked ribs and some internal bruising.”
“That’s correct. An orthopedic surgeon will look at the X-rays of Roy’s arm in the morning, though I’m doubtful surgery will be required. For now, we have the arm in a soft cast. If Doctor Murphy comes to the same conclusion I have, then the arm will be set and casted tomorrow. We’ve taped his ribs, and as far as the bruising goes, time and rest will take care of that.”
“Johnny said. . .,” Joanne’s eyes touched on her husband’s partner, but he refused to look at anything but the floor. “Johnny said Roy was without oxygen for an undetermined amount of time.”
“So how much damage was done?”
Joe Early took over the conversation at this point.
“It’s too soon to tell. We’ll be doing a CAT scan, and running other tests.”
“But shouldn’t Roy’s reactions right now. . .his reactions to the two of you and his surroundings, give you some indication of whether or not brain damage occurred?”
Doctor Early knew of no way to break the news gently.
“Joanne, Roy’s responses are minimal at best right now. He’s in a coma.”
Joanne’s left hand flew to her mouth while Chris reached over to grasp her right. The boy’s eyes were as wide and frightened as his mother’s. Chris had been an avid reader since he was eight years old. He devoured everything from books, to magazines, to the daily newspaper. He knew what the term ‘coma’ meant, and what the long range implications could be. For all his resolve not to show weakness, he couldn’t keep the tears from welling up in his eyes as he looked at the men seated across from him. He wondered briefly why Johnny was sitting there so calm and stoic. Like the news that his best friend was in a coma didn’t effect him in the slightest. But before Chris could give that thought further consideration he tuned into his mother’s words as she began to fire questions at the doctors.
Most of the answers Doctor Brackett and Doctor Early gave Chris’s mother in return were non-committal at best.
No, they didn’t know when Roy would come out of the coma.
No, they didn’t know to what degree he might be impaired.
Yes, it was true that the longer he remained in the coma further neurological functions would be threatened.
Chris wondered why Johnny didn’t jump in and help his mother out. After all, Johnny had almost as much medical knowledge as the doctors. Surely, there were some questions he could ask on Chris’s mother’s behalf. Or maybe some comfort he could offer her rather than just sitting there staring at the wall as though he wasn’t even in the room with them.
I don’t get it. It’s like Uncle Johnny is spaced out or something. The other times Dad’s been hurt I’ve always heard Mom say what a big help Uncle Johnny was to her while she waited for word from the doctors, and what a big help he’s been when it comes to explaining what’s happening. But he’s just sitting there like he’s on drugs or something. Like he doesn’t even care that my father might never do anything for the rest of his life but lay in a damn hospital bed.
Chris brought his mind back to the conversation when Doctor Brackett spoke again.
“Joanne, from here on out you’re just going to have to be patient. A comatose state can also be a very unpredictable state.”
what you’re saying is Roy could still die?”
“What I’m saying is, you and the kids will have take things one day at a time in regards to Roy’s condition. He could come out of this coma in a day or two with very few consequences, or--”
“Or he might not.”
“That’s correct,” the doctor confessed. “He might not.”
Despite her intentions not to break down in front of her son, Joanne started to cry then. Chris leaned sideways in his chair and pulled his mother to his chest. He expected to see Johnny stand up and come over to them. He expected to feel Johnny’s arms around both of them, but that didn’t happen. Just when Chris needed the man the most he’d called ‘Uncle Johnny’ since he was five, the paramedic stood and left the room.
Chris heard Kelly Brackett beckon, “Johnny?”, but the doctor received no reply except the quiet closing of his office door.
The teenager wondered what it all meant, and why the man his father loved like a brother had just walked out on them.
Terence Weber pushed open the double doors of Rampart’s morgue and stumbled into the hallway. He slumped against the wall, barely noticing the coolness of the concrete against the side of his face. He took deep breaths in order to overcome the urge to vomit. Weber was one of the most respected and powerful producers in Hollywood. He wasn’t accustomed to losing control of his life’s circumstances. Weber scrubbed a trembling hand over his face, then loosened his maroon tie.
Oh Lord. Oh Lord no. Matthew. How can Matty be dead? We only went out for dinner. Only did what we’ve done a thousand times before. Went out to dinner and left the kids alone for a few hours. Shawn’s old enough to handle anything that comes up. Dammit! A fire. Who would have ever thought about a fire? How many times did we tell the kids not to open the door if anyone knocked, not to tell anyone who called that we weren’t home, not to leave the house while we were gone, not to invite friends over when no adult is present. But a fire? Did we ever tell them what to do in the event of a fire?
Somewhere in Terence Weber’s mind, he was certain he’d had this discussion with his children. Certain he and his wife had always told them material things could be replaced, but lives couldn’t be. Therefore; the children only had one priority if a fire started in their home and that was to get out. Which is exactly what Shawn and Melissa did, but Matthew. . .Matty was asleep on the third floor in his room at that back of the mansion. He never stood a chance of getting out without help.
Shawn said a paramedic carried Matty out of the house. Not just a fireman, but a goddamn paramedic. If he’s so skilled why couldn’t he save my boy? Why?
Terence startled when he felt a hand on his shoulder.
The man looked into the tear filled eyes of his oldest son.
“Dad, did you. . .?”
Terence swallowed hard. “Yes, Shawn. Yes. I did what I had to. I. . .I identified your brother’s body.”
Terence kept the remainder of his thoughts to himself.
What little there was left of it.
The man rubbed a hand over his face again. He felt every one of his forty-five years at this moment and then some.
“Your mother and Melissa, where are
“Peter’s here. He took them to a waiting area in the Emergency Room.”
“Good,” Terence nodded as he pushed himself away from the wall. He put an arm around his son’s shoulders as they walked toward the elevator. Peter Kennedy had been a life long friend. He was the first person Terence had called upon arriving at Rampart with his wife Gretchen.
It was after the elevator doors closed that the facade of manhood Shawn had been precariously clinging to since the moment he and Melissa escaped the fire finally dissolved. The boy’s shoulders curled into a ball of misery as his knees gave out from under him. His face crumpled and sobs wracked his body. If his father hadn’t caught him, Shawn would have fallen to the elevator’s floor.
“Why?” The boy sobbed as he was pulled into the warmth of his father’s broad chest. “Why did he die? Why couldn’t they get him out sooner? Why couldn’t I get him out? Why?”
“Shawn, don’t. Don’t do this to yourself, son. Matty’s death isn’t your fault.”
“That. . .that paramedic. . .he worked on Matt. He told me. . .told me and Melissa that Matt was gonna be okay. Why. . .why did he lie to us? Why?”
“I don’t know, Shawn. I don’t know.”
“I. . .maybe he didn’t try hard enough. They brought someone. . .someone else out. Another fireman. I. . .the paramedic kept looking at him. Looking at him like he wanted to leave Matt to help the fireman instead. Maybe. . .Dad, I don’t think he cared about saving Matt. I think. . .I think all he cared about was his friend.”
“I’m sure that’s not true, Shawn. I’m sure he did the best he could.”
“No,” the boy shook his head and lifted it from his father’s chest. “No, Dad, I really think he could have saved Matt if he’d only tried harder. Honest I do.”
Terence Weber fought to control the fury Shawn’s words inspired.
Did the guy really give one hundred percent to helping Matthew, or is Shawn right and was he too concerned about another fireman to give my boy his full attention? If I find out this so-called paramedic is a screw up who let my little boy die so help me God he’ll come to regret the day he was born.
Shawn’s sobs had only increased by the time the elevator came to the Emergency Room. Terence knew it was going to be difficult enough to face his wife and daughter without Shawn being a complete wreck, too. He steered the boy off the elevator and towards the men’s room.
“Come on, Shawn. Let’s give you a chance to collect yourself and wash your face before we take your mom and sister home.”
Shawn continued to cry as they made their way to the bathroom. Terence could only hope that at this late hour the men’s room would be deserted so he and Shawn could grieve in private.
If John Gage could have drowned himself in the bathroom sink of the ER’s men’s room that night he would have seriously contemplated that act. He leaned over the white porcelain, repeatedly cupping cold water in his hands and splashing it on his face. What he thought that frigid water would do for him Johnny wasn’t certain. Take him back in time and change the happenings of the night? Somehow give him the power to make the events of the evening nothing but a bad dream? Or simply take away the redness surrounding his weary eyes that he knew must broadcast both his guilt and heartache.
An eleven-year-old child is dead because I couldn’t do enough for him. My partner might as well be dead because I couldn’t do enough for him. What good was I to anyone tonight? Why did God, or fate, or whoever controls the happenings of the universe, even send me there if I couldn’t be of help to either Roy or Matthew?
Johnny looked up from his bent position over the sink when the door opened. He didn’t recognize either the man or teenager who just entered. He grabbed two paper towels from the dispenser and wiped his face dry. He barely paid attention to the man’s words as he encouraged the boy to do what Johnny had just finished doing - bend over a sink and splash cold water across his face.
It was as Johnny straightened that Shawn Weber caught sight of him in the mirror. He gave an inarticulate cry, then whirled and pointed an accusing finger.
“That’s him! That’s the man who let Matty die! That’s him, Dad!”
Before Johnny could say any of the words running through his head which ranged from “I’m sorry,” to “I wish I could have done more,” the hot headed Terence Weber was on him.
“You son of a bitch!” The man screamed as the weight of his body slammed the surprised Johnny against the wall. The paramedic’s head made painful contact with a sharp corner of the towel dispenser. “You incompetent son of a bitch! You let my boy die! You killed him! Do you hear me? You killed him!”
The man’s cries echoed off the bathroom walls. Hands gripped Johnny’s white undershirt, then his head was repeatedly slammed against the ceramic tiles.
“You loser! You son of a bitch! Do you know what you’ve done to my family? To my wife? I just had to identify my little boy’s body! There’s nothing left of him but a few scraps of his pajamas! How would you like to have to ID your child by his goddamn pajamas?”
Johnny couldn’t have answered if he’d wanted to. He felt himself begin to lose awareness as blood ran down the back of his neck to pool between his skin and undershirt. He kicked his legs, trying to buck the man off him, but Weber’s rage was too great. As Johnny lost his battle to stay conscious, the last words he heard were choked out between heart-breaking sobs.
“My boy. My boy. My little boy. Do you know what you’ve done to my little boy?”
The doctors had finished talking to Joanne and Chris DeSoto. The teenager had been sent by his mother to look for Johnny. Though Chris was still mad at his Uncle Johnny for walking out of the room before Doctors Brackett and Early were done, he did as his mother asked. He checked by the coffee machine at the nurse’s station first. When he didn’t see the paramedic there nor sitting in the waiting area, he decided to try the restroom.
I guess if he’s not here he might be with Jen and John. Or maybe he snuck up to ICU to see Dad. If he’s not any of those places then Mom’s just gonna have to look for him herself. I don’t know why he left anyway. He acted like he didn’t even want to hear what Doctor Bracket or Doctor Early had to say.
Chris heard the shouting before he even pushed open the men’s room door. He entered, but stopped abruptly when he rounded the corner of the partial wall only to see Johnny being attacked by a man Chris didn’t know. Chris took note of the other teenager in the room who looked as shocked and bewildered as he himself did.
“Stop it!” Chris hollered as he ran to help Johnny. He gripped the man by the shoulders and tried to pull him off the unconscious paramedic. “Get off of him!”
“My boy! My boy! He killed my boy! This incompetent fool killed my child!”
“Stop it! Leave him alone! You’re hurting him!”
Chris’s hands on his shoulders only caused Terence to fight harder to retain his hold on Johnny. Chris realized then he needed help. He ran for the door and yanked it open. It was one o’clock in the morning. Not the best time to try to find help in much of any place.
The teenager’s eyes finally fell on the white coat of a man headed the opposite way down the long corridor.
“Doctor Brackett! Doctor Brackett, help! Someone’s beating up Uncle Johnny!”
Kelly Brackett spun around. One look of Chris’s terrified face told the man this wasn’t a joke. He ran towards the men’s room, only stopping long enough to pick up a red wall phone and say, “I need security to the ER men’s public bathroom stat.”
The doctor slammed down the phone and resumed his sprint. He pushed past Chris, and like the teenager had been, was momentarily stunned by the sight before him. Blood stained the white tiles red as Johnny’s upper body was pounded against the floor.
“Let go of him!” Brackett ordered as he grabbed Terence Weber by the upper arms. “Let go!”
Chris joined in the fray, helping Kelly to pull the struggling man off Johnny. They dragged him away from the injured paramedic just as two burly security guards burst in the room. They took custody of the man, immediately flipping him around and handcuffing him when he refused to cooperate. The entire scene was too much for Shawn. He started sobbing again.
Kelly Brackett looked from the white faced Chris, to the hysterical Shawn, to the bleeding John Gage. At this moment he had more on his hands than he could take care of alone. He ran to the door and hailed a passing nurse.
“I need some help in here, Karen!” The doctor caught site of an orderly. “Jim, get a gurney and bring it here.”
Though Karen had no idea what was going on, she immediately took charge of Shawn. As she led the crying teenager from the room she saw Dixie McCall coming off the elevator.
“Dixie, Johnny’s been injured somehow. Doctor Brackett’s with him right now.”
Dixie ran for the men’s room. She told Karen to get someone to set up Treatment Room 2 as she passed the woman.
Dixie barely glanced at Chris as she knelt on the opposite side of Johnny’s body from Doctor Brackett.
“What happened, Kel?”
“Mr. Weber. . .the father of the boy who died at the fire tonight, was beating Johnny’s head against the wall when Chris called me in here.”
“I came looking for Uncle Johnny like my mom told me to,” Chris said from where he stood above the trio. “I heard the man yelling when I walked in the door. I tried to pull him off Johnny but I couldn’t.”
“Was he already unconscious, Chris?” Brackett asked as he peeled Johnny’s lids back and flashed his penlight in the man’s eyes.
“I think so. He wasn’t trying to fight back or anything.”
The medical staff stood and moved out of the way when the gurney arrived. Doctor Brackett and Chris helped the orderly lift Johnny to it. Chris held the swinging door open so the gurney could get out unhindered. He watched as Brackett and Dixie ran along beside Johnny to the treatment room.
Joanne DeSoto was just rounding the corner when Johnny was whisked by her. She did a double take, not certain at first if perhaps the lateness of the hour, combined with worry and stress, was causing her to hallucinate. When her eyes fell on her son she questioned, “Chris?”
The teenager walked to his mother. Though the waiting area of the ER was empty, he spoke in a voice that was barely above a whisper.
“I went looking for Uncle Johnny like you asked me to. A man was in the bathroom beating him up. He said. . .he said Uncle Johnny let his son die tonight at the fire. What did he mean by that, Mom?”
Joanne had yet to be told any details about the fire Station 51 was fighting when Roy was injured; therefore she was hard pressed to answer Chris’s question.
“I don’t know, sweetheart. With all the worry over your dad, and then talking to the doctors, I hadn’t gotten around to asking Uncle Johnny what happened at the scene.”
“But why would Uncle Johnny let a kid die?”
“Chris, Johnny would never let anyone die. Even without knowing the details I can assure you that your Uncle Johnny did everything in his power to save that child.”
“But the man said--”
“I don’t care what the man said. Chris, your dad and Uncle Johnny can’t save everyone they’re called to help. They try to. They want to. But it’s a fact of life that they can’t. Sometimes the injuries a person has sustained are too great for all the medical knowledge in the world to be able to be of much use.”
“I know that, but still--”
“No more buts. That’s just the way it is. You ask your dad when you get a chance to talk to him.”
If I get a chance to talk to him.
The teenager shook off his dark thoughts as his mother led him to a chair.
“It will be a little while longer before they let us up to ICU to say hi to Daddy. In the meantime we might as well wait here for word on Uncle Johnny.”
Chris nodded. He tried to sort everything out in his mind. That man in the bathroom was furious with Johnny, and he’d called him incompetent. Not only did the man’s son die, but Chris’s father was injured, too. What did it all mean? Had Johnny made some sort of mistake tonight that no one knew about? Or maybe they did know but just didn’t want to tell Chris and his mom.
Before Chris had the opportunity to think further a nurse beckoned them.
“Mrs. DeSoto, you and your son can go up to ICU now to see your husband.”
Chris stood and took his mother’s hand. He stopped their progress toward the elevators when Joanne paused at the nurse’s station.
“My husband’s partner, John Gage, was just taken into a treatment room by Dixie and Doctor Brackett. Could you please have one of them call up to ICU as soon as they know anything about his condition? My son and I are very worried about him.”
The woman made a note on a piece of paper.
“Certainly. I’ll make sure someone gives you a call.”
Chris led his mother to the bank of elevators. He took charge of pressing the necessary button that would summon the car, then led her inside and pressed the button that would take them to ICU. Joanne couldn’t help but give a sad smile at how fast her son was growing up. He was already as tall as Roy, and would likely gain an inch or two more in height before he was done growing. He was thicker through the chest and shoulders than Roy, and would probably possess a broader build, though his features, hair color, and the tonal quality of his voice meant he’d be the spitting image of his father within the next five years.
Chris didn’t quite understand why his mother gave his hand a squeeze as they exited the elevator at the ICU floor. He smiled at her, took a deep breath, then led her toward the ominous looking double doors that were straight ahead.
Chris had never been on the ICU floor before. A few years ago, when Johnny had been injured so severely trying to protect Jennifer from a would-be kidnapper, Chris’s sister had gotten to visit Johnny in ICU, but Chris himself hadn’t been able to see the man until Johnny was moved in a regular room.
The first thing the teenager noticed was the death-like quiet that was only interrupted by the soft beeping of monitors. When they got to the doorway of his father’s room a new sound was added. The hiss of a ventilator that was pumping air in and out of Roy’s lungs.
Chris swallowed hard as he fought to maintain his role as ‘man of the family.’ He wanted to cry when he caught his first look of his father lying so helpless and lifeless on the bed. He approached his dad with shaking legs. When they got to the railing Chris’s mother dropped his hand so she could reach out and touch her husband.
“Hi, sweetheart,” the woman said softly as she stroked the back of her hand over Roy’s pale cheek. “Chris and I are here with you. You’re going to be fine. Doctor Brackett and Doctor Early said you just need a nice, long rest.”
Nice long rest? Yeah right, Mom. What they really said, without saying it, is that Dad will be lucky to know how to tie his shoes if he even lives to walk outta here.
Joanne turned to her son.
“Tell Dad hi, Chris.”
Chris forced his feet to shuffle to the bed. He looked for a safe place to touch his father that wouldn’t cause the man pain, and finally settled on one sheet covered shin.
“Hi--” Chris had to stop and clear his throat. “Hi, Dad. I. . .I drove Mom here. Jenny and John came with us, too. Jenny’s with John in the cafeteria while we’re in here with you. Doctor Early gave them some money for food. You know John. He wanted nothing but candy. He’s. . .he’s being a good boy for Jenny. You’d be proud of him.”
Joanne smiled and squeezed her husband’s shoulder. “You’d be proud of all your children tonight, Roy. Jenny’s being such a big help with John, and Chris is being such a big help to me. And, of course, Johnny’s being a big help to all of us. We’ll be just fine until you’re on you’re feet again.”
Mother and son stayed with Roy, speaking words of encouragement, until a nurse peered in the doorless room.
“Mrs. DeSoto,” the woman beckoned softly. “Doctor Brackett just called up here. He said you and your son can see Mr. Gage now.”
After the nurse left Joanne turned to Chris. “Would you please go down and check on Uncle Johnny while I stay here with your dad?”
“No. I wanna stay here with Dad, too.”
Joanne was surprised at her son’s tone, which was a cross between angry and argumentative. Johnny held a special place in the hearts of all her children. She couldn’t understand why Chris wasn’t willing to do what she asked, but she chalked it up to the stress this long night had brought them.
“Don’t you think Uncle Johnny needs someone with him, as well? Don’t you think your Dad would want you to be there if he can’t be?”
Chris looked at his shoes and gave a mumbled, “I suppose.”
“Chris, please. For your dad. For everything your Uncle Johnny has meant to him and our family.”
“Oh, all right,” Chris said in a voice that suddenly made him sound ten years younger.
As the teenager stomped from the room Joanne shook her head.
I wonder what’s gotten into him? She looked back down at her husband. He’s probably just upset over what’s happened to Roy and doesn’t know how to voice his worry. He’s so like his father in that regard. Jenny and John are just the opposite. You never have to wonder what they’re feeling, but Chris. . .Chris is like Roy. He keeps his worries and fears hidden from those his loves.
Joanne resumed her one-sided conversation with her husband while at the same time a part of her mind urged Chris to hurry back with good news about Johnny.
God knows this family doesn’t need to receive any more bad news tonight.
There was no one at the ER’s nurse’s station when Chris passed. He hesitated when he came to the treatment room labeled 2, not sure if he should go in or not. He looked left and right again, but still didn’t spot a nurse or doctor he could ask. He finally shrugged his shoulders and quietly pushed the door open.
Johnny was lying on the table with his face turned away from Chris. Dixie McCall stood next to him, her back to Chris. The teenager could see the large, thick bandage that covered the back of Johnny’s head. He wasn’t certain if Johnny was conscious or not until Dixie spoke to him.
“Well, Mr. Gage, it took seventeen stitches to close that thick skull of yours, but once again we managed to do it.”
When Johnny didn’t respond the nurse dropped her teasing tone.
“Johnny? How are you feeling?”
“Like a distraught father slammed my head against a bathroom wall.”
“Just drop it, Dix. I deserved this and whole lot more.”
“Johnny, stop it. You can’t blame yourself for that boy’s death. I already told you that.”
“And what about Roy? Can you tell me I can’t blame myself because my partner might never live a normal life again?”
did what you had to tonight. You’re
only one man, John.”
“Yeah, one man who didn’t do his best friend, or a little boy, any good.”
Johnny started to throw his left arm over his eyes. Dixie stopped that movement, her hand reminding him that he had an IV in a vein.
“I screwed up, Dix,” Johnny said softly. “I screwed up big time. I. . .I had to leave Roy in order to help the boy. Yet I knew all along the boy was hurt too badly to save. I knew he’d never live. Roy. . .Roy might have had a chance if only I’d gotten to him sooner.”
Chris DeSoto backed out of the room as quietly as he’d entered. He could never remember a time when he’d been so furious.
So it is his fault. Johnny left my dad to die. The bastard left my dad to die! I’ll never forgive him. Never!
Chris stomped toward the elevator, almost plowing into his sister and brother in the process.
“Chris, a nurse just told me Uncle Johnny was hurt. Where is he? Is he okay? What happened?”
Chris grabbed his sister’s shirtsleeve and pulled her into the open car. John, who was holding Jennifer’s hand, had to run to keep up.
“Never mind about Johnny. Just come on.”
“Just forget about him, Jen.”
wrong with you?”
“Nothing’s wrong with me! You just shouldn’t be wasting your time worrying about Johnny. You should be worrying about Dad.”
Jennifer glared at her brother as the elevator started its climb.
“I am worried about Dad, but I’m worried about Uncle Johnny, too.”
“Yeah,” John agreed in a bewildered voice as he looked from one sibling to the other. “I wowwy ‘bout Unca Johnny, too.”
“Well, you shouldn’t worry about him either.”
“Why not, Chwis?”
“Just ‘cause I said so, that’s why not.”
John shrugged his shoulders. “Well, I gonna wowwy ‘bout him anyway. I wuv Unca Johnny.”
“And I’m going to worry about him, too,” Jennifer said.
“For what my opinion’s worth to either one of you, you’d both be better off to forget Johnny ever existed.”
“What?” Jennifer voiced her astonishment. “What the heck is wrong with you? And his name’s not Johnny to us. It’s Uncle Johnny.”
“Maybe to you it still is, but to me he stopped being Uncle Johnny the minute he let our dad get hurt.”
“Chris, Uncle Johnny didn’t let anything happen to Daddy.”
“Oh, yeah? And just how do you know that, Miss Smarty Pants?”
“Because I just do. I know Uncle Johnny and I know he would never let anyone or anything hurt any of us. You were on that camping trip with me, Chris. You remember what happened. You know exactly what Uncle Johnny will do for our family.”
Chris scowled as the elevator dinged and the trio existed on the ICU floor.
“You’ve always put Uncle Johnny on a pedestal. Ever since the first day you met him. Sometimes you just can’t see the forest for the trees, Jennifer. He’s no hero, Jen. Believe me when I tell you Johnny’s no one’s hero.”
Jennifer had no idea what had gotten into her brother as she watched him shove the ICU doors open and disappear within. If she didn’t have John with her she’d follow him, but she knew the nurses would never allow her in her father’s room with a three year old in tow. Not to mention that she’d never be allowed to continue her argument with her older brother within the quiet environment of the ICU.
Jennifer picked John up and walked over to the waiting area. She sat in a plush chair with her little brother on her lap. John squirmed around until he was seated sideways. He leaned his tired head against his sister’s shoulder.
“Jenny, why is Chwis mad at Unca Johnny?”
“I don’t know.”
“Unca Johnny is too nice to be mad at. He my bestest bubby.”
Jennifer smiled. “I know. He’s one of my best buddies, too. He has been since I was your age.”
“Jenny, tell me the story again ‘bout my name. ‘Bout how Unca Johnny saved you from that scary man, and how Chwis wode Cody down the mountain real fast to get Daddy, and how everyone was worried ‘bout Unca Johnny ‘til he gots all better, and how Mommy and Daddy named me John ‘cause dat’s Unca Johnny’s real name. Right?”
Jennifer laughed at her little brother. “Yes, John is Uncle Johnny’s real name. Only we don’t call him that, do we?”
“No. We call him Unca Johnny ‘cause he’s our Unca Johnny and we wuv him lots and lots.”
“Yes, we do,” Jennifer agreed as she kissed the top of her baby brother’s head. “And no matter what Chris says we always will.”
Jennifer started her tale then. Even though John had heard it at least twenty times before, she told the little boy the story about how he’d been named for their father’s best friend as a thank you to John Gage for saving her life.
By the time Joanne and Chris exited the ICU at four that morning both Jennifer and John were sleeping. Joanne suggested they stop in and see Johnny before going home, but Chris vetoed that by telling his mother he was certain Johnny needed his rest. Joanne couldn’t think of a reason to disagree with her son, so took John from Jennifer’s arms then gently woke her daughter.
“How’s Uncle Johnny?” Jennifer asked as she stood to follow her family to the car.
“You’re asking about him before you ask about Dad? Man, I can’t believe you.”
“Chris,” Joanne scolded, “please. We’re all tired and worried about both your dad and Uncle Johnny.”
Tears pooled in Jennifer’s eyes as a result of her brother’s harsh tone.
“I was going to ask about Daddy, too. You just didn’t give me a chance.” She turned to her mother. “Really, Mom, I was.”
“Sweetheart, I know. As far as your dad goes, there’s no change from when the doctors talked to us, but Doctor Brackett just told me not to be alarmed by that. He says it’s a good sign that Daddy’s vitals are strong. As far as Uncle Johnny goes, Doctor Brackett says he was settled in a room several hours ago and has a mild concussion. They’ll keep a close eye on him and release him sometime in the afternoon as long as he shows no signs of complications.”
Jennifer simply nodded as they stepped into the coolness of the early morning air. She was glad they’d brought John’s blanket along. He was wrapped within it, therefore the chilly temperature didn’t disturb his sleep.
Twenty minutes later the DeSoto family arrived home. Joanne carried John to his room while Chris retreated to his own room and closed the door. Jennifer was too keyed up to sleep. She moved quietly around the kitchen, making coffee for her mother and pouring a glass of juice for herself. She tried not to think of how their lives would change if her father did suffer brain damage. She glanced up at the pictures that covered the dining room wall. Her eyes focused on one that had been taken the previous year at the fire station. Uncle Johnny had an arm flung around her father’s shoulders. You could tell Uncle Johnny had been laughing about something when the picture was snapped, most likely at her father’s expense, because he wore his big, crooked grin while Jennifer’s dad wore an expression of mock long-suffering.
The girl bowed her head as tears slid down her face.
Please let them be all right. Please God, let both my daddy and Uncle Johnny be all right.
John Gage felt far from ‘all right’ that afternoon, but he wasn’t about to admit that to Kelly Brackett. Physically, he felt so-so. He’d feel better if his headache would go away, but he could live with so-so for the time being. How he felt emotionally was an entirely different story. A child was dead. His partner was gravely injured. And Johnny blamed himself for both those happenings.
As soon as Brackett released him Johnny made his way to ICU, once again dressed in his bunker pants because he hadn’t asked anyone to bring clothes from his ranch. Dixie had gotten rid of his blood stained undershirt and provided him with a blue scrub shirt in its place.
Johnny sat with Roy a long time that afternoon, though he never could bring himself to say more than, “Hi, Pally.” He’d tried a couple times, but tears got in his way making it impossible to speak. When he finally walked through the double doors that would lead him out of ICU he practically ran into Joanne and Chris.
Johnny wasn’t even able to voice a greeting before Joanne was hugging him. By now she’d been told by Dixie everything that had happened at the scene of the fire. Just like the nurse, Joanne knew Johnny wasn’t to blame for Matthew Weber’s death any more than he was to blame for Roy’s injuries. She’d talked to Captain Stanley on the phone that afternoon and had been told how hard Johnny fought to bring Roy back to them. If it hadn’t been for Johnny’s actions Roy would have been dead long before he arrived at Rampart.
“I think he’s pretty torn up about it, Joanne,” the man had said. “Believe me, Johnny was put in a position none of us would ever want to find ourselves in. He was one paramedic at a scene that was in bad need of two. He did the very best he could. Don’t allow him to tell you differently.”
Now all Joanne did was hug the man she thought of as a brother.
“Johnny, how are you?”
The woman stepped back so she could take a good look at her husband’s partner.
“You don’t look fine. You look tired and pale. You need to be resting, not running all over this hospital.”
“I had to see Roy before I leave.”
“How are you getting home?”
“Chet said he’d pick me up. I was just going to give him a call.”
“That’s silly. Chris can take you home.”
“But I came here to see Dad,” the teenager protested.
Joanne threw her son a dark look.
“You came here to help your father in any way possible. Right now you can help him by giving Uncle Johnny a ride home. After you do that you can come back.”
“It’s okay, Joanne,” Johnny said, sensing the teenager’s hostility. “I can call Chet.”
“No. You’ve always been there for me and Roy whenever we needed you. You’ve never complained about baby-sitting for the kids when an emergency came up, or giving me a ride to or from the hospital when Roy’s been hurt, not to mention the countless number of household projects Roy has drafted you to help him with over the years. Now let us return the favor.”
Joanne shot a meaningful gaze at her son.
“Christopher, give your Uncle Johnny a ride home. Now. I expect you to feed the animals for him, then make certain he’s resting like he’s supposed to be before you come back.”
Both Chris and Johnny knew better than to argue with Joanne when she used that tone of voice. Johnny gave the woman a kiss on the cheek before turning to follow Chris who was already halfway to the elevator.
“I’ll be back tomorrow to see Roy. If anything changes between now and then please call me.”
“You know I will.”
Johnny nodded. Of course Joanne would call him. No matter what happened, good or bad, she’d call Johnny before she phoned Roy’s mother, or his two younger sisters, or any member of her own family.
The paramedic didn’t even try to keep up with Chris DeSoto as they walked across the Rampart parking lot. The teenager hadn’t said a word to Johnny in the elevator, nor as they’d made their way through the main lobby. Johnny had no idea how much Chris knew about what had transpired the evening before, but he had been told by Doctor Brackett that it was Chris who came upon Terence Weber beating him in the bathroom. Johnny could easily guess that Weber had said enough to enable Chris to draw his own conclusions regarding Roy’s injuries.
Chris sat like a statue behind the wheel of his mother’s Impala as Johnny climbed in the passenger side.
“Chris, if you don’t want to take me home just say so. I’ll call Chet.”
The boy shook his head as he started the car.
“No. Mom said I was supposed to do this so I am.”
And those were the last words Chris spoke to John Gage until they arrived at the ranch.
Chris parked the car by the house and started to climb out. Johnny motioned for him to stay where he was.
“You head back to the hospital.”
“Mom said I was supposed to help you.”
“I don’t want your help if you don’t want to help.”
The teenager refused to look at the paramedic. He knew what he was doing was wrong, and he knew his father would be greatly disappointed with him. His mother was correct, Johnny had done a lot of things for them over the years, but maybe now it was time Chris made it clear as to just who was in charge of the DeSoto family when Roy wasn’t capable of assuming that role.
“No, I don’t want to help,” Chris said, his hands gripping the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white. “Not now. Not ever again. Because of you my father might never be the same. He might never walk, or talk, or do anything for himself. You let him down. You. . .you chose that boy over him, and you even blew that ‘cause the kid died.”
Chris swallowed hard, not sure if his anger outweighed the hurt he saw on Johnny’s face, but he’d come this far and was bound and determined to finish.
“You’re not my uncle. You’re no one’s uncle. That’s just a name we called you. And because you’re not my uncle you’re not really part of our family. I don’t know what’s going to happen to my dad, maybe he’ll get better, but maybe he won’t. If he doesn’t I’m the one who will be taking care of him, and Mom, and Jenny, and John. You got that?”
Chris had to strain to hear Johnny’s reply.
“Yeah, Chris. I got it.”
The boy bit down on his lower lip as Johnny exited the vehicle. Chris tried to push his guilt ridden thoughts out of his mind as he watched the man slowly make his way to his house.
I hurt him. I really hurt him. I. . .I didn’t mean to hurt him, but I’m so mad at him because of the way he let Dad down.
The last sight Chris had of Johnny was of the stark white bandage on the back of the paramedic’s head right before he disappeared into the house. Chris sat in the driveway a moment longer, contemplating doing what his mother asked and taking care of Johnny’s animals. He knew the man had no business doing those chores for himself this evening, but once again Chris’s anger overruled his common sense. He put the car in drive, turned a wide circle, then headed for the road without looking back at the ranch that held such a fond place in his memory, and such a warm place in his heart.
Two mornings later Johnny reported for work with the rest of the A-shift. Captain Stanley wasn’t sure how wise that was, despite the fact he had medical papers from Kelly Brackett declaring John fit for duty.
He looks like he hasn’t gotten any sleep at all. No doubt he was up all night worrying about Roy. And now I’ve got to tell him about Weber. Just what we need around this station, more worries.
Roll call had come to an end and Johnny was walking over to help Charlie Dwyer inventory the squad’s supplies.
Thank God for small favors. At least I got Charlie this shift and not Brice.
Before Johnny arrived at his destination he was summoned from behind.
“John! In my office a minute, pal.”
Johnny had worked for Hank Stanley long enough to know that when he ended the phrase ‘in my office a minute’ with the word ‘pal’ you weren’t in trouble, but rather he had some sort of upsetting news to pass along.
Please don’t let it be about Roy. Please. Not about Roy.
Johnny had spent an hour sitting with the comatose Roy the previous day, then left shortly after Joanne and a petulant Chris arrived. Johnny called the hospital before work this morning. He’s been told Roy was resting comfortably and there was no significant change in his condition. It was those last six words that were still echoing in Johnny’s head as he made his way to Cap’s office.
Hank shut the door behind his paramedic.
“Have a seat, John.”
“Is this about Roy?”
“No,” Hank shook his head. “No, it has nothing to do with Roy. I talked to Rampart before I came in this morning. The nurse said he was resting comfortably, but that there’s been no--”
“Significant change in his condition,” Johnny finished. “Yeah, I know. I talked to her, too, right before I left my house.”
Hank crossed the room and hiked a hip up on the corner of his desk. He looked down at Johnny seated in front of him.
“Look, I don’t think anything will come of this, but I need to let you know that Terence Weber. . .the father of--”
“I know who he is.”
Hank nodded. Given the bandage Johnny was still sporting on the back of his head Hank supposed the paramedic was fully aware of who Weber was.
“Weber’s requested a review board look into your actions from the other night. Now believe me when I say I can’t imagine anyone on that board finding you at fault. They’ll be talking to me, of course. You can rest assured I’ll tell them no wrong doing occurred, and that you did everything in your power to save Matthew Weber.”
Johnny looked down at his boots. “Thanks, Cap.”
“There’s no need to thank me. I’m simply going to tell it like it is.”
When Johnny didn’t do anymore than nod Hank said, “John, you can’t blame yourself for what happened at that scene. As I told Joanne, you were one paramedic in bad need of a set of helping hands. You’ve been with the fire department what? Thirteen years now?”
“Fourteen years. That’s a long time. Long enough to know that you can’t carry every victim you couldn’t save on your shoulders. Or in your heart.”
“But when one of those victims is your partner--”
“My words still stand. You can’t let it eat away at you, John. You have to come to terms with the fact that you did all you could for Roy.”
Johnny finally brought his eyes up from his boots. “But I left him in that house.”
“No, you didn’t leave him. You thought he was behind you. Whether Roy didn’t see you, or got turned around in all that smoke, or had a piece of ceiling or wall fall on him that hindered his ability to get out, we may never know.”
The paramedic pushed himself to his feet and headed toward the door. Softly, he said, “It’s the ‘never knowing’ that I’m not sure I can live with, Cap.”
After the door closed behind the departing man Hank Stanley thought of the comatose Roy DeSoto, then mumbled, “You just might have to learn how to live with it, John. You just might not have any other choice.”
By early evening Joanne DeSoto had tried to call Station 51 three times, but had yet to get an answer. It had been shortly after noon that day when a nurse noticed the first signs that indicated Roy was coming out of his coma. At three-thirty he opened his eyes. At four-thirty he smiled at his wife and oldest son while giving them a wobbly thumbs up. By six o’clock the ventilator had been removed and numerous tests had been run. Their preliminary results had Doctor Early smiling as well.
Johnny carried a handie-talkie as he walked down the hall that would take him to ICU. Charlie was waiting for him in the squad. Station 51 had been repeatedly toned out all afternoon. Now the squad was at Rampart after having transported a child who had fallen from a backyard swing set and broken his collarbone.
The double doors swung open as Johnny approached. Joanne looked momentarily surprised, as though the person she was seeing was exactly who was on her mind.
“Johnny! I was just going to try to call you again.”
“I’ve tried to call the station several times this afternoon.”
Johnny felt the color drain from his face. “Roy? Is he--”
“He’s fine. He’s coming out of the coma. Doctor Early is really pleased with his neurological responses so far.”
Johnny closed his eyes and leaned back against the wall. He doubted Joanne could even hear him when he whispered, “Thank God.”
“He hasn’t spoken to us yet, but he definitely recognizes both Chris and myself. He’s also been able to do anything the doctors and nurses have requested of him. So that’s a good sign, right?”
“Yes,” Johnny nodded as he opened his eyes. “Yes, Jo, that’s a very good sign.”
Joanne tugged on the paramedic’s arm.
“Come on. I know he’ll want to see you.”
“Well then, maybe I’d better wait. I’ll stop up tomorrow morning after I go off-shift.”
“What difference does that make? I mean what difference does it make if Chris is in the room or not?”
It was then that Johnny realized Joanne was completely unaware of the rift between himself and Chris. Rather than cause the woman more concern, he did his best to bluff.
“It doesn’t make a difference other than it might be a little overwhelming for Roy to have all of us in the room. I don’t want one of the nurses to chase you or Chris out, so I can wait until morning to see him.”
“No one’s going to chase any of us out. You’ll only be in there for a minute or two. Now come on.”
“Where’s Jenny and John?”
Joanne couldn’t figure out why the man seemed to be stalling, but she answered his question.
“At home. Roy’s mother is with them.”
“No. I guess not.”
“Okay then, let’s go see that handsome partner of yours.”
Johnny couldn’t help but smile. Even after nineteen years of marriage Joanne and Roy were still as in love as they had been on their honeymoon.
Roy appeared to be sleeping when Johnny entered the room. Chris sat on his father’s right side, firmly holding Roy’s uninjured hand. He looked up as Johnny rounded the bed.
Chris wasn’t sure if he would have even made a response if his mother wasn’t in the room, but because she was there he gave a terse, “Hi.”
Joanne rubbed a hand over her son’s back. She knew he was tired. She wondered now if these past two days, combined with the long night previously, had been too much for him. Granted, Chris was sixteen, but yet the stress of worrying over his father was definitely taking its toll on him. Perhaps she should have made him stay home with his siblings, though she could easily imagine the fuss he would have raised if she’d suggested such a thing.
Johnny laid a hand on Roy’s shoulder. Though he didn’t expect a response, he said quietly, “Hey, Pally.”
At the sound of Johnny’s voice Roy opened his eyes. His lids were heavy and he fought to keep them from falling again. His gaze landed on Chris and Joanne. Like he’d done two hours earlier, he smiled when he recognized his wife and son. Chris squeezed his father’s hand and felt a light pressure in return.
Roy moved his head a fraction giving Chris the indication he was nodding at him.
The paramedic’s eyes left his family. He wasn’t certain what caused him to wake up, but he thought he’d heard Johnny. He tried to get his mouth to work, but couldn’t seem to form any words. If he could just question, “Johnny?” Joanne would know what he meant.
Roy felt his left shoulder being given a gentle squeeze. He turned his head and looked up. He smiled again. This time when he struggled to find words he was finally able to get his brain, tongue, and mouth to work in unison to help him form them.
“Hi. . .Hi Part. . .Partner.”
“Ti. . .Ti. . .Tired. You.”
“I look tired?”
“That’s because while you’ve been laying around napping I’ve been doing the work of two men. So what do you say you get back on your feet real soon and rejoin me in the squad? I’ve been driving you know, and I’ve kinda taken a liking to it. If you want your place back behind the wheel you’re gonna have to hurry up and get well.”
Though the choking sound Roy made scared Joanne and Chris, Johnny immediately knew he was laughing. When Roy settled down his eyes began to close once more. He felt Johnny give his shoulder a final squeeze.
“Listen, Roy, I’ve got to go. You take care of yourself and do what Joanne tells you. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
As Roy slipped back to sleep Johnny rounded the bed again. He started to place his hands on Chris’s shoulders but before they even touched the teen the boy was shrugging them off. Johnny ignored the movement to instead place a kiss on Joanne’s cheek.
“Call me if anything changes. Otherwise I’ll stop by tomorrow.”
“All right. Take care of yourself. Like Roy said, you look tired.”
“I’m fine.” Johnny headed for the door. “Bye, Chris.”
Chris didn’t take his eyes off his dad when he growled, “Bye.”
Joanne waited until Johnny was out of ear shot, then moved to stand beside her son. She placed her hands on her hips and gave him a stern look.
Chris, what’s up?”
“Why were you so rude to your Uncle Johnny?”
“I wish you’d quit calling him that.”
“My ‘Uncle’ Johnny. He’s not really my uncle, you know.”
“Not by blood, no. But I always thought the feeling was there.”
Chris looked down at his father. His mother had to listen hard to hear his mumbled words.
“It was until two nights ago.”
“Don’t tell me not to blame Johnny for this because I do. He left Dad to fend for himself. He. . .well, I don’t really know what happened but I heard Johnny tell Dixie that he screwed up. He actually said it was his fault, Mom.”
“Just because he said it doesn’t mean it’s true. Chris, neither you nor I can fully understand what your dad and Johnny do each and every day they’re on duty. Over the years your dad’s been a fireman, and then a paramedic, I’ve seen him come home very upset sometimes because he wasn’t able to save someone’s life. He’s always shielded you kids from the bad parts of his job. I’m sure he always will. So don’t sit here and think that there hasn’t been times when Dad hasn’t unjustly blamed himself for someone’s death or injury, just like Johnny is doing now.”
“Chris, what it really boils down to is this. Johnny is your dad’s closest friend, and has been for many years. If Dad doesn’t blame Johnny for what happened the other night, then none of us have the right to either.”
“But he talked to Johnny first. He hasn’t said a word to us, but he talked to Johnny first.”
Joanne heard the jealousy in Chris’s tone. She suddenly remembered how difficult it was to be sixteen. Not quite an adult, but no longer a child. So often in limbo when it came to understanding your feelings.
“It doesn’t matter who Dad talked to first. What matters is he talked, and what he said was coherent. You should be rejoicing in that fact instead of being mad that it was Johnny he spoke to.”
“But aren’t you mad? You’re his wife. I would have thought he’d have said something to you first.”
“Chris, your dad was without oxygen for an undetermined amount of time. At this point I couldn’t careless if he just had a conversation with the wall. After everything the doctors have told us might be wrong, I’m just happy to see those things aren’t going to come to pass. And you should be, too.”
“I am. It’s just that. . .”
The teenager let his sentence trail off there.
“Chris, whether you know it or not you’re very lucky to have a father like Roy DeSoto.”
“Your dad has always put his family first. A lot of men don’t do that. A lot of men spend their days off on the golf course, or drinking at the corner bar, or hanging out some place with their buddies. Dad has never done that. He’s always been a family man. He’s always devoted himself, and his time, to us.”
“But Johnny was there a lot, too.”
“Oh yes. I forgot. Heaven forbid we should be upset because your Uncle Johnny helped your father paint the house more times than I can count. Or showed up in the middle of rainstorm to help Dad patch the roof. Or cheered you on the loudest of anyone at your Little League games. Or used his Land Rover to haul about two dozen of your Scout projects to local competitions. Or is always the one to arrive with the most presents for you kids on your birthdays or at Christmas. Or came over in the middle of the night to stay with you and Jennifer when Grandpa Stellman had a heart attack and your dad and I left for San Diego at one o’clock in the morning. Or helped me walk the floor with John when he got sick with bronchitis and an ear infection last year while you and Dad were on that fishing trip in Colorado. So you’re right, Uncle Johnny’s been there a lot, too. Only I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Not in the slightest. And up until now I don’t believe you’ve ever thought so either.”
When the teenager made no response Joanne kissed the top his head.
“You sit here and think about what I just said. I’m going to call Grandma DeSoto to let her know your dad is doing better.”
Chris simply nodded as he heard his mother walk away. He sat there, clinging to his father’s hand, praying that the man would wake up again and this time, talk to him. That didn’t happen before Chris’s mother was telling him it was time for them to go home for the night.
Because of that the teen left the hospital just as angry with Johnny as he had been when he arrived.
Johnny never spoke to Roy of the departmental inquest into his actions the night of the fire, and did his best to keep his worries over it from his partner. In the end trying to protect Roy proved futile. It had been five days since Roy had been injured and he was now in a room of his own. His ribs were taped, his left arm in a cast, and his speech greatly improved from the first evening Johnny visited with him. He was dragging his right leg slightly when he walked, but Doctor Early thought that would clear up with time and some physical therapy. If Roy’s condition continued to improve he’d be released within two or three days.
The door to Roy’s room was open. Johnny peeked around the corner before entering, not wanting to interrupt if Joanne and the kids were visiting. All was quiet; however. Roy was sitting up in bed reading the latest issue of Popular Mechanics.
“Hey, partner,” Johnny said as he entered.
Roy looked up at the sound of his visitor’s voice and smiled. He set the magazine down on the mattress.
“No wife and kids this evening?”
“They just left. Like his namesake, John couldn’t sit still. I think the nurses had enough of his twirling, spinning, and jumping. Joanne thought it was time to take him home and put him to bed before they got kicked out.”
“Sounds like the same thing my mother used to do to me,” Johnny commented as he sat in the chair by Roy’s bed.
“Then I guess there’s not much hope.”
“Hope for what?”
“Well, being put to bed didn’t seem to cure you of spinning and jumping, so I doubt it’ll cure John.”
Roy let that subject drop, to instead point a stern finger at his partner.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Tell you what?”
“About the investigation.”
“Oh. You know about that, huh?”
“I didn’t until Lieutenant Hamlin and Chief Kerry showed up here this afternoon.”
Johnny shrugged at the mention of the names of two of the men on the fire department’s employee review board.
“I didn’t want you to be upset. And since I figured they’d come talk to you I didn’t want to influence anything you might have to say.”
“Influence me how?”
Johnny broke eye contact with his friend.
“I don’t know. I just. . .I just wanted you to tell it like it really happened.”
“And just how did it really happen? From your perspective I mean.”
“Look, Roy, I respect whatever it was you told those guys. I. . .”
“Come on. What were you going to say?”
Johnny forced himself to look at his friend again.
“I screwed up.”
“I just did.”
“That’s not what I heard.”
“Yeah, well. . .”
“Cap told me what happened, Johnny. And I remember some of what happened, too.”
“Yes, I do. Bottom line is, I was following you and then the smoke got so dense I couldn’t see you. By the time it cleared a little bit I was turned around. I thought I was headed for the stairs but ended up in a bedroom. As I was coming back into the hall something knocked me down. Probably part of the ceiling but I’m not sure. Regardless, you did what you had to. You got the boy out.”
“And left you inside.”
“You didn’t know I wasn’t behind you.”
Johnny was tempted to say, “I should have,” but reluctantly conceded Roy was correct. The last time he’d seen Roy the man was behind him. What happened after that was really nothing but circumstances caused by the fire. Circumstances neither one of them had control over.
“It’s going to be okay, you know,” Roy assured.
“The inquest. They’ll clear you of any wrongdoing, because there was no wrongdoing. You did everything right. Mr. Weber is just upset right now, like any father would be who came home from a dinner date with his wife only to find one of his children deceased.”
“I know. I don’t blame him for what he’s doing.”
“He didn’t need to pound your head against the bathroom wall, though.”
“Oh. You heard about that, too, huh?”
“Joanne told me. When do the stitches come out?”
“In a couple days.”
“Yeah. I’m fine. A little tired, but all right.”
“Chris is still helping you with your chores, isn’t he?”
Until this moment Johnny had no idea Roy thought Chris was supposed to be helping him with his chores, and had no idea that evidently Joanne had instructed Chris to do so more than just that first day when he’d been released from the hospital.
“Sure,” Johnny lied, because he hadn’t seen hide nor hair of Chris since the day Roy had come out of his coma. “He’s been a big help.”
“I’m glad to hear it. After everything you’ve done for us over the years we like to return the favor now and again.”
“I thought we stopped keeping track of stuff like that a long time ago.”
“We did,” Roy acknowledged. “But I think I still owe you about one hundred days worth of free baby-sitting duties.”
Johnny laughed. He was thirty-six and had buried a wife and child fifteen years ago now. He seriously doubted he’d ever marry again. Or at least he couldn’t imagine anything but bachelorhood for his future.
“I don’t think you have to worry too much about that. The baby-sitting thing I mean. I’m gettin’ a little too old to think about having kids even if I do find a woman who’s willing to put up with me. But in the event I do. . .have kids someday, you might want to reconsider your offer. If you think John’s a handful what do you think three or four of mine will be like?”
“Which is exactly why I’m taking advantage of resting in this hospital bed as long as possible.”
What sounded like a doorbell chimed, indicating the end of visiting hours. Normally Johnny wouldn’t have worried about scooting out the door until a nurse pointed the way for him, but he could tell Roy was ready to call it a night.
The dark headed man stood.
“I’d better get going.”
“Thanks for stopping by. You didn’t need to drive all the way here from your ranch. A phone call would have been enough.”
“Yeah, right,” was all Johnny would say in return. They’d been friends too long for a phone call to be enough for Johnny when Roy was laid up in a hospital bed. “Listen, huh. .thanks. It. . .it helped to talk about it. The inquest and stuff.”
“No problem. I didn’t figure you’d talked about it to anyone else. Thought you might need someone to smack you upside the head and remind you that you’re one of the best firefighter/paramedics this county has ever turned out.”
Johnny cocked a teasing eyebrow.
“One of the best?”
“Well, sure. After me, of course.”
Johnny laughed. “Of course. How could I forget?”
“A bump on the head will do that to a guy. Make him lose his memory, I mean.”
“I see. Yeah, I suppose that could be the cause of it.”
“But once I return to work you’ll remember who’s numero uno.”
“Maybe so, but if you don’t return soon I might not remember that you usually drive the squad. I’m gettin’ kind of used to it, Pally.”
“You’re not letting Dwyer drive?”
“Dwyer? Roy, the guy drives like an old woman. We’d be lucky to ever get to a scene with Dwyer behind the wheel. He’s not so hot as a co-pilot either. The guy doesn’t know his left from his right half the time.”
“Well, Junior, that just goes to show you what a good team we make.”
Johnny smiled. After all the worries he’d had about Roy just five days ago it felt good to realize they were once again going to be a team.
“Yep, it does.” Johnny headed for the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Okay. See you tomorrow. And hey?”
Johnny turned around.
“No more worries about that inquest, all right? It’s going to turn out okay, John. I know it is.”
“Okay. No more worries.”
“Besides, worrying is my thing. Or at least that’s what you always tell me. You’re the care-free spirit of this partnership.”
Thinking of his recent concerns for Roy, his upset over the death of the Weber boy, and the rift that now existed between himself and Chris, made it difficult for Johnny to feel ‘care-free.’ But for the sake of appearances he smiled and agreed.
“You got that right, Pally. Care-free is my middle name.”
And on that note Johnny gave his partner a final wave and walked out the door. Roy reached for the button that would lower his bed. He thought back over ten years of friendship with Johnny as he waited for sleep to claim him. At one time he had been foolish enough to believe that John Gage didn’t have a care in the world, but over time he’d come to learn he was wrong about that. Johnny cared a lot, about a lot of things and a lot of people. He just hid his feelings well behind his happy-go-lucky nature. That’s why he sometimes needed to be reminded that it was okay to voice his hurts, worries, and concerns. Roy was glad they’d gotten everything out in the open tonight. There was nothing he hated worse than secrets. For some reason secrets always seemed to hurt someone more than they helped. Or at least that had been Roy’s experience.
The paramedic drifted off to sleep, satisfied that things were once again right between his partner and himself.