Roy handed his partner a cup of coffee, then poured one for himself. Johnny barely took notice of the steaming liquid as he absently set the cup on the counter next to the handie talkie. He resumed the conversation that had been started an hour earlier at Station 51. He grinned while forming a slow, curvaceous figure eight with his hands.
"You've gotta see her, Roy. She's an absolute beauty. The way the sunlight glints off her. . .man, it just knocks me out. She's everything I've always wanted. It's like we were made for each other. She's. . .well, she's perfect for me. We go together like Bogie and Bacall. Like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astair. Like Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Like--"
Dixie McCall stepped around the two men and slipped onto her stool behind the nurse’s station. She cupped her chin in her right palm and smiled.
"Well, well, well, I never thought I'd see the day where I witnessed John Gage making a permanent commitment to a woman."
Johnny shot the nurse a puzzled glance. "Huh?"
"What woman?" Roy asked.
"The one you guys are talking about."
"We weren't talking about a woman."
"Oh, come on, Johnny, if you want me to keep it a secret for whatever reason, I will. But either way, I think it's great."
"That you've found someone who's perfect for you."
"Well. . .I am seeing Amy."
"Amy?" Dixie searched her memory, trying to determine if there were any new nurses in the hospital by that name.
"She's the sister-in-law of a friend of a cousin of a guy who used to live in my apartment building. We've only had a couple dates. I don't really know her all that well."
"Well enough to know you go together like Tracy and Hepburn."
Roy took a sip of coffee. "They were never married. As a matter of fact, I think Spencer Tracy was married to someone else while he and Katharine Hepburn were seeing one another."
Dixie gave the man a small frown that said, "Don't discourage your partner, Roy," while saying, "Well now, I'm certain Johnny and Annie--"
"Amy," Johnny supplied.
"Amy," Dixie corrected, as though she was already planning to write the name on the wedding gift. "I'm certain Johnny and Amy will be very happy together."
"I don't know," Johnny shrugged. "She's not too crazy about my new motorcycle."
"And what does that have to do with anything?"
"Well, Dix, you know my motto. Love me, love my Hog."
"And just what do pigs have to do with this conversation?
"Pigs?" Johnny laughed. "No, Dix, not pigs. Hog. As in my Harley Davidson."
"Yeah. It's a motorcycle."
"I know a Harley Davidson is a motorcycle. I'm just not sure how we went from the perfect woman to a motorcycle all in the same conversation."
"To tell ya' the truth, Dix, I'm not sure how we got on the subject of the perfect woman to begin with. As far as I'm concerned, there is no perfect woman." At Dixie's glare Johnny quickly added, "Present company excluded of course."
"So you and Roy weren't talking about a woman?"
"Nope," Johnny confirmed.
Roy shook his head as he took another drink of coffee.
"So in other words, Mr. Gage, the object of your current affections is a motorcycle?"
"Well, I like Amy, too, but this bike," Johnny grinned with delight, "Dix, you gotta see her. I'll even take you for a ride. How about if I pick you up one morning and--"
Dixie held up a hand. "No, thank you."
"Sorry, Johnny, but I've seen the end results of too many motorcycle accidents in my twenty years as a nurse. At worst, most of them are tragic. At the very least, they're always painful."
"Yeah, I suppose, but--"
"Have you ever had to scrape anyone off the pavement who crashed while riding one of those things?"
"Well. . .yeah. But it won't happen to--"
"Don't say 'it won't happen to me,' because it just might happen to you."
"But I'm careful, Dix."
"Do you always wear jeans when you ride?"
Though not a deterrent to broken bones, blue jeans protected the skin from road rash more effectively than shorts did should the rider sail across the pavement for some reason.
"And boots? The kind that come up to your shins?"
"And a leather jacket?"
Johnny resisted the urge to roll his eyes. If his mother was still living he could easily imagine them having this exact same conversation.
"Dix, half the fun of owning a motorcycle is feeling the sun on your bare arms."
"Wear a jacket," the nurse ordered. "And what about a helmet?"
"Johnny, don't you even think of riding that thing without a helmet. You know better than that. And if Joe Early ever got wind of it he'd sit you right down and give you a blow by blow description of every head injury he's ever dealt with because some vain man didn't think it looked cool to be seen wearing a helmet."
"I'm not vain, it's just--"
"They're uncomfortable. Hot for one thing."
"Would you go into a burning building without your helmet?"
"He would if Cap would let him get away with it," Roy quipped, knowing his partner's aversion to headgear of any kind be it a helmet, baseball hat, or even just the hood of a coat.
"You shouldn't make light of this, Roy. I'm serious."
"I know you are, but Johnny's careful. He knows the dangers, Dix. He's been riding motorcycles since he was sixteen."
"Actually, thirteen if you count the times I went for joy rides on my uncle's Yamaha. Boy, was my dad ticked when he passed me on the road one afternoon when I was supposed to be in school." Johnny chuckled at the memory. "Couldn't sit comfortably on that Yamaha for a week."
"If you take a spill without a helmet I'll guarantee you there will be a lot of things you won't be doing comfortably ever again."
"Dix, you worry too much."
"It's my prerogative to worry about my paramedics." Dixie arched a meaningful eyebrow as she finished with, "And my friends."
"Yeah well, that's nice of you, but nothing's going to--"
Before Johnny could finish his sentence the handie talkie squawked.
"Squad 51, what is your status?"
Roy picked the instrument up. "Squad 51, available."
The paramedics listened to the call regarding a man with chest pains, Johnny jotting down the address on a piece of scrap paper Dixie handed him.
"Squad 51, 10-4," Roy acknowledged when Sam Lanier had finished speaking. Roy turned for the doors. “Bye, Dix.”
Johnny gave a quick wave. "See ya', Dix."
The dark headed man turned around to make eye contact with the nurse.
Dixie pointed to her head. "Helmet. For me, please."
"Oh, Dix, come on--"
"Johnny, please. At least consider it."
Johnny heaved a sigh. "Okay, okay. I'll consider it."
And with that Johnny swiveled and ran for the automatic doors.
"Johnny will consider what?" Kelly Brackett asked as he approached the station.
Knowing how Brackett felt about motorcycle riders who chose not to wear helmets made Dixie say, "Nothing. Just a favor I asked of him."
"You're not trying to set him up with the new nurse on Ortho are you?"
Dixie shook her head. "I don't set Johnny up with anyone. He does just fine for himself in the dating department."
"So I've noticed."
Before Kelly could say anything else Dixie headed for the supply room. It wouldn't be until ten days later that he would find out the exact nature of the favor Dixie had requested of John Gage.
Ricky Mason climbed over boulders and parted waist-high grass as he hiked in the canyon across the road from his home. The Saturday afternoon sun bathed Ricky’s bare arms in comforting warmth, while a light breeze ruffled his baby-fine hair that was the shade of a coconut’s skin. He paused for a moment and looked at the sky. He smiled with joy as he recalled all the times he’d hiked in this canyon on Saturday afternoons with his father and older brother Billy at his side.
A lot had changed for Ricky’s family over the past year. First those two men wearing uniforms had come to the door. Ricky’s mother had let out a stifled scream when she’d seen them, and Ricky’s father cried when the men finished talking to him. Ricky had never seen his father cry before that. He didn’t even know fathers cried. He thought that was something only a mother did because she was a girl and all. But then when Ricky’s father told him Billy was dead, and that dead meant he’d never see Billy again, Ricky cried too. Three months later Ricky cried again when his father died at Rampart Hospital five days after suffering a heart attack.
Now it was just Ricky and his mother living in the house that seemed too large for only two people. He had a big sister, Pamela, but she was married and lived in a house with her husband and children. Ricky thought Pam and her family should move in with him and his mother so they could feel like a family again, but Mom kept saying no, that wouldn’t happen because Pam had her own life to live. Ricky wasn’t sure why Pam and Billy had to leave home to live their own lives, when Ricky himself knew he’d always live with his mother despite the fact that no one had ever voiced that to him. So, if he lived with his mother, why couldn’t Pam live with her, too? After all, Billy went away and look what it got him. Dead. It only got him dead. Dead means you never see someone you love again, so Ricky didn’t think dead was a good thing to be.
Ricky watched for snakes as he climbed the grassy hills. Dad had always told him and Billy to keep an eye out for rattlers, but Dad also said, “Don’t be scared. They’re more scared of you than you are of them.”
Rattlesnakes didn’t frighten Ricky at all. If you listened you could hear a rattlesnake warning you to get out of its path. That’s why it had rattles to begin with. People. . .now they were scary. Not the people Ricky had known all his life like those he attended church with, or Mr. and Mrs. Harvey who lived next door to him, or the people he worked with at Goodwill Industries, or even the new friends he’d made at Rampart Hospital like Nurse Dixie and Doctor Brackett, both of whom had taken care of his father when he was brought into the emergency room. No, those people weren’t scary, but the people who made fun of him were. The people who were impatient with him because they didn’t understand why it took him so long to form his thoughts into sentences, or understand why those sentences weren’t spoken clearly, even though Ricky could hear them clearly in his mind. Or the people who snatched their children back from him when all Ricky wanted to do was say hello to a cute little girl or boy who reminded him of his niece and nephew. Or the mean kid who hiked in the canyon somtimes and called him ‘retard,’ and ‘stupid,’ and ‘dummy,’ whenever their paths crossed. When he was little the words hurt enough to make him cry, even though Mom always told him words like those should be ignored, and it was the people saying them who were the real dummies. Now Ricky was twenty years old and he didn’t cry any longer when someone called him a retard. At least not on the outside. On the inside he cried. But on the outside he was a man, because that’s what Billy would want him to be now that both he and Dad were dead and Mom had only Ricky left to lean on.
Ricky hiked toward a clump of old trees long overgrown with tangled branches and foliage. Unless you knew the fort was hidden amongst these trees you’d never find it. He and Billy had built it years ago without any help from their dad at all. Billy had been eleven and Ricky nine the summer they worked on it. Billy had always been good at building things. The fort was old and weathered, but sturdy. Two by fours formed the frame of the eight foot by eight foot building, and were covered with sheets of plywood. Ricky had to duck when he walked through the doorway. He and Billy had never imagined they’d both grow to be six feet tall when they erected the fort. Thanks to the way Billy had pitched the roof, the doorway was two inches over five feet in height. Ricky remembered how he agreed with Billy when Billy said that would be tall enough. But then, maybe Billy didn’t realize Ricky would still come to the fort long after he was a grown man.
Ricky looked around the dim interior, then opened a medium sized trunk he kept in a corner that Mrs. Harvey had set out for the garbage man one day. Ricky had taken the trunk before the garbage man came because he thought it would be a good thing to have in the fort. It had proven to be just that. Its flat, sturdy top meant it made a good chair or table, depending on your needs. It also stored things like a flashlight, a blanket, a pillow, and comic books. The fort was the perfect place to come and relax on a lazy afternoon. No one knew it was here, which meant no one bothered Ricky by calling him ‘the retard’ or ‘the dummy’ while he was trying to read. Granted, reading was a chore to some degree, but if the words were easy, like most of the ones in his Bobbsey Twins books, then he got along all right.
Ricky lifted the lid of the trunk and took out a shoebox and the flashlight. He wished now that he and Billy had put windows in the fort, but they’d never thought about those amenities.
Well. . .Ricky had, but by the time he’d suggested they be added Billy was fifteen and didn’t care about coming to the fort any longer.
The young man turned, sitting down on the trunk while holding the shoebox close to his chest. He wanted to open it, but he didn’t. The things inside made him feel happy and sad both at the same time. He rocked back and forth a moment, then slowly removed the cardboard cover. He set it aside while resting the shoe box on his lap.
The first thing Ricky pulled out was the Rifleman thermos that had been Billy’s. Billy used to spend hours watching the Rifleman on the TV. The next thing Ricky came across was the autographed picture of the Cartwrights Ricky had sent away for in 1963. Both Billy and Ricky loved Bonanza, and used to play Hoss and Little Joe right here in this fort and out on the grounds that surrounded it. Billy was always Hoss, which Ricky thought was funny since Billy was skinny and had dark hair and didn’t look much like Hoss Cartwright at all. But Billy was nice like Hoss, and he watched out for Ricky in the same way Hoss watched out for Little Joe, so maybe it made sense that Billy would always be Hoss when they pretended the fort was the Ponderosa ranch house.
Ricky held the picture and thermos in one hand while he pulled out a stack of blue ribbons. Billy had run track and played football for his high school. He was always getting rewards for his achievements in sports. He got good grades, too, but Ricky didn’t have any of his brother’s report cards. His mother kept those in an envelope on a closet shelf with all the other report cards, art work, and school papers that her children had brought home over the years.
The young man flipped through a stack of black and white snapshots that had been tucked beneath the ribbons. There was a picture of himself, Billy, and Pamela sitting in front of the Christmas tree. On the back, in their mother’s handwriting, was the date 1960. The next picture was of Billy in his cap and gown at his high school graduation. Ricky had taken that picture all by himself. It was a little out of focus, but you could still tell the smiling teenager holding the diploma was Billy. The last picture was of Billy leaning casually against his motorcycle. Ricky had loved riding on the back of Billy’s motorcycle, and had promised Billy he’d take care of it while Billy was being a Marine. He had, too. He’d washed it once a week and kept the chrome polished. After Billy died his father sold the motorcycle, despite Ricky’s pleas to keep it.
Ricky pulled out the case that held the Silver Star last. It had been given to his parents at Billy’s funeral after the bugler had played Taps. Ricky didn’t know why the medal wasn’t put on display by Billy’s picture in the living room, but it never had been. He had seen his father put it in a dresser drawer. After his father died, Ricky took the medal and put it in Billy’s Treasure Box, as he thought of the shoe box he was holding. Ricky thought that taking the medal without telling his mother might be like stealing, but on the other hand, she seemed to have forgotten about it, so taking something a person didn’t even remember they had couldn’t be too wrong as far as Ricky was concerned.
The young man rocked back and forth as he stared at the cross that meant Billy had died while performing an act of bravery. Or so the man had said who presented the medal to Ricky’s parents at the funeral.
“I wish I was brave like Billy,” Ricky said out loud in his halting, thick-tongued speech. “Billy was brave, and strong, and the girls liked him, and I wish I was like that. But Billy’s dead now, and that makes me sad. I wish. . .” Ricky stared at the medal, then clamped his eyes shut. Maybe he could wish on the medal like you wish on a star. “I wish I could see Billy again. I wish Billy could be here with me. I love Billy and I want him here with me.”
Ricky slowly opened his eyes. He looked around the dim interior of the fort. His face dropped when he realized he was still alone. His wishes hadn’t brought Billy back to life. At least not today.
The man closed the lid on the case that held the medal. As he gently laid the case back in Billy’s Treasure Box, tears swam in his eyes for the beloved brother who had been killed so far from home in that place called Vietnam.
A week had passed since Johnny’s discussion with Dixie over the use of a motorcycle helmet. He wasn’t certain what had prompted him to go out and purchase one, other than to say he knew she was right when it came to the severity of a head injury a person could incur if he was thrown from a cycle. Not that Johnny liked wearing the helmet, but he reluctantly did so unless he had reason to allow a passenger to use it like the other day when he took first Chris DeSoto, and then Jennifer, for a slow spin around their neighborhood.
It was a few minutes before eight on Saturday morning and Johnny was anxiously watching the clock in the Station 51 kitchen. He was praying no calls would come in before the shift change. As soon as B-shift officially took over Johnny was changing into his street clothes and heading for San Bernardino.
“So, Gage, who’s this new chick that has you watching the clock like you’re learning to tell time?”
Johnny shot Chet a glare from across the table. “You don’t know her.”
“But maybe I can meet her, huh?”
“I doubt it.”
“Because she wouldn’t like you, Kelly.”
“Because I don’t like you.”
Chet put a hand over his heart and pouted. “Oh, now I’m hurt. I probably won’t sleep for the next week after that crushing blow.”
Roy paid scant attention to the bantering. This conversation was like thousands of others he’d heard Chet and Johnny engage in over the past two years. Eventually, you learned to tune them out unless you were in need of a good laugh. For the most part Roy thought the men bickered as badly as Chris and Jennifer sometimes did, so for the sake of his sanity he usually chose ‘tuning out’ over the need for a laugh.
As soon as eight o’clock came and Captain Stanley released his men, Johnny headed for the locker room with Roy behind him. As the two men changed out of their uniforms Roy asked, “You wanna stop for breakfast before you leave town?”
Johnny shook his head as he zipped his jeans, then reached down to the floor of his locker to retrieve his black boots. “No, but thanks for the offer. I’d rather drive for a while. . .you know, get a head start on the Saturday traffic. I’ll stop somewhere when I get outta the city.”
“Okay. Well, have a good time.”
“What about supper Sunday night? I’ll probably just throw some burgers and hot dogs on the grill, but Joanne wants you to stop by on your way home.”
Johnny grinned. “Joanne doesn’t want me to stop by as much as she wants to hear all about Amy.”
Roy smiled in return. “You know my wife. She thinks it’s her job to find you a suitable mate. Or urge you to find one for yourself, whichever the case may be.”
“Yeah, I know. And I’ll be happy to tell her all about Amy sometime, only not on Sunday night. Tell Joanne thanks for the invite, but I really don’t know what time I’ll get back.” Johnny waggled his eyebrows. “Just as long as I’m here at eight on Monday morning is all that counts.”
“True enough,” Roy agreed.
Roy didn’t envy Johnny’s bachelor lifestyle in the slightest, but he did have to admit that every so often it would be nice to know what it felt like to come and go as you pleased with no one at home who was waiting for you to return at a specific time. Roy had married at the age nineteen. The freedoms Johnny had as a twenty-seven year old bachelor Roy had never known. But then Johnny didn’t know how good it felt to have your wife waiting for you at the end of a bad shift, or how good it felt to have your children run into your arms when you arrived home, as though you were a super hero come to life, so he supposed it evened out when all was said and done.
As Roy bent to tie his tennis shoes Johnny grabbed his backpack and helmet from his locker.
“Have a good trip.”
“See you Monday.”
“Yeah, see you Monday, Roy.”
And those were the last words the men exchanged before Roy heard the roar of the motorcycle’s engine, then the sound of the open throttle as Johnny pulled out of the parking lot. If Roy had only known then that he wouldn’t see Johnny on Monday, he would have asked for Amy’s last name, or her phone number, or the name of Johnny’s former neighbor who had hooked him up with Amy. But he didn’t ask for any of those things, meaning he had no idea where to start looking when it became apparent John Gage was missing.
There sure wasn’t much to do on Sunday nights as far as Mark LaBlond was concerned. If his mother had her way he’d be in his room doing homework, but his father had said, “Ah, let the boy go, Carol,” when sixteen year old Mark had said he was meeting his friends at the mall and his mother had started to argue with him about that fact.
That’s the one nice thing about my old man. He wants a quiet house at all costs. Heaven forbid anything should interrupt 60 Minutes and then the Sunday Night Mystery Movie, especially when McCloud is on.
Though the mall was closed at this time on a Sunday night in February, Mark and his friends strolled aimlessly around its vast parking lot trying to decide where they wanted to go.
“How about McDonald’s?” Jim Keen suggested.
“Naw,” Bob Takowski shook his head. “The manager kicked us out of there last week, remember? LaLa got caught splattering wet paper towels against the john walls.”
Mark gave Bob a shove. “Don’t call me that.”
“Why? You just called yourself that.”
Bob laughed as though he’d just cracked the funniest joke he’d ever heard. Mark sneered. “You’re a real shit head, Takowski, you know that?”
“Yep, I know.”
Mark rolled his eyes as he grabbed his girlfriend’s hand. It was hard to insult someone who was too stupid to care he’d just been called a shit head. Kathy smiled at Mark while saying, “Bobby, shut up.”
For some reason Kathy’s order silenced Bob, which didn’t set well with Mark. He’d suspected for a while now that Bob had the hots for Kathy. If that prick tried to take his girl from him Mark would forget they’d been friends since the first grade and beat the living crap out of him.
“Okay, okay,” Bob apologized, though not to Mark. “Sorry, Kath.”
“Don’t call her that.”
“Oh for Christ’s sake. What now?”
“Kath. Don’t call her that. Only I can call her that.”
“Geezo peezo, LaBlond, what’s up your ass tonight?”
“Nothing’s up my ass, I’m just tired of living with my folks, tired of living out here in no man’s land, tired of my mom refusing to take me for my driver’s test ‘cause my grades aren’t good enough for her, tired--”
“Speaking of driving, get a load of that baby.” Jim lead the way to a new white Cadillac parked in a remote corner of the dark lot. “She’s a beaut, huh?
The teenagers circled the car. Mark ran two fingers across its gleaming body. “It must have about two dozen coats of wax.”
Bob cupped his hands and peered inside. “And the seats are real leather. Red. Red leather.”
Jim stood at the rear of the vehicle. “I shittin’ love the way the spare tire sits in the trunk. Isn’t it the coolest thing? Makes the car look fancy.”
“It is a fancy car,” Mark said. “But fast too, I’ll bet. These babies have a lot of power.”
Bob pulled on the driver’s side door handle. He didn’t expect the door to open, and when it did he jumped backwards.
“Hey, it’s not locked.”
“No kidding, moron,” Mark observed. “Gee, Bobby, you’re almost as dumb as that brainless guy who lives a couple miles down the road from me.”
“I am not.”
“Are too. I’ll have to start calling you Bumblehead Bobby just like I call him Retard Ricky.”
Jim paid no attention to his friends as he slipped in-between them. Because the door was open the dome light was on. That was all Jim needed to see by. Kathy gave a startled yelp when the car came to life. Jim popped up from the floor wearing a big smile.
“You were complaining you didn’t have wheels, LaBlond?”
“Oh man, this is great. Jimmy, you’re a genius.” Mark slid behind the wheel, urging Jim to move to the passenger side. He looked up at Kathy and Bob. “Get in the back.”
Bob jumped in, but Kathy hesitated. She looked around the dark, desolate lot. She didn’t think anyone had seen them, but she didn’t want to risk being stopped by a cop while Mark was driving a stolen car.
“Mark, I don’t think--”
“Come on, Kath, get in,” Mark urged. “It’ll be okay.”
Kathleen Cahill shifted from foot to foot as she glanced around once more. Cars were going by on the distant road that ran alongside the mall’s property, but none of them slowed, leaving Kathy to assume no one thought anything was amiss.
“But, Mark, if we take this car that’s stealing.”
“We’re gonna bring it back.”
“Fifteen minutes. Thirty minutes. I don’t know for sure, but soon. Look, no one’s gonna miss it.”
“Naw. I bet someone left it here overnight. Some woman was probably out shopping and hooked up with some friends or something and rode home with them. It’ll never be missed.”
“Kathy, please. Get in. We won’t be gone long, I promise.”
Whatever other promises Mark made Kathy didn’t hear because Jim cranked up the radio as high as it would go and started flipping stations. As David Bowie blared from the rear speakers, Kathy reluctantly climbed in the car. She was thrown against the back seat when Mark punched the accelerator. Her waist-length honey blond hair got tangled in the buttons of the leather seats. Jim and Bob laughed and shouted as they were tossed around the car, but Kathy hung on for dear life while wishing she’d had the good sense to stay out of what was now a stolen Cadillac.
Johnny was still smiling as he skillfully negotiated the curves of Lawrence Canyon Road. Granted, he was tired, wind burned, and now cold because the night air had turned nippy, but the delights of a weekend with Amy were worth the discomforts.
One a.m. on Monday morning wasn’t a bad time to be driving back from San Bernardino. If nothing else, the traffic was light. However; Johnny would readily admit that if he’d been smart he’d have left Amy’s apartment by late afternoon, had dinner with Roy’s family, and been home and in his own bed by nine. But, Amy’s bed had beckoned about the time Johnny was going to suggest he head back to L.A., and after a round of intense passion both Amy and Johnny had fallen asleep. He’d woken at eleven-thirty, taken one look at the alarm clock, and sprinted for the woman’s bathroom. The nap, a hot shower, and a sandwich for the road as provided by Amy left Johnny feeling refreshed as he navigated the San Bernardino streets. It wasn’t until he’d driven for fifteen minutes that Johnny realized he’d left his backpack, leather jacket, and helmet in Amy’s apartment.
That’s what you get for being in a hurry, Gage. And for not leaving your stuff by the front door. If it had been by the door, instead of in the bedroom, I woulda seen it on my way out. I’ll call Amy from the station later today and see if I can drive over to her place on my next weekend off to pick everything up. Didn’t plan to get another overnight invitation out of her in quite this way, but hey, it just might work.
Despite the nap he’d had, the paramedic was growing increasingly weary. It had been a busy weekend full of sight seeing, cycle riding, a hike through parts of the San Bernardino National Forest, and a late Saturday night out for dinner and a movie. Johnny was glad he was within thirty minutes of home now. Though he wouldn’t get more than five hours of sleep before having to get up for work, he’d survived on less a few times in the past. And if he were lucky, the next twenty-four hour shift would be a slow one.
The curvy road allowed Johnny to easily spot a car in the distance. The headlights would disappear, then reappear again as the car’s driver navigated the turns.
Geez, mister. Would ya’ dim those brights before you get to me please.
Johnny eased off on the throttle a bit in anticipation of the other driver not giving him what was considered to be common highway courtesy. Johnny wasn’t certain if the darkness and late hour were causing his perception to be off, but it seemed like the car was traveling at a dangerously high rate of speed considering the road they were on.
Maybe the guy knows this road better than I do.
Johnny slowed a little more, but was still going thirty-five miles an hour. He didn’t see the car again as he traveled, and assumed the driver had turned off on a side road.
Good. I’ve got the road to myself again.
The paramedic brought his speed up to forty, which was the posted limit around the curves of Lawrence Canyon Road. He was easing the bike through another turn when headlights blinded him. Johnny squinted and unconsciously averted his face as his brain screamed, Where the hell did he come from?
When Johnny looked up again the blinding lights were coming straight for him. He waited as long as he dared, then self-preservation set in. He tilted the bike on its side without thinking about how painful that act might be. He hung onto the handlebars like he used to hang onto the reins of runaway horses on his father’s ranch. Johnny felt the car’s front fender slice the side of his head, but if there was any pain associated with that contact his mind didn’t register it. The bike spun around three times, Johnny spinning with it. Like a top that had been cut loose of its string, the bike soared over a guardrail with Johnny still clinging to the handlebars. The impact with hard ground finally caused the paramedic to lose his grip. The paramedic and his motorcycle somersaulted end over end, until both man and machine were far down the steep slopes of the canyon, and a long, long way from help.
“Mark, stop!” Kathy’s scream from the back seat drowned out the radio. “Stop!”
“Shut up, Kath! Just shut up!”
Kathy whirled around, peering into the darkness through the back window.
“You hit somebody, Mark! You hit the guy riding that motorcycle!”
“I did not!”
“No, I didn’t! He’s fine.”
Kathy had known the night was only going to get worse when Mark pulled in front of a liquor store where Jim’s brother worked. Within five minutes Jim came out with three six packs of beer. Kathy had refused to drink any, but the boys had spent the last few hours making their way through a six pack apiece.
Now Bobby was asleep or passed out, Kathy wasn’t sure which, and Jim didn’t appear to have a care in the world. He sat in the front seat next to Mark with his eyes closed, moving his body to the beat of the music.
“We should go back and check to see if he’s okay.”
“What? And risk the cops catching us in this car with empty beer cans besides? No way.”
“But he could be hurt. He might need help.”
“Kathy, I didn’t hit him. I missed him by a mile. He went right on past us.”
“No, he didn’t. I saw the bike go down and sparks coming from the road.”
Mark ignored his girlfriend as he headed the car to the mall’s parking lot. He knew perfectly well he’d hit that motorcycle, and figured the best thing he could do now was get the car back where it belonged.
The sixteen year old pulled into the exact same spot he’d taken the car from. With Kathy’s help he emptied the vehicle of beer cans, tossing them into a nearby trash receptacle. Mark had to manhandle his two drunken friends out of the Cadillac and push them in the direction of their homes. He walked along behind the stumbling boys, with Kathy bringing up the rear. She refused to talk to Mark until they were standing outside the dark house she shared with her mother and stepfather. When Mark tried to kiss her good night the girl turned her face away.
“Look, Kath, I’m sorry about tonight. The car. . .the
beer. . .”
“The man on the motorcycle?”
Mark rolled his eyes. “He’s fine. I promise you he’s fine. Really, I saw him drive right past us.”
“Kath, I did. And if you want I’ll take a hike out there after school. I promise, there won’t be anything or anyone around. The guy was fine.”
“And if he’s not?”
“Then I’ll make an anonymous call to the police.”
“But if he’s hurt he could be dead by the time you--”
Whatever else Kathy was going to say was cut-off by her mother opening up the front door.
“Kathleen, where have you been? Do you know what time it is? I was just getting ready to call the police. Mark, you head on home now. You both have to be up for school in a few hours. Young lady, if I have an ounce of trouble getting you out of bed this is the last time you’ll step from this house on a school night.”
Mark gave the woman a big wave and charming grin.
“Sorry, Mrs. Zenner. We were at my house and fell asleep watching McCloud with my dad. I didn’t wanna wake Dad up to drive Kathy home, but I didn’t want her to walk home by herself after dark either.”
Mark’s explanation caused the woman’s demeanor to change slightly. Though her tone was still frosty, she said, “Thank you, Mark. That was considerate of you. Kathy, come in the house now. Mark, you get on home. School starts in a few short hours.”
“Yes, Mrs. Zenner.”
Mark shot Kathy a wink, then disappeared into the darkness. The girl sighed before turning for the front door. It was late and she was exhausted. Maybe Mark was right. Maybe the motorcycle had gone past them and it was just a figment of her imagination that the driver had been hit by the Cadillac.
A weak groan broke the pre-dawn stillness blanketing the canyon. Johnny's head rolled from side to side as he slowly surfaced to consciousness. The man shivered, then gave another groan at the flare of pain that involuntary action evoked. He groped blindly for the blankets with his left hand. It must have gotten cold during the night. He was chilled, and for some odd reason his back and legs were wet. Not wet as though he'd just climbed out of a swimming pool, but wet like he was reclining on damp grass. The paramedic continued to grope for those invisible blankets. He started to flip to his right, wanting nothing more than to curl beneath the covers and go back to sleep. The act of flipping caused the man's eyes to fly open. A hoarse scream erupted from his throat, the sound prompting a flock of nesting birds to take flight from a nearby stand of scrub brush.
For several minutes the only thing that could be heard was raspy gasps for air that were punctuated by small moans. Johnny's left arm and leg burned with a scratchy heat he should be able to name the source of, but at the moment was at a loss to identify. He screamed again when he shifted and his weight pressed his right shoulder into the ground. His upper body torpedoed from the grass, but that didn't alleviate the pain. Muscles twitched and spasmed as ligaments and tendons were twisted and pulled. No matter how hard the paramedic struggled to get away from the agony it followed him. His seated position caused blood to flow down his face. It ran into his eyes, obscuring his vision, and he tasted its metallic tang as rivers trickled into his mouth.
For the first time Johnny registered the throbbing that radiated deep from within his skull. It felt as though someone had tied a gargantuan rubber band around his head and twisted it around, and around, and around one more time for good measure. The man knew the last thing he wanted to do was vomit, but his stomach didn't care what John Gage's preferences were. He swiveled to his left, whimpering and throwing up both at the same time. A new pain flared at his movement. Johnny was dimly aware that his boot was suffocating his left ankle, which made little sense considering his boots fit him just fine. Even as he retched the paramedic tried to wiggle his toes. His ankle shot a scream of protest all the way to his hip.
Johnny's stomach was still contracting when he collapsed in the long, dew-laden grass. He threw up two more times, but was in so much pain he wasn't aware he was lying in the mess. And even if he had been, he wouldn't have had the ability to care.
Without knowing where he was, how he got here, or how badly he was injured, John Gage lapsed into unconsciousness once again.
Hank Stanley held off roll call as long as he could. Gage sometimes cut his arrival right to the wire, so it wasn't unusual to see him flying through the apparatus bay on his way to the locker room, undressing as he went. At least one day every two weeks Hank could count on Johnny arriving at roll call while still buckling his belt, or buttoning a button, or tucking his shirt tails in. But despite those things, John always managed to be lined up with his station mates when the clock struck eight a.m. Except this morning. This Monday morning Gage was AWOL, which probably wouldn't have ticked the captain off nearly as much if it hadn't been for the fact that Chief McConnikee had shown up at seven forty-five wearing that smug smile of his while gleefully announcing a “surprise inspection.” Hank's stomach was already churning extra acid. He didn't need Johnny's absence tripling the amount of Tums he'd be taking as soon as McConnikee left.
With less than two minutes to go until eight, and with no sign of either Johnny's Land Rover or his motorcycle heading into the parking lot, Hank had pulled Charlie Dwyer aside and asked if he could stay until Gage arrived. It was well known around Station 51 how nervous McConnikee made Hank Stanley. Charlie thought about joking with the captain and telling him no, just to watch his face turn white when he realized he'd be one man short of a full crew when McConnikee's inspection began, but the paramedic resisted the urge to do so. First of all, he liked Captain Stanley too much to put him through that agony, and second of all, Johnny was a good friend. No doubt Gage was going to be in for a shit-load of trouble with his captain when he finally did show up. Charlie didn't want to make things worse for Johnny than they already would be.
Hope Amy was worth it, buddy, Charlie thought as he took Johnny's usual place next to Roy in the lineup.
Roy struggled to keep his eyes front and center as Patrick McConnikee slowly paced back and forth in front of the Station 51 A-shift. When McConnikee finally moved past him Roy's eyes darted to the kitchen doorway. He half expected to see Johnny peering around it, wearing a look that was a cross between guilt and, "Oh crap, McConnikee's here. I'm a dead man now." But Roy never did catch sight of Johnny, nor did Hank Stanley, who was busy shooting glances toward the kitchen as well.
Chief McConnikee studied the men in front of him once more, then turned to Hank.
"Where's the one who always needs
a haircut? Gage. Is he on vacation, Captain?"
"Uh. . .no, Chief. No, he's not."
"Well then, where is he? No one told me Dwyer put in for a transfer to 51's A-shift."
"He didn't, sir. He. . .Charlie's filling in for Gage today."
"Is Gage sick?"
Not yet. But he will be after I'm through with him.
"I asked you if Gage is ill."
"Uh. . .well he. . ."
Hank Stanley was never so glad to hear the tones go off as he was at that moment. He was furious with Johnny, but at the same time he didn't want to get the young man in trouble with the chief. Hank was perfectly capable of handling what few discipline problems came his way from his crew. He didn't need McConnikee interfering with that. It would only make things worse for John, and it would make Hank himself look bad.
As the men ran for the fire engine and paramedic squad Chief McConnikee took a step back and smiled. When the trucks rolled out of the station with lights swirling and sirens blaring, he reveled in the nostalgia of what it had felt like to drive a big rig. Once the crew was out of sight McConnikee headed for the station wagon the department provided him with, all thoughts of the absent John Gage forgotten.
Harold Reamers waved goodbye to the friend who had dropped him off in the Wild Valley Mall parking lot. Other than a smattering of employees’ cars, the lot was empty. The mall didn’t open for another hour yet.
The elderly man struggled to get in his Cadillac. The arthritis in his knees and hips made it difficult to fold his body behind the wheel. His seventy-seven year old wife had been shopping at the mall the previous day when she’d taken ill and called him to come pick her up. He’d driven their Oldsmobile to the mall and left the Cadillac in the lot for the night. Now he had to get home so he could take Martha to the doctor. As far as Harold was concerned getting old was hell. He’d be eighty-two in June. Aside from the arthritis he suffered, his memory was no longer what it used to be, and his eyesight was failing. Because of that last fact he didn’t notice the body damage on the front of the vehicle. When he finally did notice the damage several days later it was only because a police officer conducting a criminal investigation regarding some joy-riding teenagers pointed it out to him.
The A-shift returned to the station at ten-thirty that morning. Roy was certain he'd find a very sheepish Johnny already hard at work cleaning the latrine in an attempt to get back in Hank's good graces, or maybe hiding out in the locker room polishing the excuse he was going to give the captain. Unfortunately, oversleeping at Amy's house was not going to be an excuse Cap wanted to hear at this moment. Roy hoped that for Johnny's sake, he had something better than that to offer.
Roy had just stepped out of the squad when Cap ordered, "DeSoto, see if your regular partner is hiding out somewhere in this station. When you find him, tell him to get his butt in my office pronto."
Chet sliced a finger across his throat and waggled his eyebrows with glee. A little excitement around the station was always welcome. Especially if it involved Gage in the doghouse with Cap. The other men followed Chet to the kitchen while Roy made a quick tour of the building. The locker room and latrine were empty, as was the dorm. Roy knew Johnny wasn't in the apparatus bay unless he was hiding in one of the closets, which Roy seriously doubted. He walked through the kitchen and dayroom, shrugging his shoulders at the questioning looks his co-workers threw him. Roy opened the door that faced the rear parking lot.
No Land Rover. No motorcycle.
Roy's forehead was furrowed as he walked back through the kitchen. He headed toward Cap's office, tossing a distracted, "It doesn't look like it," over his shoulder in response to Chet's question of, "Isn't Johnny here yet?"
The paramedic told Hank of his findings. Or rather lack thereof. Roy rattled off Johnny's phone number as Hank dialed. The captain let the phone ring two dozen times before hanging up. He leaned back in his chair, shrugging his shoulders and spreading his hands.
"No answer?" Roy questioned.
"No answer." Hank turned the phone toward Roy. "Any idea as to where to start looking?"
Roy stared down at the telephone, but didn't have a clue as to who to call. "Her name is Amy and she lives in San Bernardino. The girl Johnny was going to see this weekend, I mean. Amy. But Amy what, I don't know. He never said. Or if he did, I don't remember."
Hank gave a heavy sigh. "Well. . .let's wait a while longer then. He might have overslept at her place and got caught in traffic. He'll probably show up about the time we're sitting down to lunch."
Roy's, "Yeah. Probably," didn't sound too convincing, but like Hank, he had no idea where to look for Johnny, and was well aware the police wouldn't consider him a missing person until twenty-four hours had passed.
Hank stood and clapped Roy on the shoulder.
"Come on. Let's get a cup of coffee before those guys drink it all. While we're doing that you can help me think of the many ways Gage is gonna pay for this transgression."
Roy offered his Captain a weak smile. "I'm sure Chet will be more than happy to assist you in that area."
"No doubt you're right about that."
As he sat sipping coffee with the rest of the guys Roy tuned out their chatter. He had a bad feeling about this entire situation, but maybe he was being foolish and anticipating the worst. Maybe Johnny had simply overslept at Amy's and then been caught in traffic. Before Roy could ponder that possibility further the klaxons sounded and the squad was summoned. For the time being the concern Roy had for his missing partner was temporarily pushed to the back of his mind.
Ricky Mason sat in Rampart's cafeteria eating a double decker hamburger and drinking a Coca-Cola filled with ice. Rampart was just four blocks from his job at Goodwill, and the bus stopped right in front of the hospital. Ricky worked every Monday through Friday morning. Sometimes he hung clothes on racks, or sorted shoes, or unpacked boxes of donated toys and books. His favorite job of all was when he got to help Samuel, the big Negro carpenter with the callused hands, repair furniture that had been donated. At first Ricky had been scared of Samuel. He'd never known a black man before. Aside from having skin the color of coffee without cream, Samuel was the tallest person Ricky had ever seen. So tall that Ricky thought Samuel should play basketball. Samuel just laughed at that notion, and Ricky had to admit it was pretty funny. For though Samuel was six foot six inches in height, he had the girth of a massive oak tree. His shoulders were broad, his arms thick, and his hands wide as a grizzly bear's paws. Samuel loved to work with wood, and he'd told Ricky many times that crafting wood into whatever shape he needed it to be was easy because the wood talked to him. Ricky tried to be very quiet each time he worked with wood along side Samuel, but he'd never heard any it talk yet. But then maybe he didn’t listen hard enough. Or maybe the wood only talked to Samuel when Ricky wasn't around.
Ricky worked at Goodwill from eight-thirty in the morning until one in the afternoon. After he punched out, he walked the four blocks to Rampart to eat his lunch. He could have eaten at a lot of other restaurants that dotted the path he took, but he shunned them all, even McDonald's, because McDonald's menu couldn't match the colorful variety of foods that were lined up in the glass display case mounted on the hospital cafeteria's long counter. Ricky loved pushing his tray down that stainless steel counter and filling it up as he went. He got the same thing each day. A double decker hamburger, French fries, macaroni and cheese, applesauce, and a parfait glass of chocolate pudding with whipped cream and a cherry on top. Ricky wasn't much for variety, which meant Rampart would seem like an odd choice of places for him to eat day after day, but Ricky didn't care. What was nice was knowing that the variety was there for the taking if he chose to change his eating habits. Not to mention getting to look at all the different foods, even if he did pick the same ones over and over again. Plus, Ricky got to fill a red plastic tumbler with soda from a machine that sat at the end of the counter, and add all the ice he wanted to. You sure couldn't do that at McDonald's. You also got to go back for more soda, and the ladies behind the counter didn't charge you anything for it. Ricky wasn't selfish about it though. He always limited himself to just two glasses, even on days when he was really thirsty and three glasses would taste good. It was important to leave enough for other people while at the same time not taking advantage of the hospital's generosity. Ricky's parents taught him about generosity when he was a little boy, and when his father was ill, and he and his mother used to eat in the cafeteria, she would remind him of it whenever he spoke of the free Coca-Cola.
Ricky waved as two men slid their trays down the counter top.
"Hi, Doctor Brackett! Hi, Doctor Early!"
The physicians turned, smiled, and waved in return.
"Hi, Ricky. How are you today?"
"I'm fine, Doctor Brackett." Ricky held up his hamburger. "I'm eating my lunch."
The doctor chuckled while shaking his head. “I see that.”
Ricky packed food away as though he was a lineman for the Rams, but somehow maintained a slight build. Brackett doubted the twenty year old weighed more than one hundred and thirty-five pounds.
Ricky liked Doctor Brackett and Doctor Early. Doctor Brackett had worked real hard to make his father well, and both men were patient with Ricky when he spoke to them. He knew his speech didn't sound like everyone else's. That mean kid who lived near him, Mark LaBlond, had told Ricky he talked like he had a mouthful of peanut butter. Ricky had tried to talk with a mouthful of peanut butter once just to prove Mark wrong, but all Mark did was laugh harder at him and call him, "Stupid retard."
Ricky forgot about Mark, and how often the boy hurt his feelings on purpose, when Dixie McCall approached his table carrying a tray that held a chicken salad sandwich, a bowl of vegetable soup, and a glass of ice water.
"Hi, Nurse Dixie."
Dixie smiled as she sat down next to the young man. "Hi, Ricky. I thought I might find you here."
"Did you take a late lunch just so you could eat with me?"
"I sure did."
Ricky grinned, and his hazel eyes twinkled with delight. At least one day a week, sometimes two even, Nurse Dixie ate lunch with him. He told her the same thing today that he told her every time he saw her drinking ice water. "You only have to pay for your soda once. After that, it's free."
And Nurse Dixie responded the same way she always did. "I know that, but today I want ice water. Maybe on another day I'll take advantage of that free soda."
"But I only get one extra soda, Nurse Dixie. I save the rest for other people."
"That's very thoughtful of you, Ricky," Dixie praised as she started to eat.
"I got to work with Samuel today."
"Good for you. What did you build?"
"We put legs on a chair. Some lady. . .she gave a chair to Goodwill, but it didn't have any legs. Don't you think that's funny?"
Ricky laughed, and Dixie chuckled right along with him.
"I sure do."
Before their conversation could progress Dixie was paged over the intercom system and told she had a phone call.
"Excuse me just a moment while I take that call. If Doctor Brackett comes over here and tries to sneak any food off my tray you chase him away."
Ricky laughed at the thought of Kelly Brackett doing something that silly. Doctor Brackett was nice, but Ricky didn't think he was the kind of guy who played jokes on people.
The young man dunked his French fries one by one in a pool of ketchup. He ate them in-between sips of Coke. Nurse Dixie was standing in profile to him across the room, talking on the wall phone. Her expression was a cross between puzzled and concerned, which made Ricky wonder what she was being told. He watched as she brought the conversation to a close. He thought he heard her say, "Let me know when he turns up, Roy," and Ricky wondered who was supposed to turn up where.
Ricky watched as Nurse Dixie walked to the table where Doctors Early and Brackett were seated. She bent down and said something to them. Their expressions soon mirrored hers; a cross between puzzled and concerned. Ricky saw Doctor Early shrug his shoulders and heard him say, "I haven't seen him," while Doctor Brackett shook his head and responded with, “No, Dix. I haven’t seen hide nor hair of him either.”
Ricky was done eating his macaroni and cheese by the time Nurse Dixie returned. She was real quiet then, and didn't say anything to him while she ate her lunch. When Ricky had finished his own meal he loaded his tray so he could walk it over to the ladies who washed the dishes. He waited for Dixie to say goodbye to him, and when she didn't he worked up the courage to ask her a question.
"Nurse Dixie, did I do something to make you mad?"
The woman looked up from her soup. "Pardon?"
"Mad. Are you. . .are you mad at me?"
The young man's face was the picture of heartbreak. As though he was on the verge of losing his best friend.
"No, Ricky. My goodness no. What would give you that idea?"
"You. . .you've been real quiet since you came back from talking on the phone."
“I’m sorry.” Dixie did her best to smile. "I guess I haven't been much of a lunch companion, have I?"
"That's okay. Did someone. . .the person who called, did he hurt your feelings like Mark hurts mine?"
"No, Ricky. No one hurt my feelings. I just got
some. . .disturbing news, that's all. A friend of
mine. . .well, no one knows where he is right now and I'm a little worried."
"Is he lost?"
Dixie smiled at the question. "Yes. I guess you could say he's lost."
"Is he just a little boy?"
"Well, sometimes we wonder about that based on the way he acts, but no, he's not a little boy. He's a big boy. A grown man as a matter of fact."
"Then you don't need to worry. Grown men don't get lost, Nurse Dixie. They can find their way home. I do every day. I just get on the bus right out here in front of Rampart. Maybe your friend will ride the bus, too. I'll look for him, okay?"
"That's very sweet of you. And I'm sure you're right, there's nothing to worry about. Johnny will no doubt find his way home."
"I'll ask every man on the bus I don't know if his name is Johnny. If it is, I'll tell him you're looking for him."'
Dixie could see how proud Ricky was of himself, as though he thought his suggestion would be of big help. She figured he'd probably drive all the men on the bus crazy by asking them their names, but she didn't want to hurt his feelings, and couldn't see the harm in his actions.
"You do that, Ricky. Thank you."
"You're welcome." Ricky stood and picked up his tray. "I have to go now. The bus comes at two-thirty."
"Goodbye, Nurse Dixie." The young man carried his tray to the counter while saying goodbye to Doctor Brackett and Doctor Early. They said goodbye in return, but Ricky thought they seemed preoccupied. As though the news Nurse Dixie passed along was causing them some worry.
"I'm gonna ask about your friend on the bus!" Ricky called to the men as he headed for the exit. "Nurse Dixie says he's lost."'
Doctor Brackett gave Ricky a small amused smile and a wave. Ricky left Rampart, secure in the knowledge that he had an important job to do for his friends. He had to find a man named Johnny.
Mark LaBlond and Jim Keen hiked along the shoulder of Lawrence Canyon Road. School had let out an hour earlier. The only thing that kept Kathy from insisting on coming along was she had to work at her part time job.
“But call me,” Kathy told Mark right before they parted ways outside the high school. “I work until eight. You can call me at the drugstore. Mr. Petersen won’t mind as long as we keep it short. Or call me after I get home.”
Mark smiled as he kissed his girlfriend. “Promise.”
“Tell me again why we’re going this?” Jim scooped a thick mass of pale orange bangs from his eyes. “I feel like shit, man.”
“You feel like shit ‘cause you can’t hold your booze.”
“No kidding. I wouldn’t have gone to school today if it wasn’t that my old man was acting suspicious. . .like he knew I’d come home wasted. Bet that’s why we never saw Bobby today. Bet he was sleepin’ it off. His folks are so lame they wouldn’t know the difference between the smell of booze and the smell of Hi-C.”
Mark snorted. “Yeah, they’re pretty stupid all right. And the reason we’re doing this is ‘cause Kath wants me to.”
“She really thinks you hit some guy?”
“That’s what she says.”
“Sorry, man, I know she’s your girlfriend and all, but she’s wacko. You didn’t hit anybody.”
“That’s what I keep telling her. But she wants me to look anyway.”
Mark was having a hard time pinpointing just where it was that he’d crossed paths with the motorcycle. He was doing his best to avoid the area, and hadn’t wanted to bring Jim along in the first place. But that was another thing Kathy had insisted upon. That Jim comes with him. Fortunately for Mark, Jim didn’t seem too interested in searching.
So what if I did hit the guy? He’s probably been rescued by now, Mark assured himself as they walked. And just ‘cause I hit him doesn’t mean he was hurt. He probably walked away from the whole thing. Yeah, that’s what he did. He just walked away.
Mark’s heart rate increased and his stomach tied itself into an uncomfortable knot, when Jim ran ahead of him pointing to the pavement.
“Look! Skidmarks!” The boy leaned over the guard railing. He shaded his eyes with one hand and squinted. “And down there! Look, Mark! A wheel! The wheel from a motorcycle!”
Before Mark could grab Jim and urge him to head toward home, Jim shagged his arm.
“Come on! Let’s check it out!”
Jim scrambled over the guardrail, dragging Mark with him. The boys waded through the long grass toward the lone wheel Jim had spotted from above.
Johnny had no idea how many times he’d sluggishly surfaced to consciousness that day. It could have been two, or it could have been twenty-two. At one point he’d been cognizant enough to do a mental assessment of his injuries. A dislocated right shoulder was a given. It felt like he had a tennis ball rammed in his armpit, and the muscles continued to spasm in protest on behalf of the misplaced joint. The pain was horrific. The twitching muscles caused the paramedic’s hazy mind to picture a vice grip attempting to put the shoulder back in place, only to release its hold briefly before starting the process over again. Johnny vaguely remembered being taught by Kelly Brackett that a dislocated shoulder was far more painful than a broken one. Now, through first hand experience, he knew the doctor was correct.
The paramedic licked at his cracked lips. He’d gone from being cold to being hot as the sun had rose higher in the sky. As the day progress his left ankle wanted to burst through his boot. Johnny had tried to pry the footgear off earlier using the toe of his right boot against the heel, but the searing pain that action caused made him decide the boot could stay on for the time being.
Johnny tilted his head back. He looked above him, seeing nothing but steep ground covered with long grass. This was the third time he’d tried to figure out where he was and how he got here. He used his left hand to wipe the dried blood from his eyelashes. He winced at the pull on his skin. His left arm was scrapped from biceps to palm, the torn skin dotted with blood. He looked down at his leg. His jeans were split from thigh to ankle. The condition of the skin on his leg matched that of his arm. Now he knew the source of the ‘burning and scratching’ sensation he’d felt. Road rash. And by the looks of it, a hell of a mess that would probably require tweezers and a powerful dose of Novocain so all the tiny bits of gravel could be picked out.
The man took several deep breaths. He’d tried to stand two other times throughout the day, only to collapse to the ground with a cry. Now he was going to try again. Wherever he was it appeared to be desolate. He couldn’t stay down here another night. The amount of blood he’d lost from his head wound had weakened him, and no doubt he had a concussion to go along with it. The world was fuzzy at best. His vision was blurred, and if asked any questions. . .even what his last name was, well Johnny wasn’t sure how accurate his answers would be.
John once again tried to solve his main problem using logic. Trouble was, he was fully aware logic was going to fail him. He couldn’t push off the ground with his right arm, nor could he push off with his left foot, meaning both sides of his body were fairly useless. He thought if he could find a sturdy branch he might be able to use it as a crutch, though didn’t want to consider the pain hopping up the steep hill would bring. For now, first things first. Getting to a sitting position.
Johnny placed his left hand against his right arm in an attempt to stabilize it. He bit his lip at the pain, took three more deep breaths, then rolled left. He cried out, but didn’t allow himself to stop. With one mighty heave he used his left shoulder to propel his body upward.
The world swam in front of the paramedic. He closed his eyes in an attempt to stop the nausea. He met with little success as the black feeling took over him that forced him to convulsively swallow, even though he had no saliva in his mouth.
Don’t let me puke again. Please don’t let me puke again.
Granted, it was dumb thing to pray for. Or so it might have seemed to anyone not in Johnny’s condition. But the last thing he wanted to do was go through that again. It only weakened him further, plus increased the pain radiating throughout his body.
When the dizziness had passed enough that Johnny could open his eyes he saw that, even sitting up, the grass and weeds hid him from view. By the slope of the land he knew he was in a canyon, but which one he had no idea. He tried again to remember what events brought him here, but to no avail. He looked down at his clothing and for the first time it registered that he wasn’t wearing his uniform, meaning whatever had occurred happened when he was off-duty. His eyes lethargically traveled the area looking for the Land Rover. When he didn’t see it, he wondered who had beaten the shit out of him and thrown him from a vehicle. For that’s exactly how he felt. As though he’d been thrown from a vehicle and allowed to bounce down the canyon walls like a discarded rubber ball.
The paramedic groaned as he let go of his right arm. He put his left palm flat on the ground, bent his right knee and braced his right foot flat on the ground as well, then pushed upward. Johnny screamed, but made it to a half-standing position. He slowly turned around, balancing unsteadily on one foot like a drunken flamingo. The fingertips of his left hand dug into the ground, while his right arm hung limply at his side. Johnny cried out again as he gingerly put his left foot down. He forced himself to take a step, and then another. He looked up. Though he suspected a road was above him, he couldn’t hear the sounds of passing traffic. He might as well be at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. That’s how impossible the climb seemed to him given his physical condition.
Gotta. . .gotta get outta here. Can’t. . .can’t spend another night here. Gotta find..gotta find help.
Johnny made it two more steps up the steep incline before he collapsed. He cried out with both frustration and pain, then lost the battle to remain awake.
“What?” Mark asked.
“Listen to what?”
“I heard something.”
The teenagers were standing over the remains of the motorcycle. Parts were scattered about the hillside, many of them hidden by the long grass and weeds.
“You didn’t hear anything. Let’s go.”
“Look, Kathy’s right. You might have hit that guy.”
“You don’t even know there was a guy. You were too wasted to know a damn thing.”
“But still. . .look. The motorcycle. This is a motorcycle, Mark.”
“Yeah, but it coulda’ been down here for weeks. Or even months.”
Jim didn’t negate that, but he didn’t think Mark was right. The motorcycle, or what was left of it, looked to be in too good of shape for something that had been laying out in the elements for months.
“I know I heard something,” Jim insisted. “We’d better have a look around.”
“All you heard was a bird, or a coyote maybe.”
“Maybe. But we’d still better look.”
As the boys waded through the grass Jim heard it again. A small moan punctuated by a weak cry.
“It sounds like someone’s hurt.”
“Come on, Jim. Let’s get outta here. Whatever it is. . .”
Jim jogged off in the direction of the noise. Mark glanced up toward the road. They were so far down now no one could see them. He was tempted to head back up and leave Jim, yet at the same time he had to prove to himself that Jim was just hearing birds or a coyote.
It’s gotta be a coyote. It’s gotta be. Cause if it’s not...if it’s not, and it’s that guy I hit, then we’ve gotta shut him up. One way or another we’ve gotta shut him up.
Ricky Mason scrambled over rocks and waded through thick grass that insisted on tangling in the laces of his tennis shoes. He was hiking to his fort, as he often did after he returned from his job. Ricky’s mother was a secretary at a plumbing company and didn’t arrive home until six each weekday evening. The bus dropped Ricky off at three-thirty at the mouth of Lawrence Canyon Road. He then walked the half mile to his house, carried in the mail, changed his clothes, and set the table for dinner. After that, he was free to pursue whatever activities he desired until his mother came home.
Ricky paused to watch a squirrel race up a tree. Other than the distant call of a robin, the canyon was quiet. The only traffic noises that reached this depth came from the occasional semi-truck rumbling by overhead. The young man trudged along, parting the grass as he walked. He thought this might be what it felt like to travel through deep snow, but then he wasn’t certain about that. He’d only seen pictures of snow. He knew it was cold, and hard to walk in, because Billy had told him so. Billy had gone skiing in Canada with some friends several times. Ricky had wanted to go, too, but his parents would never allow it. Billy told him that someday, when they were both older, they’d go to Canada together. Well, Ricky was older now, but Billy was dead, so Ricky was pretty sure he’d never get to ski in Canada. Ricky’s right foot had just risen in the act of climbing over a ledge when he froze. He listened hard.
“Come on! I think it’s coming from over here!”
Ricky dove. He burrowed into grass and weeds, not wanting to be seen by that mean boy Mark LaBlond, or his friend Jim. Mark always called him bad names, and pushed him around, too. Ricky had even seen Mark kill a kitten once right out here in the canyon. He didn’t know why Mark twisted that kitten’s neck, or where the kitten had come from, but Mark liked killing it, Ricky could tell. Ricky had wanted to stop him, but he’d been too scared. Just like today, he’d burrowed into the grass and prayed that Mark wouldn’t spot him.
“Oh, man! Oh, wow! Mark, look! I found him! I found the guy you hit!”
Ricky’s head raised a fraction. He craned his neck and parted a thick clump of grass with one hand while being careful to remain hidden.
“Shit! Shit, shit, shit!” Mark’s fists clenched and he punched the air as he danced in a circle. “Shit! I can’t believe it! I cannot fucking believe it!”
“We gotta call someone! The fire department, or an ambulance, or--”
Ricky watched as Mark grabbed Jim’s arm.
“No! We’re not calling anyone.”
“But he needs help, Mark! He’ll die if we don’t--”
“We can’t do anything about that.”
“Whatta ya’ mean we can’t do anything about it? Of course we can do something about it! We can call for help.”
“Jim. . .Jimmy, listen to me. If we get help for this guy the cops will track us down. They’ll find out we stole the car, and hit this guy, and then if he dies--”
“We didn’t hit him. You hit him.”
“But you were in the car with me. You, and Bob, and Kathy. We’ll all be in trouble. The three of you will be accessories to the crime, you know.”
“Accessories. It means you guys will be in deep shit, too, just ‘cause you were with me.”
Ricky could see Jim’s eyes widen with fear, and he could hear the fear in the teenager’s, “No. No way.”
“Yes. That’s how it works. And we’ll be in even more trouble ‘cause we were drinking.”
Ricky could tell Jim was thinking over everything Mark said. Ricky didn’t know what an ‘accessory’ was, but he knew the boys had done wrong. They’d stolen a car, and they were drinking stuff that was bad for them. Stuff kids their ages weren’t supposed to drink because there were rules against it. But worse even than taking someone’s car, or drinking stuff they weren’t supposed to, was the fact they hit a person. What they hit him with Ricky didn’t know, but they hit him, and now he was hurt and needed help.
“What are you doing?”
Jim’s frantic question, spoken two octaves above his normal range, caused Ricky to focus on the teenagers again. He saw Mark hoist a giant tree branch high above his head.
“He’s damn near dead anyway. I’m just gonna. . .we’ll be doin’ him a favor.”
“Are you nuts? Mark, this isn’t like that time with the kitten. This is. . .this a person.”
“No, listen. It’ll be like puttin’ him outta his misery. It’s the only choice we have, Jimmy. Don’t you see? It’s the only choice we have or else our asses are in the shredder, man. First it’s juvey hall, then when we’re eighteen, it’s prison.”
“Yes. Remember that Thompson kid. . .Adam? Remember all the trouble he got into a couple years ago?”
“Well, they sent him to juvey hall first, then the day he turned eighteen. . .wham. He was sent to prison.” Ricky saw Mark look down at what he assumed was the injured man. “You know what kinda stuff happens to a guy in prison, right, Jim?”
“Um . . .yeah. May. . .Maybe.”
“Guys with guys and faggot kinda stuff like that.”
“Uh. . .yeah. I. . .I’ve heard about it. Didn’t think it was true though.”
“Well, it is. And even worse stuff happens than that.”
“How do you know?”
“ ‘Cause I heard my dad talking about it to my uncle when Adam Thompson was getting in all that trouble. Adam’s parents live next door to my aunt and uncle. I heard dad say that men...well they rape other guys and everything. Especially young guys like us.”
Ricky didn’t know what most of Mark was saying meant, but he could tell by the look of terror on Jim’s face that the boy understood Mark’s meaning.
Ricky’s eyes darted back and forth between the teenagers as one long silent minute lapsed and another began. Finally, he saw Jim nod his head.
“Do. . .do it. Kill. . .kill him.”
Mark nodded, took a deep breath, and swung the branch down with all his strength.
The buzz of disjointed conversation was the factor bringing Johnny to awareness this time. Consciousness was hazy at best, and the two figures standing over him were nothing but shadows. He squinted, trying to avoid the assault of the overhead sun. Had he been more cognizant, he would have fled to avoid an assault of another kind.
The first blow struck his injured shoulder. Johnny screamed as he shot from the ground. Another blow immediately followed the first, this one glancing off the side of his head. The paramedic scrambled to his hands and knees, the pain that action caused not felt for the moment. Adrenaline flushed hot through his system as his body went on the defensive. Before Johnny could even attempt to race up the canyon, or conclude such an attempt wasn’t possible given his injuries, another blow from the blunt object struck his back. He collapsed, unaware of anything now other than the realization he was being beaten for reasons he’d never live long enough to learn.
Ricky didn’t think about how terrified he was. He simply knew the man he had yet to actually see needed help. Mark would kill the man. He’d kill him just like he’d killed that kitten.
Ricky kept his body low to the ground, just like he’d seen the soldiers do on Combat, as he scrambled for a grove of trees on hands and knees. He circled around behind the boys, entering the thick brush from the north. Once he was secluded he did the only thing he could think of. He grabbed hold of the small trees and gave them a mighty shake. Then he roared his fiercest roar, just like he’d done that time years ago when he’d scared Billy. He’d hidden in these same trees and roared. Billy had thought he was a bear and had run home to get their father.
The young man roared again. He kept shaking the trees, but peered out just enough to catch sight of the teenagers. Mark halted the motion of the branch mid swing.
“What was that?”
“Sounded kinda like a bear,” Jim said. The boy was poised and ready for flight.
“Oh, hell, there’s no bears around here.”
Ricky roared again with the hope of convincing Mark he was wrong.
“Look at those trees. Damn, it’s a bear, Mark. It is! Probably a black bear down here forging for food.”
Mark flung his branch to the ground. He marched toward the trees that started shaking even harder now.
“That isn’t a bear. It doesn’t even sound like a bear.”
“Roar! Rrrrr. . .roar!” Fear caused sweat to trickle down Ricky’s back. Mark was getting closer now. The young man shook the trees again and gave another roar.
Whether Ricky would have actually scared Mark away, or whether Mark would have discovered who the real ‘bear’ was, Ricky never knew. When Mark was just four steps from his hiding place, a voice was heard calling from above.
“Hey! Hey, you guys! Get your butts up here!”
Jim turned around. His older brother Keith, the one who had sold them the liquor the night before, was standing sixty yards above them.
“Get up here now!”
“ ‘Cause Dad found out about the booze
and we’re both in deep shit. You
too, LaBlond. He’s gonna nark to your
old man! You little assholes better get
up here now and help me figure out what we’re gonna tell them. If I lose my job ‘cause I did you bozos a
favor I’ll break your cruddy little skulls.”
Ricky held his breath as Mark eyed his hiding spot one last time. He heard the teenager vow, “I’ll be back to finish this,” as he turned to leave. Ricky saw Mark and Jim walk right by the place where the injured man was, but neither of them looked down. They just kept looking straight ahead, as if there was no one there at all, and then starting climbing the hillside toward the waiting Keith.
“What are you guys doing down here anyway?” Keith asked as the teenagers came abreast.
“Nothing,” Jim said.
“Just passin’ time,” Mark added.
“Well, you better be passin’ the next few minutes trying to think of a good story to tell your old man. If he’s half as pissed as my old man was when he gets the news, he’ll have you workin’ so hard around the house you won’t have any time to pass until you move out.”
Ricky saw Mark give one last look down the slope, then watched as Mark, Jim, and Keith climbed over the guardrail.
Hank Stanley watched Roy pace the kitchen. It was four-thirty now, and they still had not heard from Johnny. Hank had done everything he could think of, from notifying headquarters of the unusual situation, to having Roy contact all the area hospitals, as well as the hospitals in and around San Bernardino. Hank had also sent Roy and Charlie over to Johnny’s apartment while keeping the squad in-service. Roy had a key to his friend’s home. The apartment was empty and had a desolate air about it. Neither Friday’s, Saturday’s, nor Monday’s mail had been collected. Roy spoke with Johnny’s landlady before he and Charlie left the building. She hadn’t seen Johnny since Thursday evening, though she did tell Roy she heard his motorcycle pull out of the parking lot on Friday morning.
“I hope that helps.”
Roy gave the gray haired woman the best smile he could muster. “Yes, Ma’am. It does. Thank you.”
Actually, it didn’t help much at all other than to prove what Roy already knew. Johnny had arrived for work as scheduled on Friday morning, then went off-duty at eight on Saturday morning and headed for San Bernardino. Whether he ever made it there or not, Roy didn’t know. And until he could track down Amy he wouldn’t know.
Roy looked up at the sound of Hank’s voice.
“I just got off the phone with Chief Kaye. He’s reporting Johnny to the police as a missing person.”
“But I thought they wouldn’t even start an investigation until twenty-four hours had passed,” Mike stated. “Isn’t that a common practice when an adult disappears?”
“It is,” Hank agreed, “but the chief got in contact with a detective he knows personally and convinced the guy that since none of us have seen nor heard from Johnny since he left here Saturday morning, then that means more than twenty-four hours have passed. Since Johnny’s a firefighter I think the cops are willing to bend the rules a bit in a way they might not for another citizen.”
The men nodded. Sometimes there was an advantage to being on the county payroll.
“Chief Kaye will also send a press release to the newspapers and TV stations. Hopefully, once Johnny’s picture is out there and people know he’s missing, someone will call in with information.”
“We could look for him, too,” Chet suggested. “We’re off-duty tomorrow. We can do some searching of our own. ”
“What do you have in mind?” Hank asked.
“Well, how about if one of us takes a drive up to San Bernardino? We can take the quickest route. . . the one Johnny probably took, and have a look around. You know, ask some questions at gas stations, fast food joints, and places like that along the way. Maybe somebody will remember seeing him.”
“I don’t know,” Hank crinkled his nose in thought. “It’s not like San Bernardino’s a one horse town in Iowa where everyone knows everyone, but I guess it’s not a bad idea, Kelly.”
“I’ll go, Cap,” Marco volunteered. “One of my brothers is off work tomorrow. He’ll probably come with me. Between the two of us we can cover quite a bit of ground.”
“And tell the chief to make sure he releases the story about Johnny up there, too. In San Bernardino,” Chet said. “Maybe this Amy chick will see it and give us a call.”
“Maybe. Another good idea, Kelly.”
Chet smiled. It wasn’t often he was praised by his captain for two good ideas in a row. “The rest of us can look around here.” Chet pulled a folded map from the back pocket of his trousers. “I’ve been studying this today, and tried to come up with routes Johnny might have taken to come home.”
“He probably just stuck to the interstate,” Mike said.
“Uh huh,” Chet negated. “I’ve ridden with Johnny on enough fishing trips to know he likes to take back roads. Believe me, the guy never heard the saying, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.”
“That’s true,” Roy said as he approached the table. He stared down at the map, and the names of various roads Chet had circled.
Chet glanced up at Roy, Hank, and Mike. “So what do you say we divvy up these roads among the four of us? Probably won’t take more than a few hours to drive along them.”
Hank nodded. He didn’t say what he was thinking, but he knew he didn’t have to. A number of the roads Chet had marked cut through canyons. If Johnny had lost control of the motorcycle for some reason he could have gone over a guardrail and be lying far below the road out of sight and in need of help. If he was even still alive.
“Okay, Kelly, since this was your idea, and a good one at that, you let us know what roads we’re assigned to.” The captain’s gaze took in all his men except Dwyer. By the time they went off-duty the next morning Charlie would have worked two back-to-back shifts. Hank wanted him to go home and get the rest he deserved.
“How about if we meet back here at five?” Cap suggested. “By then Marco should have returned from San Bernardino, and we should be able to get some kind of news from headquarters in regards to whether or not their notification of the police and media have brought any results.”
The men agreed to their captain’s suggestion while Chet scribbled road names on four slips of paper. No one noticed one oversight on the man’s part as he passed the slips out. Lawrence Canyon Road. Chet hadn’t written down Lawrence Canyon Road, because it wasn’t marked on the out-dated map he’d grabbed from the glove compartment of his VW bus.
Ricky carefully parted leaves, watching until Jim and Mark were out of sight. When he heard car tires fling gravel against the metal guardrail he raced from his cover. Ricky’s gait was awkward at best. He limped heavily on his right leg when running because the muscles in his thigh and calf had never fully developed. Despite that, he never wavered in his determination to reach the injured man. He passed a twisted motorcycle that was missing its front wheel as he ran.
Ricky knew the person hidden by the tall grass was injured, but until he came upon him Ricky’d had no idea as to how seriously. He flapped his arms like a bird about to take flight, turning tight circles as he tried to collect his thoughts. The man was on his stomach, but Ricky could see the blood. There was blood streaming from the back of his head where Mark hit him, and his shirt had been sliced open in several places by the limb. Ricky saw red blotches on the man’s back that were already turning purple and blue. Bruises. Ricky knew those were bruises and resulted from the beating the man had just received.
The frantic Ricky scanned the desolate canyon again.
“He. . .help! Help! Somebody! Somebody help! Help!”
When no one answered Ricky’s call he tried again. When his second round of pleadings went unanswered he took a deep, shaky breath.
I gotta help him. It’s gotta be me. There. . .there’s no one else. . .no else but me. Ricky. Retard Ricky. Just me.
Ricky knelt beside the man. He grasped his right shoulder, rolling the stranger toward him. The man gasped, then moaned, but Ricky didn’t stop the movement.
“Sorry, mister. But I. . .I have to do this for you.”
The man’s eyes were closed when Ricky got him to his back. Ricky’s jaw dropped as he studied the injured stranger. The long, unruly dark hair. The lean face and thin body. Then the motorcycle a few yards away.
It was Billy! God had heard his wish, and through some sort of miracle, had brought Billy back to him.
“Billy! Billy!” Ricky buried his head in John Gage’s chest and started to cry. “Oh, Billy, it’s you. You’re back! You’re really back.”
Johnny couldn’t fathom it was possible to experience even more pain, but either his imagination was on overdrive, or he was being tortured. Which scenario was the case he wasn’t certain, nor was he certain how he’d gotten to a semi-standing position. The next thing he was really aware of was an arm wrapped firmly around his mid-section while someone chanted in rhythm to their stumbling footsteps, “Walk, Billy. Walk, Billy. Walk, Billy.”
Who Billy was, or why Billy had to walk, Johnny didn’t know. He didn’t even realize he was walking, if one could call his wobbly forward motion that. All he knew was that he was being moved. He cried out each time his left foot hit the ground. He was leaning against a body, hopping in time to the person’s steps, and only allowing the toe of his left boot to touch the ground. But even that much pressure on his swollen, constricted ankle was agony.
What little Johnny could see through the blood that was once again running in his eyes was blurry and in pairs. The muscles in his shoulder were spasming once again, aggravated further by this trek he was being forced to take. His eyes lethargically scanned the area. Maybe they were taking him to a Stokes, and once he was loaded in it he’d be carried up the hillside. He turned to vomit, not even completely aware of that action until he heard a soothing, “It’s okay, Billy. I know you’re sick. I’m gonna take care of you. I’ll get you help.”
Ricky could barely support the man’s weight. His plan to get Billy back to the house was failing miserably.
Why can’t I do it right? Why can’t I help Billy like he would help me? I hate being Retard Ricky. I hate it.
It was rare that Richard Mason ever felt sorry for himself. His parents had raised him to believe in himself, and to believe he was just as important and special as any other person. But he knew the truth. For most people simple tasks like tying their shoes or brushing their teeth came a lot easier than they did for Ricky. If he was the one hurt, Billy would simply scoop him up and carry him home. But it was Billy who was hurt, and Ricky wasn’t strong enough to carry him.
Ricky stopped their progress when Billy got sick again. He knew for certain then, that the man couldn’t make it all the way to their house. He looked around. He had to hide Billy until he could get help. He had to find a safe place for Billy in case Mark LaBlond came back.
The fort! I’ll take him to the fort. I’ve got a pillow there, and a blanket. Billy can stay there till I get help.
“Come on, Billy, just a little farther. We’ll go to the fort. Do you remember the fort? Does God let you remember things after you die and then come back alive?”
Ricky wasn't concerned when no answer was forthcoming. Billy was hurt, and he'd been gone a long time now. Maybe he wouldn't remember things for a while; like his name, and his family, and the fort. Maybe that's how God intended it to be.
As the man slumped against Ricky's side Ricky tightened his grip, straightened his shoulders, took a deep breath, and trudged them both toward the little fort.
Ricky's shirt was soaked with sweat and clinging to his skin when he charged into the house. His mother was talking on the kitchen phone. Ricky tugged at her elbow.
Ellen Mason put a finger to her lips. "Shh, Ricky. I'm on the phone."
"I know but--"
"Just be quiet a minute, son."
Ricky jumped up and down while his mother talked. His agitated movements caused the plates on the table to bounce and clatter. Ellen put a hand over the receiver.
"Richard, calm down."
"But I have to tell you something. It's important."
"This is important, too."
"But not as important as--"
"Not now, Ricky." Ellen spoke into the phone again. "I'm sorry, Mr. Lloyd. My son's wound up this evening."
Ricky didn't appreciate it when his mother used phrases like that - 'wound up' - in reference to him. It made him sound like a little kid. But right now he had too many other concerns on his mind to correct her.
"Yes, I can come back," Ricky's mother said to her boss. "I'll be there in thirty minutes. No, it's not an inconvenience."
"But, Mom, you have to stay here! You have to help me with--"
Again, a warning finger was held up that silenced Ricky. He continued to jump in place until his mother finally hung up the phone.
"I have to go back to the office."
"Mr. Lloyd closed on a deal late this afternoon and he needs me to type up some papers for him."
"But you just got home."
"I know," Ellen acknowledged. She'd been home only long enough to flip through the mail, change from her dress into a pair of black slacks and a casual yellow blouse, and put leftovers from Sunday's dinner in the oven to warm. "But Mr. Lloyd needs my help, and he's going to pay me a nice bonus for my time."
Ricky followed his mother through their ranch-style house. She paid little attention to his jabbering about Billy as she entered her bedroom. Her oldest son was a painful subject for Ellen Mason. The subject grew even more heartbreaking whenever Ricky became obsessed with Billy and talked nonsense about him over and over like a record player’s needle stuck in the groove of an album. Ellen ignored Ricky as she touched up her lipstick, put a pair of yellow earrings on, grabbed a pair of black flats from her closet, and slipped a white sweater over her shoulders. She'd learned long ago that the best way to get Ricky to move on to another topic was by not feeding this one.
"We can talk later, Ricky. I'll lock the doors when I leave. Supper is in the oven. You go ahead and eat without me, then stay in the house and watch TV until I get back. I should be home by ten."
The woman placed her hands on her son's shoulders in an effort to calm him.
"Ricky, I need you to understand that I have to return to work this evening to help Mr. Lloyd. Remember after Dad died how we talked about what things would be like when I got a job? About how I'd have to be gone sometimes when I'd rather be here with you?"
"I know, but isn't Billy more important to you than money?"
Ellen gave a sad smile.
"Of course he is, sweetheart. Billy's memory is very important to me. But keeping this house. . .the house your father and I built with our own hands, the house where we raised you and Billy and Pam, is important to me, too. And now, with Dad gone, I can't keep it unless I work, Ricky. We've talked about this. You know I've got bills to pay. One way I can pay them is by putting in overtime for Mr. Lloyd when he needs my help."
"But Billy needs your help, too."
Ellen sighed. She didn't have the time to discuss this further. Sometimes it was easier to give in and indulge Ricky in his fantasies rather than argue with him about them.
"Then I guess you're just going to have to help Billy. Okay?"
"But. . .but I don't know what to do for him."
"Sure you do. You're a smart young man. You'll think of something." Ellen grabbed her purse from the nightstand. "I have to leave now. You eat supper and stay in the house for the rest of the evening."
"But if I stay in the house how
can I help Billy?"
"You'll just have to wait until tomorrow to help him."
"Stay in the house, Richard. Watch TV, or work one of your puzzles, or listen to your stereo, or read a book. I'll see you by ten."
Ricky watched his mother walk away from him. He called after her with a frantic, "Mom!" but all she did was say in that firm voice she sometimes used, "Goodbye, Ricky."
The young man heard the door shut that led to the garage, then heard his mother's car start. As the Plymouth Fury passed the front of the house and disappeared from sight Ricky slumped to the kitchen table, buried his head in his arms, and started to cry.
When the world around Johnny began to take form again he was aware of several discomforts simultaneously. Desperate thirst, a throbbing ankle, a headache so severe he could barely force his eyes open, raw burning radiating along his left side, and excruciating pain from his right shoulder. He attempted to scan his dim surroundings without moving his head. Between his double vision and groggy head the best he could discern was that he was in a cabin of sorts.
The injured man tried to recall the past twenty-four hours, only to discover his memory was a foggy blur. If he thought real hard, and fought past the pain in his head that indicated thinking hard wasn't worth the effort, he was able to recall going off-shift on Saturday morning. Everything since then was non-existent for Johnny. That thought scared him. He knew he was seriously injured, but he couldn't remember how those injuries occurred. His mind called forth the image of a grassy hillside, then of some boys. . .teenagers maybe, standing over him. He had tried to tell them he needed help, tried to tell them to call the fire department, but then a club of some sort walloped him a good one. Where the club came from, or who was wielding it, Johnny had no idea. How much time passed between that attack, and the appearance of the other boy. .the one who talked slow and with a cumbersome tongue, Johnny didn't know. By the time that boy came along Johnny was no longer capable of even asking for help, let alone giving the boy his name, or instructions to call Station 51.
Johnny winced as the back of his head came in contact with the rough boards behind him. Someone had leaned him up against the wall in a sitting position and covered him with a wool blanket. The scratchy texture of the blanket hurt when it came in contact with his left arm and leg. Johnny pulled the blanket down to his waist. He cried out as the muscles in his right shoulder seized tight. The paramedic fought past pain and lethargy to assess his injuries once again. First there was the dislocated shoulder. The muscles still intent on protesting the misplacement of the joint screamed that at him on regular intervals. His eyes traveled down his arm. The skin was torn and raw, the arm itself a combination of three colors - red, black and blue. He pushed the blanket off his left leg to see his thigh, knee, and shin in the same condition. It looked like he'd gotten his foot caught in a fire hose and been dragged behind the engine for three blocks. Even given his addled brain, Johnny knew that hadn't happened, but if nothing else it adequately described the pain radiating from his gashed skin.
The paramedic gritted his teeth, then tried to move his left foot. He cried out again. The ankle was tight and inflexible, and he knew the boot had to come off. He squeezed his eyes shut, pressed the toe of his right boot against the heel of his left, and with all the strength he had tried to pry the boot off with one swift push.
Johnny collapsed against the wall with a muffled yell. Sweat from both exertion and pain soaked his shirt. He knew how to aid his injuries, yet was physically incapable of providing himself with that care. He looked up at the crooked ceiling with frustration and despair. John Gage would be the first to admit he wasn't a praying man, but right then he broadcast a silent plea for God to send someone to help him.
Later, when help of sorts did arrive, Johnny realized with what humor he could muster, that he should have made his prayer a bit more specific.