Truth or Dare
*Truth or Dare is amongst just a few stories I’ve ever written where I began with the title and built the plot around it. I started this story in June of 2000, when a reader-friend, Lynn, supplied the title and challenged me to ‘fill in the blanks.’ I wrote full steam ahead for fifty pages, then had my attention diverted by other writing projects. This winter, when time allowed me to write a new Emergency story, I reintroduced myself to this ‘old’ story, and the completed version of Truth or Dare is the end result. Thus, Truth or Dare is dedicated to my readers. As always, thank you for your interest in my stories, and thank you, Lynn, for the title that finally has a story to go along with it.
*Truth or Dare encompasses the topic of adolescent suicide, and is rated PG-13.
He ripped his shirt open with a violent yank. Nine white buttons flew in nine different directions, pinging off walls to land in nine different places. He stripped the shirt off, balled it up, and whipped it into his locker.
The paramedic’s head snapped up. His cheeks were stained red with fury, and his eyes flashed his rage.
“You had no right, Roy. No right!”
“You lied to me! You said you were talking to Brackett about the paramedic meeting next week! You said you wanted to go over the agenda with him! But that wasn’t the truth, was it? It wasn’t the truth at all! It was nothing but a lie. A goddamn lie, Roy!”
Roy remained silent as Johnny spun away from him. He watched as his friend fought to get his red T-shirt over his head, Johnny’s raging emotions making him as clumsy as a three- year-old. His uniform pants were stripped off in one motion and joined his shirt in a discarded bundle at the bottom of his locker. Within seconds, Johnny had his jeans on and was reaching for his tennis shoes. He flung his boots in his locker, snatched his car keys and wallet off the shelf, shoved them both in the front pocket of his Wranglers, then slammed the door shut. He rammed his feet into his shoes, bringing them up to the bench one by one. Johnny jerked the laces so tight Roy wondered if the man would have any blood flow reaching his toes by the time he arrived home.
“Johnny, I’m sorry, but I had to. I had no choice.”
Johnny whipped around to face the man again. In the five and a half years he and Roy had been partners, Johnny could never remember having been angry with him. Or at least not the kind of anger that didn’t pass within a short period of time, because it stemmed from some silly disagreement over a rattling noise Johnny claimed to have heard in the squad, or because they couldn’t agree on where to stop for lunch.
“Bullshit, you had no choice!”
“I told you weeks ago that you needed to talk to Brackett. I told you weeks ago that you couldn’t go on not sleeping, barely eating, and taking aspirin as though you’d just bought stock in a pharmaceutical company.”
“But you also told me you wouldn’t go to Brackett.”
“I did not, Johnny,” Roy firmly denied. “I never said I wouldn’t talk to Doctor Brackett.”
“Oh, my error then. I was under the mistaken assumption that my best friend is a little old to be a tattletale.”
Roy didn’t grace his friend’s sarcasm with a response. If he wanted a childish argument that included name calling, he could go home and listen to his children battle it out with one another.
“I’m your best friend, yes. And it’s because of that friendship...because I’m concerned about you, that I went to Brackett.”
“Don’t dig your grave any deeper, Roy. What you’re concerned about is that I can’t do my job! Brackett said as much, and so did Cap. If you’d kept your big mouth shut, none of this would have ever happened!”
“If I’d kept my big mouth shut, as you put it, you’d still be trying to function on no sleep, little food, and with constant headaches, at a job that requires all of us to be in the best physical and mental condition possible.”
“Oh, so now I’m a nut case in your book, too.”
“Johnny, I never said that. All I’m saying is—“
“It doesn’t matter what you’re saying. What matters is that you lied to me. You went to Brackett behind my back, and you lied to me about that fact. You lied, and now I’ve been put on medical leave. I can’t come back until Brackett okays it.”
“It won’t be that bad,” Roy attempted to reason. “You just need the chance to get away from here for a while. Away from the stress.”
“No I don’t! Don’t you see? If I had wanted time away from my job, I’d have taken a goddamn vacation! But because of you, I have no choice! Because of you, and the fact that Brackett insisted on giving me a physical and now claims I didn’t pass it, I’m getting a vacation whether I want it or not.” Johnny glared at Roy as he finished with, “Thanks, friend. Thanks for nothing.”
Roy snared Johnny’s elbow as the younger man turned away. “Johnny...”
Roy never saw the punch coming. Later, he would realize that Johnny didn’t hit him nearly as hard as he was capable of, but at the time the punch landed it was hard enough. The knuckles of Johnny’s right fist impacted with Roy’s left cheekbone. The sandy haired paramedic flew into his locker, the back of his head striking the door with a solid, ‘thud!’ Johnny hesitated just a moment, anger and regret mixing as one. When he saw Roy getting to his feet with no apparent ill effects, Johnny swiveled on one heel, smacked the swinging door open with his palm, and stormed across the engine bay. Out of the corner of his eye the paramedic saw Hank Stanley exit his office and head toward him. John disregarded his Captain’s appearance, and the concerned look on the man’s face, as he tromped through the kitchen and day room. He didn’t so much as glance at the three men gathered at the table who were pretending they hadn’t heard his shouts, and were pretending they hadn’t guessed what was going on.
Surprisingly enough...or perhaps not so surprising, was the fact it was Chet who hailed him with a sympathetic, “Johnny?”
The paramedic ignored the man as he yanked the back door open. He marched towards his Land Rover while digging his keys out of his pocket. He fumbled as he tried to insert the key into the door lock. Johnny’s right hand was shaking so badly that he had to steady it with his left in order to gain entry into his vehicle.
The Rover’s engine came to life with a roar that seemed to reflect its owner’s mood. John threw the vehicle in gear. The tires squealed and a path of black rubber remained behind as the Land Rover flew out of the parking lot. Johnny didn’t bother to look left or right as he pulled onto the highway. He was oblivious to the blare of car horns, and oblivious to the man in the red Chevy pickup who flipped him off after having just missed plowing into the Rover.
John Gage was oblivious as well, to Hank Stanley and Roy DeSoto. The two men were standing in front of the station in the August heat, though neither felt the sun’s warmth as they watched Johnny continue down the path of destruction that had begun six weeks earlier when the Station 51 paramedics had met a twelve-year-old boy named Curtis Tate.
The A-shift was just sitting down to lunch on a Tuesday in June when the klaxons sounded.
“Squad 51, report of an injured child at 675 Humbolt Street. 6-7-5 Humbolt Street. Time out; 12:05.”
Roy grabbed the address slip from Hank Stanley as he climbed in the squad. As had long been his habit, Roy passed it directly to Johnny without looking at it. Despite Johnny’s occasional grumbling about rarely getting to drive the squad on a run, he made an excellent navigator and enjoyed his role as Roy’s co-pilot.
“Sounds pretty vague,” Johnny commented as he eyed the intersection the squad was approaching. When he didn’t give Roy any verbal warnings, Roy sailed through it. “A ‘report of an injured child’ could mean we’re going on a wild good chase and get nothing for our trouble but a cold lunch.”
“Could mean that,” Roy agreed. When June arrived and school let out, an increase of accidents and injuries involving children resulted. On any given day the paramedics could get called out to treat a child who had been bitten by a dog, or broken an ankle while playing baseball, or gashed an arm after taking a fall off a bike. Generally the injuries weren’t serious or life threatening, though every so often they were. Along with those calls, came the prank calls the fire department occasionally received from kids, or the frantic call from a mother reporting a ‘possible injured child’ when what really happened was that little Billy was missing somewhere in the neighborhood but his mom didn’t want to, “Bother the police. After all, they’re so busy.”
Johnny’s thoughts must have mirrored his partner’s, because he said, “If this is some kid playing hide-and-go-seek with his mom, I’m gonna wring the little sucker’s neck. Marco was cooking today, you know.”
Roy’s stomach growled at the thought of the chicken burritos and cheese-smothered nachos they’d left behind.
The neighborhood Johnny directed his partner to had an old, neglected air about it. Fifty-year-old bungalows lined the streets. Peeling paint, loose shutters, crooked front steps, and junk cars gave a strong indication that the income level of the neighborhood’s inhabitants didn’t even reach the lowest end of middle class.
Johnny pointed to a washed out home that still held enough remnants of paint for the men to discern it had at one time been lime green. A Big Wheel, a red wagon, and a blue Schwinn boy’s bike with a curved banana seat, littered the front lawn. A sandy-haired boy Johnny guessed to be about eight-years-old stood on the sidewalk, hanging onto the hand of a crying little girl the paramedic estimated to be five. The boy’s Starsky and Hutch T-shirt was ripped, and the knees of his jeans were grass stained. As Johnny climbed out of the squad, he immediately took note of the twigs and grass matted in the boy’s tousled hair, and of the blood trickling from his nose. The paramedic grabbed the trauma box out of its compartment and walked toward the children.
“Get in a little fight there, son?”
“Please, mister, you gotta talk to Curty.”
“My brother.” The boy grabbed Johnny’s hand and tugged. “Come on. He’s in the backyard.”
Johnny easily broke the child’s hold as Roy approached with the drug box and bio-phone.
“Now just wait a minute...uh...what’s your name, son?” John asked.
“And how about this little girl here?” Johnny smiled down at the child whose pale blond hair was hanging in tangled strands from her ponytail. The upset girl refused to have her tears calmed by the infamous Gage grin.
“Beth. She’s my sister.”
Roy hunched down in front of the girl. He couldn’t detect anything physically wrong with her through his visual assessment.
“Hi, Beth. My name’s Roy, and that guy there is my partner, Johnny. Can you tell me what’s wrong? What’s making you cry today?”
Through her tears the little girl sputtered, “Cur...Curty.”
“Curty made you cry?”
“What’d he do?”
“He...he got real mad. And then...then he...he broke things in the house. The plates. And...and the glasses. And...and the bathroom mirror. And...and even the china cabinet that used to be my Grandma Tate’s before she died. And then he...he yelled at us, and he hit Davy, and then he took the gun...took the gun and ran out the back door.”
Johnny looked at Davy. “The gun?”
“The one Mom has to protect us.”
“Protect you from what?”
“From strangers who might try to break into our house. Dad...Dad doesn’t live with us anymore, so Mom needed a gun.”
“And Curty is where with this gun?”
“Up in the tree house he built.”
“How old is Curty?” Johnny asked the boy.
“He’s twelve.” Davy grabbed Johnny’s hand again. “Come on! I’ll take you to him.”
Roy stood, saying quietly to his partner, “I’d better have Dispatch call the cops.”
Johnny nodded his agreement before focusing his attention on the eight-year-old again. “Davy, I want you to take Beth and go with my partner.”
“Don’t worry, I can find Curty on my own. You and Beth go with Roy. He’ll take care of that bloody nose you’ve got while I talk to your brother.”
“He’s got Mom’s gun.”
“I know, son. You already told me.”
“And it’s got bullets in it, and it really works, too.”
“Okay. Thanks for telling me.”
Johnny handed his partner the trauma box. He walked towards the back of the house while Roy led the children to the squad. The house appeared to be desolate and quiet, and there was no sign of the mother Davy had mentioned.
I suppose these kids were left alone and the oldest one got pissed about something, then got it in his head to scare the little ones with the gun. Stupid kid. More to the point, stupid mother. Where the hell is she? Obviously her twelve-year-old isn’t ready to be left in charge of his siblings while she’s off shopping, or getting her hair done, or coffee klatching with some neighbor.
Johnny’s internal rant continued. Overall, he liked kids, but the county wasn’t paying him to be a baby-sitter. He slowed his pace as he came to the corner of the house. He didn’t think a twelve-year-old kid would take a shot at him, but on the other hand, Johnny wasn’t trusting to the point of being foolish, either.
The paramedic kept most of his body shielded by the house. A Weber grill stood on the sagging back porch, and a boy’s black five-speed bike leaned against the crooked railing. The backyard wasn’t much larger than a postage stamp, and held one gnarled oak tree. The old tree’s branches were thick and leafy, making it difficult for Johnny to discern the faded, cast-off lumber that had been used to build the sagging tree house.
Johnny flattened himself against the side of the house. He turned his face toward the backyard, but was careful not to present an open target. He remained doubtful that a child would shoot him, so was more concerned about scaring the boy and causing him to fire the gun by accidental reflex.
The only things Johnny heard was the distant sound of children playing somewhere in the neighborhood, and Sam Lanier’s voice, vague and far away, responding to Roy’s request for police assistance with a, “10-4, 51.”
The paramedic called again. This time he risked showing a little more of his upper body as he glanced around the corner of the house.
“I’m not Curty! I’m Curtis. Curty’s a little kid’s name! I’m not a little kid anymore!”
“Okay,” Johnny nodded, as he stepped into the backyard. “Curtis it is.”
“Stop! St...stop! Stop right there or I’ll...I’ll...shoot you! I will! I...I really will!”
Johnny didn’t think the boy sounded too sure of that threat, but he wasn’t going to push his luck either.
“Curtis, I’m not a cop. I’m a paramedic.” Johnny spread his arms from his sides to show the child he wasn’t wearing a gun. “See! I’m not carrying a gun.”
A thin face appeared at the one window Johnny had a view of between the branches. The boy had a mop of thick white hair, ocean-blue eyes, and even at this distance, Johnny could see the smattering of freckles across the child’s narrow nose. His face was small and fine-boned, making his features elfin in nature. If Johnny had passed Curtis on the street he wouldn’t have pegged him for a day over ten, if even that.
The boy was wearing a pale blue tank top that revealed bony shoulders and thin arms that, as of yet, held none of the muscle tone that would come to him during adolescence. In absurd contrast to Curtis’s skinny right arm was the .357 Magnum hanging from a hand that was barely large enough to grasp it.
Johnny immediately noted that the gun wasn’t pointed toward him, but rather was drooping toward the ground. He took two steps forward while keeping his eyes on the firearm. He was close enough now that he could talk to the boy without shouting. He kept his voice calm and quiet.
“I’m not a cop, Curtis.”
The boy peered out the window, then, hiked himself up on his knees for a better view. The man wasn’t dressed like any cop Curtis had ever seen, but he was wearing a uniform of some sort.
“Then who are you?”
“I’m a paramedic with the fire department. Do you know what a paramedic does?”
“Yeah...yeah, I think so. You’re...you’re kind of like a guy-nurse, right?”
Johnny smiled at the boy’s definition. “Yeah. Something like that.”
“How come you’re here?”
“Because Davy called us.”
“He’s worried about you. He and Beth are really upset.”
“I...I didn’t mean to hurt him.”
“He knows that,” Johnny said as he took a step forward. “Why don’t you come down and talk to Davy and Beth. Let them know that you’re sorry and that--“
“Stop! Stay right there!” The boy used his left hand to support the gun as he aimed it at Johnny. “Do you hear me? Stay right there!”
“All right.” The paramedic complied. “I’ll stay here until you tell me I can come closer.”
“I’m not gonna tell you that, so you might as well go back to the fire station...or wherever it is you came from.”
“I can’t do that, Curtis.”
“Because I’ll get in trouble with my boss if I leave here while your brother and sister are so upset, and with you still stuck up in that tree house.”
“I’m not stuck. And Davy and Bethie...well, they’ll calm down. Tell...Davy to make lunch. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They both like those. And they can watch TV. Tell him they can watch all the TV they want until Mom gets home.”
“Where is your mother?”
“Where at work?”
“Where does she work?”
“Just...she just works, okay?” She didn’t used to, but she does now.”
“Oh. Well, what about your dad? Where does he work?”
“My boss is gonna care.”
“I already told you. I can’t go back to the station and leave your brother and sister out front crying, while you’re playing John Wayne up there in that tree house.”
“I ain’t playin’ John Wayne! I already told you I’m not a little kid! I don’t play. I don’t play at all since my dad left.”
Johnny heard car doors slam out on the street. He hoped that the slamming of one of those doors indicated the boy’s mother was home.
“Where’d he go?” The paramedic asked as though his attention hadn’t briefly been drawn from Curtis.
“Your dad?” Johnny took a small step forward that went undetected. “Where’d he go?”
A bird chirped from the upper branches of the oak, and the summer breeze gently rustled its leaves as Johnny waited for the boy to answer. If the kid thought his silence would make the paramedic go away, he soon discovered he was mistaken. Curtis heaved a sigh and allowed the gun to dangle loosely from his right hand again, as though its weight was tiring his wrist.
“He...he...they got divorced, okay? They’re divorced! He...Mom says he’s got a girlfriend. That he...that he was seeing his girlfriend all the times he told us he was taking a business trip.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
The boy sneered. “You, and everybody else.”
“Look, Curtis, why don’t you put the gun down, then climb outta there so we can—-“
The Magnum was jerked to a firing position. “Make them go away!”
The twelve-year-old aimed somewhere beyond Johnny’s left shoulder. “Them! Tell them to get outta here!”
The paramedic turned around. Vince Howard and a rookie cop Johnny didn’t recognize had just stepped into the backyard. Three paces behind them, and partially shielded by the house, was Roy.
“Make ‘em go! I don’t want ‘em here!”
Johnny looked from the men gathered behind him to Curtis, and then back again. He gave a small shrug of his shoulders as his eyes met Vince’s.
“You heard him,” Johnny said softly. “I can handle things here. I’ll get him to come down.”
“Did he say where his mother works?” Vince asked. “We need to get a hold of her.”
“No, he hasn’t said, but I’ll try to find out.”
“Get out of here! Go on...go on or I’ll...I’ll shoot! I will! I really will!”
The men glanced up; all of them taking note of the enraged boy and the gun that was aimed at Vince.
Vince slowly inched backwards. The young man beside Vince copied his movements. When they reached the corner of the house, Vince indicated for Roy to remain shielded by the structure.
“I’m going to call for backup, and request a woman from Social Services come for the younger children until the mother can be located.” Vince glanced at Squad 51, where Davy and Beth were sitting together in the cab, their eyes glued on the men as they awaited word on their brother. “In the meantime, I want you to stay right here, but out of sight. Johnny seems to have established a good rapport with the boy, so there’s no point in jeopardizing that just yet. Once we do have our hands on the kid, is there anything you’ll need from the squad?”
“The drug box and bio-phone. If he puts up a fight, Rampart will probably order a sedative of some sort...that is, if the mother can be located to authorize it.”
Vince nodded. “I’ll get them for you.” Neither Roy nor Vince gave a thought to the need for the trauma box or oxygen. After all, they couldn’t fathom the boy actually using the gun provided he was kept calm until either Johnny, or his mother, could talk some sense into him.
As Vince and the young cop, whose nameplate read G. Harcoff, trotted away, Roy returned his attention to the backyard. Like Johnny had done earlier, Roy carefully peered around the corner of the house while making certain Curtis didn’t spot him. He watched as Johnny looked up at the boy and spoke to him.
“Okay, Curtis, everyone is gone now. It’s just you and me.”
“Don’t...don’t let them come back.”
“I won’t. Not until you tell me it’s okay.”
“It’s never gonna be okay! Never! Not ever again!”
“Sure it is, kiddo. I know right now things seem pretty rough, but—-“
“You don’t know nothin’!” Curtis wiped a mixture of sweat and tears from his face. His voice trembled when he spoke again. “You don’t know what it’s like to...what it’s like to...”
“To what, son?”
The twelve-year-old refused to respond. Johnny stood in the noonday sun, squinting as he stared into the tree. He did his best to ignore the droplets of perspiration running from his temples, and the perspiration pooling beneath his shirt that caused it to stick to his back and chest.
Johnny allowed the silence to linger between himself and the boy, then switched tactics.
“You know, now that I give it some thought, I guess I haven’t even told you my name, have I?”
Curtis peered down at Johnny, his tone broadcasting mild curiosity. “N...no. No, you haven’t.”
“My name. It’s Johnny. Johnny Gage.”
Curtis wrinkled his nose. “Why do you go by a baby name like that?”
Johnny chuckled. “It’s just a nickname, Curtis. It doesn’t make me the person I am. But, if you want to, you can call me John.”
“Is that your real name?”
“I like John better.”
“All right then, just between us, John it is.”
“I...I can call you John? I mean, you don’t want me to call you Mr. Gage?”
“Nope. Mr. Gage is my dad. You just call me John.”
Johnny used the back of his arm to wipe the sweat from his forehead. “Pretty hot out here, huh?”
“How about if you come down and we get ourselves something cold to drink?”
The boy considered that suggestion for a long enough moment that Johnny had hope this odd little standoff would come to a quick end. But that was dashed when Curtis shook his head.
“All right then, how about if I come up there by you? I’m getting really hot standing here in the sun.”
“Okay, have it your way, but I’m about to keel over from a heat stroke, and if I do, then you’ll have to talk to one of the cops that you chased outta here a few minutes ago. So whatta ya’ say, Curtis? You wanna keep talkin’ to me, or do you wanna talk to some cop you don’t even know?”
The blond boy chewed on his lower lip. Finally, he gave a small nod of his head.
“I can come up?”
“Ye...yeah. But only you.”
“Just me,” Johnny nodded.
The paramedic crossed the ten feet it took him to reach the tree’s trunk. He once again had the vague notion of several people standing just out of sight at the side of the house, but he didn’t risk looking, for fear Curtis would spot them and get upset again.
The ladder leading to the tree house was nothing more than odd sized boards nailed to the tree’s trunk. Johnny wondered if some of the smaller boards would support his weight, but didn’t allow that concern to hinder his progress. As he climbed, Johnny felt cool relief from the sun thanks to the shade provided by the oak, and the breeze that softly swayed her limbs.
Johnny had just poked his head through the square opening in the tree house’s floor when a young voice commanded, “Stay right there!”
“I said stay there! That’s far enough.”
“Okay, okay.” Johnny halted his progress. He’d climbed far enough for his shoulders and upper chest to emerge into the tree house, but the rest of his body remained outside it, with his feet supporting his weight on one board of the makeshift ladder.
“I don’t know why I let you come up here anyway. You can’t change anything. No one can.”
“What exactly is it you want changed, Curtis?”
The boy swiped his left arm across his tear-streaked face. He was no longer looking out the window, but rather was seated on the tree house’s floor facing Johnny. The gun remained in his right hand, pointed listlessly toward the west wall.
“My...my life. I...I hate my life.”
“Son, no, you don’t.”
As soon as Johnny said those words he knew he’d made a mistake. He sounded pompous and patronizing, among other things. Therefore, Curtis’s reaction didn’t surprise him.
“I do, too! You don’t know how I feel. You don’t know what it’s like!”
“I’m sorry. You’re right. I don’t know how you feel, and no, I guess I don’t know what it’s like. So, do you think you can tell me?”
“Why should I?”
“Because I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s bothering you.”
“How can you help me? You’re just a...just a...a guy-nurse. That’s all you are, is a guy-nurse. How can you help me?”
“I can help you just by being here and listening to what you have to say. Then maybe together, we can figure out what to do about it.”
“Only if you can get my dad to come back.”
“The only way you can really help me is if you get my dad to come back. So, can you do that?”
When Johnny didn’t answer, the boy shook his head in disgust. “I knew you couldn’t.”
“How about if we start with something a little easier that I can do?”
“Getting your mom here. I can call her for you if you tell me where she works.”
“She can’t come home. She can’t be bothered at work. If I call her, she’ll lose her job.”
“I think this one time it’ll be okay.”
“No it won’t! I’ve had to call her too much already this summer ‘cause of stuff Davy and Bethie were doin’ – not listening to me and things like that – and Mom’s boss said no more phone calls or he’d fire her. We need the money. My dad, he...he doesn’t always pay Mom what he’s supposed to for me and Davy and Beth. She has to have her job! She never worked before. Not when we lived at our other house. Not when her and Dad were married. But now she has to, and I gotta take care of Davy and Beth while she’s gone. I can’t screw up.” Tears ran down Curtis’s face. “Don’t you understand? I can’t screw this up!”
Johnny allowed the boy all the time he needed to calm down. When Curtis heaved a sigh that indicated his tears were spent for the moment, the paramedic said, “So you’re in charge of your brother and sister while your mom is at work?”
“How long has this been going on?”
“Since we moved here at Christmas time. I...I hate it here. All my friends are in my old neighborhood, and my school...I miss my old school. And our house...we had a nice house before, but this one’s a dump. Mom said I could have some of my friends over, but I don’t want them to see where we live. Mom doesn’t like it either, but she pretends she does. She doesn’t think I hear her crying at night after us kids are in bed, but I do. And sometimes...sometimes we have to be real careful about how much we eat so there’s enough food until she gets her paycheck. It...it was never like this before. It wasn’t like this when my mom and dad were married. We...we could eat as much as we wanted to, and we went on nice vacations, and we all had our own bedrooms. Now me and Davy have to share a room, and the bedroom Bethie uses is really an old pantry off the kitchen that’s hardly big enough for her bed. Mom was home all the time back then, too. She didn’t work. She took care of us. But now she has to work every day but Saturday and Sunday, and she leaves at seven-thirty and doesn’t get home until six.”
“And you take care of things around here for the entire time she’s gone?”
Johnny resisted the urge to shake his head. He knew the rising divorce rate was rapidly changing society, but this was the first time he’d directly witnessed its ramifications on the children from these broken unions. Not only did it sound like Curtis’s lifestyle had drastically changed in a short period of time, but now he was required to take on the role of man of the family while his mother was at work. The woman was gone ten and a half hours a day, five days a week. During that time, she needed Curtis to be in charge of his younger siblings. It was obvious to Johnny that the boy was by far, neither old enough nor mature enough for that type of responsibility. Certainly most twelve- year-olds were capable of being in charge of their younger siblings while their parents ran errands for an hour or so. But Johnny knew asking Curtis to take on that load fifty-two hours a week was beyond what a kid his age could reasonably bear.
“You know, Curtis, considering what a big job it is to be in charge of kids the ages of Davy and Beth, I think you do a fine job.”
“I do not!”
“What makes you say that?”
“Every...every day something goes wrong. One of them does something they’re not supposed to. Beth rides her Big Wheel in the street. Davy sneaks off down the block to play with those Schneider kids Mom told him to stay away from. They...they don’t listen to me. I’m always havin’ to go get them from places they’re not supposed to be, then they fight with me about comin’ home. Or they don’t help me keep the house clean like they’re supposed to, or they cry because they’re hungry and then get mad at me when I can’t give ‘em a snack because Mom said we had to stretch the food until pay day. Today...today Davy said he was going to play with Jimmy Schneider, and when I told him he couldn’t, he kicked me and said he was going to anyway. Then Bethie started crying ‘cause she wanted another bowl of cereal, and I told her she couldn’t have it. Then they both were yelling at me, and doing everything I told ‘em not to, and I just...I couldn’t take it anymore, John. I couldn’t.”
Curtis moved the gun so that it was no longer aimed at the wall, but rather was now cradled against his body. He gulped for air between his sobs.
“Why...why wouldn’t they listen to me? Why’d they make me so mad?”
“Curtis, it’s not your fault. None of it is. Davy and Beth were just being kids. Just doing the normal things kids their ages do. You did the best you could, son. I know your mom will understand.”
“No she won’t! I...I lost my temper. I busted stuff. Lots of stuff! We can’t afford new dishes, and now, ‘cause of me, we don’t have any plates or glasses. And I hit Davy. We’re not allowed to hit each other, but I got so mad that I hit him anyway. He...he was so scared. I could tell he was scared, but I just kept punching him. Bethie was screaming for me to stop, but I pushed her out of the way. I...I’m no good, John. I can’t do this anymore. Can’t my mom see that I can’t do this anymore?”
The boy’s sobs shook his upper body. Because of Johnny’s position in the tree house he couldn’t see what was going on in the yard. But with Curtis no longer looking out the window, Johnny had little doubt that Roy and Vince were now close enough to hear every word that was being exchanged between himself and the twelve-year-old.
“I’ll talk to your mom, Curtis. I’ll tell her what you’ve said to me. Together, we can make her understand that you’re not ready for the responsibilities she’s given you.”
“But I have to be ready! I’m the oldest! She doesn’t have anyone else to depend on but me, and we can’t afford to hire a baby-sitter.”
“I’m sure something can be worked out.”
When Johnny didn’t have an immediate answer the boy scoffed, “See. Even you don’t know.”
“Not right this minute I don’t. But given some time to think about it, I might come up with something. And, there are agencies in the county your mom might be able to turn to for help.”
“She’s already tried them. No one could help her if what you’re talking about is getting free baby-sitting for Davy and Beth.”
“Then we’ll try again.”
“It won’t work, John.” Curtis shook his head like a wise old man who had already traveled the road Johnny was suggesting. He began crying harder as a wave of total despair and helplessness washed over him. “It won’t work, and nothing will change. My dad will still be gone, and we’ll still live in this crappy old house. I still won’t have any friends, and I’ll still have to watch my brother and sister all day long, even though they won’t listen to me and I don’t know what to do about it.”
“I know right now things seem pretty bleak, kiddo, and I guess they are, but sitting up here in this tree house with a gun is only making the situation worse. If you come down with me we’ll get something cold to drink, and see who we can find for you to talk to.”
“You mean like a shrink? I’m not crazy.”
“I never said you were. And I never said anything about a shrink either. I’ve got a good friend at Rampart Hospital. His name is Doctor Brackett and he—“
“You just said you didn’t mean a shrink!”
“Doc Brackett isn’t a shrink. But he is a very smart guy, and he knows a lot of people who work for the various county agencies. I’d like you to talk to him, Curtis. I really think that would be a good place to start.”
The boy sniffled, then swiped at his red, puffy eyes.
“How...how would I go about seein’ him...this Doctor Brackett guy, I mean, if I wanted to?”
“I’ll take you to Rampart and introduce you to him.”
“Not a one. We’ll go in the squad my partner has parked out front.”
Silence filled the stuffy little house as Curtis considered Johnny’s offer.
“What about my brother and sister? I’m in charge of them. I can’t leave them here alone.”
“We’ll bring them with us.”
“But they might not behave. I can’t...I can’t just leave them in some waiting room while I talk to that doctor.”
“And I don’t expect you to. There’s candy stripers who can keep them entertained, and the pediatric floor has a playroom, plus there’s playground equipment outside on the hospital grounds. Don’t worry. I’ll make sure Davy and Beth are kept occupied, and supervised, while you talk to Doctor Brackett.”
For the first time in months Curtis felt a small amount of hope. Maybe, just maybe, this Doctor Brackett person John spoke of would have some ideas that would be of help to his family.
Another long, quiet minute passed in which the twelve-year-old appeared to be contemplating his options. Curtis finally gave a small nod of his head.
“Okay, I’ll come with—“
The boy’s head whipped around at the angry shriek that came from below.
“Curtis! Curtis William Tate, what’s the meaning of these shenanigans? You know I could lose my job over something like—-“
The woman’s sentence was abruptly cut off, leading Johnny to surmise someone had grabbed her and dragged her from the backyard while ordering her to keep quiet.
“No!” The child’s eyes flew to Johnny. “You said no tricks! She can’t be bothered at work! She could lose her job! She’ll lose her job and it’ll be all my fault. No! You tricked me! You—-“
“Curtis! Curtis, listen to me!” Johnny attempted to drown out the boy’s pitiful wails. “I didn’t call her! I didn’t know she was coming home! No tricks, Curtis! Honest, no tricks. We can still go see Doctor Brackett. Just you and me, kiddo. Just you and me. No one else. We’ll go see—-“
“No! It’s my fault! I told you it was my fault. I
can’t...I can’t...I can’t take this anymore! I just...” The boy choked on his tears. “I just can’t.”
Johnny’s position half in and half out of the tree house made it impossible for him to do anything but scream, “No, Curtis!” when the boy brought the gun to his temple. The paramedic scrambled for a foothold while attempting to lunge his upper body into the structure. The blast of the gun caused Johnny’s ears to ring. His eyes closed reflexively, but didn’t stay closed long enough for the paramedic to miss the carnage that resulted from a twelve-year-old child blowing away the right side of his skull.
Johnny knew he was riding Cody dangerously fast. The animal raced across the open field, relishing this unusual bit of freedom. The paramedic hadn’t even bothered to saddle the horse. Johnny rode like he had as a teenager back in Montana, wildly and with reckless abandon.
As hard as Johnny attempted to push the images of Curtis Tate from his mind, they kept resurfacing, even now, over a month after the boy’s death. Johnny recalled scrambling into the tree house and catching Curtis’s body before it slumped to the floor. The boy’s lifeless eyes had stared up at Johnny as he cradled Curtis’s head in one arm while checking for a carotid pulse. When he didn’t find one, Johnny laid the twelve-year-old flat and started CPR. John knew it was only a matter of seconds before Roy joined him, though he was so focused on his young victim that everything else going on around him seemed to be happening in a foggy haze.
Vince Howard had called for an ambulance and an additional squad while Johnny had been talking to Curtis. In an effort to keep from setting Curtis off, Vince had asked the dispatcher to request the vehicles arrive using no lights or sirens. At the time, the police officer thought he was simply taking precautions they wouldn’t need.
The paramedics from Squad 44 were waiting beneath the tree house when Johnny carried Curtis down. John was giving the boy mouth to mouth resuscitation as he laid Curtis on the waiting gurney. Don Martin, 44’s senior paramedic, was in contact with Kelly Brackett via the bio-phone. An airway was inserted, and two IVs with Ringer’s started. Blood stained pressure bandages swathed the upper portion of Curtis’s head as the defibrillator’s paddles were placed against his chest. Despite repeated efforts, a flat line remained on the EKG strip. Regardless of that, Brackett ordered resuscitation efforts continued.
“Transport immediately, 44,” came the doctor’s final order.
Johnny supposed he’d known all along that Curtis was dead, and that no amount of medical intervention would bring him back. After all, the kid had blown half his head away. But, everything had happened so fast, and it was Johnny’s job to do all he could for anyone he was called upon to treat, so he ignored Roy’s summons and climbed in the back of the ambulance with Don. Johnny was actually grateful for the piercing wail of the siren, because it drowned out the cries of Curtis’s mother and siblings.
The paramedic ran down Rampart’s ER corridor beside the gurney, holding Curtis’s IVs aloft. Johnny was the one who pushed the swinging door open to Treatment Room 2, and he was the one who scooped the twelve-year-old’s body up and transferred it to the examining table before anyone else had the chance to offer him assistance. Two short minutes later, Doctor Brackett pronounced Curtis William Tate dead. Johnny could still recall staring down at the boy and thinking, I brought you to see Doctor Brackett, Curtis, but this isn’t how that meeting was supposed to end. I’m sorry...I’m so sorry. This isn’t how it was supposed to end at all.
Johnny had watched as the face that was now the color of putty was covered with a white sheet. He clenched his hands into fists so no one would notice the trembling he couldn’t seem to still. He felt Dixie’s touch on his arm.
“Come on, Johnny,” she urged quietly, “let’s get you a scrub shirt to wear back to the station.”
Johnny glanced down at his torso. For the first time he saw the brain matter and bone fragments that were glued to his shirt by Curtis Tate’s blood. Though neither Brackett nor Dixie yet knew all the details surrounding the boy’s death, the condition of Johnny’s shirt told at least some of the story.
The paramedic allowed Dixie to usher him to a supply closet, then down the corridor to the nurses’ lounge. Mrs. Tate’s cries could be heard coming from the ER’s waiting area, then they grew fainter until they finally ceased, and Johnny pictured Brackett taking her into his office. He wondered if Davy and Beth were with their mother. He hoped not. He hoped a neighbor, or a friend, or someone, had come forward and taken charge of the children. It was bad enough that they’d been on the scene when Curtis was rushed to the ambulance. They didn’t need to be here at Rampart when their mother was told of their older brother’s death.
Johnny had slid to the couch in the lounge and buried his head in his hands. He felt Dixie sit down next to him, and a few seconds later sensed another presence standing over him that he knew was Roy. Johnny ran his hands through his hair, took a deep breath, and stood. He reached for the scrub shirt Dixie still held, and with fingers that suddenly felt swollen three times their normal size, fumbled with the buttons on his shirt. John turned away from Roy and Dixie so they wouldn’t see how much trouble he was having removing a garment he’d been removing by himself since he was four years old. When he finally had the shirt open, he slipped it off and brought the blue scrub shirt down over his head.
If Dixie and Roy had been expecting anything profound when Johnny finally spoke, they were sorely disappointed. Without turning around to face either of them, the paramedic said, “Thanks, Dix. I’ll bring this back to you the next time I’m here.”
Johnny headed for the door without allowing Dixie to respond. To his partner he said, “I’ll meet you in the squad.”
What conversation transpired after Johnny left the lounge, he never knew. Ten minutes later, Roy joined him in the squad. John stared out the windshield, refusing to meet Roy’s gaze. After a lengthy silence had passed, Roy asked softly, “Wanna talk about it?”
The dark headed man merely shook his head.
“Not now, Roy. Not...not ever.”
Any thoughts Roy had regarding Johnny’s response he kept to himself that day. He waited another full minute before starting the squad. A minute in which Johnny knew Roy expected him to talk. But, when John continued to stare out the windshield, Roy finally gave in and turned the key in the ignition.
When they arrived back at the station, that afternoon lunch was long over. That mattered little to Johnny. The last thing he felt like doing was eating. He passed Chet on the way to the locker room, his bloody shirt balled up in his right hand.
“Hey, Gage, why are you wearin’ that? If you think that scrub shirt will fool the nurses at Rampart into lettin’ you play doctor with them, then you’re even goofier than I thought.”
Johnny had no quick retort like he normally would have, nor did he even growl his old stand-by of, “Shut up, Chet.” He heard Chet bait him again with a, “Gage, what’s wrong with you? You got a tongue depressor shoved up your—-“
Then Johnny heard Roy’s quiet but firm, “Leave him alone, Chet.”
“Why? What happened?”
“Just leave him alone. I mean it.”
Whether Chet detected something in Roy’s tone that told him to back off, or whether Roy gave him some kind of signal with his hands or eyes that told Chet to keep his mouth shut, Johnny never knew. Right before he pushed the locker room door open John heard Chet ask, “Bad run, huh?” then heard Roy’s response of, “Yeah. You could say that. Is Cap in his office?”
Johnny wasn’t privy to the answer Roy received. By the time Chet said yes or no, the paramedic was in the locker room. Fifteen minutes later, the door swung open. Johnny didn’t look up from where he sat on the bench, still clutching his bloody shirt while staring down at the tiles. He felt someone sit beside him. He expected to hear Roy’s voice, but instead it was Hank Stanley who laid a hand on Johnny’s slumped shoulder.
“Hey, pal. Roy tells me you had a rough one this afternoon.”
Johnny merely nodded.
“I’m going to stand the squad down and call in a replacement for you. Why don’t you get changed and head on home. I’ll let Roy know and-—“
“I...I want to stay. I wanna finish out the shift.”
Johnny never took his eyes off the floor tiles. Silence lingered between himself and his commander, until finally Hank asked, “Are you sure?”
“Yes. Yes, I’m...I’m sure.”
“John, if you want to talk anytime...anytime at all, you know where to find me. I’m available here at the station, or at my house.”
Again, Johnny nodded. “Thanks, Cap.”
Hank sat with Johnny a few minutes that afternoon, but when John said nothing further, the captain finally gave him a pat on the shoulder and left the room.
The rest of the shift was uneventful. A couple of easy runs, and then supper with the guys at six. It was the first night in a long string of nights when aspirin barely took the edge off the headache that resided deep within Johnny’s skull. It was also the first night in a long string of nights that John Gage laid awake hour after hour, hearing himself assure Curtis Tate that he was up to no tricks, only to have the boy accuse him of just that right before he put the gun to his temple and pulled the trigger.
The wind ruffled Johnny’s hair as Cody threw back his head and snorted. The paramedic smacked his heels against the horse’s sides, urging him to run even faster. The rhythmic pounding of Cody’s hooves didn’t purge Johnny of unwanted memories, nor purge him of the gut-twisting feeling of betrayal as initiated by his closest friend.
Brackett had made it clear to Johnny today that he wouldn’t be allowed to return to work until he passed a physical, and that if he continued to have challenges, then sessions with the fire department’s psychiatrist would be required. Hank Stanley had backed Doctor Brackett up on both those things, meaning short of filing a grievance with the union, Johnny had little choice but to do what his superiors ordered, if he valued his job. At any other time when life was giving him a hard kick in the butt, Johnny would have turned to Roy for any number of things. Advice. A listening ear. An opinion he respected above all others. Or just a good friend to vent his frustrations to. But now Johnny couldn’t turn to Roy. Roy had betrayed him. Roy had gone to Brackett, and at the same time, had lied to Johnny about the reason why he needed to speak to the doctor. Suddenly, the last person Johnny had any trust in, was the person he used to trust the most. Roy DeSoto.
Despite the long, hard ride on Cody, Johnny’s hurt and anger refused to be quelled. When the horse began to slow down and show signs of fatigue, Johnny loosened his grip on the reins. Cody’s pace slowed in stages from a run, to a gallop, to a trot. When they were within five hundred feet of the barn, Johnny slid off the gelding and walked him the rest of the way.
The paramedic allowed Cody a long drink at the trough, then led him to his stall. Johnny spent the next hour tending to the animal by first wiping him down, then brushing him, then feeding him and giving him fresh water. He tried to push the thoughts away that kept haunting him. The same heartbreaking thoughts that had been haunting him since the day Curtis Tate died.
What makes a twelve-year-old kill himself?
Why didn’t Curtis’s parents see what their divorce was doing to the boy?
Why didn’t the boy’s mother understand that he was too young for the responsibilities he’d been given?
What could I have done differently?
What could I have said that might have convinced Curtis not to pull that trigger?
Why didn’t I see how desperate he was?
And then the most heartbreaking thought of all on Johnny’s part.
Why the hell didn’t I take the gun away from him as soon as I got in that tree house?
Johnny’s fingers tangled in Cody’s mane and he buried his face in the horse’s massive neck.
Oh, God, why the hell didn’t I take it away?
Roy silently set the phone receiver in the cradle. He turned to look out the patio doors; the doors Johnny had helped him install four years earlier, and watched his kids play with their friends in the backyard.
“Still no answer?”
Roy looked over at his wife. She was standing in front of the sink washing the pots and pans she couldn’t put in the dishwasher. The paramedic walked to her side, picked up a towel, and began drying the dishes Joanne propped in the drainer.
“Maybe you should drive over there. You know, just to make sure he’s okay.”
“I won’t be welcome.”
“You might be if he fell out of the haymow and is laying on the barn floor with a broken leg.”
“He didn’t fall out of the haymow. He’s just not answering his phone.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because I know Johnny.”
The woman studied her husband a long moment and then said, “You can’t blame yourself, Roy.”
“I shouldn’t have done it.”
“You had no choice. You—-“
“I had a choice, Joanne.”
The woman continued as though her husband hadn’t interrupted her.
“You said Johnny hasn’t been eating or sleeping. You said he’s been having severe headaches. You told Johnny several times he needed to make an appointment with Doctor Brackett for a physical, and he wouldn’t do it. When he was here for supper last week even the kids noticed how bad he looked. Chris asked me three times if Johnny was sick, and Jennifer said, ‘Uncle Johnny seems really sad, Mom. What’s wrong with him?’”
“What’d you tell her?”
“Just that something happened on a run that had upset Uncle Johnny, and that given some time, he’d be okay.”
“Christopher I was more forthright with. He’d read the story in the newspaper about the Tate boy.”
Chris was just two months short of his eleventh birthday. No longer a little boy, but still a couple of years away from being what Roy considered a young adult. It was that last fact that caused him to ask, “What’d you tell Chris?”
“That you and Johnny were the paramedics on the scene the paper mentioned.”
Roy nodded. The media reports on Curtis’s death hadn’t mentioned himself or Johnny by name. They were simply referred to as ‘the paramedics’ or as the ‘paramedics at the scene when the tragedy occurred.’
“I told Chris it was Johnny who was with the boy – Curtis - that it was Johnny who was with Curtis when he...when he shot himself.”
That had been a hard sentence for Joanne to finish, and Roy could understand why. Twelve-year-olds didn’t commit suicide. Or, at least until six weeks ago, Roy had never encountered one who had.
“What did Chris say?”
“That it must have been a hard thing for Johnny to see.”
“I’m sure it was,” Roy agreed quietly. Chris had always been a perceptive and sensitive boy so, given his age, Roy knew his son was feeling genuine empathy over what Johnny had gone through.
“Then he asked me what would make a twelve-year-old kill himself.”
“Tough question,” Roy replied as he looked at the window and watched his son play catch with the boy from next door. Curtis Tate should have had the opportunity for many games of catch yet.
“It was a tough question,” Joanne acknowledged. “I’m afraid I didn’t give him a very good answer.”
“Why? What’d you say?”
“I told Chris I didn’t know what would make Curtis want to end his life, other than the facts you knew based on the statement Johnny gave Vince regarding what had happened in that tree house.”
“That Curtis was going through a difficult time because of his parent’s divorce?”
“Yes,” Joanne nodded as she wiped off the counter tops with her damp dishrag. “Chris found it hard to believe that a boy would kill himself for that reason.”
Roy acknowledged to himself that yes, it would be difficult for Chris to fully understand the reasons behind Curtis’s suicide. After all, Chris was fortunate. His parents had a strong, healthy, stable, happy marriage. He had no point of reference for the pain divorce can bring a child, or the changes it can bring to a family. Nor did Chris have a point of reference for the depth of depression young Curtis Tate must have been mired in.
The paramedic gave his wife his full attention when she spoke again.
“I told Chris that none of us would probably ever fully understand what caused Curtis to think suicide was his only option.”
“No,” Roy said, “none of us probably ever will. Except maybe Johnny.”
Joanne paused in her cleaning and turned to face her husband. “Pardon?”
“Johnny. I guess if any of us has an understanding of what made Curtis think suicide was his only option, it’s Johnny.”
Joanne nodded. Of course it would be Johnny. He was the one who was with Curtis in that tree house for twenty minutes. He was the one who had established a rapport with the boy. He was the one who had gained the boy’s trust. And when the boy put that gun to is head and pulled the trigger, it was Johnny who was with him.
“What’s going to happen to Johnny now? How long will he be on medical leave?”
“Until he passes his physical. He’s supposed to see Doctor Brackett again in two weeks.”
“And if Johnny doesn’t pass his physical? What then?”
“If, in two weeks, he’s not able to pass the physical, I’m guessing Brackett will recommend that Johnny see the department shrink.”
“Why do you guys always refer to Doctor Harrison that way?”
“As the department shrink?”
“I don’t know. Just because we do.”
“Well, it’s no wonder no one ever wants to go see him.”
Roy gave his wife a pained look.
“It’s true,” Joanne said, ignoring her husband’s scowl. “You guys are like a bunch of eight-year-old boys when it comes to the ways you refer to Doctor Harrison.”
“Ways we refer to him?”
“ ‘The shrink.’ ‘The head shrinker.’ ‘The nut cracker.’ I’ve heard what you and Johnny call him. You act like there’s some type of shame attached to needing to see him.”
“It’s not that.”
“Then what is it?”
“Jo...just drop it. We’re not talking about Doc Harrison anyway. We’re talking about Johnny.”
“No, Roy, I won’t drop it. Tell me what the big deal is when it comes to Doctor Harrison.”
Roy sighed. “There is no big deal. Just forget it.”
“The big deal is, most men don’t want to talk about their problems, is that it? You don’t want to admit to anyone you occasionally have problems to talk about. You see it as a sign of weakness, am I right? Especially when any weakness is associated with your macho jobs as firefighters.”
The paramedic turned his back on his wife as he put a dish away in the cabinet. Knowing Joanne wouldn’t give up until she received an answer forced him to say, “Yeah...yeah, I guess that’s it.”
“So will you think Johnny’s weak if Doctor Brackett refers him to Doctor Harrison?”
Roy didn’t hesitate when he turned to face his wife and answer her with a firm, “No.”
“But Johnny will think of himself as weak?”
“I don’t...” Roy paused there. He could already tell Joanne knew she was about to catch him in a lie. “Yes,” he admitted quietly. “Yes, I suppose he will.”
“He shouldn’t. After what he went through with Curtis, he shouldn’t feel that way at all.”
“No, he shouldn’t. But he will.”
And if Brackett makes Johnny see Doc Harrison, then it’ll be one more thing Johnny blames me for, were the thoughts Roy kept from his wife. For the time being the paramedic said, “For now, Doc Harrison doesn’t play into the picture. Brackett gave Johnny instructions to rest, eat well, and relax for the next two weeks.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad.”
“No, I don’t suppose it does. Unless your best friend is the reason behind the enforced vacation you don’t want any part of.”
The paramedic walked away from his wife before she could finish her sentence. Roy opened the patio doors and stepped outside so he could partake in a simple pleasure Curtis Tate’s father could no longer enjoy – playing a game of catch with his son.
George Curtis McKay used a key to open the locked metal cabinet that sat in one corner of his garage. He looked over his shoulder and glanced out the window. The grandchildren were playing in the side yard, and his wife’s car was gone from the driveway, meaning she was still at work.
A lot had changed since Curtis’s death. For one thing, George now had to baby-sit for David and Elizabeth. A heart attack, along with diabetes, had forced the man into early retirement. That, in turn, had forced his sixty-one-year-old wife to take a job for the first time in her life. She was now waiting tables for eight hours a day, five days a week down at the Palm Tree Restaurant. Clara had gone to work three years earlier, meaning she was sixty-four now. The forty-hour work
week was getting more and more difficult for her to physically withstand. But George had no pension of any kind, had garnered nothing but headaches from his unsuccessful filings for a monthly disability stipends, and he was still a year away from being able to collect Social Security. And even with that government benefit, and with the aid of Medicare, it would be difficult for them to get by on just George’s Social Security check. His medications were expensive, and ate up a good portion of Clara’s paycheck as it was. Now, on top of that, they had the expense of feeding Davy and Beth lunch and snacks each day. In addition, George would readily admit he wasn’t cut out to baby-sit for any child, not even children who were members of his own family. Their mother, Charlene, was George and Clara’s only child. Clara had been the one to stay home with her and raise her while George was at work. George couldn’t recall ever having changed a diaper, let alone preparing lunch, wiping sticky hands, refereeing arguments, or bandaging skinned knees. He loved his grandchildren, but they got on his nerves. Maybe that’s why the good Lord knew what he was doing when he designed it so you had your kids when you were young, and still had the patience to put up with them.
George fit another key into a small padlock. He slipped the padlock out of the bracket and opened a wooden box. He took the box off a shelf and without looking, stepped backwards until he bumped into a stool that rested in front of his tool bench. He took two folded newspaper articles from the box. George sat down and unfolded the articles, spreading them out on the flat surface of his bench.
The old man read the articles in chronological order. First there was the one detailing the events surrounding Curtis’s death, then, there was the boy’s obituary. George had always wanted a son. Clara had experienced three miscarriages after Charlene was born. Then, when Charlene was six, Clara finally gave birth to a boy - Thomas George McKay. But Tommy had lived only nine months, and died one night for reasons no one could really explain, except now they had word for it that wasn’t around thirty years ago - Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. So when Curtis had been born, and had been given George’s middle name as his first name, the old man couldn’t have been more pleased. Charlene and her husband, Dave, seemed so happy then. George had been happy, too. Other than occasional joint pain from the beginnings of arthritis, George hadn’t been sick yet, and was still working. Life had been good, and remained that way until the year after Beth was born. Then George’s health started to fail him, and Clara had gone to work. For a while it wasn’t so bad. She worked part time, and Charlene and Dave helped out with expenses. But then Dave took up with that ‘home-wrecking bimbo’ as George referred to her, and the financial assistance stopped. This forced Clara to increase her hours, and forced Charlene into the working world as well. It also forced Curtis to leave his boyhood behind and become the man of the family, all because his father wanted to be a teenager again.
Dave acts like he’s sixteen-years-old again and without a goddamn care in the world. Without the responsibility of kids, a wife, and me and Clara - who need his help, too - just because he’s got an itch in his pants. Damn asshole. In my day it wasn’t like this. Families stuck together through thick and thin. You didn’t abandon your family because some bimbo at work catches your eye with her mini-skirts and hot pants.
Tears ran down George’s face as he read the child’s obituary. The grandfather’s remorse was overwhelming. It had been his fault that Curtis was left in charge of Davy and Beth to begin with. After all, hadn’t he been the one to assure Charlene that, at twelve years old, Curtis was ready for these responsibilities? Hadn’t George been the one to point out to his daughter that he was tending to his four younger siblings after school and on Saturday mornings by the time he was ten as a result of his mother’s death in 1923? If George could handle four kids at the age of ten, then Curtis, at the age of twelve, could surely handle two. But things were different nowadays. Kids were spoiled, and they didn’t seem to know how to help keep a family going. It wasn’t Curty’s fault, George supposed. He’d just never been taught how. Dave and Charlene had pampered the boy, and then Dave up and left. As a result of the pampering, Curtis wasn’t ready to take on the adult-type responsibilities his mother needed him to. Who could have guessed? Not George, that’s for sure.
George McKay stared down at the article about his grandson’s suicide that had made the front page of the paper. The paramedic who was with Curty when he shot himself wasn’t named, but it had been easy enough for George to discover who he was. A neighbor up the street was a retired firefighter. George asked him to find out the paramedic’s name so he could thank him for being with Curtis that terrible day. The neighbor was obliging, and several weeks ago George had used a pencil to scribble in the margin, John Gage. George had also done a little investigating of his own, and discovered Gage had been with the fire department for nine years. You’d think a nine-year veteran, and a paramedic to boot, would have known how to handle Curtis. You’d think the guy would have known how to disarm the boy, whether that was through talking to him and convincing Curty to put the gun down, or physically accosting him in order to take the gun away.
The bastard couldn’t even handle one twelve-year-old kid. Why is he even still employed by that damn fire department?
George looked out the window to see Davy and Beth were fighting again. Is that all those damn kids ever did? Fight and bicker, bicker and fight. They were both clutching a swing on the rusty old swing-set that had been their mother’s, and arguing over who could use it. There was another swing available, so why they had to argue at all was beyond George’s ability to figure out. He was fed up with listening to it, and fed up with the way his life had changed. He looked in the wooden box again, and this time pulled out the .357 Magnum the police had returned to Charlene a couple of weeks back. It was George who had advised her to purchase the gun. A woman living alone with three young kids needed some kind of protection. The man never imagined Curty would use the gun to take his own life. Despite the tough neighborhood she lived in, Charlene didn’t want the firearm in her house any longer, and had instructed her father to get rid of it. But George hadn’t followed that order. No daughter of his was going to tell him what to do while he was still alive and kicking. Later, after he fed the kids lunch and got them involved in some TV program or another, he’d come back out here and clean the gun. The Lord said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, which meant somebody was going to pay for Curty’s death. If there was one thing George Curtis McKay couldn’t tolerate, it was negligence. Someone would pay for his incompetence. Yes, someone would pay, and George knew exactly who that someone was.
The old man put everything back in the box, slipped the padlock in place, snapped it closed, and returned the box to the metal cabinet. He secured the doors, locked them, and then walked out of the garage.
“Hey, you two, stop that fighting right now! Grandpa’s sick and tired of hearing it!”
Grandpa’s just so damn sick and tired.
Johnny slid off the exam table and picked up his shirt. He put it on, buttoning the front while Kelly Brackett scribbled some notes in the paramedic’s medical file.
“Well?” Johnny asked when the doctor continued to silently write.
Brackett wasn’t going to be rushed. He finished making his notations before turning around. He hesitated a moment, then gave a nod.
“You can return to work on Monday.”
Just that terse, “Thank you,” spoke volumes to Kelly Brackett. It sounded nothing like John Gage. It was usually, “Thanks, Doc,” along with a lopsided grin. Or a, “Thanks, Doc,” along with a pat on the back as Johnny passed by on his way out the door, whistling some off-key tune.
Brackett watched as John tucked his shirttails into his jeans. “Okay, Johnny, lay it on me.”
“Lay what on you?”
“Be honest and tell me you’re still angry with me for pulling you off duty.”
“I’m not angry with anyone.”
“Then how come you can’t look at me and say that?”
Johnny lifted his gaze from the floor. He met Brackett’s eyes and stated firmly, “I’m not angry with anyone.”
“Not even Roy?”
“Look, I already told you—“
“And I don’t believe you.”
“Regardless of whether you believe me or not, you just declared me fit for duty, so what difference does it make as to who I’m mad at and who I’m not?”
“It might make a difference on Monday morning when you and Roy climb in that squad together.”
“Yeah, it might. If we were going to, that is.”
Johnny shook his head. “Nothing. Never mind. Can I please just have the forms I need to turn into Captain Stanley?”
Brackett looked at the expectant hand that was thrust out. He sighed, knowing he had little choice but to turn the forms over to Johnny, even though he didn’t feel good about doing so. Yes, Johnny had put on the weight he was supposed to over the past two weeks, and yes, his blood pressure was back to where it should be as well. He still looked tired to the doctor, but when Brackett had questioned the paramedic as to how he was sleeping he was told, “Fine.”
“No insomnia?” the doctor had inquired.
“And you’re not lying to me?”
For just a moment, Brackett thought Johnny might give himself away. He could tell the infamous Gage temper was on the verge of blowing. He could see it in the set to Johnny’s jaw, and in the way a vein in his forehead throbbed. But Johnny seemed to sense losing his temper over simple questions about his sleeping patterns was only going to earn him more time off from work.
“No,” he’d said tightly. “I’m not lying to you.”
“Good,” was all Brackett had said in return as he’d continued the physical.
Johnny felt like the doctor was holding the forms hostage when Brackett finally asked the question he’d probably wanted to ask since John had walked in this room thirty minutes earlier.
“How are you feeling now about Curtis Tate?”
Johnny didn’t drop his gaze from the physician’s. “How am I supposed to feel?”
“I don’t know. That’s why I asked.”
“It was a bad run.”
“And?” Brackett asked when Johnny refused to elaborate.
“And, bad runs happen.”
“They do,” the doctor agreed. “To all of us, in a manner of speaking, whether those ‘bad runs’ happen in the field to one of my paramedics, or happen here in this emergency room to one of my doctors or nurses. I know it’s twice as hard when it’s a child, Johnny, but you have to understand that Curtis made a choice.”
“He was twelve.”
“Yes, he was,” the man agreed. “And that seems absurdly young for someone to end his own life. But, occasionally it happens. What was going on in Curtis’s life. . .what brought him to the choice he made, had nothing to do with you. You understand that, don’t you?”
“You don’t sound so sure.”
“Look, I just told...” Johnny paused, once again gaining control of his temper. “I’m sure, Doctor Brackett. I understand that what he...Curtis did, wasn’t my fault.”
“Sure enough that I shouldn’t recommend you see Doctor Harrison for a few sessions?”
“Yes,” John said with more conviction than he was feeling, because he knew to say anything else was going to land him in Harrison’s office on his days off.
Brackett didn’t sigh out loud, but Johnny swore he heard the man heave an internal one.
The two men continued to stare one another down. For a change, it was Johnny who won this battle of the wills. Usually, given Kelly Brackett’s position and the paramedic’s respect for him, it was the other way around.
“All right then.” Brackett handed Johnny the medical release forms. “Here you go.”
The doctor walked his patient to the door. Completely out of character for Johnny, he didn’t turn right and head toward the nurses’ station to shoot the bull with Dixie for a few minutes. Instead, he turned left and headed for the exit doors, not even acknowledging an ambulance attendant’s, “Hi, Johnny,” as he passed the man in the corridor.
Kelly Brackett’s lips formed a grim line. He wondered if he’d made the right decision by releasing Johnny to return to work. The trouble was, he had no grounds not to release the man considering the paramedic had passed his physical.
Don’t prove me wrong here, Johnny. Don’t let me think you’re ready to return to work, only to prove me wrong a few weeks down the road.
The doctor shoved his hands in the pockets of his lab coat and headed for his office. If he’d turned in the direction Johnny had taken and looked out across the parking lot, he’d have seen the paramedic sitting in his Land Rover with his head resting on the steering wheel. Brackett’s words from earlier echoed in Johnny’s head.
What was going on in Curtis’s life. . .what brought him to the choice he made, had nothing to do with you. You understand that, don’t you?
“Yeah, Doc, I understand that,” Johnny acknowledged quietly to the empty vehicle. “It had nothing to with me...until I failed to take that damn gun away from him. If only I’d taken the goddamn gun away.”
Johnny started the Rover and put it in reverse. He drove through the parking lot and exited onto the street. He turned left at the first intersection, not heading in the direction of his ranch, but rather, heading for Hank Stanley’s house.
John was glad to see Grace Stanley’s Edsel missing from the driveway, as well as the little Maverick Hank’s youngest daughter, Gwen, drove. Gwen would be a junior at UCLA when school resumed after Labor Day. Unlike her older sister, Barbara, Gwen still lived with her parents. But between school, a part-time job, and a steady boyfriend, she was rarely home. Or so Johnny had often heard Cap say, ever since his youngest child had started college two years earlier. Hank’s truck was in the driveway, and Johnny could hear a lawn mower running in the backyard. The grass clippings on the front lawn indicated what the paramedic’s captain was doing on this Saturday morning.
John stood at the end of one mowed row waiting for Hank to turn around and head his way. The man smiled in acknowledgement when he spotted the paramedic. He walked behind the mower, letting it do its job until he reached Johnny. He leaned down then and shut the engine off.
Hank’s smile was wide and welcoming. “Hi, John. Nice to see ya,’ pal.”
Johnny’s greeting was far more subdued. “Hi. Sorry for bugging you at home on your day off, Cap.”
“You’re not bugging me. I’m almost done here as it is.” The man turned for the house. “Come on. I’ll wash my hands and then pour us something cold to drink.”
“I don’t need anything.”
“Well, I do. I’m hot and thirsty. There’s nothing worse than mowing lawn this time of the year.”
If Johnny wanted to speak to his captain he had no choice but to follow the man through the back door that lead into the laundry room. Hank kicked his grass stained tennis shoes off on the throw rug, then led the way into the kitchen. He indicated for Johnny to seat himself at the table. Hank disappeared down the hall with a, “I’ll be right back.” Johnny could hear water running in the bathroom sink. When his captain returned a minute later, the man had washed his hands, and evidently his face, too, because the perspiration that had been freely running down it had now been wiped away.
Hank opened the refrigerator and held up a clear Tupperware pitcher. “Is lemonade all right with you?”
Though Johnny wasn’t thirsty, and by far didn’t want to turn this into a social visit, he knew it would be less of a hassle to agree to a glass of lemonade than it would be to rebuke the offer.
“That’s fine. Thanks.”
Hank didn’t say anything about the tri-folded papers Johnny had laid on the table, or about the white envelope resting beneath them. He put ice cubes in two glasses, then, filled the glasses with lemonade.
“Grace went grocery shopping,” Hank offered in way of making small talk as he carried the glasses to the table. “She should be back in an hour or so. Would you like to stay for lunch?”
“No,” Johnny shook his head. “It’s Saturday. I’m sure you’ve got better things to do than feed me lunch.”
“Can’t think of a one,” Hank smiled before taking a long swallow of the cold liquid.
“Thanks anyway,” Johnny said in way of dismissing the idea.
Hank studied the man seated across from him. Not only was this quiet, reserved demeanor completely out of character for Johnny, so was the refusal of a free meal. The captain’s eyes fell to the papers. He knew Johnny had been scheduled to see Kelly Brackett this morning. He could only assume those papers either did, or did not, release John to return to work on Monday. Judging by Johnny’s attitude, the captain assumed it was the latter.
Before Hank could bring the subject of the papers up, Johnny slid them across the table.
“Here. I just came from Rampart.”
Hank set his glass down. He picked up the papers and unfolded them. He took his time reading through them. Normally, if one of his men was on leave due to a medical condition, all he cared about was seeing the word ‘Release.’ But, in this case, Hank was curious as to what Kelly Brackett had noted. Since these papers weren’t reflective of what Brackett likely wrote in Johnny’s medical file, Hank didn’t come away with a clear conclusion other than the fact that his paramedic had, indeed, been released to turn to work on Monday. Although Hank still wasn’t comfortable with Johnny’s somber demeanor, he smiled at the man.
“This is good news, John. We’ve missed you. Roy...” The captain stopped when Johnny’s jaw clenched and his eyes dropped to the table. “We...we’ve all been looking forward to your return.”
Johnny slid the envelope across the table next. “Then you’d better read this.”
“What is it?”
“Just read it.”
Hank put the medical release papers on the table and picked up the envelope. The flap wasn’t sealed, but rather tucked inside. The captain opened it, pulling out a white piece of paper. He unfolded it and immediately recognized Johnny’s handwriting. In less than thirty seconds Hank had read the letter. His eyes lingered a moment on Johnny’s signature at the bottom written so formally as, John R. Gage, then traveled across the table to his visitor.
“Why?” was all Hank asked.
“Because that’s what I want.”
“Are you sure?”
“Cap, I brought that letter to you instead of taking it to headquarters because of my respect for you, and because of the years we’ve worked together. If you’re going to give me grief over it, then just forget I ever came here today.” Johnny started to stand. “I’ll take everything down to headquarters and let them process things.”
“No,” Hank shook his head. “Sit down. Please. Let’s talk about this.”
Johnny did as the man requested and took his seat once more. He pushed the glass of lemonade he had yet to touch to the side so it wouldn’t get spilled.
“There’s nothing to talk about,” John stated. “I think I stated clearly what it is I’m asking for. God knows I’ve had plenty of time off recently to work on my grammar and punctuation.”
Hank didn’t miss the bitterness in the paramedic’s tone.
“John, what Roy did, he did out of friendship. He did because—“
“I don’t care why he did it. And overall, it doesn’t matter anyway. Now are you going to process that for me or not?”
Hank sighed as he looked down at the letter again. No matter how many times he reread it, nothing would change the fact that John Gage was requesting a transfer out of Station 51.
“How soon do you want this to go through?”
“As soon as possible. Before I return to work on Monday.”
“Before Monday? As in this coming Monday?”
“John, please. Just give it time. We...all of us on the A-shift, have worked together out of 51’s for a long time now. A captain hates to see a good team break up.”
“One man doesn’t make the team, Cap. You’ll find someone to take my place.”
“You think it’s that easy, huh?”
Johnny grimaced at what he perceived to be his captain’s sentimentality. “Cap, the department has a lot of guys who are good at what they do - a lot of guys who will be a complement to the A-shift. Whether I’m there or not will make little difference.”
“To the contrary. It’s going to make a big difference to Roy.”
Hank thought a moment, then said, “John, there’s a lot more to building a team than just finding guys who are good at what they do. It’s also about people who work well together, get along well, both on the job and away from the job, and have a lot of loyalty to one another. That’s what I’ve always been so proud of when it comes to my crew. You guys are not only good at what you do, but you’re all good friends. You might not think that makes a difference, but take it from someone who has supervised guys who don’t ‘click’ in the way we do. It’s a royal pain in the ass to work with a crew like that, and I thank my lucky stars every day that I’ve been fortunate to have such a great group of guys under my command the past five years.”
“Cap, it’s not like you have to replace the whole crew. Just me. It’s not going to be that big of a deal.”
“Yes, it is, John. Or at least to me, it is.”
“Look, I’m sorry. I really am. I...I’ve really liked working for you. You...I probably won’t ever work for anyone better than you again, or even half as good as you. And as far as 51’s A-shift goes...I know what I’m giving up, Cap. I do. Trust me on that one. But...but it’s time for me to move on.”
“Johnny, it’s okay to be angry with Roy. But given time—“
“I’ve given it time. And...and my anger doesn’t have anything to do with it.”
Hank cocked an eyebrow. “Oh, it doesn’t?”
“No, it doesn’t. At least not in the way you’re thinking.”
“Then in what way?”
“Cap, if I don’t feel I can work with Roy...if I don’t feel we ‘click’ anymore as partners, to borrow your expression, don’t you think it’s better if I dissolve that partnership before we have to climb in the squad together on Monday morning?”
Silence lingered a long moment before Hank finally gave a slow, reluctant nod, and a quiet, “Yes, I suppose it is.”
The man stood with all the papers in hand that Johnny had given him, and went to the telephone that hung on the wall next to the refrigerator. He dialed a number at headquarters by memory. Fifteen minutes later he had Johnny’s new assignment. He hung up the phone and returned to the table. He handed Johnny the various documents.
“Run these by headquarters sometime today. Give them to Lieutenant Brock. On Monday morning at eight a.m. you’re to report to Station 41.”
“Is that my permanent assignment?” Johnny asked. He wasn’t sure who made up the crew of 41’s A-shift, but then, he didn’t really care.
“No. Right now you won’t have a permanent station. You’ll be covering wherever you’re needed on a day-by-day basis. A paramedic by the name of Wayne Franklin has been rotating amongst stations, but had recently requested a permanent assignment the next time an opening became available. He’ll take your spot with us.”
Johnny nodded. He didn’t know Franklin well, but did know who the man was, and knew him by reputation somewhat.
Franklin will make Roy a good partner, Johnny thought with approval, then just as quickly chased the thought from his mind, because why should he care who Roy’s new partner was, or if the guy was competent or not? Not only shouldn’t he care, but he didn’t. Or so Johnny tried to tell himself.
“Is that it then?” John asked his captain. Or, former captain, rather.
“Yes, I guess that’s it.”
Johnny stood. He shifted the papers to his left hand and held his right out to Hank Stanley.
“Thanks, Cap. For everything.”
Hank shook the offered hand, giving it a prolonged squeeze before releasing it. “I know I should say, ‘you’re welcome,’ but I don’t feel right in doing so. John...please. Reconsider this decision. Come back to 51’s for two weeks. Just give it two weeks. See how you feel at the end of that time period.”
“You’ve already called headquarters and gotten it all arranged.”
“I can call them back right now and unarrange it.”
“No,” Johnny shook his head. “That wouldn’t be fair to Wayne, considering he’s been wanting a permanent assignment. By now he’s probably been notified that he has one.”
“I’m sure something can be worked out.”
“No, Cap. I can’t do that to Wayne. Besides, this is for the best.”
Hank realized then, that no amount of arguing was going to get Johnny to change his mind. He walked with his paramedic through the living room and to the front door.
“Tell the guys I said goodbye.”
“You don’t plan to see them?”
“No. I’ll go to the station this afternoon and clean out my locker.”
“Just tell them I said goodbye and that I’ll see them around.”
“Now do you really think the Phantom is going to settle for that?”
Johnny smiled for the first time since arriving at Hank’s home. “He’s not gonna have much choice. Maybe I’ve finally played the ultimate practical joke on Chester B., huh?”
“Maybe,” Hank conceded, though he saw nothing funny about the situation, and couldn’t bring himself to smile even out of politeness. “All right, I’ll tell the guys you said goodbye. With one exception, that is.”
“What exception is that?”
“I won’t do your dirty work for you, John. Regardless of how you feel about Roy DeSoto now, the two of you have been best friends almost from the day you climbed in that squad together for the first time. If you aren’t going to be there on Monday morning to climb in that squad with Roy again, then I think you owe him, as well as yourself, an explanation as to why.”
Johnny scowled. “He already knows why.”
“Does he? Have you spoken with him at all in the past two weeks?”
“No. But I don’t have to talk to Roy for him to know why.”
“John, you told me you came to see me today, rather than going to headquarters first, because you respected me too much not to. Regardless of whether or not your friendship with Roy is over, I would assume you hold too much respect for him not to at least let him know who his partner will be come Monday morning. If you don’t have the guts to tell Roy, face to face, what changes have been made, then you’re not the man I’ve always thought you were.”
Hank turned and left Johnny standing alone by the front door. Within seconds Johnny heard the back door open and close, then heard the lawn mower come to life again. The paramedic looked at the ceiling and gave a heavy sigh. He walked out the door and headed for his Land Rover, all the while knowing what he had to do next because, yes, John Gage was the man Hank Stanley thought him to be.
Johnny had a feeling he wouldn’t get lucky enough to find Roy home alone, as he’d found Hank. As soon as John turned the corner that brought the DeSoto house into view he knew his luck had run out. Not only was Joanne’s car in the driveway, the kids were in the front yard playing badminton.
Chris and Jennifer dropped their rackets as soon as the Land Rover stopped against the curb. The birdie fell softly by Jennifer’s feet. Roy’s eight-year-old daughter raced for John Gage with open arms.
“Uncle Johnny! Uncle Johnny!”
Johnny swallowed hard as he bent to pick Jennifer up and twirl her around. It was an old tradition between them that dated back to not long after he had first met the girl. Johnny had always thought this tradition still had a year or two of life left in it before Jennifer grew too old, and too big, for it to continue. But without the girl realizing it, today would be the last day she’d be swung off her feet and twirled around three times by her Uncle Johnny. Or so Johnny thought as he did just that, though for the first time in close to six years his heart wasn’t in it and the smile on his face was forced.
The paramedic put the girl on her feet and greeted Chris with a subdued, “Hey there, sport.”
“Hey, Uncle Johnny. Wanna play badminton with us?”
Johnny’s eyes cast about; landing on Joanne who had heard Jennifer’s shouts and come to the front door.
“Uh...no. No thanks. I...I can’t stay long, Chris.”
“But you’ll eat lunch with us, right?” Jennifer asked.
“No, Jen, not today.”
“But you haven’t been over in forever.” Jennifer grabbed the man’s hand and gave it a tug. “Come on. You have to stay and eat with us.”
“Not today,” Johnny said in a clipped, firm tone the DeSoto children weren’t accustomed to hearing him use.
Joanne sensed something was amiss and walked toward the trio. “Kids, please go wash for lunch and then set the table.”
Jennifer looked up at her mother. “I’ll set a place for Uncle Johnny, too.”
Though Joanne had already heard the exchange between Jennifer and Johnny over the issue of lunch, she said, “How about it, Mr. Gage? Would you like to eat with us?”
“Thanks anyway, Jo, but not today. I need to see Roy for a minute, then I have to get going.”
“But, Uncle Johnny—“
Joanne cut off her daughter’s protest. “Jennifer, go in the house and do what I asked. You too, Chris. Uncle Johnny will eat with us when he has more time to spare.”
“Promise?” Jennifer asked.
Johnny gave a weak smile and reached out to tweak the girl’s nose. “Sure, Jenny Bean, I promise.”
“And you’ll play badminton then, too?”
The paramedic tousled Chris’s hair. “Sure, sport. I’ll play badminton then, too.”
The kids said goodbye to Johnny, then turned and ran for the house. He watched them until they disappeared within the structure, knowing this was likely the last time he’d see them. For a moment, hurt washed over John Gage. He’d had many good times with this family, and had grown to feel a part of it in the same way he felt a part of his own family. Maybe even more so, considering the distance that separated him from his grandfather, father, and sister, who all lived in Montana. But, betrayal was betrayal, and Johnny couldn’t come to terms with what Roy had done to him by going to Kelly Brackett behind his back.
“How are you...doing?” Joanne asked, uncertain how to phrase her question.
“I’m fine. Going back to work on Monday.”
The woman smiled. “That’s wonderful. Roy will be so happy. He’s really missed you.”
Mmmm, now that’s funny, since it’s his fault I was off work two weeks to begin with.
Johnny didn’t voice those thoughts, but said instead, “Speaking of Roy; is he around?”
“He’s in the backyard varnishing the shelves he built for Chris’s bedroom. I’ll get him for you.”
“No, you don’t need to do that. I’ll head back there.”
“Are you sure? He’s about ready to break for lunch anyway.”
As Johnny started to walk away from the woman she said, “Jennifer’s invitation still stands. We’d love to have you stay for lunch, Johnny. When you and Roy are through talking won’t you reconsider coming in and eating with us?”
Johnny turned to face Joanne. “Thanks, but I can’t. I have some errands to run. I...thanks, Jo. Thanks for everything. I...thanks.”
As Johnny disappeared around the corner of the house, Joanne stood in her front yard puzzling over his words, and the expression on his face as he’d said them. Sorrow - the only thing she’d seen in his face and eyes was sorrow. But sorrow over what? Curtis Tate’s death? Or did it go beyond that? It was almost as though when he’d said, “Thanks for everything,” he was saying a final goodbye to her.
Joanne wondered if she was being perceptive, or foolish. She hoped it was the latter as she entered the house to get lunch ready for her family.
Johnny could smell the varnish before he walked into the backyard. Roy had a wooden shelf laying flat, propped between two sawhorses. With meticulous care he stroked a brush coated with varnish back and forth over the smooth board. When he sensed a presence behind him, Roy glanced over his shoulder. He smiled at his partner as he straightened. He laid the brush over the open can of varnish that was setting on a lower shelf of one of the sawhorses.
Roy’s greeting was quiet and a bit tentative. Considering the last time they’d been together Johnny had punched him in the jaw, the older paramedic deemed it wise to proceed with caution. Though not because he thought Johnny would strike him again, but simply because he realized their friendship might be on shaky ground.
“Hey, partner. Good to see you.”
“Roy,” Johnny nodded.
“You look good,” Roy said, and immediately regretted those words. Johnny’s expression hardened, and his tone was sharp and sarcastic.
“I’m just coming off a two week vacation, remember? I should look good.”
A long, uncomfortable silence lingered between the two men, until Roy finally said, “So...uh...Brackett released you to return to work?”
“Yeah, he did.”
“Glad to hear it. I’m getting tired of temporary partners.”
“That’s your fault, not mine.”
Come on, Johnny. Give me a break here.
“Johnny, look, I’m sorry. I really am. But—“
“Forget it, Roy. I don’t wanna hear it anymore now than I did two weeks ago. I just came by to tell you...to tell you that on Monday, Wayne Franklin will be joining you in the squad.”
“You heard me.”
“Yeah, I did. But what do you mean? You said Brackett released you to come back to work.”
“So what’s this about Wayne?”
“I just came from Cap’s house. I requested a transfer.”
“I requested a transfer. It’s already gone through. Wayne will be your partner now.”
“Don’t say it, Roy. Don’t say anything. Nothing you say will make a difference.”
Out of the corner of his eye Roy caught sight of Jennifer and Chris lingering in front of the screen at the open patio door. He then saw Joanne shoo them away.
“Johnny, please,” Roy said as he shifted his gaze back to his friend. “Let’s go some place where we can talk. I’ll follow you to your ranch, or we can go out for lunch, or I can ask Joanne to take the kids to McDonald’s and then to the park for a while so we can talk here.”
“We don’t have anything to talk about.”
“I happen to think we have a lot to talk about.”
“Maybe you should have thought about that before you went to Brackett.”
“That’s not fair and you know it. I tried to talk to you. I tried to talk to you for weeks about the Tate boy, and I tried to get you to talk to me. But you wouldn’t. And when that incident started to affect your health, and you still shut me out, I had no choice but to go to Brackett. You would have done the same had our positions been reversed, John.”
“No, I wouldn’t have.”
“No? Then what would you have done? Watch as unjust and undeserved guilt destroyed me from the inside out, just like it was destroying you?”
“I don’t know what I would have done, but I wouldn’t have lied to you, and then gone to Brackett behind your back.”
“I didn’t lie! I never said I wouldn’t go to Brackett.”
Johnny shook his head in disgust. “Forget it, Roy. Drop it. This discussion will get us nowhere. On Monday Wayne Franklin is your new partner.”
As Johnny turned to walk away Roy tried one last time to keep the lines of communication open between them.
“Johnny, please. Let’s try and talk this out somehow, some way, before the weekend is over. You name the time and place we can meet.”
Johnny turned back to face his friend and looked Roy in the eye. “There won’t be a time or a place. Cap just got done telling me there’s more to building a team than just finding guys who are good at what they do. It’s also about people who work well together, get along well both on the job and away from the job, and have a lot of loyalty to one another. Well, Roy, I’m not feeling like I have your loyalty any more. I don’t feel in here,” Johnny raised his right hand to his chest and lightly tapped, “that I can trust you, trust your word, in the way I always could in the past. In the way I never once had reason to question. I can’t work with someone I can’t trust, Roy. It wouldn’t be good for me, and it wouldn’t be good for
him...my partner. I’m sorry, but given the job we do, if there’s absolutely nothing else between me and my partner, there has to at least be trust.”
And with that, Johnny turned his back on Roy and walked away. When Roy heard the Land Rover’s engine come to life he sat down on the top step of the deck and stared across his backyard. No one had ever accused Roy DeSoto of being untrustworthy before. Roy had never imagined anyone would ever have reason to. And though he felt John Gage’s accusation in that regard was unfair and unjust, it still hurt. As a matter of fact, it hurt a lot.
Ten minutes later Roy stood up and entered the house. Despite the fact that Joanne had made the kids move away from the screen, the paramedic had no doubt his wife and children had heard every word he and Johnny had exchanged, because he’d never sat through such a quiet and subdued meal in his life.
Clara McKay returned home from church at quarter to one on Sunday afternoon. If anything good had come out of Curtis’s death, it was that Charlene, David, and Elizabeth, now attended Sunday school and church with Clara. Charlene had attended as a child and teenager, but like a lot of young people now days, had quit attending church once she was married and no longer living in her mother’s home. It was a shame it took a tragedy of such magnitude to inspire Charlene to seek the Lord once again, but then, God did work in mysterious ways, as Clara had often heard said.
The woman entered the front door of her tiny, yet tidy, two bedroom bungalow. The house was devoid of any noise; meaning George was somewhere outside. Clara wished Curtis’s death had inspired her husband to return to church, but he hadn’t attended in years. Not since the opportunity to work overtime on Sundays had come along at the factory where he’d been employed until ill health forced him into retirement. By that time, so many years had passed in which George hadn’t attended church, that he claimed he was out of the habit. He didn’t seem to be inclined to get back in the habit, even though he hadn’t worked in three years now. The extra money all that overtime had brought in was nice, but now Clara wondered if it had been worth it. She felt the sixty hour weeks George had worked to earn that money were what contributed to his heart attack in the first place, and now, at a time when George needed strong faith in a higher power, he couldn’t find the assurance inside himself that Curtis was, indeed, in a better place. It was an assurance Clara had. Yes, she had grieved, and was still grieving, for the grandson who killed himself because he didn’t feel, at twelve years old, that life was worth living any longer. But Clara didn’t blame God for Curtis’s death. She didn’t blame anyone. Not even Dave, Charlene’s ex-husband, whom Clara supposed deserved a good portion of the blame if anyone did. The woman clung to the belief that Curtis was at peace in God’s arms. That he’d found a peace in Heaven he wasn’t able to find on Earth.
Clara went to the bedroom she and George shared to put away her purse and Bible, and to change from her Sunday shoes into her house slippers. She’d put a tuna casserole in the oven before she left for church and could tell by the smell wafting down the hallway that it was done. A pot roast trimmed with potatoes and carrots would have been nice, but that type of meal was a luxury that only came around once a month since George had quit working. Clara was the breadwinner now, and other than the long hours on her feet, she didn’t mind it too much. It was nice to get out of the house after so many years of staying at home raising their daughter. Clara did wish she could cut down to part time in order to help George take care of David and Elizabeth, but they couldn’t consider that option until he began collecting his social security benefits. On the other hand, it didn’t hurt George to look after the children for Charlene. It gave him something to do, even though more often than not he complained about their behavior each evening after Charlene had picked them up. When school started again in September, George would get some relief from his baby-sitting duties. He would have to watch the children for Charlene forty-five minutes each morning before school started, and again for two hours in the afternoon. Clara had reminded him of the impending abbreviated schedule several times in recent days, but that didn’t stop her husband from complaining about the children’s bickering, behavior, and daily demands upon him.
By the time Clara came out of the bedroom George was seated at the kitchen table. Whether he’d been in the backyard, or holed up in the garage where he’d spent so much time since Curtis had died, Clara didn’t now. She stifled a sigh. He’d been home all morning, yet he hadn’t made an effort to set the table for lunch, take the casserole out of the oven, or put the breakfast dishes away that had been left to dry in the drainer. He’d helped Clara quite a bit with household chores before Curtis died. But now he rarely made an effort to assist at all, which was aggravating on those nights Clara came home from work exhausted, only to find a sink full of dirty dishes and the children’s toys scattered from one end of the house to the other.
Clara didn’t mention the many things George could have done while she was at church. To do so would start a fight she didn’t want to take part in, and that she wouldn’t win anyway.
“What’d you do while I was gone?” the woman asked as she pulled plates and glasses from a cabinet, then grabbed two forks and a serving spoon from the utensil drawer.
George shrugged. “Read the paper. Worked in the garage a while.”
“What are you working on?”
“Nothing special. Just tinkering.”
Clara set the table, then, crossed to the oven. She took the potholders off the hooks they hung on beneath a cabinet. She opened the oven door and pulled out the hot casserole dish. She set it on the stove and took the lid off so the meal could cool for a few minutes. She walked to the refrigerator and pulled fresh tomatoes from the crisper. She sliced them on a serving plate while she talked to her husband.
“Are you building something for the children?”
“You said you were tinkering.”
“No,” the old man shook his head. “No, I’m not building anything. I’m just...tinkering, like I said.”
“George, you can’t hide away in that garage in an attempt to run from your grief.”
Clara received no answer, but then, she didn’t expect one. George never had been one to talk about his feelings. His life had been riddled with difficulties from an early age. First his mother’s death when he was ten, and then when he was eighteen, George lost his only brother, Thomas, to a tragic accident. Or that’s how George and his sisters always referred to it - as an ‘accident.’ In reality, Tom had hung himself from a second story barn rafter. Tom had just celebrated his sixteenth birthday two weeks before his death. George and Tom had been close – one another’s best friend. George would never talk about Tom’s death, but their sister, Ruby, had once told Clara that Tom suffered ‘terrible bouts of sadness’ throughout his short life. In more recent years another of George’s sisters, Esther, had died as a result of an accidental overdose of medication. Clara never had thought Esther’s death was ‘accidental’ but kept her opinions to herself. There was a pattern to this so-called sadness in George’s family that George himself suffered from at times. Clara had lived through the peaks and valleys of George’s bouts with depression throughout their married life. His best years were when he was healthy and working. If nothing else, that seemed to give George a purpose and keep him busy. After his health deteriorated and he had to quit work, Clara saw the periods of low spirits return with increasing force and longevity. Sometimes she even wondered if a boy as young as Curtis had been could suffer from depression. She had read in the health section of the newspaper that doctors were beginning to conclude depression often ran in families, just like any disease or abnormality might. Given that Tom had taken his life at sixteen, Clara supposed it was possible that more played into Curtis’s decision than just the surface things of his parents’ divorce, a new neighborhood, and the responsibility of his younger siblings. However, Clara doubted she’d ever have any solid answers to her questions in that regard. What was done was done. Now all they could do was move on and try to give David and Elizabeth a better chance at a happy life than their brother had.
Clara put the platter of tomatoes in front of her husband. She reached in a drawer for a hot pad and sat that in the center of the round table. She used her potholders when she picked up the casserole dish and carried it to the hot pad. She filled her husband’s plate, then filled her own and sat down.
“I wish you’d talk to someone at the senior center,” the woman said as she forked a tomato and put it on her plate.
“Don’t need to talk to someone. Besides, we can’t afford it.”
The senior citizens center a few blocks away offered services that ranged from reduced-cost meals, to second-hand clothing, to medical care. They also had counseling services available.
“They’ll only make us pay what we can, George. It won’t cost that much.”
“It’ll cost more than what we’ve got to spend. And with David and Elizabeth here everyday now...well, them kids are damn near eatin’ us outta house and home.”
“I’ve buried a lot of people in my life, Clara. My mother. My brother. The three babies you miscarried, then our Tommy. After that it was my father, and then Esther. I made it through all those times without talking to someone, so I expect I’ll make it through this time as well.”
George stood, leaving his lunch untouched. “Just drop it. I only wanna talk to one person. Just one person. I’m gonna talk to him, too, and before our conversation is over, he damn well better be able to tell me why.”
“Who, George? Who are you talking about? What do you mean, he’d better be able to tell you why?”
The man ignored his wife as he walked through the kitchen and exited out the door of the small laundry room and into the backyard. Clara heard the side service door on the garage slam shut.
The woman left her own lunch uneaten as she sat alone at the table. She didn’t like what her husband had said, or how he’d said it. His words had sounded like a threat, but who was he threatening and why?
Fifteen minutes later Clara still had no answers, and George hadn’t returned. With a heavy sigh that combined both her weariness and worry, the woman stood and began clearing the table.