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Choose A Bright Morning

An Emergency Story By

Wilson  

 

 

 

PROLOGE:

I have been called a hero on more than one occasion, and I am sure I will be called a hero again. And I know that it is true … I am potentially risking death every time I show up for work.  I have snatched victims away from the angel of death more times than I can count; I’ve even shaken the grim reaper’s hand a few times myself. It just goes with the territory. So I guess I should be used to hearing people tell me that I am courageous… that it takes a lot of courage to do my job.

But when it comes right down to it, it’s inevitable, isn’t it?  No one will escape death forever.

The entire process is set in motion at the moment of conception.  Because being born is a package deal; if you are born, then you are destined to die.

Some people are blessed with a greater length of days than others, but one day, sooner or later, each and every one of us will face that moment when we draw our last breath; and every single one of us will have to face the realization that this time, death is going to win.

So if facing death makes one courageous; then every human being on the face of this earth will be courageous … eventually.

But during my twenty three years on this earth, time has revealed to me a few unpleasant realities about life. The biggest reality being, that life isn’t fair and that for some people, it takes a lot more courage to live.

For some unfortunate souls, there are faceless monsters lurking around every corner…hiding in the shadows of the future just waiting to pounce on them one day when they least expect it. 

For some, like my brother James, those monsters dogged them every waking moment … monsters no medicine could control…no doctor could fix. There just wasn’t a cure.  I guess that is why, at the tender age of nineteen years and twenty five days, James Robert Gage had reached the point where his courage began to fail him; so he decided to beat the monster to the punch.

Excerpt from the journal of John Roderick Gage New Year’s Eve 1973.

 

December 22cd 1973

     “May your days be merry and bright … and may all your Christmases be white.”   

  

Well if by white they meant a fog so thick you could cut it with a knife, then the crooner had it just about right, the woman thought dismally. The pretty ash blonde nurse was clearly not impressed with the radio stations’ choice of songs. She leaned forward, narrowing her eyes slightly as she scanned the road in front of her. It was almost as if she thought by squinting it would somehow help her see through the dense wall of grey-white fog that blanketed the city of Los Angeles.

Dixie McCall reached over and switched off the radio as she made the final turn that would take her into the employee parking area. She could barely make out the outline of Rampart Hospital in the thick soupy mist, but experience and the sheer repetitiveness of following the same route day after day, meant she had no difficulty guiding her vehicle safely into her designated spot.

It had been a long drive in to work as the traffic had crawled along at turtle speed along the 405. Still, she was appreciative of the fact that most people were being prudent on their morning commute.

Of course there was always those few that had failed to allow for an adequate amount of time to travel in such inclement weather so they inevitably ended up running late. They were the ones who would shout angrily at the other drivers while laying on their horn as if they could dissipate the fog by the sheer volume of their angry shouts and honking car horns.

Sooner or later their impatience would make them do something stupid…like drive too fast in the diminished visibility. Dixie herself had narrowly missed being side swiped by some maniac who had done just that.

For the life of her, she couldn’t understand why some people hadn’t figured out that they needed to drive appropriate for the weather conditions. Recklessness on a drivers’ part would almost certainly end in tragedy. The driver either ended up injuring … possibly even killing themselves … or some other hapless victim who just happened to cross their path.

Considering the fact that in many places the cars had come to a complete standstill as the traffic backed up; those drivers who did speed up invariably never gained more than a twenty foot advantage for all their effort.

Dixie finally pulled in and parked her car in the spot reserved for the head nurse and switched off the ignition. She found herself humming softly and grimaced as she realized the Christmas song that had just been playing on the radio was probably going to be stuck in her head all day long. She heaved a heavy sigh of resignation and shouldered the car door open.

“Well, here we go…into the trenches for another twelve hours,” she muttered.

An icy blast whipped against her face as she left the relative warmth of her car, causing the corners of her sweater to blow open. She gathered them snugly against her body in an effort to keep the damp fog that seemed to permeate everything it touched, at bay. Reaching back into the car, the pretty nurse grabbed her purse off the front seat before pushing the lock down and closing the door. Dixie hurried across the parking lot, opting to use the emergency entrance as it was the closest one to her car.

She hurried towards the automatic doors, pausing briefly to smile as her eyes lit upon the sight of the bright red rescue squad bearing the number 51 on its door, backed in next to an ambulance.  She remembered Johnny telling her that they preferred to back in so the, ‘horses were always turned toward home,’ just in case they were called out again.  A quick glance at her watch revealed that she still had over twenty minutes before her shift began. She couldn’t stop the involuntary sigh of relief as her body felt the warm air envelope her as she entered into the building.

A cursory glance around the ER revealed the usual early morning activity. Several people lingered in the waiting area chatting quietly while they drank coffee from the vending machine. The stack of outdated magazines was strewn haphazardly across the coffee table where they had been perused with disinterest and discarded.

No one looked particularly upset or worried… it was a good a sign. That usually meant the events that had brought the band of lobby dwellers to the emergency room had been nothing more serious than a broken finger or  perhaps a few stitches … significant enough to need a visit to the ER, but nothing life threatening.

Dixie was thankful for small mercies. Tragic deaths or injuries were bad enough at any time of the year, but it seemed to multiply exponentially when it occurred around the holidays. For some reason, the joviality of the season when witnessed in direct contrast to grieving family members, amplified how heartbreaking life could be sometimes.

A further glance to her left revealed a nervous young man standing at the admitting desk filling out forms while his obviously pregnant wife was being ushered into a wheel chair by a slightly disinterested orderly who was trying to stifle a yawn. Dixie could almost feel the young attendants’ fatigue. It was the mind numbing weariness that came with working the graveyard shift. He stood by patiently, waiting while the paperwork was being written up so he could take his charge up to maternity.

Someone’s getting an early Christmas present, Dixie thought with a smile.

It was an all too familiar scene that would play itself out several more times before her shift ended. She knew the relative emptiness of the waiting room was merely the lull before the storm. Over the next two hours, the morning commuters would hit the roads and the combination of dense fog and impatient drivers who were running late for work would mean business was sure to pick up soon … it was almost inevitable.

Dixie couldn’t help but smile as she approached the main desk. Her two favourite paramedics from Station 51 were there talking to the soon to be off duty nurse, Betty. They appeared to be going over a list of supplies the squad would need for the day. Roy’s younger partner, Johnny Gage was leaning haphazardly over the counter with a Styrofoam cup of what Dixie assumed was coffee in one hand, while his chin rested in the other. Johnny’s eyes were closed, but he was obviously not asleep as every few seconds he would mumble a suggestion to his partner. There was no mistaking the body language…their posture spoke of a long shift with little to no sleep.

Dixie was not unsympathetic. This time of year was always frenetic. She had experienced that same, tired to the bone weariness many times herself. In fact, it was probably safe to say, that by the end of her twelve hour shift, her posture would resemble the dark haired medic standing in front of her.

And in Johnny’s case, it was more than just being overworked that was causing his spirits to lag. If he had seemed a bit more subdued this season, it was completely understandable, due to the death of his father several months earlier. This would be his first Christmas without his dad.

Her footfalls were silent as she approached the two men from behind.

“Well, good morning you two,” She greeted cheerfully, “I see you decided to get one more early morning run in before going off duty.”

Johnny cracked open his eyes and gave his favourite nurse a weary smile. Pulling himself upright, he stepped aside to allow her to walk behind the counter.

“It will be a good morning in about;” the dark haired medic glanced at his watch; “in about fifteen minutes. That’s when we can take off and I can get some real sleep.”

“Well I have to admit, you are looking a trifle faded this morning Johnny,” Dixie observed.

Johnny grunted and returned to leaning against the desk. Dixie tried to figure out what the grunt was supposed to convey. Was it derision, fatigue; or was it merely the exhausted John Gage equivalent of, I heard you?

Dixie decided that trying to engage Johnny in chit-chat was futile so she turned and tried to elicit a conversation with the other half of the paramedic team.

“Good morning, Roy,” she sang out cheerfully.

Roy, hearing his name looked up from his task of restocking the drug box.

“Hey Dix,” he greeted flatly. His posture lacked any sign of enthusiasm save for a heavy weariness.

Dixie, undaunted, tried again. “The weather forecaster on the radio this morning said that this is the worst fog Los Angeles has seen in almost twenty years,” she stated.

Johnny gave the nurse a skeptical look. “Seeing as how I only moved to L.A. six years ago, I’ll have to take his word for it,” he answered dully as he reached over and took a clean Styrofoam cup and filled it with coffee. He frowned as he took the first mouthful.

“I’m not even sure why I filled this cup,” he groused. “It isn’t as if I wanted it….and I certainly don’t need it. I’ve literally swilled down gallons of it all shift long. In fact it’s probably safe to say, that I have enough caffeine in my system that I probably won’t need another cup until my next shift in two days.”

But Dixie understood why he’d done it. It was indicative of just how exhausted he was. Both men were running on auto-pilot. He had filled the cup because it had become routine for him to do so. They always grabbed a coffee and shot the breeze with Dix for five minutes whenever they brought a patient in. That was their ritual …they did it, because that is just what they did.

Seeing the younger medic now fully alert, Dixie again made another attempt at conversing with him.

“I almost got nailed by some jerk that was speeding along the 405 this morning. He was probably running late for work because he didn’t allow himself enough time to compensate for the fog. And just think, in another half hour the morning commuters are going to hit the roads in all of this fog.” 

Dixie could tell by the disgusted look that had fallen into place on the dark haired medic’s face that he was about to start into one of his famous rants. Johnny, now drawn up to his full height, began to speak.

“That, Dixie, is one of the great unsolved mysteries of our time. I will never understand why people do that … it’s as if they have no sense of reason… and how do you reason with the unreasonable? Do you know we’ve attended no less than four MVA’s since one o’clock this morning? I swear we never got more than an hours sleep between calls all night long,” he complained.

Dixie cast her glance over to the calmer of the two medics. She waited to see if he would do his customary eye roll at Johnny’s tirade, but instead Roy simply lowered his head and sighed.  The ER nurse couldn’t tell if the current longsuffering look on older medic’s face meant he was resigning himself to the rant…or agreeing with it.

Johnny, now fully awake went on with his diatribe. “You should have been here a half an hour ago, Dix.” This time Roy did roll his eyes at his partner’s statement.

Dixie cocked an eye questioningly.

“We brought in a man who decided to get loaded to the gills and then try to drive in to work wearing his one button suit,” Johnny elaborated.

“His one button suit?” Dixie queried.

“They mean he was in the nude,” Betty explained patiently as she handed off the clipboard with the supply requisition to the incoming nurse.

“Do you mind finishing up this list, Dix?” Betty asked, temporarily interrupting the medic’s tale. “I’ve still got to clean up treatment room one before my shift ends. And I really want to be able to leave here on time today because I still have Christmas shopping to do before I come back on duty tomorrow.”

Dixie nodded. “Sure, Betty, go on ahead. I’m ready to start my shift, anyway.”

The truth was the head nurse was now fully interested in the story Johnny was about to tell. She took hold of the clip board and began to grab the last few items on the list and hand them to Roy.

“So, how was it you managed to be called out to a DUI of a naked man?” Dixie questioned.

This time it was Johnny who rolled his eyes.

“Would you believe this idiot, got himself all liquored up, divested himself of all of his clothing… doing Lord only knows what with them … and then he decides to drive around in the pre-dawn fog? Needless to say, the combination of his state of inebriation and the thick fog meant it wasn’t very long before drove himself into a utility pole, smashing his head against the windshield,” Johnny said in disgust. “And then, to top things off, when he comes to, he decides he isn’t going to be taken in alive.”

“Is that how you got this tear in your shirt?” Dixie asked as she fingered the hole in the sleeve of his still damp uniform.

Johnny looked at the torn sleeve with a sour look.

“Oh that’s just great,” he said angrily; “but I’m not surprised. As soon as we got him out of the car and onto the blanket, he suddenly jumps up and takes off across the road, trying to run away from both us and the police. Of course in his state of intoxication, he could barely walk a straight line let alone successfully run anywhere, so naturally he decided to find the most inconvenient place to fall…bare ass up into a ditch full of water. I’ve got to tell you Dix, trying to subdue a heavyset, naked, water slicked man is a lot like trying to catch a greased pig,” the disgruntled medic groused. “And there are just some places no man wants to find his hands in that kind of a scuffle…in fact I would have preferred a greased pig… same amount of work, with less vomit.”

“Hey, at least he hit Vince’s shoes instead of yours,” Roy interjected.

Johnny snickered. “Yeah, his little impromptu gift to Vince isn’t going to win him any brownie points when he gets released into police custody. Although,” Johnny mused. “A nice cold pair of handcuffs should help to sober him up pretty quickly. Vince is in treatment room four with Morton now, trying to get a name outta the guy,” Johnny informed the nurse.

“You mean he didn’t have any ID on him?” Dixie asked.

“He didn’t exactly have any pockets to put a wallet in,” the dark haired medic said with an impish grin.

“Well,” Roy drawled slowly, “With his weight, there were a few folds of skin,” Roy challenged, with an evil grin.

Johnny grimaced at the mental image Roy’s words evoked. “Stop right there, Pally,” he admonished his partner. Don’t even think about finishing that thought. As it is, I’m going to need at least three more cups of coffee to get that mental picture out of my head now,” the younger man complained.

Roy chuckled as he remembered the sight of Vince and Johnny struggling to get their victim out of the wet ditch while he had been setting up the equipment.

“I don’t think the guy was seriously hurt,” Johnny continued. “Looks like maybe a minor concussion. Morton’s keeping him here more as a precaution really. It is kind of difficult to tell how much of his lack of mental acuity is inebriation, and how much is head injury. Right now he is so pie-eyed nothing he says sounds coherent much less oriented. Vince may just have to run the plates to get an ID …assuming the car was even his. In his state he could well have gotten into any car if the keys were already in the ignition,” Johnny finished with a weary sigh.

Dixie struggled to keep a straight face as she imagined Johnny’s earlier predicament. “Well, it’s no wonder you’re dragging this morning, Johnny,” she said with mock understanding.

“Thankfully it’s not for much longer, though. We’ll be off the clock by the time we get back to the barn,” the dark haired man said in obvious relief. “By the time we get back to the station, our shift will be over and we can hand over the keys to the squad to B shift. Which is just as well, I don’t think I could handle one more call. My stamina definitely feels like it’s circling the drain; even with all this caffeine in my system,” he said tossing his now empty cup in the trash.

“Sounds like you two need a few good hours sleep” Dixie said with a wink. She took the clip board and handed it to Roy for his signature. Roy scratched his name across the line on the bottom of the form and handed the clipboard back with a tired smile. The head nurse patted the older medic’s arm sympathetically. “Well, just think, in less than half an hour you’ll be off duty and you can go home and rest for a couple of days.”

The nurse’s words seemed to instantly improve Roy’s mood. 

“And I’m really looking forward to the time off too,” he said happily.

“Well of course you are, Roy,” Johnny acknowledged. “You’re off until the twenty seventh. You’re done dealing with all the pre-Christmas frenzy on the roads… I still have to get through my Christmas Eve shift,” Johnny grumbled.

“Now how on earth did you manage to get that much time off at Christmas, Roy?” Dixie asked in amazement.

“I traded shifts with Richard Tompkins from 67’s,” Roy explained.

“His oldest son, Nathan is twenty three, and works on an ocean freighter. Turns out the ship was leaving port on the nineteenth for two months. Tomkins kids are both in their early twenties and on longer at the Santa Claus stage, so the rest of his family decided to have their Christmas a week early so Nate would still be there to share it with them. But Richie was scheduled to work on the day his daughter-in-law had planned to have her Christmas, so I agreed to trade shifts with him. In exchange for my taking his shift on the seventeenth, Richie is working Christmas Eve for me. And because our shift worked Christmas Day last year, our regular schedule is to be on the twenty fourth and have the twenty fifth and twenty sixth off this year. So once I leave here today, I am off for five full days,” he said wistfully.

“Yup,” Johnny crowed enviously. “As soon as we hand over possession of the squad to Dwyer, Roy will be out of that station faster than the Israelites flight from Egypt.”

Roy couldn’t hide the smile on his face as the thought about having almost a week off. Just the remembrance of all the things he had planned for his family seemed to fill him with a renewed sense of energy. It was indicative of a man who could see some light at the end of a long dark tunnel. This year, the time he would spend with is family meant more to him than ever.

At eight and a half and in the third grade, Chris was starting to have suspicions about Santa. He’d been asking more and more questions about how Santa managed to do all the things he did in one night. And although he was, as of yet, still convinced of Santa’s existence, Roy knew this would more than likely be his last year of believing in the jolly man from the North Pole. He knew his son’s wide eyed look of wonder on Christmas morning and the excitement generated by the anticipation and magic of Santa was fast coming to an end.

Jenny, at five still had a few years left… but it wouldn’t be the same as when both his children believed. Roy knew by next Christmas, there would be that knowing look in Chris’s eyes at Jenny’s naiveté while he played along in believing about Santa. And for that first year at least, probably some sadness in realizing some of the excitement had been taken from him as he and Jenny hung up their stockings.

Lost innocence….slowly….by tiny increments… it would the beginning of the end of his son’s wide eyed wonder. It would portend the start of his son’s learning about the harsh realities of life as awareness slowly crept into his world as he continued to grow up and become more world wise with each passing year. He had already discovered that the Easter bunny was not real when he was seven, as well as the tooth fairy.

Santa Claus was the last vestige of total innocence in the young boys’ life, and Roy did not want to miss his chance to experience that innocence just one last time. Lately, Roy had felt like time was slipping away from him, like water running down the drain. He knew it largely stemmed from the death of Johnny’s dad earlier in the year; and the fact that Joanne’s father was battling terminal cancer, and would not likely be around to see his grandchildren grow up.  When he realized that the chance of spending time with his kids while they both still believed in the magic of Christmas was slipping through his fingers, he grasped at any thread he could find to delay it’s passing as long as possible.

Roy’s thoughts were pulled back to the present by the sound of Johnny’s laughter over something Dixie had said.

“Anyway… Roy has the next few days all mapped out, don’t you Pally?” Johnny said.

“Yeah,” Roy replied brightly. “It’s going to be a busy time, but lots of fun. I want to spend it with just me, Joanne and the kids for the most part. Of course Johnny, here is expected to be over for Christmas dinner… or at least you’d better be,” he said looking at the younger man leaning against the counter. “Because I’m counting on you to help me keep the kids entertained while Jo cooks dinner,” he said expectantly.

Johnny answered, his friend with a wide grin and a nod of affirmation.

Roy looked over and tried to explain to Dixie why this year was so important to him.

“It’s just that I want this year to be extra special. It’s why I traded Tompkins for the extra time off. With Chris getting older, it’s not going to be long before he stops believing in Santa…and then before you know it, he’s going to be at the age where he’s too cool to hang around his dear old dad as much. I can’t help but feel that life’s moments are rushing past, and I just want to grab these next few days and create a few special memories between me and my son. So this afternoon Chris and I are going out to the tree farm to cut down a Christmas tree….just me and him having some father and son time alone, because… ” His words faded off into silence leaving the rest of his statement hanging in mid-air as he realized his mistake.

 The smile had slid from Johnny’s face and he had suddenly become silent. As Roy’s eyes met his partner’s, Johnny tried to hide the brief flash of pain in his eyes as Roy’s words filtered through his mind. But the attempt had been futile and even though the look of anguish in his eyes was fleeting,  both Roy and Dixie had seen it.

There was an awkward moment of silence as everyone at the desk paused.

Johnny felt Dixie’s gentle touch on his arm as Roy looked at him remorsefully.

“Damn it, Johnny, I’m sorry… that was thoughtless of me… I just wasn’t thinking.”

Johnny didn’t quite trust his voice yet so he just shook his head and tried to steel his features into some semblance of a reassuring look. He paused to take a steadying breath in order to regain his composure. Finally after several moments had passed, the younger man cleared his throat in an attempt to break the uncomfortable silence.

“Stop it, Roy. My father has been dead for six months now and the last thing I want…or need…is for everyone to go around walking on egg shells around me. That just makes it worse by actually drawing my attention to it, and it makes everyone …including me, uncomfortable.” he said, straining to keep the sadness out of his voice. “I just hope your wife remembers that I don’t like cloves in my hot apple cider this year… last year she forgot and I almost gagged when I took that first mouthful.”

Not usually one to be so self-conscious, Johnny hoped he hadn’t sounded too desperate for a change of subject.

Thankfully both Dixie and Roy took the hint that Johnny wanted to end the conversation; which was just as well since neither of them was sure how to respond anyway.

After another minute had passed, Johnny pushed wearily off the counter with his hands.

“Well, I suppose we ought to be heading back to the barn,” he said, the weariness in his voice had returned and was hanging off him like a lead weight.  

Roy smiled at Dixie as he hoisted the box of supplies off the counter. Somehow wishing her a Merry Christmas no longer seemed appropriate at the moment. Instead he waved his partner on ahead of him as he plodded wearily out to the squad.  

                                                         ~                                          ~                                           ~

Roy remained several paces behind his partner as the two medics exited the hospital. Neither man had uttered a word since leaving Dixie at the base station. Johnny appeared to be lost in his own thoughts, and Roy wasn’t sure if any attempt at conversation would be welcome.

As they neared the rear bumper of the squad, Roy was taken aback when without warning; Johnny pivoted around and seized the box of supplies from his hands.

“Here,” he said motioning to compartment on his side of the squad. “You might as well let me load these up for you, since they go on my side, anyway.”

Roy nodded mutely and headed toward the driver’s side of the vehicle. He paused to remove his jacket before opening the door, tossing the garment onto the seat and then climbed in after it. He was unable to stop a huge, face splitting yawn from escaping as he inserted the key into the ignition. It had been a long shift and a quick glance at his wrist watch told him that B shift would be ready and waiting to take over for them by the time they got back to the barn.

Roy heard the clang of the compartment doors shutting indicating Johnny had finished loading the supplies. A moment later the passenger door swung wide and his partner’s body appeared standing beside the squad. The younger man reached into the glove box and grabbed the call sheet from where it had been hastily shoved after their last rescue. He scribbled something down on the paper and tucked it into the sun visor before easing his body into the cab. He sank bonelessly onto the seat as if the effort of each movement was costing him the last of his strength. After shifting his weight several times, the weary medic finally settled back with an exhausted sigh. He rested his head against the back of the seat and closed his eyes.  The younger man was clearly flagging even more than Roy was, despite all the caffeine he had just recently ingested.

After a brief pause, Johnny’s head turned to face Roy and his eyes slowly cracked open. He favoured the older man with a tired smile.

“We’d better get going, Partner,” he instructed. “I’m sure Chris is waiting by the front door for you to get home… he’ll be champing at the bit for you to take him out to find the perfect Christmas tree.”

Roy visibly flinched, his hand frozen in place as it rested on key. His gaze was fixed on the steering wheel, the corners of his mouth turned down into a frown.

He was unaware that Johnny had raised his head from the back of the seat and was silently watching him, until he felt the younger man nudge his arm with his elbow.

 “Are you going to start the engine or are you just going to try and stare the squad into submission?” Johnny questioned curiously.

Roy turned his glance in his partner’s direction and cleared his throat.

“Johnny,” he started, his tone subdued. “I’m really sorry about that comment I made inside.”

Johnny seemed genuinely confused as to what Roy was referring to and his eyebrows raised in question.

“I mean about Chris and I, and the whole father-son spending time together… I just forgot.” Roy clarified.

Johnny held up his hand, cutting off the rest of Roy’s apology.

 “Trust me Roy. I, of all people, understand how important it is to make as many of those father-son memories as you can. No harm, no foul,” he reassured his partner. “Now come on Dad,” the younger man commanded. “Let’s get you home to your wife and kids….and don’t worry, I’ll be at your place Christmas Day before noon, gifts in hand, with an empty stomach demanding to be fed.”

Johnny reached forward and informed dispatch that Squad 51 was now returning to quarters. It was the younger man’s way of letting his partner know that he considered the matter settled and that the subject was now closed for discussion.

As they headed back to the station, Johnny found himself prattling on about mundane things in order to break the silence. Because if ever there was a time he needed a distraction, this was it. Talking about the holiday traffic was infinitely better than the subject that was really on his mind.

Ever since Roy’s awkward slip of the tongue at Rampart, Johnny had been struggling to push his feelings regarding the loss of his father, out of his mind. 

It was a subject that was just too painful to address while he was on duty. Hell, it was too painful when he had to deal with it in the privacy of his own house. But his own home at least, afforded him the opportunity to grieve away from an audience. It was also a conversation he’d been hoping to avoid with anyone else this holiday season.

But if he was being honest, it had been on his mind, long before Roy had mentioned it that morning. The truth of it was, that for some reason, the last few days he had felt out of sorts.

As much as he had always appreciated Roy and Joanne’s inclusion of him at the dinner table on Christmas Day, this year he just wasn’t keen on the idea. But he knew his best friend would be deeply hurt, and worried if he opted out of the invitation. So he had put on a good face and accepted the invite with good grace.

It was true however, that after the past couple of years of having holiday dinners with the DeSoto’s whenever their schedule permitted it; Johnny had become ensconced in their life as an honorary member of the family. And it was also true that he loved the guy like a brother and he adored his wife and children. But for some reason, this year he felt like a bit of a third wheel… like he was borrowing his partner’s family. It had been different when his dad had been alive. Probably because there had been an occasion or two on Christmas or his birthday when his father had come to Los Angeles had been invited along to the DeSoto’s for dinner, so it had been somehow different then.

He wasn’t entirely sure he could put what he was feeling into actual words…but he felt it.

                                             ~                             ~                                   ~

Inside the cab, Roy had noticed that Johnny had finally given up all attempts at his diversionary tactics in order to avoid the elephant in the room…or in this case, the elephant in the squad; his previous chatter having  finally petered out into a rather noticeable and loud silence.

A casual glance at his partner revealed that Johnny had retrieved an old family photo he carried with him from his wallet and was staring at it sadly. It was a smaller version of a picture that sat on Johnny bookshelf in his apartment. 

Johnny did not look at Roy… his eyes were fixed on the faded picture in his hands. It was a picture of young Johnny with an older boy that Roy now knew to be his brother James.

Johnny looked to have been about nine while the older boy appeared to be about sixteen. The teen looked like an older version of Johnny, only with light brown hair and green eyes.

His partner was clearly lost in some memory, probably of his family and Roy was loathe to intrude on those private thoughts.  He just wasn’t sure this was the time.

So for the moment, Roy let the idea of conversation drop. He saw the flash of sorrow in Johnny’s eyes…that haunted look. He hadn’t asked any more questions about it, but he knew his partner as well as he knew himself and he was also shrewd enough to read between the lines.  He also remembered those first days after Johnny’s dad had died.

Roy had shown his partner an, I’m here if you need me, but I won’t push the issue, kind of support he had needed at the time. He had nudged when he felt the younger man needed to let his grief out, and backed off when he knew Johnny needed some space. And right now, Roy couldn’t help but think that this was one of those moments when his partner needed a bit of nudging so he could just let out the sorrow Roy new he was struggling to hide. But for some reason, Roy found he was struggling to find the right words to say. Why was it so hard to get his mouth to say what his heart was screaming?

Roy’s hands flexed on the steering wheel; he was purposely avoiding eye contact with his partner as he stared straight ahead, lost in his own dilemma of should he or shouldn’t he try to get Johnny to let it out.

Roy wasn’t great at the comforting thing. Most guys weren’t … it made them feel awkward and uncomfortable. Johnny was infinitely better at it than he was. Johnny had a natural empathy and a desire to comfort the hurt. At least he did when it came to other people’s pain.  He’d seen it when Drew had been killed. Johnny had insisted he be the one to tell Pam… he insisted that she heard the news from a friend rather than a strange doctor she didn’t know.

Chet used humour, Roy used reason, but Johnny wore his heart on his sleeve; he could show his sorrow as easily as he showed his anger. But he also had a bad habit of trying not to inflict his own sorrow regarding his dad’s death onto his friends.

Although Roy had to admit that he was getting better expressing his own feelings; Johnny had brought it out of him. Until he had met his young partner, Roy had only felt those feelings in relation to his wife, his kids and his mom. He had been an only child and had always kept to himself. But then along came John Gage, with his soulful dark eyes, crooked grin and that happy go lucky attitude. He had wormed his way into Roy’s world and taken up residence in his life….suddenly Roy had a best friend, brother, confidant and yes … at times… a partner in crime.

Which was odd, because of all the men he worked with at the station, Roy was closest in age to Chet. He and the curly headed linesman were only two months apart in age. But Chet, like Marco, had a big family and so it was the two linesmen that connected instead. Plus they worked as partners on big red.

Mike had two sisters, and had a more serious, lone wolf type of personality. Although he too was married with a young son, he just acted older for his years and so he just seemed to be closer to the Cap in that regard. But he and Johnny had both been, only children…or so Roy had thought back when they had first met. And by virtue of being Paramedic partners, they had been tossed together and had immediately hit it off. Even though Johnny could tax the patience of a Saint, Roy also found him to be a breath of fresh air.

But it went beyond that. Lots of partners were friends, but few shared the closeness he and Johnny did. Their relationship was based on something deeper.

The day Johnny’s father had died, Roy hadn’t been there. It had happened on the same weekend Roy had booked off for Joanne’s birthday. He had taken his wife away for two days and upon the news of his dad’s death, Johnny had forbidden anyone to try and contact Roy on his weekend getaway ... even though it may have been what Roy would have wanted. In the end it hadn’t mattered; they couldn’t have tracked him down even if they wanted too.

Johnny had been working with Brice, and they had been out responding a child who had had an allergic reaction to a bee sting, when the call came into the station. When the Paramedics had arrived back at the station, Johnny had been met by Cap and Chief Hautes. They had pulled him into Captain Stanley’s office and broken the news to him there.

By the time Roy had returned home, Johnny had already flown home to Oklahoma to arrange a funeral service for his father so his dad’s friends could say their goodbyes before Johnny took his dad’s body back to Nebraska to be interred beside his mother. Roy had been fortunate that HQ had decided to give him the extra time off so he could fly out and be with Johnny for support for both the funeral and interment.

It had been the first time Roy had ever set foot on a reservation and it had been an eye opening experience. It was then that he felt shame about laughing at Chet’s native jokes in the past. When the time was right he resolved to apologize to Johnny for thinking it was a subject to be joked about.

During the quiet service in Oklahoma, Johnny had looked every inch the part of a proud stoic native. He stood tall and proud … unmoving. His dark eyes were focused straight ahead, his jaw set firm and hard. There had been no family to speak of at the service other than Johnny, and a handful of his father’s friends. Johnny’s great Aunt, the one he had moved in with when he came to California, had died the year prior from complications from diabetes. There were a few fourth and fifth cousins, but they were virtual strangers to Johnny. In fact Johnny had once joked that they were so distantly related he could legally marry them. The service on the reservation had been strictly for his father’s friends and co-workers… to give them a chance to say goodbye before he went to join his wife in Nebraska.

It was at the interment in Nebraska that Roy had first become aware that Johnny had had an older brother who had died. Johnny had never mentioned it before so it was a shock to Roy when he saw the family headstone. There clearly inscribed on the granite were the words:

                                                                                              Gage

                                                                     Catherine Elisabeth nee: Herrman  

                                                                            May 11, 1922- Oct. 26, 1959 

                                                                                     Beloved Wife Of

                                                                                Roderick James Gage   

                                                                           Feb. 5, 1920 –

                                                                                           their son

                                                                                   James Robert Gage    

                                                                       November 5, 1943 – Nov. 30, 1962

Johnny had an older brother?  By doing the math in his head he had figured out that Johnny had been nine when his mother had died and that his brother had passed at the age of nineteen, which would have made Johnny twelve. Neither made sense since Johnny had always said his mother had been gone since he was six and he had never ever mentioned a brother period.

During the brief interment service at the graveside, Johnny had remained silent and uncommunicative. The only indication of his pain was by how close he kept to Roy’s side. Roy had looked over once and realized Johnny had been watching him read the names and dates on the family headstone … watching him do the math….watching his surprise over the fact that Johnny had once had an older brother. Johnny acknowledged the look with a silent promise of, I’ll explain it to you later…but not now.

As soon as the formalities were over and Johnny had said his own private goodbye to his dad before they had flown back to Los Angeles. It had been that night, back at his apartment that Johnny’s emotional dam finally burst. Roy was never sure what had prompted Johnny to finally lose control of his emotions and unload to him. But it had probably been a combination of fatigue, grief, and a growing need for a shoulder to cry on.

Perhaps it had been the familiar sights and scents of his apartment; sights that meant home and comfort to the younger man that had greeted him like an invisible hug. Familiar reminders of his life like the sight of his favourite coffee mug still sitting on his counter where he’d left it the morning he had hurriedly packed some clothes into his suitcase for the trip to Oklahoma.

Not that Johnny would ever admit that as a fully grown man, he had a favourite coffee mug…but he did. It was a dark green and navy swirled pattern that had been a gift from Jenny and Chris. They had given it to him for his birthday the first year he and Roy had been partners. It had been filled with Johnny’s favourite licorice candies, and adorned with a handmade card, full of childlike love and sentiment that had been attached to the handle with red and green yarn, stolen from Joanne’s knitting basket.

It could have been the sight of all the pictures that were scattered on various bookshelves and tables around the place. There were pictures of the two of them, arms around each other’s shoulders, big goofy grins on their faces. And there were the pictures of Johnny and his dad taken on a fishing trip, his dad proudly holding up a huge catfish he had just caught. Johnny hadn’t known it at the time, but it would be the last fishing trip they would ever take together.

Or perhaps it was because for the first time since his father’s death, Johnny no longer felt like he had to hold it together.

Johnny had stopped and stared at the photo of him and his dad as if he was suddenly keenly and acutely aware that he was the last of the Gage line….like he was the last of some species on the cusp of extinction….the young man suddenly looked very lost and alone.

It was then he turned to Roy…the one “person” whom he had left, and ever so slowly the stoicism began to crack and weaken. He had made one final vain attempt to gain control; grappling with his resolve; but it was to no avail. His dark eyes, clouded with a deep grief, grew moist as the final vestige of self-control deserted him completely. He looked over at Roy and with a sorrow that welled up from the very depths of his soul, and in a voice totally bereft of all toughness, he quietly said, “I’m an orphan now Roy… I’m the very last Gage left standing.” And then, without warning, Johnny’s shoulders sagged and began to shake as sobs of anguish took over his body.

It had definitely been uncharted territory in their friendship.

Suddenly the idea of hugging another man had lost all vestiges of awkwardness, and in an uncharacteristic move, Roy, who discovered he was no longer a tough macho fireman, but a concerned big brother, had pulled Johnny into a supportive hug and allowed Johnny to have his much needed release. And he continued to be there for his friend… his brother… as the younger man finally let go of his pain. Roy had understood that he was the closest thing to a family that Johnny had left in this world, and he had decided at that moment, to stay the night at Johnny’s apartment, not wanting to leave the man alone with his grief. Johnny hadn’t put up much of a fight. He had needed a trusted shoulder to lean on…he had needed the release.

It had been several hours later… after Johnny had had a few beers that he finally opened up. As he became more sedated by the effects of the alcohol, Johnny’s words had grown more unedited and he finally began to explain the writing on the gravestone to Roy.

Up until that point, the true story of his mother and his brother came out. Up until that point in regard to his mother, Johnny had just said, she had died and that she had been gone since he was six. The circumstances of how it had happened hadn’t been offered up and Roy hadn’t pressured. Some subjects were just never pushed. After the first announcement had been made regarding his mom and her death, Johnny had made it clear it was not open for discussion and Roy had respected it…just as Johnny knew some areas of his own life were off limits. Like the fact he and Joanne had had to get married or his own troubled relationship with his father.

Johnny had been blindsided by the sudden death of his father, which just proved that despite their occupation where the two of them dealt with accidents and unexpected death on an almost daily basis; you still never expected it to happen to someone you love…to intrude on your own life. Such accidents happened to others, not you. Which was an absurd thought in and of itself, because deep down they both knew better. Accidents and death happened, whether you were ready for it or not.

Slowly Johnny’s life story leaked out like an open wound…spilling out into Roy’s ears. Instead of creating an emotional awkwardness, like they had always feared…it had actually served to solidify an already strong bond, elevating it from that of best friends, to brother.

As his emotions drained and his tears became spent, Roy eventually took his friend by the arm and led him into his bedroom where Johnny, emotionally exhausted as he was, collapsed into a dreamless sleep.

By the end of that night they had found themselves in a place where they had bestowed the ultimate honour upon each other; that place where you give up your dignity and expose your hurts and fears; where you trust each other with your tears and allow the other person into that part of you that is usually reserved for you and you alone.

Nothing else needed to be explained, nothing else mattered.

From that moment on Roy had always shown an, I’m here if you need me, but I won’t push the issue, kind of support.

                                                                   ~                            ~                              ~

Johnny had finally run out of things to chat about and settled on looking out the side window at the scenery passing by.  After a few moments,  he took out his wallet and withdrew a photo that had been taken of him and James standing in front of their dad. A neighbour had snapped the shot the day of his mother’s funeral. The sight of his family staring up at him from the photo began to draw his emotions painfully to the surface.

Why had death taken them so early and left him behind?

The year before, he and Roy had had to work on Christmas Day, so Johnny had flown home for three days over New Year and he and his dad had celebrated their Christmas together then. Five months later, on June fifth, his father had been killed when the tractor he was driving had slid into a ditch and pinned him to the ground while he’d been helping to pull a neighbour’s car out of that same ditch. He’d died before help could arrive. It was a bitter irony that his own dad lived on a reservation in an area not serviced by Paramedics. He remembered the moment Cap and the chief had broken the news to him like it had just happened yesterday… the pain was still that raw.

He hadn’t actually cried at the time, but he knew that Cap had known he was on the verge…teetering on the edge of self-control. It was then he had whisked Johnny away from the Chief and into the dorms so he could regain some of his composure. Then Cap drove him home, declaring that he was in no fit state to be driving.

Johnny had never asked about who filled in for him that day. The station was stood down long enough for Hank to take him home….rational thought had been beyond him at that point. He had simply accepted it and was grateful for it. He wasn’t even sure where the other guys were or what had happened to Brice, he certainly hadn’t noticed any of them as he had left the station that day. But he didn’t think about those facts until much later. He just remembered hearing the awful news and the Chief asking him questions no one should ever have to answer.

As a Paramedic he was trained to help people….but he couldn’t help his dad. He hadn’t been there when his dad needed him most…when his life’s vocation could have possibly saved his life. He had been told his dad’s death had been quick; that he’d been unconscious the entire time. His dad had sustained a severe head injury and had lived less than twenty minutes after the accident…but still…maybe if he had been there. 

It had been a terrible first year of adjustments for Johnny. Perhaps the hardest thing to bear had been the sudden cessation of the weekly phone calls, and the sound of his father’s comforting voice at the other end of the line. No longer would he hear the laugh that was so much like his own. Never again would he hear his father say, “I love you son…I’ll call you again next week,” before he hung up. No more birthday cards, no summer vacation visit, no more of those father and son fishing trips they took every August for his birthday.  He had always booked his vacation time around the week of his birthday. 

There would be no sitting around the campfire quietly discussing their lives … no more holiday dinners spent eating fry bread, and those special handmade Christmas gifts; precious tokens of love between father and son that they could keep and hold onto to remind them how much they were loved. No more annual photograph to be added to the photo album. Those were the hardest things to get through. … It was almost as hard as the regret.

Regret for moments he’d let slip by. Memories of phone calls cut short, the conversations left unfinished all swirled together in his mind.  One of his biggest regrets was over the chance he’d had to visit his dad that previous May. The one he had put off for another time; the chance that had been forever lost when his dad had been killed. “We’ll do it when I fly out for Father’s Day next month, dad” he’d said into the phone, despite the disappointment he’d heard in his dad’s voice when he’d turned him down. But by Father’s Day he was having a funeral for his dad instead of fishing. He wished now that he had made time to do it in May when he’d had the chance.

Next to their summer camping trips, Johnny knew Christmas was going to be the hardest.

Those were memories and thoughts that Johnny kept in the murky corner of his soul, where sorrow and regret resided. The place he pushed down in his day to day life … the place he tried to avoid for the most part, until some external force brought them rushing to the surface…a smell, a song, a certain food or event.

Roy recognized those moments when they hit him, and was always there for support; just as Johnny knew when something had triggered Roy’s deepest pools of fear and pain to flow over. His close bond with his partner had been the only thing that had gotten him through those first few weeks. There was no one left alive that was closer to him than Roy. Just as he knew he was Roy’s closest friend after Joanne.

Johnny understood that there were intimate, private things that Roy and Joanne shared between themselves, that he was not, nor would he ever be privy too. He was not hurt by that fact.  Actually, it made him proud to have Roy as a best friend and confidant. It made him feel reassured and secure. Johnny also knew that Joanne was equally aware of the fact that there were things Roy shared with Johnny and Johnny only…..things that Joanne could never understand. Joanne had her sister Eileen, and Roy had Johnny.  The fact that Roy never shared those things that were between him and Joanne was what made Johnny sure he could trust the man with his own secrets.

There were also those subjects that were never discussed at the station; not even in the squad when they were alone; not while they were on duty and in danger of being interrupted by a call. Those were the subjects that were too intense to let their guard down while they were on the clock. Those were topics reserved for camping and fishing trips when privacy was assured and time to talk was limitless. Some of those talks had lasted from dusk until dawn.

There had been a myriad of conversations that had been hammered out over time. Their first few months after becoming partners had been a testing of the emotional waters; a time where slowly, over the first year, bits of information had leaked out from both of them. By year three of their friendship, those nights around a camp fire had solidified their bond.

It had been during those first few months in their partnership that Johnny had simply said his mother had died in Nebraska when he had been a small child and that he and his dad had moved back to a ranch on the reservation in Oklahoma where his father had been born.

Johnny knew he and Roy shared something no other Paramedic team shared. Both he and Roy had long ago decided that larger forces had been in play when their paths had crossed.  It could not be condensed down to a single moment or any defining incident….it was just one day, they knew…they understood and there had been no point in trying to explain the unexplainable. Plants needed sunshine and water to thrive….and John and Roy needed each other…it was a fact of life. They had accepted it and continued on with living.

Loyalty was their byword and was at the heart of their friendship. The two of them were attached, like an invisible elastic lifeline. They never strayed too far from each other, no dispute or argument was allowed to progress….it was physically impossible. That invisible elastic that held them together could only stretch so far before it would snap back, pulling them back together again.

But Johnny had kept one secret to himself…and it was that one secret that had remained between them. That secret had a name and its name was James and the real reason he had died.

It had not been because of a disloyalty to Roy that had kept Johnny silent. It had been out of a deep loyalty to James, his older brother. James, who would not want the world to know how he had died … that he had committed suicide because he had not been strong enough to go on.

Johnny had never felt that way, but he knew James had gone out of his way to make his death look like an accident….but Johnny knew better…he had always known.  And it was for James’ sake he had kept mute about him. That was  until the night he had returned home from his father’s interment in Nebraska. That was first time he had offered Roy a real glimpse into his past … the unabridged version.

                                                               ~                                 ~                                       ~

Roy edged the squad along slowly in the fog. He knew they were running into overtime territory now, but it couldn’t be helped. The fog was too dense and the traffic too slow to even remotely make it back in time for the shift change. There was nothing to do but grin and bear it, and hope that they didn’t get a call. Fortunately the radio remained silent.

Roy cast a furtive glance in Johnny’s direction and noticed that the young man had put away his photograph and was just staring out the passenger window of the squad. Johnny must have sensed Roy was looking at him, because his head swiveled around and looked back at Roy in that serious way he had when he was deeply hurt or sad.

Johnny’s eyes truly were the window to his soul. That was why the man sucked so badly at cards …his eyes gave him away every time. They sparkled with excitement when he had a good hand.

They always told the story of how he was feeling. They could laugh warmly when he found something funny or be lost in sorrow and confusion when his feelings had been hurt or they lost a victim. And then there were those times when they would narrow to dark slits when he was angry, intense, or determined.

But there was this one look Johnny had; it was the look Roy liked to call, his introspective look. It spoke of deep secrets that no one else knew about. The first time he’d witnessed it was during their first month together as partners. It was then that Roy realized his partner had seen much in his young life. Things Roy wondered if Johnny would ever share with him.

So Roy understood that there was still another layer to the man. But then he supposed there is always that one aspect of yourself that you never shared with anyone…that deepest place only God sees. He had one of those places himself. Fears he never voiced out loud. Things he barely admitted to himself. And Johnny had that look now. He was clearly in that deepest room inside his soul. Roy just wasn’t sure why.

Sometimes speech wasn’t necessary between the two of them; but sometimes it was.

Sometimes one or both of them needed a chance to just let their emotions out before they overwhelmed them; and Roy decided that now was one of those times.

“You feel like talkin’ about it, Junior,” He coaxed.

“I dunno….maybe.”  The younger medic seemed to struggle with his thoughts before finally giving up with a frustrated shake of his head. “Nah, I’m doin’ okay,” he concluded with a heavy shrug.

Roy put his foot on the brakes as the upcoming street light switched from green to amber and turned to look at his partner.

“Johnny,” Roy said seriously. “It’s just you me here, It’s okay to talk about your dad. It’s okay to admit to me that you’re feeling his loss this Christmas.” He reached over and squeezed his partner’s forearm. “You’re allowed,” he finished quietly.

Johnny nodded mutely and raised his eyes until they met Roy’s. He felt his composure beginning to erode; the muscles in his throat constricting, caused his voice to catch.

“He was only fifty three, Roy. He died far too young… they all died too young. It’s just not fair,” he rasped out.

Roy flashed the younger man a look of sympathy.  “No… it isn’t fair,” he agreed quietly. “It never is.”

Johnny stared out the windshield keeping his eyes focused on some unknown spot on the horizon as he spoke.

“I don’t know if dad ever knew that James’ death was a case of,” the younger man paused. “self-deliverance; I mean I never discussed it with him.” Johnny stopped to steady his voice. “I’m sure he must have known though.  And if he did know the truth about James’ death, then I wonder if he knew that I had known it was a suicide too… I knew from that first night.”

“My suspicions were confirmed when they found his body with his transistor radio beside his body. I imagine he had it up next to his ear so he wouldn’t hear it coming.”

“But one thing was for sure, there was no mistaking what finding that radio with the volume turned to high, meant. He had warned me so many times not to do it myself. He’d sit me down and preach to me at least once a month. Stay off that trestle, Johnny-boy…never try to cross it. If a train comes along while you’re on it, there would be no escape.”

“The thing about figuring something like that out, Roy; is that once you know it, you can’t unknow it. And I have kicked myself for it ever since, because I knew something was really bothering him, but I didn’t ask… I was afraid to ask… I was afraid of what the answer would be.”

“If you had, he wouldn’t have told you anyway,” Roy tried to reassure his younger partner.

“People, who get to that point where they have decided to end it, rarely do,” he pointed out.

“We’ve seen it over and over again in our job. Besides, Johnny… you were just a kid.”

“Maybe,” Johnny allowed, still not fully convinced. Even though the logical part of his brain told him Roy was right, his heart still had doubts. He and James, despite their age difference, had been very close.”

As the light changed from red to green, Roy’s focus returned to the road as Johnny spoke.

“Now dad’s gone too, and for some odd reason, I wish that maybe … just once … that we’d discussed it. I wish that just once we would have been open and honest with each other about what we knew regarding James’ death and the fact that it was not an accident like the official report said.”

Roy glanced briefly at the younger man and Johnny graced him with a wistful smile.

“I guess maybe we were both trying to protect each other in case one of us hadn’t known the truth. I just wish he was here now so I could talk to him … about anything; to just be able to hear his voice again.”

Roy looked over at his partner sympathetically. “I know you do, Johnny. It’s hard enough to lose someone you love, but when it happens unexpectedly… because of some kind of accident, I guess it just leaves so many loose ends. You never got a chance to tell him goodbye.”

Johnny huffed bitterly.

“You know the irony of his dying the way he did? It was always my dad who worried about me.  I think his biggest fear was that it would be him who had to bury me because of something happening to me on the job. But it was me who had to bury him because of some freak accident.”

“He worried about you … about the dangers of your job,” Roy allowed.

Johnny smiled sadly. “I used to try and reassure him about it; to convince him not to stress about me so much… that I was always careful and had the world’s best partner watching my back.”

“He was your dad; it goes with the territory Junior…kind of like being a brother.” Roy said with a soft smile.

“You know,” Roy added. “My mom told me once that I would understand it one day. That even though my kids will eventually grow up and live their own lives, I will always worry about them. And she’s right, I can’t even imagine that there will ever come a day when I will stop caring and worrying about Chris and Jenny. It’s just part of the job of parenting; even when the physical job of hands on parenting is over, the emotional concern lasts your entire lifetime.”

Roy reached over and laid his hand on Johnny’s forearm. “Your dad was so proud of you, Johnny. He loved you more than anything else in the world.”

“I know,” Johnny said softly. “He always made sure I knew it, too.”

“You’ll understand it more when you have kids of your own someday, “Roy said.

Johnny swallowed; his Adam’s apple bobbing.  Roy’s assertion, while sounding innocuous enough, exposed another issue that had been dogging Johnny for quite some time now. He silently wondered if half a truth was as big a sin as half a lie.  Not that he had actually lied; he just did not divulge the entirety of his past to Roy when he had told him about his family. He had started a dozen different times since his father’s funeral to tell Roy about the final piece of his past. About what his father had revealed to him about James and his mother on the eve of his moving to California. But he’d never quite managed to get the words out. And he never understood why. He trusted Roy. Hell, he trusted the man with his life … trusted him to keep his physical heartbeat going should some tragedy befall him; and he knew equally well that he could trust the man with his emotional heart as well.

Johnny had told himself that he had kept silent, because not to do so would have been disloyal to not only James, but to the mother he hardly remembered. He tried to convince himself that he owed it to them both not to tell anyone else about their family secret.

But for the past several weeks, Johnny’s conscience had been warring with his heart. His secret had been weighing heavy upon him, and he had begun to wish that he had shared the last piece of the puzzle of his childhood with Roy when he’d had the chance. For some reason, now that his dad was gone, Johnny had kind of wished that there was someone else in the know besides him. 

While his dad had been alive, there had at least been someone else who had known…not that they had ever talked about it. They had, by tacit agreement, never discussed the matter of James’ suicide or its root cause, with each other. Johnny had long ago decided that it had been because to say it would have meant that they would have had to admit that they both knew James’ death hadn’t been a tragic accident’ and that Johnny now understood why James had done it.

But the mere knowledge that the option of discussing it with his dad had always been open to him while he’d been alive, had always brought a small measure of comfort to Johnny; that he wasn’t carrying the secret burden alone. And now that his dad was gone, he somehow missed having that option, and the only other person he could ever imagine trusting with that information, was Roy.

That is why lately he’d been thinking that maybe he should have confided in … no, trusted Roy with his whole heart, that night after his dad’s funeral when he had finally told his best friend that he’d once had a brother James who committed suicide. He was wondering if it had been a mistake not to have told Roy why James had chosen to end his life when he did. But he hadn’t done it, and now it was too late. 

How could he bring it up now? It was hardly a conversation starter. He could just imagine how it would go; “Hey Roy, did I ever tell you about this awful burden I have been carrying around about why James ended it all?”

 He could hardly drop a bombshell like that on the man and then finish it off by saying, “…oh and have Merry Christmas, Pally… ”  

No he couldn’t do it now, He’d had his chance and he’d let it pass by several months ago.

What made the whole situation worse, was the fact that Johnny knew Roy was fully aware that he hadn’t told him everything about his past…that he hadn’t trusted the man enough to come clean with him … as if Roy hadn’t already proven his loyalty to him a thousand times over.

Hadn’t Roy shared everything about his life with him? How his mother in law had nothing but disdain for him because he was only a lowly fireman. Or about his time in Vietnam and some of the sites that still haunted him in his dreams? How he and his dad were estranged and Roy had only made things right with his father a week before he had died.

And perhaps his biggest confidence, about how he and Joanne had cried for days after the stillbirth of their first child… the child that would have been Chris and Jenny’s older brother.

Johnny gave himself a mental shake. Who was he trying to kid, he knew exactly why he hadn’t told Roy. The truth was he was afraid to tell Roy… to tell anyone. Lack of trust in Roy wasn’t the reason Johnny kept this last fear to himself. Nor was it out of any kind of loyalty to his brother and mother. It was because the dark haired man was afraid that if he ever voiced it out loud, it would make it true.

So there it lurked, in the elusive shadows; like the bogeyman that hid in the closet at night.  You were always afraid to open the closet door just in case you discovered there really was a monster inside who was waiting to pounce. It was a form of self-preservation. The theory being, that if you tell yourself something often enough, you actually begin to believe it. At least you believe it for a while… until one day you can’t fool yourself anymore, and you realize you’ve been lying to yourself all along.  

He understood that once he let the proverbial genie out of the bottle, there would be no putting it back inside again. And he drew a certain measure of comfort from the fact, that at least for now, the genie was safely ensconced inside its bottle.

There had been many nights when Johnny had lain awake and pondered about what James’ final thoughts had been. Were they about fear of the unknown in regards to the next life? They had both attended Sunday school as children and been taught about heaven and hell. Or was James’ fear of his uncertain future more frightening to him than the meeting of his maker?

Johnny wondered if he had known what James was going to do at that time, could he have said or done something to stop him. But then he had only been twelve, and he hadn’t known all the facts of the matter back in those days. The revelation as to why James had made the choice he had, had not been discovered by Johnny until he was sixteen. And as a child he doubted he would have had the emotional maturity to talk to his brother about it anyway.

Johnny had been so lost in his thoughts that he hadn’t noticed that they had arrived back at the station. The squad backed into its customary spot beside big red and Roy shut the squad’s engine off. Johnny reached over to grab his jacket from the seat at the exact same moment Roy made a grab for his, their hands briefly touching.

“Are you sure you’re okay, Johnny?” Roy asked in obvious concern.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Johnny lied.

The two men locked gazes for an extended pause before Roy dropped his gaze slowly with a heavy sigh. The sound unnerved Johnny. He got the distinct impression Roy had somehow been reading his thoughts. Finally the younger man couldn’t take it anymore.

“Did you ever make a choice where you wondered later on if you’d done the right thing?”

Johnny asked. The words spilled out of his mouth before he had the chance to think it through… about the reaction such a question would incite from his partner.

The words were said so quietly and so out of left field that it took Roy a moment or two to process them. For a brief second he was not entirely sure that he’d even heard his friend correctly. But as the implications of what Johnny was asking him filtered into his brain, the alarm bells immediately went off inside his head. He shot the dark haired medic a look of concern. But by the time his mind had formulated an answer… or more accurately, a question or two of his own in response, the klaxons sounded and Sam’s voice echoed throughout the station. The members of B shift immediately appeared on the run as they appeared from various parts of the station.

Station 51, traffic accident with injuries on the San Diego freeway, southbound between Century Boulevard and Western Avenue…San Diego freeway, southbound between Century and Western. Time out, eight- thirteen.

The two outgoing medics grabbed their jackets and helmets off the seat, and slid out of the vehicle, allowing Dwyer and Bellevieu to take their places. Roy momentarily lost sight of Johnny amid the furor of running men. With sirens wailing and lights flashing, the engine and squad went roaring out of the bay doors and into the streets of Carson.

The older medic had had every intention of pulling his partner into a quiet corner, and making him explain what he had meant by his question. The sound of Johnny’s words had left a wave of concern in their wake, and Roy was determined to find out what was going on inside his partner’s head before he left for the holidays. But before Roy could catch up to the younger man, he was stopped in his quest by Captain Stanley who sauntered out of his office beckoning the two men over.

“Hey, Cap.” Johnny greeted with a weary smile. “I figured you and the other guys would have left ten minutes ago.”

Roy could have screamed in frustration at having his mission thwarted. But in the end, he shoved down his exasperation and turned to smile at his boss. “Mountains  of paperwork again?” he enquired.

Hank, his lanky frame leaning lazily against the doorframe to his office, shook his head. “The rest of the crew did leave, but I still have one piece of unfinished business to take care of before I can call it a day; and since it involves you two… well, Roy specifically,” he clarified. “I had to wait for the two of you to return to quarters before I could leave,” Hank finished with a half-hearted smile.

“What about me?” Roy asked tentatively; his smile wavering.

Johnny stood leaning against the wall map, his hands in his pants pockets, his jacket hitched back so its tails were behind his hips. He looked over at his partner anxiously and immediately pushed off the wall and moved to stand beside the older medic in an overtly protective move. It was an unspoken show of solidarity as his eyes tracked Hank warily.

“What about Roy?” he asked, his eyes narrowing to angry slits. The tone of his voice left no doubt that the hot tempered young man was ready to go to war for his best friend should the need arise.

Hank immediately held his hand up in a placating gesture in an effort to diffuse any potential outburst before it happened.

“Whoa there Gage, just settle down. No one is in trouble … it’s nothing like that.”

Roy reached over and gently touched Johnny’s arm in silent communication.

As was usually the case, the dark man responded to the unspoken message and immediately calmed down. But his posture left little to the imagination, and Hank instinctively knew that he never wanted to be the one to hurt Roy in any way shape or form, for as wiry and lean as John Gage was, he had no doubt he would be a force to reckon with should he ever really unleash his fiery temper, which made him regret having to deliver his news all the more.

The Captain threw his older medic a grateful smile and sighed. “I just got off the phone from headquarters about half an hour ago. It seems they have a last minute assignment crop up and they need a Paramedic to fly to a conference up in Idaho. They are in the middle of getting their Paramedic program started in rural areas, and they want to hear firsthand from those of you who have been active since the very beginning on what works, what doesn’t work and what their medics may come up against as they iron any bugs out in the system.

They hope that feedback from a couple of original medics may help them avoid some of the same pitfalls. They have one of the original Paramedics coming from Seattle and they wanted one from L.A. as well.”

The A shift Captain stood nervously shifting his weight from foot to foot and looked over at Roy apologetically. “The Chief suggested that since Roy here will be off for several days, perhaps he would be the obvious choice to go,” he finished with a grimace. He hated being the bearer of bad news.

“But why would they just spring this on us now?” Johnny demanded. “They’ve always given us at least two weeks’ notice any other time we’ve had to do these things.”

Cap ran his hand over his face in frustration. “Well it seems as if the guys in Idaho put in the request the last week of November, but it got lost somewhere along the departmental pipeline.” Hank watched as a look of disappointment settled on his older medic while his younger medic’s face wore a definite look of disgust.

 Hank decided to plow ahead with the explanation. “It’ll be a quick up and back affair. You’ll fly up this afternoon and get settled in the lodge before meeting up with your Seattle counterpart.  After a dinner conference this evening, you will be part of a question and answer session with the local fire department along with the current Paramedic trainees. You’ll have a quick breakfast meeting with the city officials and then fly back home tomorrow afternoon. They have requested one representative each from Seattle and Los Angeles so only one of you need go. The entire affair shouldn’t take much more than twenty four hours,” he said in an effort to try and soften the blow.

The last vestiges of the nervous smile evaporated from Roy’s face and was replaced by a look of dismay that settled over his face like a blight. But the blonde man nodded his head resolutely in acceptance of his fate.

“Well, I guess I had better phone Joanne and get her to pack me an overnight bag,” he said dolefully. “At least it is only for a day… and we’ll definitely appreciate the extra pay after the holidays when the credit card bills start to come in,” the crestfallen man said, attempting to put on a good face. He tried to give his Superior officer a reassuring smile, but it fell far short of being genuine.

But Johnny wasn’t having any of it and he immediately set up in protest for his brother.

“That’s not fair, Cap. Roy worked Tompkins shift last week so he could have the extra long break over Christmas,” he said angrily. The younger man’ jaw set firmly as he squared his shoulders in preparation to do battle.

“I’ll do it, Cap. I mean, it doesn’t have to be Roy does it? I have both today and tomorrow off too. Let me be the one to go.” His superior looked a little doubtful, but Johnny was determined to have his way.

“You said so yourself, Cap. They want someone who was among the first group of twelve, right? Dwyer and Bellevieu are on duty today here at 51. Bellingham and Wheeler are on duty today over at 14’s. As for the rest of the original group, three of the others have transferred out of the county, and Martinez, Johnson and Dodson are all on C shift tomorrow. So that just leaves Roy and me as the only two that have both today and tomorrow off. So why can’t it be me who goes? I’m just as qualified as Roy … as a matter of fact it was me that did the first official procedure when I defibrillated that guy in the tunnel….remember, Roy?” The younger man looked over encouragingly at his partner.

Johnny did not want anything to screw up Roy’s plans. And if someone had to sacrifice their day off it should be him. Hell, he wasn’t looking forward to the holidays this year anyway. In fact it might be just what the doctor ordered as well as a good way to spend his first Christmas without his dad…doing something good for a man who had stepped into the role of older brother for him. It would also be a fitting homage to his father’s giving nature.

Hank was taken aback at the sudden change of direction the conversation had taken. He’d fully prepared himself to console his older Paramedic, but Johnny’s insistence that he be the one to go had caught him off guard.  

“Don’t you think you’re stretching yourself a little thin over the holidays, John? Are you sure this is what you want to do?”

Johnny didn’t even blink before replying…”It’s the first rule of the brotherhood, Cap,” he said, as if his words explained everything; but in actual fact had only served to confuse Hank more.

“When a guy makes a deal and trades a shift so he can have some extra time off, the deal has to be honoured. You don’t mess with another guy’s family plans,” Johnny clarified.

“I see,” Hank said at last.

Johnny nodded but made no effort to respond verbally.

Hank thought the matter through for a minute or two. Johnny had a valid point. Shifts traded between the men so one could share some special family time was sacrosanct; even HQ understood that. It was bad for morale to mess with it.

“Fair enough,” he conceded. “But are you sure about this, John? You might be pretty tired when you get back.”

Johnny nodded. “How different would it be from when I go camping on my days off, and don’t get back until late the night before shift? Besides, Roy has his days off all planned out. He and Chris are counting on being able to go get their tree today … just the two of them. He can’t do that if he is on his way to Idaho. It would disappoint Chris … and Roy.”

For the very briefest of seconds a look of sorrow flashed in the younger man’s eyes. “Now that Dad is gone, I understand more than ever how important it is to make those moments happen in your life… I’ll go, Cap.”

It hadn’t occurred to Hank until he heard John’s final statement that the young man was probably using this assignment as an avoidance tactic, to get out of having to deal with his first Christmas without his father. Too late, Hank realized that he had played right into the young man’s hands.

It had been a horrible year for the young man. To start the year off, he had seen his worst nightmare come to life… responding to a call where the victim was a friend or a loved one.

The call had resulted in the death of Johnny’s good friend, Drew Burke. Then less than a month later, his father had been killed in another unexpected accident at his ranch in Oklahoma. Hank had known that as far as family went, that it was just Johnny and his dad and that they were about as close as father and son as he had ever seen. They had phoned each other once a week without fail. And often times Hank had walked in as Johnny read his father’s latest letter to Roy.  He had even witnessed Johnny writing his father once or twice during those quiet times at the station. And while Hank never met the man, he had talked to the man a few times on the phone when Johnny had been injured or ill.

John’s loss had been a terrible blow. It had been during that time, that his station family had done their best to help him through those first few months. But as usual, Roy had been the only person Johnny had seemed to reach out to. it had brought the two paramedics even closer as it appeared John had opened up areas of his life to his partner that had until then been kept off limits. And Roy had accepted the honour of holding Johnny’s trust and secret pain seriously. Cap had noticed that Roy, more and more these days ran interference between Chet and Johnny, when Chet’s barbs started to venture over the line. He had also noticed the sudden cessation of jokes directed toward Johnny’s heritage.  Even the Chief had remarked on his last visit that the A shift Paramedics were now brothers in every sense but blood. They guarded each-others secrets and supported each other when needed. Which is why Hank was not initially surprised when Johnny stepped up and offered to go to Idaho in Roy’s place.

Hank realized that his fear that the young man was using this assignment as a distraction so he wouldn’t have to face that first holiday without his father, was probably pretty close to the truth, and he didn’t like the idea of that, even if Hank did understand where his youngest crew member was coming from.

It made sense that the year of firsts was always the hardest, but he did not want Johnny to start something dangerous. These were his boys and his job was to guide them on the job…but to a certain extent he carried that onto their personal lives too. Which meant he was bound and determined to reach out to Johnny and help him get over the painful year of firsts and make sure that he did not toss out the joy that was still out there for him. The man had been running on self-survival mode for almost six months now.

He needed to make sure that Gage understood that he was not about to sit back and let the young man withdraw socially from any family events he was invited to participate in. They had already talked about this when he had volunteered to work overtime for Dwyer on Thanksgiving instead of going to one of the many invitations he’d been offered by his friends. It was a dangerous habit…and a lonely one.

It was an unproductive place to get stuck. It was okay to visit from time to time when you needed to grieve, but not a great place to take up residence. The thought of having, that conversation with Gage again made him cringe internally. Johnny never made those heart to heart talks easy, the man could clamp his emotions down as tight as a vice when he chose too. In fact Hank had seen the man in every state on the emotional spectrum except vulnerable… that was something he allowed only Roy to see.

It was good for Johnny to have a confidant who truly understood his pain. And it was just as edifying to see Roy pulling the younger man into his family. The relationship had been a blessing for Roy too, as he himself had found a confidant of his own thoughts and fears, especially when it came to issues dealing with their job. Thankfully Joanne Desoto seemed to understand that there were certain things a man only discussed with other men; things that were not appropriate to mention with ladies present. But it was Johnny who had benefitted the most from having a confidant.

Even though Johnny was closer in age to Chet, Johnny had never formed the tight bond that he had with Roy. Hank knew instinctively that the reasons were not simply by virtue of the fact that Johnny and Roy were Paramedic partners; Johnny’s closeness with Roy and the lack thereof when it came to Chet had its roots in something much deeper… in both instances.

Chet was the second youngest at the station and both he and Johnny were single. It made them territorial with each other, with both men constantly jockeying for the position of “alpha male” on the ladder of available women. And although Marco was single as well, he was older and was wise enough to keep all mention of his dalliances out of the station.

Chet was slightly jealous of the fact that John was a paramedic as well as a firefighter, and as such Johnny more often than not, got to be the one to rescue the damsel in distress. The youngest crew member was also the smallest, which found him assigned to the rescues where any added weight or size was a hindrance. And because of that, Johnny often found himself taking the lead on many rescues, which meant he also had the great stories to tell, as a means of impressing the young ladies. He could often be heard on the phone regaling some young female about his harrowing exploits of climbing on cranes a hundred feet in the air, all in selfless service to save the victim. Or how he had worked tirelessly, bringing them back from near death, while the listening woman hung on his every word in awe. 

And the worst part of it for Chet, was that the stories were all invariably true. It both impressed Chet and made him jealous in equal measure. Not that Chet didn’t face his own dangers every day on the job. It took a lot of guts to run into a burning building when everyone else was running out. But Chet very rarely found himself balancing across a crane two hundred feet up in the air or hanging over the side of a thirty story building. If only the linesman would realize that as quick as Johnny got the girl with his handsome features and tales of bravery, he would invariably lose her again just as quickly. For the young man could hook the girl, but he did not seem to have the ability to keep her on the line very long.

Likewise, Johnny was always trying to compete with Chet’s wits. Chet, having grown up with a house full of older brothers was more, street savvy in regards to getting the upper hand, especially when it came to pranks and sarcastic comebacks. Johnny simply didn’t have the killer instinct when it came to pranking and one-upmanship. The two of them lobbed barbs at each other as they volleyed back and forth for the position of alpha male.

Sometimes Chet went overboard and stepped over the line of what was acceptable, and really seemed to wound Johnny. His insults ended up being thinly disguised as jokes. Chet occasionally would start in on a subject that hit a little too close to home for the younger man’s liking and tempers flared, which would cause Cap to step in and call for a cessation of hostilities. But for the most part, it was more of a case of Chet getting carried away himself than any real malice. But when push came to shove there was no doubt that two men were friends; but they would never share the closeness John and Roy had.

All these thoughts ran through Hank’s head as he considered Johnny’s request to go in Roy’s place. The Chief had not ordered that it be Roy who went. It had merely been a suggestion that perhaps since he had so many days off ahead of him, it would most convenient if it was Roy who went. But Johnny’s point was equally valid. The department had always understood these men did a job that few others would do and so they were accommodating about the men switching shifts when a family event cropped up. As long as no man did more than one overtime shift in a one week period or spread themselves too thin.

If Hank now interfered with that process…if he took away Roy’s day off that he had worked overtime to obtain, it ran the danger of breaking a sacred and unwritten trust between the Captain and his men. It was trust that when they worked extra hours so they could have extra family time, it would be honoured. And he did not want to risk any backlash. DeSoto was well liked by everyone in the department, and the last thing he wanted was to be the cause of clandestine murmurings in the locker rooms around the department about how the department had pulled a fast one on one of their men.

So now he had to play Solomon between his two men. He had Roy, whom he knew did not want to go, but would follow orders without putting up a fuss. And then you had Gage, who never did anything quietly and had no problem tilting at the odd windmill if he felt an injustice had been done. Gage was willing to go in Roy’s place, but Hank was worried that he had an ulterior motive that Captain was not comfortable with. Hank just couldn’t rid himself of the feeling that while Gage was sincere in wanting to help Roy out, that his main reason was to avoid having to deal with his first Christmas without his father. And Hank had always been of the opinion it was better to face it and get it over with, than start down the slippery slope of shutting yourself off from the rest of the world. And heaven knows the young man had an entire station full of friends who were willing to help him through the holidays, not the least of whom was his partner.

Hank pinned his youngest medic with a scrutinizing stare.  The Captain chose his words carefully; his tone, patient but firm. “Before I agree to this, John, I want you to answer me one question… and I expect an honest answer from you. Do you have some kind of ulterior motive for wanted to avoid being around for the holiday season?”

Johnny looked at him in obvious confusion; so Hank just spelled it out. “Are you doing this because you’re trying to avoid facing your first Christmas without your dad?” he clarified.

Johnny’s features darkened despite his best efforts to disguise it. For a split second Hank saw the young man’s eyes narrow dangerously before a very quick recovery of his emotions slid over his face like a steel trap snapping closed on a prey’s leg. The young man managed to collect himself and his face became misleadingly innocent.

“No, Cap, that’s not why I am doing it”, he reassured his superior.

Cap’s brow rose questioningly; clearly skeptical of his answer.

Johnny sighed. “Okay, it’s not specifically the reason,” he clarified.

By now Roy had moved to stand next to his Captain. It was clear he was interested in Johnny’s answers as well. The thought of missing out the chance to enjoy what would undoubtedly be, his son’s last year of total innocence, filled Roy with a depth or regret that surprised even him. But he also cared deeply about the man who had grown to be closer than a brother to him, and he did not want Johnny doing this for the wrong reasons either.

Johnny seemed to be able to read Roy’s thoughts. He reached over and placed his hands reassuringly on the older medic’s shoulder.

“I know better than anyone how important these moments in your life are. They are here and gone before you know it, Roy….in the blink of an eye. I don’t want you to lose out on his one last shot of Chris’s innocence in the wonder of Santa.”

The dark haired man turned so that he was facing his Captain head on.

“Yes, I am sad…but I am not despondent. And while I will admit I am not looking forward to this first Christmas alone without my father. I am not purposely hiding out. I have every intention of spending Christmas dinner with my other family, when I get back from Idaho.” he said as he nodded his head in Roy’s direction.

Hank seemed surprised by his admission, and as much as Johnny had sounded sincere, Hank wasn’t totally convinced. There was vagueness…a lack of genuine sincerity to Johnny’s tone. He understood the younger man’s words had been carefully contrived for both his and Roy’s sake.

Johnny visibly stiffened as Cap looked at him questioningly. “I’m fine, Cap,” he promised.

“I don’t know, John. I still don’t like the idea of pushing your time so tight. It doesn’t leave much time for error, not to mention flight delays. This is an awfully busy time of year to fly anywhere…there wouldn’t be much wiggle room for error.”

Johnny rolled his eyes in frustration, which caused Hank to grin over at Roy. The twit probably never even considered how insubordinate it was to roll your eyes at a superior officer…even if you were officially off duty.

 “Fine,” Johnny said in exasperation. “Why don’t you phone Leon Levinson over at 45’s?  He asked me if I wanted to take Christmas Eve off to spend it with Roy, the other day when I was working overtime with him. He’s looking for overtime now that Hanukah is over. He and his wife are saving up for his trip to Hawaii in February. I have a bunch of overtime stored up from last month when that gastro bug seemed to hit everyone but me, so I can afford to take him up on his offer. Besides, I assume I will be paid for this trip by the department.”

Hank seemed to be considering the matter over.

“Hey whatever gets the job done…right Cap?” Johnny coaxed.  The younger man glanced hopefully at his Captain. Johnny, not usually so self-conscious, hoped he hadn’t sounded too desperate. But his smile never wavered.

Hank rubbed his hand across his forehead as if he was fighting the beginnings of a headache. Finally he stood back and folded his arms across his chest as he gave his two paramedics a long penetrating stare.  It felt like high noon at the OK Corral and this was their psychological standoff.

He knew held absolute sway over his men and they would abide by his decision one way or another. But he was in a bit of a corner. As much he wasn’t entirely convinced of Johnny’s motives, the man did make some very valid points. And if he turned Johnny’s offer down he knew he was then going to have to go through the holidays with an angry, sulking Johnny and a moping Roy. Not to mention, DeSoto’s son and wife would now see him as the bad guy… and he had always prided himself on how well he got on with the families of his men.

Hank finally gave in. “Let me phone headquarters. I’ll run it up the flagpole and see who salutes.”

The longsuffering Captain turned and headed back into his office mumbling to himself …something about his youngest crew member resorting to emotional blackmail. He advanced further into his office, pushing the door so that it partially closed behind him.

His two paramedics were left standing in the empty bay awaiting the answer from headquarters. He picked up the rolodex that sat on his desk and began to flip through the cards until he found the number he was looking for. He picked up the phone and dialed the number with heavy sigh.

Outside the office door the paramedics stood waiting anxiously as Hank spoke to the Chief.  It seemed to take an interminably long time, but neither man was brave enough to actually eavesdrop on the conversation going on inside Cap’s office.  From where they stood just outside his door the two men could hear snippets of Cap’s muffled conversation, but not enough to truly discern what direction the conversation was heading.

Finally after a full ten minutes Hank stepped out into the bay. From the look on his face, Johnny was almost certain that he was on his way to Idaho.

Johnny looked at Cap expectantly. “So?” He asked impatiently. “What did they say?”

“I called Levinson first to see if he was still available for overtime. You’re lucky no one else had taken him up on his offer yet, John. He’s agreed to take your Christmas Eve shift. Once I explained to the Chief that you would have Christmas Eve off as well, he was fine with it. He doesn’t care which of you goes, as long as the job gets done. If you swing by headquarters on your way home, John, they’ll have your itinerary waiting for you there. Your plane tickets will be waiting for you at LAX.”

Hank’s words had an immediate effect on the younger man. He stood there grinning like a cat who had just gotten away with stealing a bowl of cream.  Hank smiled uncomfortably at Roy.

He still wasn’t convinced he had done the right thing by acquiescing so easily to Johnny’s request. He just couldn’t rid himself of the feeling that he’d just been had by his youngest crew member. But in the end he had to remind himself that there would have been no positive outcome, no matter which Paramedic had gone. One of them had to do it. 

Hank understood why Roy had worked so hard to have this time off with his son. The death of Johnny’s father had affected them all. It was a harsh reminder of the fragility of life. Even though they saw it on a daily basis, it seemed to hit home more when it happened to someone close to you. This was probably Roy’s last chance to see his son experience the wonder of Christmas while he still believed in the magic of Santa. Hank also knew that Johnny understood the regret that went along with missed opportunities between a father and son… the young man was living it. He just hated the idea that Johnny was using it as a way to close himself off from the only family he had left at Christmas. No, there was no satisfying answer to this one; besides it was done now, there was no changing his mind now.

He was pulled himself out of his reverie by the sound of Johnny’s voice.

Johnny gave his obviously relieved partner a hearty back slap. “Well, come on Pally. Let’s get out of here. I have a bag to pack and you have a tree to go chop down with your son. The young man immediately turned towards the locker room.

“Thanks Cap,” his voice called back through the bay. “Oh…and Merry Christmas, if I’m not talking to you before Christmas Day.”

Johnny, headed for the locker room, Roy at his heels, thanking him over and over again.

“I don’t know what to say, Johnny,” Roy said “I really appreciate what you’re doing. I just wish I didn’t feel so bad about it. I mean it is your Christmas too, and I hate to let you take the job on when it was really me HQ had in mind to do it.”

“I don’t suppose headquarters really cares which one of us does it, Roy; just so long as the job gets done. And I really don’t mind. You know how much I enjoy road trips. Besides, you have more than just yourself to consider. You’ve got a wife and two kids who are counting on you. And as much as they might miss their Uncle Johnny, I’m not their dad…you are.”

Roy opened his mouth to protest, but Johnny cut him off before he could get a word out.

“Forget it Pally, I’m going. You and Chris go out and get that tree and have a great time. Just be sure that you soak up the memory of today, Roy. One day both you and Chris will be glad you did.” Johnny patted his partner on the shoulder. “Just consider it an extra Christmas present from me to your family.”

Roy, realizing that he would not win this argument, put his arm on Johnny’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze.

“Thanks, Junior. I’d say you have no idea what you’re doing for me and my family… but I know that’s not true. I know you know exactly what a precious gift you’re giving me and my family, and somehow thank you just doesn’t seem like enough.” Roy said, his voice cracking with emotion.

Johnny flashed his best friend a lopsided grin. “Don’t thank me yet, Pally. I fully intend on holding this favour over your head the next time I draw latrine duty,” he said in mock seriousness.

Johnny continued to grin delightedly as he slid out of his uniform pants and prepared to get into his street clothes.

“I wish you didn’t to look so happy about all of this, Junior,” Roy groused. “You’re making me feel guilty about letting you go to Idaho in my stead,” he said as he watched Johnny fumble with his shirt buttons.

Johnny gave his partner that look of incredulity that never ceased to frustrate the older man….especially when it was aimed at him.

“My happiness makes you feel guilty? Roooy, that makes no sense. You know sometimes I think you’re the nut. I don’t have any plans for my days off anyway. I was just going to do laundry and clean the apartment. Neither of those tasks is critical. And if I know Joanne, she has been baking for days preparing for your extended time off. Once you finish getting that tree up and decorated, Joanne is going to spend the next week stuffing you  with all kinds of goodies. Hell, It’s going to take you at least twelve hours to wake up from your food coma,” Johnny teased playfully.

“Speaking of which,” Roy interjected. “Why don’t you swing by our place before your flight and Joanne can pack you a snack to eat on the plane?”

Johnny sniggered and shook his head at his partner’s over eagerness to try and pay him back for his generosity.

“It’s only a 90 minute flight, Roy. That’s barely enough time for me to get the stewardess to give me her phone number, let alone eat. I appreciate the offer, but I’ll be fine. Just make sure you save me some of her date squares.”

Johnny slid his uniform pants off and wadded them up in a ball on the bench. He’d drop his uniforms off at the dry cleaners on his way to the airport.

Roy lingered a while at his locker as he watched his partner dress. It was as he was standing next to his locker that he remembered what he had been intending to do when he was so abruptly interrupted by Cap. The unexpected news of this assignment in Idaho had momentarily distracted him from quizzing Johnny about the meaning of his mysterious question he’d asked him back in the squad.

It was bad enough he was warring with his conflicting emotions about Johnny’s going to Idaho in his place. On one hand he was relieved. The thought of all of his hard work and plans being spoiled at the last minute would have been heartbreaking. But Johnny was his bed friend, and he knew he’d been struggling through this year of firsts without his dad. The idea that Johnny was using this as an excuse to get out of facing the holidays weighed heavily upon him.

Johnny was like a brother to him; maybe even closer than a brother, and he had determined that as his only family left, it was his job to help his best friend navigate this first Christmas without any biological family. The more he thought about it, the more he needed to know what Johnny had meant by his earlier question. He walked over to where Johnny stood, stripping off his uniform shirt, and sat on the bench beside him.

“Johnny,” he asked; his voice quiet and serious.

“What?” the young man answered as he reached into his locker and pulled a yellow cable knit sweater off of its hanger.

“What exactly did you mean, back in the cab, when you asked me if I’d ever made a choice and then questioned it later on?”

Johnny turned momentarily serious and paused in the middle of pulling the sweater over his head. Finally he shrugged his shoulders and with a sad smile, returned his attention to his sweater.

“Aw, it was nothing, Roy. You know how I always obsess over dumb stuff. It was just me being overly sentimental. Forget about it,” he said pulling the sweater down into place.

The older man reached over and turned Johnny so that they were facing each other. His eyes flashed his partner a question that either Johnny could not, or more than likely, would not recognize. The younger man broke off the gaze guiltily and closed his locker door.

Roy heaved a heavy sigh and watched as his partner shoved his dirty uniform into a gym bag and zip it shut. He reached over and grabbed the gym bag from the dark haired man’s hands.

“Give me your laundry, Junior. Joanne is going to be washing mine, so she might as well wash and iron yours while she’s at it… it’s the least we can do to repay you for filling in for me.”

Johnny smirked. “Roy I may not be a married man, but even I know a man shouldn’t volunteer his wife to do extra work without asking her first.”

Roy rolled his eyes and hoisted the gym bag over his shoulder. “Well if she has a problem with it, then I’ll wash and iron it myself… but I once I tell her what you did for us, I can pretty much guarantee you that she won’t mind. And while we’re on this subject; now that you have Christmas Eve off, I expect you to come over and spend it with us. And I won’t accept no for an answer.”

“Fine,” Johnny agreed. “If it’ll make you happy, I’ll come over for supper on Christmas Eve and we can watch one of those cheesy specials you’re so fond of. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a bag to pack and a plane to catch. And without another word he fished his car keys out of his front pants pocket and darted for the door. “I’ll call you when I get back tomorrow… I promise,” he called over his shoulder.

“You better,” Roy warned. “And don’t forget our deal… you’re coming over Christmas Eve …and spending the night.”

“Fine….whatever,” Johnny yelled back as he exited through the door into the kitchen, leaving Roy standing alone in the locker room. He stood looking at the door for several moments before he removed his jacket from the locker and headed out of the locker room. As thoughts about his plans for the day with his son filtered into his mind, he couldn’t help the smile that slid onto his face.

I hope Jo and the kids waited to have breakfast with me. I’m sure Chris is raring to get going. It’s going to be long but fun day. And with that the fair haired man shouldered his own uniform along with Johnny’s and headed out to his own car, whistling a cheery holiday tune as he did so.

 

                                    ~                                      ~                                        ~

 

 

                                          Part Two     

 

  

 

Johnny opened the front door of the ski lodge, stuck his head out and took in a lungful of the fresh crisp December air.  Fully opening the door he exited the building and stepped onto the wrap around porch that surrounded the entire ski lodge. The air temperature had dropped considerably since the previous day, and that morning the wind had a definite bite to it. He took in another lungful of the fresh December air.

He had been shocked by the lack of snow when he’d arrived the previous afternoon. Being this far north he’d been sure there would have been at least a foot of snow on the ground by now. He’d been looking forward to seeing snow at Christmas time again. It was something he hadn’t experienced since he and his father had left Nebraska just before his thirteenth birthday. The locals had commented that it had been a warmer than normal December and as a consequence, any snow that fallen thus far, hadn’t stuck around. When he’d arrived yesterday afternoon, there hadn’t been much more than a dusting of snow on the ground; but if the latest weather report was anything to go by, that was all about to change.

The mercury had plummeted drastically overnight and the frost lay thick and white over bare patches of grass that dotted the landscape, making the earth under his feet as hard as concrete. A quick glance at his watch showed that it was just after ten. His breakfast meeting with the town officials and the group of potential Paramedic trainees had started at eight that morning over coffee and muffins. It had gone well and Johnny was pleased with what he had seen and heard. They were a good group of men, and it was gratifying to see the Paramedic program beginning to take off nationwide. He had to admit he had lost a bit of focus when the town’s finance planner began to talk. He was a good money manager according to the town mayor and was an expert in his field, although like most experts, he talked too much. It had been a tedious hour and a half of number crunching and discussing what equipment would need to be purchased by the county; but as long as the program got the green light, Johnny figured he could listen to the man drone on about fiscal surplus and how their dollars should be spent.

He had been given a whirlwind trip around Ketchum when he had arrived the previous afternoon. The tiny village had a population of around fifteen hundred and was tucked away in Blaine County. It was the same city where Ernest Hemmingway and committed suicide a decade earlier.  Located in the Wood River Valley, Ketchum was adjacent to Sun Valley, a popular ski resort.  In warmer weather Johnny thought that it would make an idyllic hiking area.

The county had established the tradition of resource sharing; it had also been the first rural state to enact the Paramedic law the previous year. Earlier in the year, the governor had announced the implementation of the state wide emergency health services plan, and they were on track to implement the first 911 system sometime in the New Year.

That had been the reason he and the Paramedic from Seattle had been summoned to this conference. It was basically a fact finding mission for the surrounding municipalities. They had decided it might be beneficial to speak to the people who had been on the front lines, and had already lived through this stage of the program in their respective cities. They were hoping for a heads up in regards to what they may come up against as they started up their own Paramedic program …and how maybe they could avoid some of the pitfalls other cities had come up against, and what lessons they had learned in those early months of the paramedic program. Johnny and his Seattle counterpart had met and discussed these issues along with current protocols with the officials of Blaine County at some length. At the end of the visit it seemed that everyone involved was satisfied with what had been accomplished.

Now that his visit was over, Johnny had been advised to hit the road early. Unlike his Seattle counterpart Johnny had to drive to Boise, which was over a hundred and fifty miles away. His flight left Boise at four that afternoon and it was nearly a three hour drive to get there from Ketchum.

Upon his arrival in Boise shortly after two the afternoon before, Johnny had opted to rent a Jeep and drive along the scenic route, rather than take the connecting flight up to Ketchum. It was a beautiful drive and even though he had opted to drive, Johnny had arrived in Ketchum by five the previous afternoon, just as the daylight was ending, and a full three hours before he needed to speak at the conference.

As the young man stood on the steps of the lodge he looked at the sky. Although the skies were currently clear, the air had an ominous feel to it. It was what his father called, a weather breeder. Johnny decided it might be prudent if he decided to skip brunch and get on the road. He was suddenly glad he had brought his heavy winter Parka with him on this trip. It was the same coat he used on those winter camping trips he was so fond of.

December was a dark month, with more hours of darkness than daylight, and the last thing he wanted to do was get slammed in by a winter storm on some road way out in the back of beyond.

As Johnny stood on the steps scanning the skies, the local mayor, Jim Waterton, came out of the lodge and stood next to him. It was clear the mayor was thinking along the same lines, as Johnny as he too began to search the horizon.

“Feels like the weatherman’s right on the money about that storm that’s supposed to be on its way,” Jim observed. “By the feel of that wind, it could hit before supper.” He turned to look at Johnny, “If you want to make it back to Boise before it gets here, you’d better get on your way, young man. The weather up here can close in fast, and if you don’t get to Boise by early afternoon, you’ll end up being stuck here for the duration … and I am sure you want to get home to your family for Christmas.”

Johnny let the thought of being stuck here for the holidays flit through his mind for the briefest of seconds. The idea was not totally unpleasant to him.  It sounded like a good way to avoid the sympathetic looks he had received the past few weeks by well-meaning friends as he struggled through the first holiday season without his dad. But in the end, he knew if he got storm stayed here, he would not only disappoint Roy, but likely cause him a good deal of undue worry.

No, the decided; he needed to get back to Los Angeles … to the only family he had left to speak of.

He entered back into the lodge and hurried up to his room to collect his suitcase and say his goodbyes. On his way out of the door he snagged himself a large Styrofoam cup of coffee for the road.

He ambled across the parking lot, balancing his coffee precariously in one hand and his suitcase in the other. As he approached his rented Jeep he noted that it had obviously snowed overnight. His car had been bare when he had gone to bed, but it currently had a dusting of snow that needed to be cleared off.  Setting his coffee on the roof of the jeep, he fished the keys out of his pocket and opened the front door. He tossed his suitcase into the rear seat and retrieved his coffee off the roof and set it in the cup holder. He slid into the drivers’ seat long enough to start the vehicle.

Hoping the jeep had come supplied with a snow brush, he walked around to the back of the vehicle and opened the rear door and began to rummage around. He grinned as his eyes fell upon the combination, snow scraper-brush. He retrieved it and quickly brushed the skiff of snow from the windows, and slid back inside the Jeep, tossing the brush where it would be within easy reach should he need it in a hurry.

He let the car idle in the parking lot for a few minutes with the heat switched to high. Slowly he could feel the air flowing out of the vents of the car begin to warm up, as he sat shivering in the drivers’ seat. Even though he wasn’t warmed fully, he decided he wasn’t going to waste any more time. He pulled out of the parking lot and onto the road that led south.

As Johnny headed out of Ketchum on his way back to Boise, he momentarily considered taking the scenic route through the Sawtooth’s. It was a picturesque area with beautiful vistas almost everywhere you went. The mountains were wild and lonesome from long years of being worn down and shaped by mother nature, with the rain wind and ice…gouging out crevices’ like a divine sculpture.

But he couldn’t shake the feeling that the day truly was a weather breeder, and that a storm was in fact in the offing. It filled him with a sense of urgency he couldn’t shake. The feeling was so strong that it compelled him to forego the sightseeing and get on the road to Boise and his flight home. Johnny’s father had raised him to pay attention to what the wind and skies told him. He had also instilled in his son that no matter what you called it; Mother Nature or Old man winter; that it was a force to be reckoned with and one should always take their warnings seriously. And Johnny had no intention of pushing his luck.

He sighed regretfully. In the past twenty four hours, he had been told about so many wonderful spots in the region that he felt merited a visit, but with his plane leaving at four that afternoon and a nearly three hour drive back, he knew he had to plan his time here with the strictest amount of discipline. Such a detour would delay him several hours, and they were hours he simply couldn’t afford…. even if there hadn’t been a storm on the way. If he was lucky he would get to Boise by two and hopefully be able to grab something to eat at the airport restaurant before he had to board his plane.

He drove south, cruising comfortably along listening to the sounds of the season that were coming from the local radio station. Although it was not one of the areas he had hoped to visit, the road he was currently driving on was still pretty with plenty of scenic views. He had enjoyed the drive up and he hoped to enjoy the drive back down just as much. Next summer he had two weeks off; perhaps he would come back and wander around the area when he had the time to really do it properly … maybe even check on the progress of the budding Paramedic program.

A gentle snow had begun to fall, covering the ground with a thin blanket of fluffy white snow. It was just enough to be festive. It reminded him of the Christmases of his early childhood with James and his dad. By the time his most vivid memories began to form, his mom’s illness had gotten to the point where she was in an asylum. But despite her illness, Johnny’s father had always made Christmas special for his two boys. His father had taken him and James skating on the local pond and sleigh riding and even the occasional playful snowball fight. The season was always topped off with the three of them going out to chop down a Christmas tree.

Johnny could still picture his father’s hands through the eyes of the young boy he had been back then. They were large, calloused and strong, but warm and comforting when a small boy’s hand was held safely within their warm grasp…It seemed like a lifetime of December’s ago.

As Johnny drove south towards Boise, he began to think ahead to that evening. He had heard Roy’s edict that he was to come to his home for Christmas Eve and spend the night. Well, he supposed it wouldn’t kill him to give in. He knew his partner had been overly concerned about how he would handle his first Christmas without his dad.

He had tried to reassure his partner that he would be fine. And while it was true that he was sad about the loss of his father, he wasn’t depressed … and he certainly didn’t wallow in his sadness. He still found areas of joy in his existence. He lived a well ordered life, and he was reasonably happy for the most part. He was secure as anyone in his line of work could be…he had some decent savings and he had amassed some nice possessions.  He had plenty of good friends and he enjoyed his job.

And then he had met Roy. It had been a watershed moment in his life. With Roy he had been exposed to the first taste of family life that he had experienced in a long, long time.

Roy had taken him in and swept him up into his family with never a question about whether or not he belonged with him and his family. His partner had just assumed he did, just as surely as the sun rose in the east and set in the west.

Before then his life in Los Angeles had been pretty lonely. When Roy had come along it filled a gaping hole in his life like a gift from God descending upon him like manna upon the Israelites… and Johnny had happily soaked it up like a sponge.

Roy had quickly become his surrogate brother…his family. The man’s fingerprints were all over his heart; there were traces of him in every facet of his life. And as much as Joanne had told Johnny that he had changed Roy in ways both visible and unseen; Roy had changed him even more.

He cringed visibly as he thought back to the look of concern his partner had flashed him the previous morning before he had left. Roy had known he was holding back…he had seen it in his eyes. It had been a combination of concern and hurt. Hurt that Johnny hadn’t trusted him enough to be totally honest with him. Why hadn’t he told Roy when he’d had the chance? He had never been afraid to share anything with him before.

But his partner just didn’t understand. Roy was great; he had become a brother to him in every sense of the word … but Roy wasn’t his dad.

A familiar knot formed in his throat at the thought of his dad. It was a reminder of the pain that was still relatively fresh. It had only been six months since his father had died, and Johnny still remembered how hard it had been to close the lid on his father’s coffin knowing he would never look upon his face again. 

Even now only six months later he was already having trouble remembering the sound of his dad’s voice or the sound of his laughter as clearly as he had only a year before. Already those sounds were becoming harder to recall with clarity. He had always been close to his dad.

Unlike James, who had had his early formative years with a healthy mom to remember, Johnny didn’t remember her as anything but ill; which meant that for the most part, his dad had raised him virtually alone. Although he had been close to James, by the time Johnny was seven, James was already in high school and away with his friends or his basketball team a lot of the time.

And then after James had died, it had been just Johnny and his dad against the world, and it had caused Johnny and his father to draw even closer.

In short his dad had been his rock; he had never failed him or let him down. His dad had worn his anguish over the loss of his wife and his first born son bravely; but he had also shared moments of tears together with his son. It had taught Johnny that sometimes men cry, and that it was okay. But his father had also shown him by example that sometimes a man needed to be strong beyond belief. Especially during those times when it took a herculean effort to just get up and keep going. And when it had counted, his father had stayed strong for his young son. He had taught him that was okay to feel pain and acknowledge that life had knocked you down, just as long as you got back up and finished running the race.

His dad had read to him every night before bed as a young boy. He had nursed him through both chicken pox and the mumps and even held his hand when he had to have his arm set after he broke his arm from falling out of a tree at age seven. It had been his dad who bought him his first car and taught him to drive as soon as he turned sixteen. It had also been his dad who gave him dating advice… more specifically the zero population growth speech and how he needed to treat his date with respect; that women were people and not merely sex objects.

Johnny’s mother had been born in Nebraska. He had never known his maternal grandfather. He had died when his mother was young, and his maternal grandmother had passed away a year before James’ death. They had only had the one child…his mother, Catherine Elisabeth Herrman.

His father’s parents lived on a reservation in Oklahoma. His dad had been born and raised on the reservation until he was eighteen, at which point he ran off and joined the Navy. Just two years later, the US joined the fighting during the Second World War and his father was shipped off to the South Pacific. He later told Johnny that he had joined the Navy as an excuse to get off the reservation and see the world. His father had been seriously wounded during the battle of Midway and was medically discharged from the Navy in the autumn of forty two.

Upon his recovery, Johnny’s father had headed north and found work on a cattle ranch in Nebraska where he had met his mother. They were married in January 1943, and his brother James had been born that same November. Two miscarriages and a stillborn daughter had plagued his parents until finally, seven years after James’ birth, Johnny had been born. Now here he was, the last man standing in his family…the last of his kind. Like some rare species on the brink of extinction.

Perhaps it had been the knowledge that with his father’s passing; he was now the lone member of his family that had triggered his need to start a family of his own. Johnny had suddenly felt lonesome for some kind of biological connection to another human being … someone to call his own.  More and more lately, his thoughts had turned to settling down, finding a girl, and maybe even having a son of his own.

He was only twenty three … that wasn’t old. He knew he had plenty of time to meet that special girl…get married and have a child or two. But getting the entire process started was problematic for Johnny.

He had gained the reputation of being a ladies man. He doubted there was a nurse his age in Rampart that he hadn’t either dated or asked out. And each time it had ended with the woman dumping him. His failures at romance had become legendary around both the station and at the hospital. Sadly when the legend becomes bigger than the person…you tend to lose the person. True he did it himself. Hell, he’d even encouraged it a few times.  He was just so afraid of committing…he felt like such an emotional coward.

Most of his friends were bachelors, but he knew as time went on that status would dwindle. Roy…well he had come to him married. But Drew had gotten married and had a child before his death. And his old partner, Tony from station ten had taken the plunge this past Valentine’s Day.

Johnny knew that eventually his single status would stand out. Currently he still hid behind his skirt chasing bachelor status; but even that would eventually cease to be charming and start to look pathetic.

He had almost married a woman with ready-made kids, but he quickly realized that he would be doing it not because he actually loved her, but because it was an easy solution. And so he had ended it.

Contrary to what he let on, Johnny did not sleep with every woman he went out with. In actual fact he had only ever slept with two women, the first girl he had taken out on the night of his sixteenth birthday. Their heavy petting had turned into teenage exploring. It had eventually ended with both of them losing their virginity in the haymow of his father’s barn.

Shortly after that, his father had sat him down and had a serious discussion with him. Ever since then, Johnny had been very careful with his intimacies.

But since he had joined the fire department he had had a revolving door of girlfriends. Roy had once teased him that he reminded him of one of those restaurant signs …now serving number 25. Only he wasn’t actually serving anyone, because he had a secret.  It was a secret not even Roy had known about.

The truth was that there was a very good chance that Johnny carried within his genes, a killer. A silent ruthless killer called, Huntington’s disease. It was a disease that was unyielding in its ferocity; a disease that could set its sights on generations not even born yet, claiming its victims generations in advance.

Johnny had known since the age of sixteen that diseases don’t have eyes, that they are indiscriminate who they attack. That was when his father had told him that it had been the disease called Huntington’s that had taken his mother before he had even had a chance to know her. It was then that Johnny figured out what it was that had driven his brother to commit suicide at the age of nineteen. His only brother…gone before he had even had a chance to live. In the Huntington’s hereditary lottery, it all came down to chromosome number four, and if your numbers matched, you were selected to die at an early age.

It had been towards the end of her pregnancy with Johnny that his mother was first diagnosed with Huntington’s disease. By that time his brother James was already seven. Both boys had had a 50-50 chance of developing the disease. And it seemed that of the two of them, it was Johnny who had won the genetic lottery. The doctors had told his father that Johnny was in no danger of developing the disease, but that the blood tests revealed that James had not been as lucky.

But even though Johnny was not destined to develop the disease, Johnny’s own research had taught him that depending on his particular number in the spectrum, there was still a chance that he could he pass the bad gene on to his kids. Johnny had not known for certain where he sat on the spectrum, and he hated the thoughts that inside his body sat a gene that was like a viper waiting to strike out at generations not yet born.

He had started to read up on the disease once when he had snuck into the medical library at Rampart when he was first training to be a Paramedic, but he’d quickly became horrified by the statistics surrounding Huntington’s viciousness. He had been so young when his mother had died; and James had ended his own life before he became symptomatic. Therefore it hadn’t been until he had seen the pictures and read the case studies about the cruel torture the disease inflicted on its innocent hosts that he had known how insidious the disease really was.

He understood now why his mother was like she was; and why his dad’s eyes were so haunted every time he came back from visiting her in the asylum…..and why he had refused to take Johnny to visit her near the end of her life.

He understood why James had suddenly become so tortured; especially if James had researched it when he had been told. Dear God in heaven, he could only imagine the terror his brother had felt over what he was facing in his future.

In the end Johnny had stopped reading about it. Besides, he was only a Paramedic, and as much medical knowledge as he had, he still wasn’t a geneticist, it simply wasn’t his bailiwick.

Complete understanding about how the disease worked was utterly beyond him. But he understood enough to know he did not want to risk passing that on to a child…to condemn anyone to that fate.

He had read enough to understand that there were three groups of children of a Huntington’s parent. There was the first group who were free from the defective gene. Then there was the middle group who were free from developing it themselves, but it was prevalent enough in them that they could potentially pass the disease on to their children. And then the people like James…whose genetics had determined that he had no chance of escaping his mother’s fate.

All he knew was that when he was sixteen, his father had told him about the hereditary gene his mother had passed on to James. He then explained that Johnny had been tested for it and that the tests had shown that he was not at risk of developing it.

Johnny’s big dilemma had been that he didn’t know exactly where he fit into the spectrum. He knew he was not in the third group. He knew he was not at risk to get the disease himself.

But whether he was in the group that was still at risk to pass it on, he didn’t know. He had never asked and was too scared to find out. At least now he could cling on to the hope that in his family at least, the gene had died with James.

That had been the impetus for Johnny’s short lived relationships and failure to commit. How could he ask a potential wife to give up on having children? That her husband potentially carried a killer in his veins so vile that it would be too cruel to sentence a child to such a fate?

True he didn’t know for sure. He had only been a child when he was tested. It had been done when James had begun dating and his dad knew he had to tell his son about what was possibly lurking in his body.  So James had been tested at eighteen, and his father had decided to have Johnny tested at the same time. Johnny didn’t even remember when the event had occured. He had had numerous doctor visits during his lifetime. It was impossible for him to differentiate one from the other.

The results had been hidden from Johnny as he had only been eleven at the time. But James had had to be told before he had become sexually active, for the sake of his future children.  It had been shortly after the news had been broken to his brother that James had become sullen and withdrawn.

Johnny had not been told until the day he had left for California when he was sixteen. What his father hadn’t known was that it had been two months after he had lost his virginity. Thankfully no child had resulted from the union.

Once he had come to California, Johnny had refrained from sexual activity during the rest of his high school years. In fact his only other sexual partner had been his girlfriend during his days at the fire academy. Her name had been Miranda, and she was in college studying to be a nurse. Back then neither Johnny nor Miranda were ready to be parents, so they had been very diligent about birth control, and he hadn’t known he could still pass on the gene at that time.

Then he had become a rescue man, and it had been during those days that he had first read up on the Huntington’s disease. After that any intimacy was done in a way that Johnny could be sure no pregnancy could develop, He had made sure he remained a gentleman with his dates … it had been the cause of more than one break up when his dates wanted more out of him sexually than he was prepared to give.

The specter called Huntington’s lurked in the deepest recesses of his mind. It would whisper to him in those quiet moments, warning him of unseen ghosts … the dark shadows that represented the defective gene. It would whisper to him in those moments when the day grew quiet, or when there was no activity to fill in the gaps during the day. It crept up in the deepest recesses of his soul erupting at the most inopportune moments, especially during that gauzy time between turning out the light and actually falling asleep at night. There it lurked, preying on his doubts and fears … warning him.

So as long as there was even a remote chance that he could still be a carrier, Johnny Gage would remain celibate. How could he risk sentencing his own offspring to such a terrible fate; to a contract they would be forced to agree to, predicated upon them by fate and genetics. He couldn’t…no… he wouldn’t do that. It would  be like throwing spaghetti against the wall and hoping it sticks.

It had become more and more difficult to push those feelings back down now that his dad was gone. It had created a pain that cut into his chest, eviscerating his heart just as effectively and with the same precision as if it had been a scalpel in the hands of a surgeon. More and more he wondered if he was destined to grow old and die with no issue. Would the Gage name die with him? If it was laced with the Huntington gene, then maybe it would be better if it did.

The suicide of his brother, and his knowledge of why he had done it, had also prompted Johnny to think about the age old question; if you could know the exact day or your death, would you want to know?  For him the answer was a resounding, no.

James had known; or at least he’d a ball park figure and it had destroyed him. His brother simply couldn’t bear the heavy weight of the knowledge about how he was going to die. Although the exact date was unknown, the knowledge of knowing his future had been more than he could bear.

Shortly before his death, Johnny had overheard James telling one of his friends that he felt like a prisoner sitting on death row. The only difference was, he was going to be executed for a crime he did not commit. Johnny had not understood the meaning of his big brothers words at the time, but he did notice that James’ demeanor had changed. His once bright eyes became devoid of any spark of life. In fact the only emotion Johnny had seen in his eyes after that was a combination of numbness and despair. But the Huntington’s hadn’t cared. It was hungry for a life and it had latched onto James with a viciousness that was unfathomable to the teen.

And with each passing week it seemed his brother’s life reached a new nadir. It wasn’t long before James had pulled so far into himself that not even Johnny could reach him. So it had been a complete surprise when one late spring morning when Johnny was twelve, James had asked him if he wanted to go fishing. Looking back on it later, Johnny realized it had been James’ way of saying good-bye.

Then shortly after that, came the night that the police came to the door.

They had informed his father that they had found James’ body lying dead below the train trestle. According to the officer, James had been walking along the train trestle. It had been dark and the engineer hadn’t seen him until it was too late. The officer had said that they had found his body with the transistor near his body; the radio had been turned up loud with the music blaring, which would explain why he hadn’t heard the train coming until it was too late.

That was when Johnny had known it had been suicide. James hadn’t heard the train coming up behind him because he hadn’t wanted to hear it. James had obviously wanted the train to end his misery, but he didn’t want to hear it coming. Now that he was an adult, Johnny understood his decision. James had taken the only control he had in an out of control life…. He chose his own date of death.

Years later Johnny could still recall every small detail of his brothers’ funeral. Every word of the minister’s sermon flooded back into his memory. It still made him shudder. The man had talked about Hell as if he’d actually been there himself.

The days after James’ funeral blended together in his mind. He and his father had been going along like participants in a waking nightmare. It was then his father decided to move back to Oklahoma. He wanted to put all the bad memories of Nebraska behind them and make a fresh start for the two of them. It had been one week before Johnny’s thirteenth birthday.

And so he and his father had moved back to the reservation. His great aunt Shirley had kept an eye on him while his dad worked as a ranch hand.  He had discovered that there had been a big rift between his dad and his grandfather after his father had left the rez.

It had not gone over very well when his dad had married a white woman. And that he had opted for a white man’s wedding ceremony in a church. It seemed that while he was in the Navy, his dad had converted to Christianity. Johnny hadn’t understood what the big deal had been. There were many people on the reservation that attended the Christian church.

But apparently his grandfather had been one of those natives who would not accept anything of the white man. And Johnny’s dad had both married a white girl and adopted the white lifestyle. When his grandfather had heard about the death of his son’s wife, he had said his son had gotten what he deserved. It was why his dad had refused to return to the reservation while his father was still alive. Consequently Johnny had never met the man. He had died when Johnny was eleven. His paternal grandmother had been more accepting of her son’s choices, but she would not go against her husband’s wishes while he was alive. He had first met her when he moved to Oklahoma and had liked the woman and all her tales of native myths and legends. His grandmother had died when he was twenty.

When his Great Aunt announced that she was moving to California the October after he had turned sixteen, his dad had pushed for him to go with her. His dad had felt that not only was he was too old to start over again, he also wanted to stay close to his mother so he could help care for her in her old age.But that he wanted his son away from reservation life. He wanted him to be free from the poverty, alcoholism and the stigma that he knew still existed in the eyes of some people. In short, he wanted more for his son. Reservation life was okay, but it wasn’t exactly fraught with opportunity.

So it had been decided that Johnny would come to California and live with his aunt. He would get a chance to go to a good high school…maybe even college.

After high school Johnny had moved with his friend Drew from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles where he had signed up for the fire academy; his Aunt Shirley had died last year of complications from diabetes.

That had been the story of Johnny’s life up to that point. He still missed his brother James, and there were moments that he longed to know how his life would have turned out if he had not been afflicted with Huntington’s disease. Would the two of them still be close? But more than anything, Johnny missed his father. Of all the grief and loss he had suffered in his twenty three years on this earth, he was feeling the loss of his dad the deepest.

Although he had lost his mother at the age of nine, he hadn’t been deeply grieved when she died. He had no real recollection of  her ever really being a mother to him, at least not in the normal sense of the word. By the time he was born she had already begun to show the first signs of her disease. By the time he was six she had been removed from his home. The few memories he did have of her, had been scary ones of her irascible temper and violent outbursts. She died when he was nine, but for all intents and purposes she had really died to him when he was six.

If he closed his eyes and concentrated hard enough, he could almost picture his mother’s face in an animated way, instead of merely the image of her staring at him from a black and white two dimensional photo. But it was getting harder as the years crept on. He tried to remember exactly what his mother looked like…the sound of her voice. But he only had vague, hazy recollections of her light brown hair and green eyes. Some of his memories were elusive, some were solid fixtures in his mind, and some of his memories were best if they were avoided entirely.

It had been hard for Johnny to pinpoint when it had all gone off the rails. He had been so young, and his father did not speak of that time, especially those painful early days when his mother was still mentally with it; before both her mind and body betrayed her.

By the time Johnny had turned four, his mother had become abrasive, rude and eventually, violent and unpredictable

Johnny had vague memories of her cooking his breakfast and singing to him. He wasn’t sure when it had happened, but one day he realized she had stopped making any of his meals, and the songs had ended. Somewhere along the line, James had taken over the chore. It had been his father or James that had gotten him ready for school; and it was his father who took him to the barn with him after school and on the weekends when he had been very young. In Johnny’s mind however, the physical changes in his mother had been less memorable to him as a child than the mental ones … although both had occurred.

Johnny had learned early on that his mother’s moods could turn on a dime. That a smile or loving gesture could rapidly disintegrate right before his eyes. That a warm hug could end up turning into a frighteningly angry tirade or a slap on the face. His father would tell Johnny that his mom did not mean to curse and swear at him. But it was like living with Jekyll and Hyde to a small boy who did not understand his mother’s illness or the fact that her ever deteriorating mind and body were betraying her.

His father had become increasingly worried that she would use the boy as an outlet for her anger as her body and her mind grew worse. She would turn into a stranger right before Johnny’s eyes; someone who was angry and unpredictable. Later she would hold him, rocking him and telling him how sorry she was and she would start to cry. Her sense of hopelessness and despair was so palpable that sometimes Johnny would end up crying too.

Then came to day during one of her erratic fits of rage that she threw a glass at young Johnny, It made contact with the table in front of the boy and a piece of glass had flown up and left a gash in his face.  As the memory ran through his mind, Johnny hand almost involuntarily rose to his face. He ran his finger absent mindedly over his cheek where the shard of glass had cut him, tracing the faint line of a tiny scar. It was the only evidence that remained of his mother’s anger that day.

It had been the straw that broke the camels’ back as far as his father had been concerned, and the next day she had been sent to an asylum. His dad had said she was sick and had gone to the hospital and that she would come home when she got better, But even as young as he was, Johnny had known better. Somehow he just knew she was never coming home again.

He wasn’t even sure if she had said good-bye to him or not. If she had, he hadn’t noticed because nothing much of that day stuck out in his mind. One day she was there and the next she was gone. He had only gone to see her at the asylum once when he was about six, shortly after she had been admitted. His only impression had been one of his being frightened. His father had never taken him back and gradually by the time she had died when Johnny was nine she had become more like a distant relative.

Other memories began to flood Johnny’s mind. Images of him and James as they had been in those first years after his mother’s death. He saw James as a happy sixteen year old going to the prom with Lucille Bannerman… his first real crush. That had been when life was still simple. There were no more irascible outburst because of his mom, and life at home had become calm…at least it had for Johnny and James. It had been just the three men of the house. That had been those happier days before James had known how his life hung precariously in balance of one single chromosome. Before things had once again become scary and uncertain.

He remembered the last conversation he had had with his brother. It had been on that fishing trip when he was twelve that he had asked Johnny to make sure that he did something good with his life, because Johnny had to live for both of them now. It wasn’t until later that Johnny had understood what the conversation had meant.

James had assigned to him a responsibility that he had spent his entire life trying to honor. He had become a paramedic to fulfill that promise to his brother. Not that he considered it a burden; he loved being a Firefighter-Paramedic.

Johnny shook himself out of his reverie and concentrated on the drive to Boise. He couldn’t help but notice that dark clouds were beginning to gather in the north-west.  He left the freeway and headed down a secondary road, deciding he could make better time by shaving twenty miles off his journey.  According to his road map, he could get back on the main freeway a mile outside Boise.  He decided that would also save getting caught up in the holiday traffic. The dark haired man hadn’t been on the new road very long before the houses began thinning out until they became very few and far between. He could feel the winds buffeting his Jeep as they began to strengthen.

It had started to snow shortly after he had left Ketchum, but it wasn’t long before the big fluffy flakes began coming down heavier as the wind continued picking up from the north. 

By the time he had gone another thirty miles, the weather conditions had rapidly deteriorated. The roads were growing slicker and Johnny could feel the Jeep trying to slide.

In less than half an hour, the heavy snow had developed into a full-fledged squall. The swirling snow blurred and distorted the scenery outside the windows of the Jeep as the storm closed in on the state, heedless of anyone’s holiday plans.

Johnny began to rethink the wisdom of taking the secondary road, but there was no turning back now, he was committed. Thankfully the best part of his journey was behind him, with only fifty miles to go before he hit the cut off to Boise and his flight to Los Angeles. The festive snow had lost its charm in direct correlation to its ferocity. Suddenly he was happy that the end of the afternoon would see him back in Southern California.

Tomorrow would see him at Roy’s for Christmas Eve; an invitation that extended on into Christmas Day. He had mixed feelings about that. On one hand he was thankful that he wasn’t going to have to spend Christmas alone; on the other hand, he knew he may have a few shaky moments during this first Christmas without any biological family left, and he wasn’t sure he wanted an audience for that.

Johnny slowed his speed to half the limit as the road conditions grew steadily worse. He wasn’t feeling quite that adventurous and he understood the importance of driving appropriate for the road conditions. He had a healthy respect for icy roads.

Johnny hoped that the further south he got, that maybe he would drive out of the squalls. He knew if it got much worse, he would have to find someplace to pull off the highway. He cringed as a pickup truck barreled past him, spraying snow back against the windshield. Drivers like that… people who seemed to have little regard for the lives of others, let alone their own… drew his ire.

“Idiot,” he muttered angrily, even though he knew the driver couldn’t hear his proclamation.

In less than five minutes time, the snow had become blinding. He found he was reduced to using ghostly images of the passing telephone poles as a guide in order to ensure he was still on the right side of the road.  He did not dare pull over onto the side of the road; it was just too dangerous to stop, knowing a snow plow could come by and bury him…or worse, slice both he and his vehicle in two. He had seen it happen once when he was a kid and still living in Nebraska. He knew better than to try and risk it.

Johnny continued on as his rental Jeep cut a swath through the snow covered road. He checked out the rear-view mirror and out of the murky mist he spotted a set of headlights right on his bumper, inching along behind him. He wished frantically for a rest area…a cut off…even an opening to a lane that lead to a home, but it was so bad he couldn’t make out any openings along the side of the road, the blowing snow having obscured any evidence of driveways, as few as they were.

His hands were clutched so tightly to the steering wheel, that his knuckles were snow white as he squinted out the windshield in the uneven light. The swirling snow quickly closed in behind him, swallowing the rest of the world.

Suddenly up ahead; like a beacon of hope; the flashing lights of a police car appeared out of the murky gloom. As he gently stepped on the brake, he could feel his car come to a controlled slide before finally coming to a stop. He was thankful for the defensive driving course the county had forced him and Roy to take.  He only hoped the driver on his tail was just as skilled. He braced himself as a precaution if that wasn’t the case. Thankfully no bump came from behind, indicating the driver behind him was used to driving in winter weather.

It was barely a minute later when the face of a state trooper appeared at his driver’s side window.

“Well here’s a human face in the wilderness,” Johnny said wryly.

“Are you travelling alone, sir?” the officer asked.

“Yeah, it’s just me,” Johnny confirmed with a smile. “Is it just as bad up ahead?” he asked, even though he knew what the answer was likely to be.

“Yup…where ya headed?” the Trooper asked.

“Boise … to the airport. I ran into this about thirty miles back and I have kind of lost track how far along the road I have come.”

The trooper looked back to where his cruiser was sitting. “You’ve still got about another fifty miles to go before you hit the cut off. Not that it matters, it might just as well be five hundred as far as your concerned, because as of this moment, this is as far as you can go.  This road is now officially closed until this storm blows itself out; we’ve just pulled the plows off the road. It wouldn’t matter, anyway. They are getting socked with this in Boise as well. They announced on the radio about twenty minutes ago that the airport is closed until this is over too. There’s an Inn up ahead.  I am afraid we’re all going to have to hole-up there and wait this storm out.”

“Sounds fine to me,” Johnny said in obvious relief. “For the last fifteen minutes I have been looking for any kind of truck stop or motel I could pull into. I just want to find someplace safe to pull off and wait it out. Serves me right for taking the road less travelled,” Johnny muttered.

”Ah, I see I am in the presence of a Robert Frost fan,” the Trooper grinned.

Johnny returned his grin and shook his head.

“Nope, not me. That would be my partner, Roy. He quotes that poem a lot. I think it is his favourite. I can’t really say I am into poetry….and right now I can’t say I am too fond of Robert’s brother, Jack, either,” he said, blowing on his nearly frozen fingers.

The officer laughed. “Right at this moment, neither am I. Jack Frost has been nipping at my nose, fingers and a few of my other favorite body parts that I won’t mention.”

Johnny grinned, he instantly liked the man. Resigning himself to his fate with a sigh, Johnny looked up at the officer.

“Luckily for us, the Inn is less than a mile up the road. It’s kind of a bed and breakfast of sorts. It only has about three or four rooms to let, but it is warm and dry, and I know the owner.  I’m sorry about the inconvenience sir.”

 “Well, it ain’t worth losing your life over taking a chance for a turkey dinner.”

The Trooper nodded in appreciation. “I wish everyone saw it that way.”

“Well, I’m a Firefighter-Paramedic back in Los Angeles. I’ve seen my fair share of tragedies because people were more concerned about getting to their destination instead of putting safety first.” he answered.

“That’s good to know in case we come upon an emergency,” the officer acknowledged.

“Well, I would do what I could, but I am not sure how much help I could really be,” Johnny said. “I’m not certified to practice in this state,” he explained.

“If I need ya to be, you will be soon enough", the Trooper said firmly.

Johnny acknowledged the Troopers word with a nod of his head.

“Well, sir. If you’ll just excuse me, I’m going to let the folks behind you know the plan and then we’ll head to the Inn as a convoy. I’ll lead with the lights flashing so you won’t get lost in this muck.

“Johnny thanked the officer before winding his window up. He sighed with relief. He definitely wouldn’t be sorry to get off the roads.”

The convoy began moving along at a slow crawl through the blinding snow. They had barely gone a quarter mile when they spotted a car ahead of them. Johnny saw it fishtail on the ice and slam hard into a large drift on the edge of the road before coming to a stop.

Their little convoy came to a stop.  Johnny didn’t hesitate as he threw open the door of the Jeep with the intention of checking out the driver of the car.

A bitterly cold gust of wind slammed into him, doing its level best to knock him off his feet as he stepped out of his vehicle. It cut through his Parka like a knife through butter. The drifts of snow were blown from one side of the road to the other as his eyes took a visual sweep of the landscape. The world around him was a wall of white in all directions, with just the barest hint of the road. The air and land were the same colour, so that he couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began. Behind him the snow was a curtain … a white misty haze surrounding his Jeep.

Both Johnny and the Trooper reached the car at the same time. Thanks to the deep snow drift the impact had been a soft one. Inside the car Johnny found a man in his late forties behind the wheel. His son, who appeared to be about sixteen or seventeen, sat in the passenger seat. Neither one of them appeared to be injured, but Johnny looked them over, just to be on the safe side.

“Are either one of you hurt?” Johnny asked.

The driver shook his head.

“No, we’re both fine. I’m not sure what happened. One minute I was driving along and the next thing I knew, I hit this snow drift.”

“I think you hit a patch of black ice first, then the drift,” Johnny clarified.

“I stand corrected,” the driver laughed.

Johnny looked at the Trooper and nodded. “They look to be okay. There doesn’t look to be any damage to the car either. I think I can hook onto their bumper with my Jeep and pull them out, if you have a rope,” he said.

“We always carry gear in our trunks,” the officer confirmed. “I’ll pull my cruiser off to the side, so you can pull into position. You get back inside your vehicle and I’ll signal you when we’re ready.”

“Good deal,” Johnny answered as he headed back to the Jeep. He was more than happy to return to the warmth of his Jeep. The icy winds were making his eyes water and the tears had begun to freeze on his cheeks.

In very short order, they had the car out of the drift and had resumed their slow crawl down the road, one more car added to their number. Their convoy now included, the trooper, the newly freed car, Johnny’s Jeep and the occupants of the car that continued to trail behind Johnny.

After what seemed to be an interminably long time, Johnny saw the Trooper turn off the road. He could barely make out the neon sign of the Inn shining out of the swirling snow like a guiding star to the weary Paramedic. He glanced down at his watch and noted that it was only one forty-five. It felt to Johnny as if he had been on the road for days.

He pulled his vehicle up beside the cruiser and cut the ignition, shoving the keys into the pocket of his coat. He reached over and grabbed his suitcase from the backseat. He had some emergency cash stashed in his suitcase and he wasn’t about to leave it unattended in his vehicle. His coffee had been long ago consumed, a fact his bladder was complaining about.

He stepped outside into a wind that was so cold, it cut into him as if he were stark naked instead of buried in the warmth of his parka. He reached around and pushed down the locking mechanism on the Jeep, before shutting the door firmly behind him.

He hurried across the parking lot with the rest of the stranded travelers. He was anxious to get out of the biting wind and snow that stung his face like tiny pieces of shrapnel.

As Johnny entered into the warmth of the Inn, he couldn’t stop the sigh of relief that escaped his lips. He wasn’t sure what was giving him the most relief; the fact that he was out of the punishing cold winds and snow, or the fact that he was safely off the roads and no longer had to drive in it. Either one would have been cause enough for his grateful sigh.

His first impression of the Inn was that it was warm and inviting. At one time it appeared to have been a rather large Edwardian home, but at some point it had been converted into the bed and breakfast that it currently was. The interior was plain, but clean and tidy. The furnishings in what had once been the parlour were faded and well-worn, but comfortable looking. There were two sofas on either side of the room and three overstuffed arm chairs  that were positioned in a semi-circle around a rather large stone fireplace, that at present had a rather cozy and inviting looking fire burning brightly in its grate. In front of the window stood a gaily decorated Christmas tree. The curtains, although faded and weathered by the sun, remained cheery nonetheless. It spoke of being well loved and well lived in by its owners.

Across the hall from the parlour, Johnny could see another large room through the open pocket doors. Inside sat a harvest table with no less than a dozen chairs placed around it. On the wall sat a black board with that days’ menu written on it in chalk. As he glanced at the menu, he couldn’t help but smile. It indicated the food the Inn was serving was plain but good, hearty fare.  It had the air of an establishment where one could sit and relax and get a good meat and potatoes supper without having to worry about putting on airs and graces. It had a bucolic charm that instantly put the Paramedic at ease.  All in all, a rather congenial place to ride out the storm.

As he advanced further into the entryway, he began to get a better look at his fellow refugees from the storm. He had been followed inside by the father and son whose car he had pulled out of the drift back on the road. On closer inspection Johnny guessed the man to be in late forties with dark brown hair and a pleasant smile. He held his hand out to Johnny, and introduced himself as Benjamin Davison, a Pastor from a little city called Fallon in Nevada. The teen with him was his soon to be seventeen year old son, Gabriel. They had been on their way up to Sun Valley for the Christmas holidays. Like his father, the teenager was of an open and friendly nature and was quick to offer his hand with a smile.

Behind the father and son came the occupants of the mystery car that had been following him for the last half hour of his journey.

Its occupants turned out to be three young women whom he would guess would be in their early twenties. It seemed the three of them were on their way down from Montana State University in Bozeman. They had been on their way back home to Boise for the Christmas break to spend the holidays with their respective families.  Two of the young women were quick to smile sweetly at the handsome young Paramedic and offer introductions. The first young woman, a rather athletic looking brunette gave her name as Trudy.

Beside her stood a rather petite dark haired girl who stated that her name was Penelope, but that all her friends called her Penny. She was quick to inform Johnny that she expected him to refer to her in due kind. Had Johnny lived close by, he certainly would have been interested in obtaining Penny’s phone number.

Behind the two pretty women stood their third companion. She was a tall slender girl with ash blonde hair and might have been attractive had it not been for the angry sulking look that currently graced her face.  She was clearly cold, miserable and in a foul mood. He could have almost felt sorry for her, but for the spiteful tone to her voice as she reluctantly spat out her name without offering her hand in greeting… it was Rhonda. The steely eyed young woman appeared to be hell-bent on making a bad situation even more miserable.

A tall angular man of about fifty appeared in the doorway behind the three women. And despite his rather non-descript features, Johnny instantly recognized him as the State Trooper. He held his hand out and formerly introduced himself as, Walt Justice. Upon seeing Johnny raise his eyebrows in curiosity the officer began to chuckle.

“I know he grinned. But with a name like Walt Justice, I figured I was destined to either be a cop or a judge. And since I am also somewhat of an adrenaline junkie, I figured police work would be the better fit.

It was at that moment a tiny little, late-middle aged woman, that Johnny doubted was more than five feet tall, bustled into the room. She had an indefinable charm about her as she did her best to keep her greeting decorous. But it was clear her façade of propriety was losing out to a rather lighthearted joviality that literally oozed from every pore of the woman’s being.

Johnny instantly warmed to the woman, who informed the group that they could call her Doris… and for heaven’s sakes would they please come in out of the cold before they all caught their deaths from pneumonia.

Johnny joined the others in slipping out of his boots and entering fully into the parlour. Once inside the room fully, he could see that in a small alcove tucked away in a back corner of the room sat a rather ornate looking leather chair that currently held a big barrel chested man with square shoulders and a complexion that the sun had long ago, turned to leather. In his hands was a large mug of some kind of steaming liquid that Johnny guessed was probably coffee.

As soon as the group of stranded travelers entered the room, the man stood up in greeting. The moment his eyes met Walt’s they lit up in recognition. “Hey there Walt…you get caught out in this mess too?” he asked.

Walt flashed the man a smile in return that spoke of a years old friendship. “Yeah, the Chief sent me out to set up the road closed blockades, but it just got so bad, I didn’t even try to make it back to the station. I heard they were pulling you guys off the roads. I didn’t see the plow in the parking lot though...” Walt left the sentence hanging.

“I parked it round back. I did a couple of swaths of the parking lot for Doris, before I parked it by the driving shed out back. I figured anyone on the roads would probably end up here. I’ve only been here about twenty minutes myself.”

Walt turned to face the rest of the group. “This is a good friend of mine, Murray Bell. He works for the county as a snow plow driver… although he should have retired three years ago,” he joked.

Murray laughed heartily and sat back down.  “Walt here has been trying to hand me the golden handcuffs for months now. I could have retired back in seventy one, but my wife didn’t want me hanging around underfoot all day, so I now work part time. When things get a bit crazy, like today, and they need all hands on deck, I usually come in and help out. Only today the storm was a lot worse than they expected and intensified a lot quicker than predicted and I found myself close to Doris and Ronnie when the call came over the radio to pull off the roads,” he explained.

“Where is Ronnie, anyway?” Walt asked Doris. “He’s not outside in this mess somewhere is he?” he asked in obvious concern.

“No, not at all.” Doris reassured the Trooper.” He’s in the lean to checking to make sure I’ve got enough firewood on hand to get us through the night.” The slight woman turned around and shouted in a voice that had a strength Johnny was surprised to hear in such a tiny woman.

“Ronnie! Walt’s here,” she sang out. “Ronnie acts as a bit of a handyman around here,” Doris explained to the newcomers.

From somewhere in the depths of the house, the sound of a door closing echoed through the cavernous passageways. At the doorway in the other end of the parlour a withered old man materialized seemingly out of nowhere. He was a stoop shouldered, dilapidated figure of a man that Johnny estimated to be approaching eighty. The man looked like he had just been rescued from living in a state of unredeemed squalor. Years old stains dotted the surface of his lumber jacket and Johnny surmised that Doris probably kept him around more as an act of mercy than actual usefulness. It looked like one good stiff breeze would blow the man away.

Doris gave a quick introduction between the newcomers and Ronnie, who responded with a perfunctory greeting. In fact the old gent barely gave the group of stranded travelers a nod of his head … as if he was just too old and worn down to do anything more strenuous.

Ronnie shifted his gaze toward Doris.

“We’re going to need some more firewood before the evenings over, Doris,” he said resolutely. “I’m afraid I didn’t get a chance to finish filling up the lean to before the storm hit.

I’ll just get my hat and gloves and go out to the barn and bring in another couple loads of wood for ya.”

 Johnny looked across the room at the old gent. There was no way in the world he was going to sit by a warm fire and watch as an eighty year old man carried heavy armloads of wood into the Inn.  He could picture himself doing CPR on the old guy because he’d had a heart attack from all that exertion. He stepped forward and quickly volunteered his services for the task.

Besides, it was the least he could do considering they had all descended upon poor Doris without notice. For his own part, he had every intention of paying the woman for a nights lodgings anyway. He was pretty sure he would be reimbursed for his expenses by the department… but even if they didn’t, he had no intentions of taking free advantage of Doris’s hospitality. 

Walt had obviously been of the same mind as Johnny for he too stepped forward with an offer to go get the wood.

Doris started to protest, but Johnny cut her short, stating that both he and Walt hadn’t even removed their jackets yet, and it would be no problem for them to get the job done. Both Murray and Ben offered to help, but Johnny and Walt assured the other men, that it wasn’t more than a two man job.

With the issue settled, Johnny went back to the front door and slipped back into his boots.

Doris told the men where in the barn the cords of wood were located, and that there was an old wooden toboggan by the back door they could use as a type of sledge for the hauling.

Doris had insisted they use the back door of the Inn rather than walking all the way around from the front, where the snow drifts were beginning to pile up. Despite their protestations about their not wanting to walk through her home with their wet boots, Doris got her way and the two men were lead into the kitchen to where the small lean to  was located outside the kitchen door.

Before they ventured out, they found themselves being swathed in heavy wool scarves produced by Doris, as she insisted that they,‘bundle up’ for the task. It was a gesture both men were grateful for as they stepped back out into the punishing winds.

By the time they returned to the lean to with their load of wood, both men were soaked through to the skin from the snow driving into every crease of their clothing.

Upon entering the kitchen, Walt and Johnny removed their coats and scarves and left them on hooks by the back door to drip dry. Johnny rubbed his hands together in an effort to warm them up before he and Walt made their way to the front of the house. The dampness of their pants, made both men uncomfortable, and Johnny hoped he could slip away at the earliest possible convenience and change into the sweat pants he had packed away in his suitcase.

The moment Doris caught sight of the two men, she flew into action.

“Goodness me, look at the two of you, you’re positively soaked to the skin. The two of you need to get out of those wet things so I can run them through the laundry for you.”

Johnny nodded gratefully, but Walt looked doubtful.

“No can do, Doris,” he said. “Unlike my fellow strandees, I don’t have a change of clothes with me. I’m afraid I’ll just have to stand over by the fire until I dry off."

Johnny quickly interjected. “I’m pretty sure I have something you can change into. You look pretty close to being my size and I have a pair of sweat pants that should do until yours are dry.”

“There, you see,” Doris exclaimed. “You’re all set. Now you boys just follow me and I’ll show you to the downstairs bathroom where you can change. Just leave your wet clothes on the hamper and I’ll see to them when you’re done.

Johnny retrieved his suitcase from where he had set in the front hall when he had first entered the Inn. Then he and Walt dutifully followed Doris to the main floor bathroom. Once inside, Johnny hauled out a pair of navy sweat pants and handed them to Walt. He tossed the shirt at him too.

“Here, I think my shirt is just as wet from sweating while we hauled that wood… we might as well take them off as well.”

Having given his sweats to Walt, and his jeans and button down shirt now in the laundry hamper, the only other clothes Johnny had to wear was the uniform he had brought to wear to the conference. It hadn’t been required that he wear it, but he had done it for the effect; it made him feel more authoritarian if he actually looked the part to his audience.

Johnny and Walt re-entered the Parlour only to find Trudy in a panic. She had attempted to call her parents to let them know she was safe, but had discovered the phone lines were down. Murray had gone outside and came back saying that a large tree branch had come down and severed the phone lines coming into the Inn.

It was Walt who finally came to the rescue by saying he could use the radio in his cruiser to get a message through to the police station. From there his Chief could relay onto their families that they were all safe and sound for the night. He proceeded to write down the contact numbers for the girls’ families. Johnny gave him Roy’s home phone number, knowing his partner was expecting to pick him up at the airport later that day. Since Gabriel was there with his father, there was no one on their end that needed contacting and the Chief already knew Murray’s wife and so there was no need to ask for his number.

Once he had collected the information, Walt borrowed Murrays, dry coat and hurried out to his car to pass the message along.

In the meantime Johnny made his way over to one of the armchairs in front of the fire to sit down. Almost immediately he noticed that now there was woman sitting at the writing desk that he hadn’t seen earlier. She was rummaging through the open drawer mumbling that she needed a pen. She was a large middle aged woman with heavy lidded eyes, who had, for reasons Johnny couldn’t even begin to fathom, a bright red feather boa wrapped around her neck. Even though the woman hadn’t uttered a word, Johnny could see that every inch of the woman screamed, drama.

Doris introduced the woman as Wilda Fligg and explained that she was one of the guests that happened to be staying at the bed and breakfast over the holidays. Wilda gave the group and brief hello and went back to looking for a pen. Once she had found the object of her search, she politely made her excuses to the group, saying she was returning to her room to finish writing a letter she had started to her sister in Phoenix.

It was as Wilda was leaving the room that the Bed and Breakfasts’ only other paying guests entered the parlour.  They consisted of two fresh faced nineteen year olds.

The first young man had a cherubic face with wide blue eyes and hair the colour of straw. His rather angelic face belied the fact that the teen was built like a linebacker. The boy reminded Johnny of a lumbering puppy that hadn’t yet grown into its’ over large feet. His companion however, was a polar opposite. His eyes and hair were as dark as his companions were light.

He was small and wiry and carried himself with the stealth of a panther. Johnny thought the young man reminded him of a lot of himself as he had been about the time he had first joined the fire academy back when he was eighteen. Both boys were full of youthful exuberance and were clearly here to have a good time. They were quick to inform the newcomers that they were in the area for the week and had plans to travel on to Sun Valley to ski the next morning.  The blonde boy gave his name as Todd, while the dark haired young man stated that he was called Noah.

As soon as they noticed the young ladies, the two boys made a beeline straight in their direction. Trudy and Penny for their part, made it perfectly clear that they were more than willing to soak up the attentions of these newest additions to their group.

Rhonda, true to form remained by door standing dark and sullen. She peered over at the two boys with obvious disdain. Noah chose to simply ignore her, while Todd, determined to be polite extended his hand, which the acerbic young woman promptly ignored. But Todd was undeterred.

“Hi, I’m Todd. Noah and I planned on breaking out the monopoly board later if you and your friends would care to join us.”

Todd nodded toward Noah and Johnny. “You’d all would be welcome.

Rhonda scoffed in disdain. “I hardly think so,” he said with a roll of her eyes.

The room instantly lost any vestiges of merriment it had had just a moment before; but rather than losing his temper, Todd seemed almost amused.

“Suit yourself,” he said, without missing a beat.

Trudy, however was quick to interject that both she and Penny would be happy to join in.

“Same here,” Gabriel added with a smile toward Penelope. He, like Johnny, had obviously been attracted to Penny’s dark eyes and sweet smile.

By this time Walt had returned an assured everyone that his Chief had promised to contact their loved ones. Doris, satisfied that everyone was now safely inside and out of the cold, left to make some coffee.

Walt and Murray joined Johnny by the fire, while Ronnie excused himself and went back into the recesses of the Inn to do, whatever it was he did during the day.

It wasn’t long before Doris came back into the room carrying a large wooden tray containing a coffee pot, a pitcher of cream and a sugar bowl which she set on the coffee table. She disappeared back into the kitchen, only to return a minute later with a stack of mugs on another tray along with a plate of cookies.

As if on cue Johnny’s stomach, which hadn’t had anything to eat since eight o’clock that morning, growled loudly, causing the Paramedic to blush.

“I kind of skipped lunch in an effort to beat the storm to Boise,” he admitted sheepishly.

“Well then you’re certainly going to need something more substantial than cookies, young man,” Doris declared.

“Naw, it’s okay ma’am,” Johnny reassured. “In my line of work, I’m used to missing meals. I can wait.”

“You’ll do no such thing,” Doris declared. “Now you just march yourself right into that kitchen young man. I won’t have anyone going hungry in my establishment, is that clear?” she ordered with all the authority of a drill sergeant.

Walt began to laugh. “You might as well give in, John. Once Doris makes up her mind about something, there’s no changing it.”

“Listen to Walt, John,” Doris laughed. “He’s an officer of the law.”

And without waiting for a reply, she grabbed Johnny by the arm and steered him back into the kitchen, where she led him over to a chair and shoved him down.

“Do you like roast beef?” she asked as she started pulling all the fixings for a sandwich out of the refrigerator.

“Yes, ma’am, that’ll be fine,” Johnny answered.

“You can stop with all that ma’am nonsense to, John. My name is Doris and I expect you to use it.”

“Yes, ma’am… I mean, Doris,” Johnny dutifully answered.

Doris set the retrieved items onto a very old kitchen table and began to butter to thick slices of homemade bread. To which he added generous slices of cold roast beef.

She started to hum cheerfully as she worked. It was a tune Johnny found vaguely familiar and he sifted through his memory, trying to recall the words to the song. It came to mind that he had it heard long ago as child in Nebraska; back when his mother had still been relatively healthy, and his brother, as of yet, had been unaware that he was burdened with the same disease as his mom.

“What can I get you to wash you r sandwich down with?”

Doris’ question pulled him out of his reverie.

She smiled at him with a motherly look when he told her that milk was his preferred drink.

She reached up and grabbed a glass from the cupboard and filled it to the top.

She quietly puttered around the kitchen while Johnny ate his snack. She smiled in approval when, once finished, Johnny carried his plate and empty glass over to the sink and washed them and then set them on the draining board.

Johnny turned and saw her smile. “Habit,” he said with a wry grin. “I’m not very good at cards, so I usually end up with dish duty at the station,” he admitted.

She eyed his uniform curiously.

“I’m a firefighter-paramedic from Los Angeles,” Johnny explained. “I was up in Ketchum for a conference there. Blaine County is in the process of starting up a Paramedic program in the area, and I was up there giving them some pointers on how to get it done efficiently. I was on my way back to Boise to catch my flight home when I got caught in the storm.”

Doris smiled. “Yes, I read something about that in the local paper a few weeks back. It will be a comfort to know medical help is close at hand, should we ever need it. Help yourself to a piece of that cake over there,” she said nodding to a coffee cake sitting on the sideboard.

Knowing by now that he was expected to accept, Johnny nodded his head.

“Thank you, I don’t mind if I do,” he said graciously.

He walked over to the cake and cut himself a slice big enough to satisfy the women. He brought it to his mouth and took a large bite.       

      

“Wow, Doris….this is fantastic cake.” Doris brightened visibly. It was clear that was the reaction she’d been hoping for.

After his snack Johnny and Doris returned to the Parlour where the rest of the guests were sitting around getting better acquainted.

Initially Johnny had wondered how the Inn’s proprietors would handle the unexpected onslaught of four car loads of stranded travelers; however, their arrival didn’t seem to disturb Doris in the least. As for Ronnie, he looked like he’d been through his fair share of wars and Johnny doubted there was much that could faze the old man anymore.

Johnny watched as Doris hovered over each of her guests, asking if they would like some more coffee. He couldn’t help but draw the comparison between Doris and a hummingbird. Indeed she was a small bird-like creature who seemed to flit from person to person making sure everyone of her guests needs were met.

It was at this point that Todd declared he was going upstairs to fetch his monopoly board.

Noah, Trudy and Penny went over to the coffee table and began clear a space for the game.

Ronnie excused himself, saying he had a few things he wanted to do in his room before supper.

Rhonda once again declined the offer to join them and walked over to the leather chair in the alcove. She sat down carefully, folding one leg over the other, she clasped her hand over her knee and glanced over at Johnny disdainfully as she viewed his uniform.

Johnny returned her glare with one of his own that equaled if not surpassed hers in its intensity, until she finally grew uncomfortable and dropped her eyes back into her lap.

The standoff was interrupted by Doris’s voice coming from across the room where she was rifling through a stack of old record albums.

“How about we make things a bit more festive in here… would someone please turn on the Christmas tree lights?” she asked.

Johnny went over to the tree and plugged in the extension cord that was attached to the string of lights on the tree. As soon as the plug hit the socket, the tree sprang to life. 

Doris selected an album and placed it on the turntable, and soon the sound of Christmas music filled the air. “Now… who wants some egg nog?” she asked.

Nearly everyone’s hand went into the air. In short order, the woman once again returned with a tray of glasses. Those old enough for it, enjoyed their egg nog with a generous shot of nog … “to take the chill off,” she said with a wink. The younger people would simply have to rely on the heat from the fireplace and the convivial atmosphere in the room to get their warmth. It was clear to Johnny that Doris was in her element. It had obviously been a long time since she had hosted a Christmas party and she was clearly enjoying the opportunity to have one now.

True to his word, Todd returned from his room with a game of monopoly. It was quickly decided that Trudy and Penny would pair up against Todd and Noah, while the father and son would act as the banker, declaring that they would play the winners.

Johnny, Walt and Murray settled into the three armchairs by the fire, and began discussing the various aspects of their jobs as they listened to the merry snapping and popping of the logs in the fireplace. Doris had returned to the kitchen to get supper started.

The lone holdout in the entire affair was Rhonda. She merely glanced at them disinterestedly from the leather chair in the alcove, where she sat with a fashion magazine in her lap.

It was going on five o’clock when Doris came back into the parlour and informed them that she had just heard on the kitchen radio that the storm was not expected to let up before morning.

It was then that the issue of sleeping arrangements was addressed. The Inn only had six bedrooms. One of which was Doris’s and the other belonged to Ronnie. Currently Wilda had rented one, and Noah and Todd were in another. That left two other rooms for seven people.

Each room contained a double bed and a pullout couch that could sleep a third person.

Doris decided that one of the rooms would go to Murray, the unspoken understanding that as he was nearing seventy he should take the room over the younger men.

“Now since you and Walt are old friends, I figure he might as well take the pullout in your room.”

None of the other men were willing to take the last remaining room ahead of the three young ladies. Despite it being the age of women’s lib, the girls more than were willing to wink at the equality issue if it meant they would get to sleep in a bed with clean sheets. Trudy and Penny offered to share the double bed, leaving the pullout for Rhonda.

“I’m not used to sharing a room, Rhonda whined. I need it to be perfectly quiet, and I need to get a full eight hours of undisturbed sleep.”

Other than Doris, no one else appeared to be paying any attention to her complaining. And by the look on the older woman’s face, she had just about had enough of Rhonda antics.

“Are you finished?” she asked the girl patiently; much in the same manner one would address a petulant child.

“Now I am sorry my Inn does not meet with your high expectations, young lady. But everyone here is in the same boat, and we’re all trying to make the best of it. If you would just put as much effort into trying to have a nice time as you do into pouting, I am sure your stay here would be a lot more enjoyable,” Doris scolded.

Rhonda has the good graces to blush and mumbled out an apology.  Doris gave a quick nod of her head. The older woman was just naïve enough to believe the girl’s apology was sincere.

Johnny, on the other hand wasn’t buying any of it. Rhonda was so narcissistic and self-absorbed he doubted she was even capable of squeezing out any kind of genuine emotion other than her own selfish wants.

Todd and Noah on the other hand were of a generous nature and both young men offered to give up their room to the father and son.

“Nonsense…you paid for your room,” Ben declared. “If anyone sleeps in it, it should be you.”

“Well at the very least, Noah and I can share the double bed and that way Gabe can crash on the pullout,” Todd said.

Gabriel, at the urging of his father, graciously accepted Todd’s offer.

That just left Johnny and Pastor Benjamin. In the end it was decided they would each take one of the sofas in the parlour.

“Good, then it’s all settled,” Doris said with a satisfied smile. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll get the table set and then supper will be served.”

“Could we help you at all, Doris?” Penny asked.

“Not at all,” Doris insisted. “You just sit there and finish your game. It won’t take me more than ten minutes to get it on the table.”

 “Ronnie will show you to your rooms whenever you’re ready.”

“Our bags are still in the car,” Pastor Ben said. “I’d better go bring them in now so our clothes will have a chance to warm up before bed.”

“Ours are too,” Trudy said. “I’ll bring them in,” she said  glancing over to Penny. “There’s no sense of all us going back out into the cold.”

“I’ll bring them in,” Ben offered. “If you just want to hand me your keys and tell me where they are, I’ll grab them for you.”

“Are you sure?” Trudy asked. ”I hate to put you to so much trouble.”

“Don’t worry about,” Gabriel interjected. “You girls stay inside where it’s warm. I’ll help my dad. Between the two of us, we can get it done in one trip.”

Trudy smiled gratefully. “Thank you both, we really appreciate it. Our suitcases are in the trunk of the car.”

Ben and Gabe went to get into their coats and boots so they could get the bags. Penny handed Gabe the keys to the car and thanked him, flashing him a sweet smile, which caused the teen to blush self-consciously.

Ben chuckled at his son’s sudden bashfulness and gave him a scruff on the head. He gave the teen a small shove out the door, as he followed on his son’s heels out into the cold.

The girls returned to the parlour and helped Todd put the monopoly game back into the box until after supper when Trudy and Penny, as the winners of the first game would play Gabe and his father.

Johnny sat in silence watching the young people interact. He smiled as he realized that both of the girls were probably no more than a year or two younger than he was, but somehow, he felt as if he were years older.

The sounds of thudding of boots in the entryway drew Johnny’s attention back towards the front door. He rose from his chair and went into the entryway with the intention of helping Ben and Gabe with the suitcases.

Snow came drifting into the Inn as Ben and Gabe came bursting through the door, fresh faced, rosy cheeked and laughing, their arms full of suitcases, which they promptly set onto the floor. They brushed off their coats as they stamped the snow from their boots onto the mat by the door.

Johnny was inexorably drawn to the sight of the father and son as they jostled playfully with each other. He felt a deep pang of sorrow flow through him as his mind was flooded with memories of the many times this exact same scene had played out between him and his dad over the years.

After a hearty supper of Beef Stew with homemade biscuits, the happy troop, with the exception of Wilda, who said she was going to go back to her room for a relaxing bath, before retiring to bed early, went back into the parlour to relax. Rhonda informed Trudy and Penny that she was going to go up to her room and read in peace, which Johnny figured, meant that she was going to sit in her room and pout instead of trying to make the best out of a bad situation…a situation which in fact was not bad at all, but a rather pleasant evening with a group of very agreeable companions.

After Rhonda left, Trudy apologized to their hostess. She went on to explain that Rhonda wasn’t actually a friend of hers; but that she had advertised on the University bulletin board that she was looking for a ride to Boise for the holidays, and Trudy and Penny had agreed to give her a lift.

Once again the monopoly game was set out. This time it was Ben and Gabe teaming up against Trudy and Penny, while Todd and Noah sat on the sideline vacillating between offering up advice and flirting with the girls.

Johnny watched Murray and Walt play a game of chess, while Doris and Ronnie got out the cribbage board and sat on the other side of the room playing a few quick games before bed.

And so the evening passed quite pleasantly until the grandfather clock in the hall struck eleven, at which time Doris indicated that it was time for everyone to call it a day.

It was well past midnight and the others had gone to bed, leaving Johnny and Pastor Ben alone with a stack of pillows and blankets piled on the sofas. The two men were sitting in front of the fire finishing off the pitcher of egg nog. This time the drink was completely alcohol free.

Ben emptied the last of the liquid into Johnny’s cup and held it out. Johnny took the proffered drink and made his way over to the chair next to the fireplace. The two men sat drinking the last of their egg nog in companionable silence.

Johnny listened as the storm outside rattled the windows as the winds howled and whistled around the window panes. Johnny thought it sounded like one of those mythical banshees Chet was always telling him about from the stories the linesman had heard from his own grandmother.

Before long Johnny found that the combination of the warm fire and a full belly were making him sleepy. He roused himself from his quiet contemplation and looked up at Ben. He thought of how close the Pastor was to his son. It was a relationship he was desperately missing these past few weeks. He would have given anything for the opportunity to have one more Christmas with his own father.

“You have a great relationship with your son,” he said to the Pastor, breaking the silence.

Ben jumped at the sudden sound of Johnny’s voice.

“Yeah he’s a really great kid. He’s certainly been a blessing to me. He came into our lives at a time when we really needed a blessing.” he answered. “Gabe is living proof of God’s love for his children. He knew that my wife and I needed Gabriel as much as he needed us.”

“What do you mean, as much as he needed you?” Johnny asked, clearly confused.

Ben scrutinized the dark haired man before speaking. “Are you a believer, John?” the Pastor asked.

Johnny wasn’t sure where this was going, but he felt compelled to find out.

“Yeah, I am,” he answered truthfully. “Not that you could call me a church goer or anything. I mean I sometimes go with my Partner Roy and his family on the rare occasions. Like when his kids were in the Christmas pageant last year, or when his daughter Jenny sang in the children’s choir at Easter. Although, I did go as a kid.  My dad was pretty diligent about attendance.”

Johnny smiled sadly. “I think he went mainly because he loved the music … my dad loved music. But then I moved to California with my aunt when I was sixteen because there were better schools there than there was on the reservation.”

“You said your dad loved the music… in the past tense. It sounds like your dad has passed away,” Ben said.

“Yeah,” Johnny felt his throat begin to constrict. “He was killed in an accident six months ago…this will be my first Christmas without him.”

Ben reached over and gave Johnny’s arm a comforting squeeze. “I’m sorry, John.  I take it the two of you were close?”

Johnny nodded. “Yeah….we lost my mom when I was very young, and then my older brother died when I was twelve. After that it was just me and him. We were really tight, you know?”

Johnny’s Adam’s apple bobbed as he tried to maintain hold of his emotions. “I really miss him. Especially at this time of year when I see all the families sharing the holidays together. It’s just rough….really rough.”

“I understand, son. I lost my only daughter when she was eight and my wife when Gabriel was thirteen. The year of firsts is always the hardest…although you’ll always miss them.”

Ben paused as if lost in some memory. After a moment he looked in Johnny’s direction and offered the medic a sad smile. “I remember my wife and I nearly broke apart after we lost, Susie. She was our only child… our whole world really. It was a very dark time for us. My wife began to question her faith, and I began to question my ability as a Pastor because I couldn’t seem to reach her. But then God gave us Gabriel, and life turned around.”

“When I think how we almost missed out on having him for a son, I am so thankful that God gave us a spiritual shake up and showed us that the opportunity to be parents again was right before us.”

“How do you mean,” Johnny asked in confusion. 

“Gabriel isn’t my biological son,” Ben explained. “My wife, Belinda and I adopted him when he was a baby. There was an unwed pregnant girl that lived close to the church I was Pastoring at the time. She would stop by the church on occasion asking for financial help so she could buy some food. After a while I got to know her, and discovered she had become pregnant after an overly eager boyfriend had forced himself upon her.”

“You mean a date rape?” Johnny asked in disgust.

“Yes,” Ben confirmed. “And so she found herself pregnant at the age of eighteen. When her parents found out, they refused to believe that the sex hadn’t been consensual, and threw her out of the house. Not everyone who claims to be a Christian, acts like one,” Ben said sadly.

Johnny nodded in understanding.

“Anyway, the pregnant girl, knew she didn’t want to keep her baby…not considering how it was conceived, but she also realized the child had a right to a life, that it wasn’t to blame for the choices of her boyfriend…the child hadn’t asked to be conceived. So she asked me if I could help her to find her child a good home. She had heard a few horror stories of children placed by the state. So I began to help her seek out a reputable organization… to feel around for prospective parents. And then one night as I was sitting in my office writing that weeks’ sermon, it was if the spirit came upon me and suddenly I knew that I wanted that child. My wife and I were only just getting our emotions back on solid footing after losing our only child, so I was hesitant at first to bring the subject up….but I felt like we were supposed to have this child….like God had led this pregnant girl to me and my wife.”

“You see after my daughter Susan was born, she didn’t thrive as she should have. At first we had no idea what was wrong. We had seen several doctors before we finally got a diagnosis. We were devastated when at eighteen months of age we were informed that she had Cystic Fibrosis. It turned out both my wife and I carry the gene that causes it. We were told that since we both carried the gene, there was a one in four chance that any child we had would be born with the disease.”

Johnny’s attention instantly perked up and leaned in closer as if he was hanging on every word of the pastor’s story.

Ben continued on with is tale.

 “So we knew we could never chance bringing another child into the world that would in all probability, be sentenced to live with the disease. We eventually lost her to the disease just three weeks after her eighth birthday.”

“When I suddenly knew I wanted to take in this young girls’ baby and raise it as my own, I wasn’t sure how Belinda would react. I was afraid she would think I was trying to replace Suzie. Which of course wasn’t true; nothing or no one can ever take the place of a lost child. I felt it was more like, we were given a chance to share the love we had to give with another child, who needed someone to be there for it. Funnily enough it was my wife Belinda who came to me. She told me that she too couldn’t shake the overwhelming feeling that we were supposed to take the child and raise it as our own.”

“After a long night of soul searching and prayer, we approached, Jill… that was the pregnant girls’ name. It seems she herself had been praying that we would be the ones to take the child,” Ben looked at Johnny with a wistful smile.  “Gabriel was born on Christmas Eve of that year. He’ll be seventeen tomorrow. And I couldn’t love him more if he was of my own flesh and blood.”

Johnny sat in silence as he stared into the flames, Ben’s life story running around inside his head. The revelation that he was a genetic carrier of cystic fibrosis; echoed his own fear that he could be a carrier for Huntington’s.

He glanced up and noticed Ben staring in his direction. More specifically he was looking at his left hand.

“So I take it you’re not married yet? Do you want to become a husband… maybe a father? Or is that not something you’re interested in at this point in your life?” the Ben asked.

The question caught the younger man off guard. He suddenly felt totally exposed and he had to quickly stand and turn his back to Ben so he could gather his composure before answering. After a long steadying breath, he turned back to the Pastor.

“Yes,” he said solemnly….his voice almost a whisper it was so quiet.

Ben could tell the young man was, for some reason that was beyond him, very uncomfortable and he could tell that Johnny was measuring his words carefully.

“I would very much like to find that special someone and have a couple of kids…” Johnny’s said before letting  his voice trail off. There was a brief period of uncomfortable silence before Johnny sat back down, and with a shrug of his shoulders, added, “But I don’t know if that will ever happen for me,” the uncertainty evident in his voice.

Ben slid his chair over until he was sitting next to Johnny. He reached over and put a reassuring hand on Johnny’s shoulder.

“Fatherhood is the best job you can have,” he said seriously. “I highly recommend it.”

Ben smiled at Johnny indulgently, with a fatherly smile so reminiscent of his dad’s that it caused the medic’s own heart to constrict in pain. Johnny swallowed, a lump in his throat and looked away. He couldn’t stop the look of sorrow that filled his eyes as they glistened with unshed tears. He raised his hand and rubbed his eyes hoping Ben hadn’t noticed.

He ambled over to the window of the parlour in an overt signal that he was putting an end to their conversation. Thankfully the Pastor seemed to sense that this wasn’t a subject Johnny was comfortable talking about, and he let the matter drop.

Johnny continued to stare wordlessly out the window at the blizzard … the winds whipping across the parking lot seemed to match his own tumultuous thoughts.

Several hours later found Johnny lying on the sofa trying to fall asleep; but unfortunately sleep was resisting him. For the past two hours he had found himself lying on his back staring up at the ceiling.

He thought back to Pastor Ben and the words he had spoken. It was probably why he found himself lying awake at two in the morning while everyone else was asleep. He had been so tempted to just, spill his guts to Ben, earlier. He figured if anyone would understand his inner turmoil it would be him.

In Ben he had seen a man that faced the same issue as he was. Sure it was not the same illness, but it was the same snake, just a different head with different poisonous venom. If anyone would understand him, Ben would be the man. He had lost his child to disease and found himself afraid to have any more… not to mention that later on he had also lost his wife in an accident…the similarities were uncanny.

Another similarity between them was that like Ben, Johnny hadn’t blamed God or gotten mad at him over how his life had turned out …that wasn’t his nature. His attitude was more along the lines of resigned acceptance. Oh, he knew that prayer worked…so did intercession.

He had been raised to believe it, and had even experienced it himself once or twice. But he knew God had a will and a purpose beyond what he could see and understand, and that sometimes the answer was, no.

Back in Nebraska he had been part of a group of kids who had attended the church camp for a week every July. It had been free and it offered him a chance to go canoeing, horseback riding, and hiking; all the things he loved. And along with all of those activities he had learned about forgiveness and the golden rule.

During his high school years in Santa Barbara he had stopped going to church and not thought about God much. His current stronger beliefs had occurred later in life. His line of work tended to make you believe. He’d seen too many things that defied logic or science. He had seen evidence of miracles nearly every day. He’d even had his own share of incidents that had him facing the prospect of an imminent face to face meeting with his maker ...  near death happenings that had him saying a few prayers and repenting for his sins. Both the snake bite incident and that whole monkey virus came to mind. It tended to make you want to get all your ducks in a row with the big Paramedic in the sky….near death tended to do that to a man. It was true that he was no plaster Saint, but Johnny definitely believed in God. He never once entertained the idea of getting mad because God did not meet his personal expectations; that he hadn’t just swooped down and fixed everything.

Mainly because Johnny knew that God never made that deal with him. He understood that it didn’t work that way. And while he knew that there seemed to be with many people, this misconception that they get to have God on their terms… that life should happen how they perceived it ought to be, he knew God wasn’t a bank that someone could withdraw cash from when needed.

He wondered how many of those same people wanted God to show up when asked, but then to  keep his nose out of their lives when they wanted to do something they knew was against his will. Like getting drunk, or sleeping around. Johnny knew that the Big Paramedic in the sky only promised a prize at the end of his days if he got it right. He never promised that his days would always be sunshine and roses.  It wasn’t about whether or not his glass was half empty or half full. It was about the fact that he even had a glass in the first place.

But there were still moments when he wondered why he had escaped Huntington’s and not James; or why did it have to strike in his family at all. But for the most part he simply felt a heavy responsibility to live up to that blessing, to earn the gifts that he’d been given.

Johnny had been given the gift of life, and he understood what a precious gift that was. There were so many others who never seemed to give it a second thought; that took it for granted, but not him. It was part of the reason why he wanted to give this time to Roy. He and Chris would both remember and cherish this time for the rest of their lives.

Considering his mom and James’ fates, Johnny already figured he had more than he had a right to expect. Nor did it ever occur to him to compare his life with Roy’s. Johnny had a job he loved and good friends…and he had Roy. In some ways he felt that Roy was like a make-up gift he had been given. His own special blessing…a brother to help ease the loss of the one he had lost. And that is how he secretly viewed his partner… he saw him as his big brother.

He had never voiced his thoughts out loud, but lately, especially since his father’s death, he had finally realized that Roy felt the same way … that he had stepped into the family role for Johnny. Again neither had had to acknowledge the change; they just both intrinsically knew it without ever having to vocalize it.

They had always had a close friendship, ever since their first meeting. There had been a bond of friendship and an easy rhythm when they worked together that had been there since day one. Within the first six months of their partnership, their bond had grown deeper. Soon they found themselves hanging around each other exclusively…their old friends slipping more and more into the background.  Even his visits to Drew and Pam Burke’s home began growing further and further apart. It had been the same with Roys’ former partner and friend, Leonard Whalen. Before Johnny, Len and Roy had spent two or three Saturdays a month hanging out.

But as the two Paramedics grew closer, it was Johnny who began to be invited to watch Chris’s little league games and came on family picnics.

And by the same token, Roy found himself invited along on Johnny’s fishing and camping trips almost exclusively. Part of it could have been their common cause in the Paramedic program…but somehow it was more than that. The two men had clicked. Johnny had long ago decided that they had been destined to be brothers … that God had just been waiting for the timing to be right.

Johnny was pulled from his thoughts by the sound of Ben stirring restlessly on the other sofa. Apparently he wasn’t the only one finding sleep to be elusive. He watched silently as Ben got up off the sofa and made his way across the room to the fireplace and put another couple logs on the fire.

Once he was finished, the Pastor sat down on the one of the arm chairs in front of the flames.

Johnny sighed and pulled himself upright, and wrapping his blanket around his shoulders, he padded softly over to the fireplace and sat down in the chair next to Ben’s.

“Sorry if I woke you, John. I was finding it chilly, so I decided to get up and warm myself up by the fire. I didn’t mean to wake you,” Ben said apologetically.

Johnny looked over at Ben. In the flickering light of the fire the man looked older than his forty odd years. Maybe he did as well…he certainly felt older than twenty three of late.

“Naw…you didn’t wake me,” Johnny admitted. “I never fell asleep in the first place.”

“I could sense something was on your mind earlier,” Ben acknowledged. “Do you want to talk about it? As a Pastor, I’m told that I’m a good listener,” he offered.

Johnny considered Ben’s offer. He finally relented, deciding that he needed someone to talk to…and chances were he would never see this man again. And if anyone would understand his turmoil, this man that sat beside him would be the man. Who knows, he thought; maybe God put him there for that express purpose.

“I guess a big part of it, is that I’m missing my family,” Johnny began. “My dad and my brother especially. I never really knew my mom. I was pretty young when she was taken from my life.”

“The year of firsts can be hard…I know,” Ben said sympathetically.

“Actually my brother, James has been dead eleven years. He died when I was twelve.”

“When it comes to grief, there are no hard and fast rules,” Ben stated.

There was a brief lull in the conversation before Ben spoke again.

“Do said you believe in God, right John?”

Johnny smiled. He wasn’t surprised this question had come out of the mouth of a Pastor. It wasn’t like he hadn’t been thinking of spiritual matters himself all evening.

“Yeah… I really do,” he confirmed.

“The Christian version?” Ben continued to quiz.

“You mean about Jesus?” Johnny asked.

Ben simply nodded.

 “Yeah, I was brought up to believe in Jesus. My dad was a big proponent of going to church every week. And like I said earlier, I can’t say I am a regular church goer… but I am still a believer.”

Ben’s smile was one of satisfaction. “Well, then you know life is not over when we die? And if your dad felt that way, and you do as well, then you’ll see him again; just as I will see my wife and daughter one day.” Ben declared.

They were silent for some time, both men apparently lost in their individual pasts.

“My brother killed himself,” Johnny suddenly blurted out. “He had found out he had a terminal illness and he couldn’t live with what was going to happen to him.”

Johnny looked at Ben in dismay. “And I believe that God knows the number of your days, and that he didn’t intend for us to expedite the matter. But on the other hand that’s easy for me to say that. I wasn’t the one having to face a terminal disease. In my heart I can’t believe God would punish my brother for committing suicide. It is the one grey area in my belief. And I hate grey areas….the only thing they do is muddy up the waters and obscure any clarity.”

Ben moved closer and placed his hand on Johnny’s knee.

“Was James a believer like you and your father?” he asked quietly.

“Yeah, we both were. Well we both went to church every week back then, anyway.” Johnny paused. “Now that you mention it, I do recall seeing him pray several times that last summer.

I never knew why, and if I am totally honest, I guess I was probably afraid to ask. I knew something was wrong with him. He had gotten so depressed and sad all the time. It was like all the joy was sucked out of his life. At the time I didn’t understand why…that understanding didn’t come until later.”

Ben patted his knee comfortingly.

“Accepting Jesus is what gets us to heaven. And Jesus had great compassion on those who were ill. I believe that God knew your brothers pain and despair and he understood. You brother was probably suffering from depression over his illness, from what you have told me. He was a young man who had been given terrible news. It is not surprising he was depressed. Despair and depression are an illness…and I don’t for a second believe God blames us for our illnesses.”

“Now, I don’t profess to understand all the intricacies of God’s will, but from what you have told me, I am sure your brother James is in heaven,” he reassured Johnny.

“Would I be a bad Christian, if I said on occasion, I want to ask God, why he had to get the disease?” Johnny asked.

Ben smiled. “Not at all. I have asked him that same question in regards to my own child. In the end, I guess sometimes the answer is… there is no answer. At least not on this side of the grave.”

“Yeah, life’s like that sometimes,” Johnny agreed. “I guess that’s why it’s called faith.”

“Is that what has been haunting you, John,” Ben queried “Because if it is, my advice to you is to stop feeding a hungry ghost. Let it go and let God have it.”

The two men fell silent for several minutes.

Finally Johnny decided to go for broke. He turned to face Ben and plunged ahead.

“You know before when you asked if I wanted to get married and have kids?”

“Yeah,” Ben said cautiously.

“Well I do… but I’m afraid.”

“Of what?” Ben questioned, not quite sure where the conversation was heading.

“That illness James had?”

Ben nodded expectantly.

“My mom died from it too… it was hereditary. They both had Huntington’s disease. I didn’t know that was what my mom died from. She was in an asylum by the time I was six, and in the grave by the time I was nine. She was only thirty five. My dad never told James and I about it until that summer when James began to date. I guess my dad thought the time had come where James needed to know the risk. I was eleven when my dad took us both to have a blood test. The results turned out to be bad for James… and it destroyed him.”

“So I take it, you’re okay then?” Ben asked.

“I guess so. I had no idea about it until I was sixteen and my dad told me. That was when I figured out why James had done what he’d done. I was heading to California to live with my aunt. There weren’t a lot of prospects living on the reservation, so my dad sent me to live with my aunt to finish high school and have a shot at college. All my dad said was that the blood tests came back saying James had the disease for sure, but that mine came back, okay.

He didn’t have a lot of the answers himself.”

Johnny fiddled with the corner of his blanket nervously.

“Later on when I was training to become a Paramedic, I snuck into the hospital library and started to read up on it. I found out there are numbers…if your numbers are under twenty seven, then you are free from the disease. But if they are between twenty seven and thirty five it is in the grey area. I asked dad once, what the numbers were and where I fit in. He said he did not know; only that he had been told James had high numbers and had it for sure…but that my numbers were lower and that I looked okay. But what if my numbers were good enough to not have it, but grey enough to pass it on to kids? How can I expect a girl to marry me knowing I cannot give her children…or risk having a child that will die a terrible death?”

“Okay, then there are valid reasons for your concern,” Ben said. “I guess the big question is, what your number actually is, and if you are at risk of passing the gene on without actually having the illness yourself.”

“Isn’t that what happened to you…you were a carrier without having it?”

“What my daughter had was a different disease. What does your doctor say?”

“I have never told anyone,” Johnny admitted. “Not even my doctor friends…not even my best friend. The secret died with my dad. He was the last of my biological family that knew. I have a few very distant cousins on dad’s side. But it came from mom’s side, and they’re all dead now.”

“Well then don’t you think you should find out for sure before you condemn yourself to a life of loneliness?”

“I am afraid that the news will be bad,” Johnny hedged.

“Is it worse than how you’re living now, Johnny?” Ben questioned. “You know medicine has come a long way in the last ten years. I think what you need to do is just find out. Trust your friend. You need those people in your life. He will be there to celebrate with you, or support you if the news is not what you want to hear.”

“And it could be that that is what happens. Not everything that you want will happen according to plan, and not everything that you want to receive will be something that you actually receive. But Johnny, you have to keep pushing, keep hoping, keep turning the pages and starting brand new days. You have to let your life unfold as it will. Accept what life gives you and let go of what you can’t have. You are a good man, John. You chose a selfless profession and have much to offer someone.”

“If I was your dad, I would tell you to find a doctor you trust, and get the answers you need. And if the worst turns out to be true and you should not father children, then accept it and deal with it. Don’t sell todays happiness because of yesterday’s sorrow. And you can still be a father; you can always adopt. And don’t forget, not every woman who wants children can get pregnant. If you really loved a woman, would you leave her just because she could not have a baby? And some women may be quite happy to adopt rather than conceive. I believe that somewhere out there is your perfect match. Whether or not you have biological children doesn’t define who you are anyway. Look what I would have missed out on with Gabriel if I had thought that way.”

Johnny smiled. It had felt good to get it off his chest. And he had to admit, Ben did make sense. How much worse could it be than how he was living now?

“Anymore advice,” he asked Ben.

Ben stood up and gave Johnny a pat on the back. “Just wake up one day and do it. Choose a bright morning and take that leap of faith and go for it.”

And with that Ben went back over to his couch and lay down. Johnny put another log on the fire and followed suit.

The last thought that drifted through his mind before he fell asleep was, did he have the courage to find out for sure? Suddenly he realized that he did, but first he needed to come clean with Roy.

Johnny noticed two things upon waking up. The first was an overwhelming sense of peace. After his talk with Ben in the middle of the night, he had things settled in his mind. He was going to find out one way or another if he was at risk for passing on the Huntington’s gene or not. He was tired of the uncertainly. He would either put it to rest once and for all, or he would learn to accept that his road to fatherhood would not be as traditional as Roy’s.

The second thing he noticed was an overwhelming silence. After nearly twenty four hours of howling winds beating against the windows, the silence was deafening. The storm was finally over. A glance at the clock on the wall showed Johnny that it was nearing seven in the morning. Across the room, the sofa that Ben had occupied was empty, and the rest of the house was silent.

In the entry way he heard the sound of the front door closing. He threw back his blanket and wandered over to look out the front window. In the far corner of the parking lot he saw Murray and Walt getting into their vehicles. Over near the barn, he noticed Doris cleaning off the bird feeders.

Murray started the engine on the plow and pulled out onto the road with Walt following behind at a respectable distance. Johnny figured they were on their way to get the roads opened up so Christmas travelers could get back on their way to their destinations. He regretted that they had left before he had gotten a chance to say goodbye.

Looking over at his rental, he saw a good eight to ten inches of snow covering the Jeep. Off to the side, he could see Todd cleaning off their car. Noah stood back watching with two sets of skis in his hands. It was clear they were going to take advantage of all of this fresh powder.

Johnny made his way into the kitchen and got himself a glass of water to rinse out his mouth.

Somewhere between Ketchum and the Bed and Breakfast, he had lost his toothbrush. He probably left it in Ketchum. He turned the hot water faucet on and leaned down to wash his face.  He spied his coat still hanging by the back door where he had left it hanging when he had come in from bringing in the wood the previous afternoon.  He reached over and slipped the garment on and made his way to the front of the house, where he donned his boots and headed outside into the early morning air.

There were still a few odd flakes falling as the last of the clouds moved off toward the east. A single flake of snow fell against his face, it felt cool and fresh against his cheek. Even though it was now after seven, the shortness of the days meant that darkness still clung to the edges of the world as the sky yet retained its pre-dawn grey. What little light there was illuminated the snow with a pale blue glow. Johnny took in a deep lungful of air and instantly felt exhilarated. To him it seemed as if he walking through one of God’s finest paintings. The country side lay blanketed under a fresh covering of snow. In fact the entire world looked fresh and new… full of the promise of hope.

Out of nowhere he heard Ben’s voice in his ear. “You’re here John. Look around you. Do you see that sky, the snow laden trees? And look, the sun is just coming up; you can just see it peeking through those breaks in the clouds. It’s going to be glorious day.” Johnny turned and acknowledged his words with a smile.

“They’re gone son; your folks, your brother, my wife, my daughter…but we’re here….we’re still here. Remember, no life stands alone. Each life touches another in some fashion for good or for bad. Our personal histories and lives intertwine like a ball of string. And sometimes death and even life choices sever the strings or they can somehow unravel. But if you trust in God, those broken ends can be picked up and knotted back together again….and at times the broken ends can even be spliced into a another completely different ball of string until the two balls form one new ball. The good Lord has given us the chance to live on…to experience life. Remember what I said… don’t waste it.”

“You’re right,” Johnny said. “I’m going to find out and then, whatever happens … happens. And I will feel blessed either way, because it will be settled and I can move on with my life.”

In the parking lot Johnny noticed that Gabriel had joined Noah and Todd, and that an impromptu snowball fight had erupted. Grinning Johnny reached down and grabbed a handful of snow, forming it into a ball. Winding his hand back he shouted out, ”Hey Todd.” 

He waited just long enough for the young man to turn around before letting fly with his ball of snow, signaling his intention to join in the fun.

It wasn’t long before Ben joined in, while a highly amused Doris watched from the steps of the porch.

Johnny stood up from making his latest missile to launch at Ben and gasped as an ice cold ball of snow made contact with his face. He sputtered for a moment or two as he jumped back. It was as he leapt back that he realized that he was losing his footing, and he ended up falling down fairly hard onto the snow covered parking lot.

His hands now numb from making snowballs, Johnny slowly got up, laughing while  rubbing his posterior. He could hear Dori’s laughter coming from the direction of the front porch.

“Did you want me to check out your boo-boo, John?” she giggled.

Johnny grinned. “I’m afraid it is in a place, nature prevents even me from seeing, Doris. Besides my sense of modesty forbids me showing it to you.”

“If I was forty years younger, young buck …” she left the statement hanging in mid-air with a wicked grin.

“If you were forty years younger, Doris, you might just have found out what kinda young buck I am,” he quipped back with an impish grin. And with that the two of them burst out into laughter. It was the kind unbridled laughter he hadn’t realized had been missing since the death of his dad. And while he had laughed, enjoyed life at times during the past six months, it had been restrained. But this carefree gleeful laughter had long been absent from his life, and until this moment, he hadn’t even realized how much he missed it… how much he needed it.

As Dawn broke, the day slowly began to declare itself as the sun crawled up in the winter sky. With the clouds having fully moved off, the sky seemed such a brilliant blue that it seemed to stretch on forever. It was both breath-taking and endless.

Off in the distance, the sound of snow plows clearing the roads echoed across the landscape. He didn’t know whether or not he would be able to get a flight home in time to spend Christmas Eve with the DeSoto family, but either way it didn’t matter…he had gotten everything he could have hoped for and more that Christmas season. He had received the gift of hope.

The thought of Roy, Joanne and the kids waiting to share Christmas with him made a warm sense of happiness rush through him. It was a feeling he hadn’t felt in over six months. He had a family that loved him, and a new lease on life. It would soon be a new year, with a new perspective. He now felt fully ready to face life’s answers. He knew he wanted to find the right girl and get married. And he knew he would one day, be a father. If it was meant to be that he had a biological child, then it would happen. But biological or adopted, either would be fine by him. He took another glance over to where Ben and Gabriel stood laughing in the snow. Being a parent was not about blood…it was about love.

EPILOGUE

Johnny had finally come clean to Roy about how his mom had died and about why James had chosen to end his own life shortly after the New Year. He then told his best friend about the fears that had been plaguing him about fathering children. He had initially been worried that Roy would be angry or hurt because he hadn’t shared something that important with him before.But in actual fact his best friend…and brother, had been very understanding of Johnny’s reasons, even though he had reiterated that he’d wished he had talked to Roy earlier so they could come up with a plan to deal with it.

In the end, Roy had helped him speak to Dr. Early about it. Dr. Early in turn set him up for an appointment with an endocrinologist, Dr. Wong, who had sat patiently and listened to his questions and fears without judgement. The good doctor had explained a few things to him and let him know what they could do to get Johnny the answers he needed. Like Johnny, the doctor thought it was a necessary test to take before Johnny decided to have any children, as the tests could have some bearing on whether or not there was a potential risk to his offspring.

Dr. Wong had explained that someone with an intermediate number of 27-35 CAG repeats in chromosome number four will not develop Huntington’s, but that their children did have a low risk of inheriting a gene with an increased number of CAG repeats, in either the reduced or full penetrance range. Someone with a number of 36-39 may or may not develop Huntington’s in their lifetime, but their children would be at a 50% risk of inheriting an HD gene with either reduced or full penetrance. So the big question was did Johnny fall between the 27-35 range. If they had told him he would not get the disease with 100% certainty, then he obviously did not  fall into the 36-39 category, but there was still a chance he had been in the 27-35 range. Anything below 26 meant that the defective gene did not exist in his body and therefore there would be no chance of passing it on.

Johnny had also had to sign several legal forms in order for Dr. Wong to be able to access James’ old medical file from back in Nebraska.

Johnny had taken the test in late February and then sat back to wait. It had been a full time job for poor Roy to keep him on an even keel until the results came in. It was mid-March when he finally got the call from Dr. Wong that James’ medical file along with both his old and his new test results were ready.

Johnny had decided not to tell Roy until he knew how the tests had turned out. As of yet, only Roy and Dr. Early knew of his testing. If Johnny’s numbers were good, then there would be no need for anyone else to ever know. Since he had been on duty the day the call came in, Johnny had gone up to Dr. Wong’s after he had brought in a patient. Roy had been delayed at the scene and so he had to wait at the hospital for the squad anyway. He could have waited for his day off, but Johnny did not want to prolong the agony any further so he went up to the doctor’s office while he waited for Roy. Within five minutes, he had found himself sitting across the desk from Dr. Wong.

Johnny could feel the sweat running down the back of his neck as the doctor reached into his desk drawer and withdrew a file folder that contained several sheets of paper. Johnny knew that the words and numbers contained inside held the fate of his future.

Doctor Wong picked up the top sheet and held it out for Johnny to read. Johnny struggled to keep his hand from shaking as he reached out to grab the paper. His fingers paused before making contact with the parchment… it was as if he was afraid that the paper would burn his flesh if he made contact. He took a deep steadying breath and grabbed the paper; after all this had been what he had wanted; at least he would know one way or another if the disease had ended with his mother and brother…or could it possibly…even remotely, carry on through his children or grandchildren.

The sheet felt extraordinarily heavy in his hands as he looked down and read the numbers. He wasn’t sure if he was reading things correctly so he let his eyes wander down to the bottom of the sheet….and there he saw the words, written in boldface type. His number was seventeen and beside the number he saw the words he had been praying for, these results clearly show there is no sign of the disease in John Gage, nor is there any risk of him passing it down to further generations. Out of curiosity he turned the page over and looked and James’ number…it had been fifty eight. James hadn’t even been close to being free of the dreaded disease.

Johnny glanced down at the sheet of paper as he let the numbers meaning sink in… it was over. The nightmare called Huntington’s disease had done all the damage it could do to his life. He was free. The last vestiges of it in his family had been buried with James.

He stood staring at the paper, letting his eyes burn into the sheet so he could memorize what it said, before handing the sheet back to Doctor Wong. He could instantly feel a heavy weight lift off his shoulders. In fact he felt that if it wasn’t for the laws of gravity, he would have simply floated up to the ceiling. 

All was right with the world once more. And while it was true that he had suffered great loss because of this disease, he could now, for the first time see a bright future. One filled with his progeny… at least a couple of little Gage’s. He could no longer contain his joy and relief as his face broke out into a huge grin.

“Thanks a lot Doc,” he said excitedly. “You have no idea what this means to me.”

“Oh, I think I might have a small idea… but you’re welcome,” Dr. Wong replied.

With a final shake of the good doctor’s hand, Johnny exited the office.

Johnny stopped off at the men’s room on his way back to the ER. As he stood looking in the mirror he began to feel some unbidden tears sliding down his cheeks. He wasn’t sure if they were tears, of joy or relief. It had been the first release Johnny had allowed himself since that drunken night he had cried on Roy’s shoulder the previous June. As he let the tears fall freely he decided that all that Native stoicism his grandparents had gone on about, was over-rated….not to mention antiquated. It was pointless and did more harm than good. He understood that now. It didn’t make you hurt less… it just ate you from the inside out.

After collecting himself and washing his face, Johnny headed down to the ER to find Roy. As he stepped out of the elevator onto the first floor, the first person he ran into was the charming, Emma; the new nurse who had joined the ER staff three weeks earlier. He had been so preoccupied that he had barely given her a second glance when she had flirted with him. But today, he put on his full megawatt Gage charm.

The two of them were still chatting when Roy entered into the ER and made his way to where Johnny was leaning over the counter with the pretty nurse. Seeing that his partner was clearly ready to go, Roy motioned to him, indicating that he would be waiting for him in the squad.

It was a still smiling Johnny that made his way out into the ambulance bay.

Smiling to himself he headed for the parking lot where Roy was waiting for him next to the squad.  As he stepped out into the parking lot, his eyes scanned the horizon. The sky above was pale blue and cloudless, and there was just a hint of a warm breeze.  Johnny had always loved spring when he was a boy… it was a world of fresh awakenings after a long cold, dark winter.

The hint of spring in the air brought back those feelings now… or maybe it was just his own feelings of a new chapter in his life. Johnny looked down at the paper in his hand that held Emma’s phone number and the promise of a beach picnic the next day, and smiled.

With the reassurance that the curse of Huntington’s in his family had ended with James’s death, he was ready to commit himself to finding his soulmate. He had no intention of jumping blindly into anything serious just yet, but he was no longer going to push it away either.

Maybe Emma was the one… or maybe the one was still a year away…but either way he was ready for it.

The future was his; his options were now open. The possibilities now seemed limitless. If that one special person should happen to cross his path…he was ready to go for it.

He hadn’t realized he was still standing, gazing at the sky until he felt his partner’s hand on his shoulder.

“Earth to Johnny,” Roy said his voice a mixture of amusement and mild annoyance.

“What’s up there” he asked motioning to the sky, “that has captured your attention? I’ve been calling your name for over a minute, Junior.”

Johnny turned to his best friend and smiled. “Oh, I was just thinking,” he said with a slow drawl.

Roy cocked to his head to the side and continued to look at him expectantly.

“It’s a beautiful mornin’ don’t ya think?”  Johnny finished. He would phone Roy tomorrow and tell him of the results…but today was just for him to savour alone.

Roy gave his head a small shake and smiled indulgently at his younger partner. He accepted these out of the blue statements from Johnny as normal Gage behaviour. He gave the dark haired man a nod of his head to indicate he had heard him, as he headed for the squad.

Opening the door he slid into the cab and waited as Johnny joined him in the passenger seat.

Roy found that he had to shield his eyes as he reached forward to insert the key into the ignition, the sun having reached that point in the sky where it shone directly into his eyes.

“Well, it’s certainly a bright morning, anyway,” he said to Johnny as he turned the key sending the squad’s engine roaring to life.  Johnny looked once more at Emma’s phone number in his hand, before grinning and shoving the paper into his pocket.

“Choose a bright morning,” he younger man murmured quietly.

“I’m sorry….what did you say?” Roy asked.

Johnny smiled. “Oh, nothing… let’s just get this old girl back to the barn,” he said patting the squad’s dash. “I’ve got a date tomorrow and I need to make some plans so I am ready for it.”

“I thought you were born ready,” Roy said wryly.

Johnny thought about the test result he had just been given and smiled. “You know what, Roy….you’re absolutely right. It turns out I was born ready.”

Roy looked over at Johnny with a curious look….clearly there was a double meaning to Johnny’s statement, and though he wasn’t sure what it was, he did note that Johnny appeared to be happier than he had seen him in months. He wasn’t sure exactly what had happened to cause the change but he’d accept it.

Shifting the squad into drive, Roy just smiled. “Okay Junior, call us in as available and let’s go home.”

Johnny did as instructed and then watched as the world sped by his window. No longer did he feel as if he were on the outside looking in… he was ready to join in on life. It was a good feeling…one that had been a long time coming.

Johnny leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes with a smile of contentment. Yup… there was no doubt about it; life was good.

 

 

 

                                              

                           The End… And have a very, Merry Christmas.

 

The inspiration for using the Huntington’s idea was inspired after watching a biopic on Woody Guthrie. I do have to say that I have altered certain timelines in regards to genetic testing for Huntington’s to fit into the storyline. In actual fact the genetic testing for this disease was not available until over a decade or more after this story occurs. Consider it artistic license.

The song, White Christmas, was written by, Irving Berlin.

And I promise now, I will put on my Mypiot hat and get back to my Vermont series.                                       

Posted to Site 12/23/15

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