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Realizations

An Emergency Story by

Anela51
 

 

       

 

DISCLAIMER: "Emergency!" and its characters © Mark VII Productions, Inc. and Universal Studios. All rights reserved. No infringement of any copyrights or trademarks is intended or should be inferred. This is a work of fiction, and any similarity to actual persons or events is purely coincidental. This story is only written for entertainment. No financial gain is being realized from it. The story, itself, is the property of the author.

 

I glanced at the clock on the wall for what must have been the hundredth time this morning. Ten-thirty a.m. Roy wasn’t home from work yet, but I knew he’d left the station on time because he’d called me. He must still be at Rampart.

 

I loved my husband dearly, and under normal circumstances I always looked forward to his coming home after shift, even when he walked in the door smelling like a four-alarm fire. But this morning I was almost dreading his return…

 

His partner was coming home with him to stay with us for a few days to recuperate from some stupid virus that almost killed him.

 

I couldn’t help the sigh that escaped me. I know I agreed to let the man come here—how could I refuse when Roy looked at me with those beautiful blue eyes and that hopeful expression on his face—but I really didn’t want John Gage staying here with us. Surely he had other friends that could have taken him in! Goodness knows he’s ‘friendly’ with enough women that at least one of them should have been more than willing to let him stay with them for a while.

 

“Mommy!” Jennifer shouted from the top of the stairs. “Is Uncle Johnny here yet?”

 

“Not yet, sweetheart,” I answered as I headed for the stairs. When I was face to face with my four-year-old I continued, “Now remember what I told you—Johnny has been sick and is coming here to rest, so don’t you go bothering him too much, okay?”

 

She nodded solemnly at me, her blue eyes wide. “I won’t bother him, Mommy. I promise.”

 

I smiled at her. “Good. Now go back up to your room and play and in a little while I’ll let you help me fix lunch.”

 

She headed back to her room, and I turned to go back to the kitchen. The sound of a car door slamming outside nearly halted me in my tracks, but I forced myself to continue toward the kitchen.

 

They’re here.

 

 

I turned the ignition off and looked over to my partner in the seat beside me. Johnny wasn’t asleep, but he looked pretty beat. “You ready to go inside?”

 

“Yeah, well…. Look, Roy, it’s not that I don’t appreciate you letting me come here, but I’m sure I’d be just fine if you took me home. I can take care of myself.”

 

I wasn’t surprised at his attempt to get around Dr. Early’s orders. If there’s one thing I’d learned about my partner in the ten months I’d known him, it was that he was pretty independent by nature. He also had this thing about honesty… “Nope, can’t do that, Johnny. Doctor Early only released you because you agreed to come here for a few days. Now we can’t be going back on our word now, can we?”

 

He sighed loudly. “Fine.”

 

I watched him as he opened the car door and swung his legs out, shaking my head. This was definitely going to be interesting.

 

I got out of the car and grabbed his bag out of the back seat. We walked to the front door together, but I could tell by his silence that he was uncomfortable with the whole situation and I wondered why. He followed me silently into the house.

 

“Uncle Johnny! Uncle Johnny!”

 

“Hey, princess!” Johnny caught her up into his arms as she ran down the stairs and launched herself at him. He was smiling, but he didn’t swing her around like he normally would. That virus took a lot out of him. “How are you doing? You’re getting so big!”

 

She jerked her head up from his shoulder, indignant. “I am a big girl! I’m four-and-a-half!”

 

“Wow, you’re right! Pretty soon your old man’ll be fighting them off with a stick.”

 

I snorted. “She’s got plenty of time for that, Junior. Let’s not rush things.”

 

Johnny was setting her down as Joanne joined us. “Hello, Johnny. Hey, babe.” She wrapped her arm around my waist and I leaned down a bit to give her a kiss. She reached up to rub my face. “Oooh, morning whiskers.”

 

It was Johnny’s turn to snort with laughter as I felt my face get warm.

 

I was distracted by my daughter as she darted into the living room then came back out with a small bag in one hand. She reached for her Uncle Johnny with the other. “Come on, Uncle Johnny. It’s time for your checkup!”

 

My partner only looked from Jennifer to me and back again in confusion. “Checkup?”

 

Jennifer had taken care of me through the occasional cold, and I knew what my partner was in for.   It was a struggle not to burst out laughing. “Doctor Early’s got an assistant, Johnny. John Gage, meet Nurse Jenny.”

 

 

I looked down from the amused face of my partner to the earnest face of his little girl and knew I was in trouble. Aw, man…

 

I let her lead me by the hand to the sofa in the living room and sat down. She started pulling all her toys out of what looked like a doctor’s bag made for kids. She had it all: plastic thermometer, stethoscope, otoscope, smackulum, syringe and something that resembled a BP cuff. Oh, and real Band-Aids, too. She chattered away as she used each and every one of them on me...even the Band-Aids. I didn’t have the energy to try and stop her, not that I would have anyway. Roy’s little girl had wormed her way into my heart from the first moment I’d met her.

 

“…and now I’ll tell you the Get Better rules.”

 

Huh?

 

“First, you gotta do everything Mommy and Daddy tell you. Next, you get to play with me all day long. Next, you get to read me stories. Next, you—”

 

“Jennifer,” Joanne said sternly from the hall. “What did we talk about before, about not bothering Johnny?”

 

“But I’m not, Mommy,” she protested. “I’m helping Uncle Johnny get better!”

 

I didn’t want her to get in trouble because of me, so I jumped in quickly. “It’s okay, Joanne. I don’t mind spending time with her…”

 

Joanne’s expression darkened slightly and I looked away, having the feeling I should’ve just kept my mouth shut. Luckily my partner came to my rescue as he knelt down beside his daughter.

 

“Sweetheart, you have to remember that Uncle Johnny might not be up to playing with you like you’re used to. The doctor told him he has to get a lot of rest, so while he might spend a little time with you, when he tells you he’s tired you’ll have to let him be, okay?”

 

She nodded slowly, clearly not happy with what she was being asked to do. “Okay, Daddy.”

 

Roy glanced up at me and continued. “And I think Uncle Johnny needs to get a little rest right now, so you go help your mom in the kitchen and you can see him a little later, okay?” He patted her bottom playfully as she ran from the room.

 

I’d caught the way he’s stressed that I should be more forthcoming about how I was feeling, and that I needed to rest, and I knew better than to argue with him when his voice took on that tone. I climbed to my feet and frowned at the fact that it took a lot more effort than it should have.

 

“You’ll be staying in the sewing room, Johnny, because it’s got a bed in it for guests when we need it,” Roy told me as he grabbed my bag and we walked down the hall. “Joanne has it all ready for you. There’s clean towels and extra blankets and pillows in the closet and an empty drawer in the night stand for your belongings. You want me to help you unpack?”

 

I sat down on the bed. No, Roy, you don’t need to help me unpack my stuff. I’m not dyin’ here, you know.  I swallowed a sigh and shook my head. “That’s okay, Roy, I’ll do it myself later. I’m just gonna sack out for a while. Wake me up for lunch, okay?”

 

“Sure. You need anything else?”

 

“Nope.”

 

“Alright then, I’ll see you later,” he said and then turned for the door.

 

As I lay down I thought about what Roy had just told me. After what happened in the living room a little while ago, I figured maybe I’d better do some damage control. “Tell Joanne thanks for me, okay? For getting the room ready and everything.”

 

“Sure, Johnny. Now get some rest.”

 

I grinned at him as I closed my eyes. “Yes, dad!”

 

The grin was still on my face as I heard the door close behind him.

 

 

I listened to the kids playing in the living room with their dad as I put the finishing touches on dinner. Thankfully, the day had been relatively quiet so far. I picked Chris up at the bus stop after school—it was an early-release day—and we had lunch around one o’clock. Johnny joined us. His table manners were atrocious, but at the scowl that was on my face both the kids made sure to eat with their mouths closed and to swallow before they spoke. Unfortunately Johnny didn’t seem to take the hint.

 

Both he and Roy dozed off in the living room afterwards, Roy in his favorite chair and Johnny on the sofa. I sent Chris to play with his friend next door and Jenny contented herself with coloring in her coloring book on the kitchen table. When they woke up they went out to the back yard and spent some “man time” together. I kept Jennifer in the kitchen with me.

 

Now it was time for dinner and as the hoard descended on my meatloaf, mashed potatoes and corn on the cob, I allowed the sounds around me wash the stress from my shoulders and upper back. I also did my best to avoid looking at Johnny when he spoke.

 

After dinner was over and I’d finished the dishes, we played Crazy Eights until it was time for the kids to go to bed. I had to admit to a certain amount of satisfaction as our guest was solidly whipped by my seven-year-old son. Roy’s amusement was obvious.

 

“He can’t win at cards at the station, either,” Roy informed me as we got ready for bed. “He’s stuck doing the dishes so often that I’ve taken to helping him out more often than not.”

 

“Why should you?” I asked, mildly annoyed that my husband seemed to always be picking up after his partner. “I mean, he lost, fair and square.”

 

Roy shrugged. “Well, he can’t help it if he doesn’t have any ‘card sense.’ Besides, it’s a good way for me to get him to help me with the dishes when it’s my turn.”

 

I smiled at that. “Smart man.”

 

As we snuggled down beneath the blankets I could help but think to myself, John Gage, I hope you look after my husband as good as he seems to look after you.

 

 

Mornings with two children were usually an exercise in patience for Joanne and me, but today it was one of quietly controlled chaos. Johnny was still asleep in the guest room, so it was a challenge to keep the kids’ exuberance toned down. Joanne was upstairs getting the kids dressed and I was fixing a breakfast tray for my partner.

 

Both Joanne and I were heading out to run errands this morning so Johnny would be on his own for an hour or two. He’d be fine, I knew—I’m sure he’ll tell me that himself—but still I wanted to be sure he was doing alright before we left. The last thing I wanted was for him to find himself in trouble with no one around to help.

 

I carried the tray down the hall and brought it into his room. It only took a few moments for the smell of the hot coffee to rouse him from sleep. “Mmmm. Smells good,” he mumbled as he drew his arm down from over his eyes and turned his head toward me, blinking slowly as he became more alert.

 

“I brought you something to eat before we head out this morning.”

 

He sat up in the bed, running a hand over his face and through his hair. “Thanks, Roy. Where’re you heading?”

 

“I’m going to a couple of hardware stores to pick up some of the things I need to finish that remodeling project in the garage and for the shed out back,” I informed him as I set the tray table down over his legs. “Jo has a salon appointment and has to stop at the bank and then do some shopping. She’s dropping off Jennifer at a friend’s house and will pick her up when she goes to get Chris at the bus stop this afternoon. You need anything before we go?”

 

He popped a piece of bacon in his mouth as he shook his head. “Nope. I’m sure I’ll manage just fine without you for a couple of hours.”

 

Yup, just what I thought he would say. “Okay, then. We’ll be back in a bit.”

 

 

My partner and his family had left by the time I finished eating my breakfast, and the house was completely silent now. I was bored. I know they weren’t responsible for keeping me entertained, but just the sounds of everyday living were somehow comforting. I guess that’s the curse of living alone—no ‘homey’ sounds around you unless you make ‘em yourself.

Maybe I’ll get up and stretch my legs for a while—take a tour of the ground floor of the house to kill some time.

 

After a brief stop in the bathroom, I brought the tray table with my dishes to the kitchen. There were a few plates and things already soaking in the sink, so I scraped my dishes off over the trash and added them to the collection. Then I moved on with my tour.

 

Off the kitchen was the laundry room. I took a quick peek inside and saw that the hamper was just about full. Joanne must have been planning to do the laundry later on today because there were a couple of things already soaking in a basin on top of the washer.

 

The living room was next on my tour. I liked Roy’s living room. It wasn’t very big, but the furniture fit the room—and the sofa was real comfortable. Pictures of the family could be found in just about every nook and cranny in the room. They were mostly of the kids, but there were a few with Roy and Joanne. Their wedding picture hung on one wall, and there was a nice family portrait on the other—not to recent, though, as the kids were quite a bit smaller than they were now.

 

The room was a little cluttered today, which surprised me. Maybe this was Joanne’s cleaning day all around. I wondered if she could use a little help. Yeah, maybe I could do some things around the house for her—lighten the load for her a bit. After all, she was letting me stay here even though I know she’s not all that thrilled about it. *Sigh* I wish I knew what I did to make her not like me.

 

Wait, maybe my helping her out around the house will change her mind about me—let her know that I appreciated her putting herself out for me. Well, it was worth a shot, anyway.

 

First stop, the laundry room!

 

 

I set the groceries down on the kitchen table, glad to be relieved of the burden. I couldn’t believe that I was running so late! First my hairstylist was behind schedule, then the line at the bank was almost to the door—why so many people were in there I couldn’t imagine! It wasn’t like it was a Friday or anything. It was the same at the grocery store—you’d think we were due for a hurricane! I still had to do the laundry, clean the house, do the dishes and balance my checkbook before the kids came home. And Roy should be back from the hardware store any minute now!

 

It wasn’t until I began putting the groceries away until I heard it. The washing machine was going. What in the world…?

 

I opened the door quickly and froze in the doorway, stunned at the sight before me.

 

There stood Johnny, pulling a piece of clothing out of the dryer and starting to fold it…and not in the right way! I took in the laundry basket at his feet, nearly full of already-folded colored clothes, and the fact that the washer appeared to be in its final spin cycle, and I could feel my blood pressure rising. I managed to contain what I knew was going to be a shout when I opened my mouth, and forced myself to speak calmly. “Johnny, what are you doing out of bed?”

 

Oblivious to my growing anger, he smiled that crooked smile of his at me and said happily, “Well, I got up a little while ago to stretch my legs and noticed a few things that needed to be done around here, so I thought I’d give you a hand. This load’s finished, and the other is almost done. All that one’ll need is to be thrown into the dryer. Plus the breakfast dishes are washed, and I managed to do some straightening up in the living room, too.”

 

I swallowed—hard—and tried my best to give him a small smile, although I wasn’t too sure I’d succeeded. “Well, I…uh…I appreciate what you did, Johnny, but you really shouldn’t have.” Uh-oh, the word ‘shouldn’t’ came out a little more forceful than I’d intended. I tried again. “You’re supposed to be resting.” Oops! I did it again.

 

The smile had slowly been slipping from his face as I spoke, and now it was gone all together. Maybe my smile had turned out to be more of a grimace after all. “Oh. Yeah. I…uh… Well...I just…I thought…” The words finally stumbled to a halt, and his eyes dropped down to the floor with a tilt of his head. “Maybe you’re right.”

 

I wanted to say, “Of course I’m right, you dolt! You should have just stayed in bed and minded your own business like any good house guest is supposed to. What have you done to my laundry?!” but I forced different words from my mouth. “I mean, you must be tired from all the…help…you’ve given me, right? Why don’t you go ahead and lay down for a little while and Roy’ll come in and get you when lunch is ready.”

 

He nodded slowly and replied, “Yeah… that sounds like a good idea.” He started to step around the basket towards me, and I moved aside for him, making room in the doorway. “Thanks, Joanne,” came the quiet words as he passed me.

 

I closed the door behind me, walked up to the laundry basket full of freshly-washed colored clothes, put it on top of the dryer and began taking each piece out, one by one. By the third one I just reached in, grabbed as many as could fit in my hands, brought them up to my face…and let out a scream of frustration into them, allowing the clothing to smother the sound.

 

That man was impossible!!

 

 

I knew something was wrong the moment I walked through the door. Joanne was in the kitchen making preparations for lunch. I watched her for a moment. Her back was stiff, and the hapless vegetables she was chopping with excessive force for the salad were going to turn to liquid any minute.

 

Johnny was nowhere to be seen. Uh-oh.

 

I waited until she put the knife down before making my presence known, starting off with something innocuous. “Hi sweetheart. Looks like I lucked out—the hardware store was having a great sale. You wouldn’t believe the price of nails these days.”

 

“Or laundry detergent,” she replied curtly, picking up the knife again and pushing the vegetables off the cutting board and into the salad bowl.

 

Huh? “Didn’t you just buy some at the store last week?”

 

“Or a new blouse,” she added, putting the salad bowl back into the refrigerator and pulling out the fixings for sandwiches.

 

Hmmm. Maybe I should switch tactics. I stepped up behind her, wrapping my arms around her waist and rested my chin on her shoulder. “Honey, what’s the matter?” I asked, although I had a sneaking suspicion I wasn’t going to like the answer.

 

I straightened as she turned in my arms to face me, her brows knit together like a thundercloud. “Do you know what your partner did while we were both running errands this morning?” I opened my mouth, whether to reply or to sigh, I’d never know, because Jo didn’t give me the chance to do either. “He threw all the color clothes together in the laundry. All the color clothes, Roy! He didn’t bother to separate light colored from dark colored, or to see if anything needed to go into the delicate cycle or what was okay to put in the dryer and what wasn’t. He didn’t even check and empty the pockets, Roy!”

 

I heaved an internal sigh. Joanne was very particular about the laundry. I found that out the hard way during the first few months of our marriage. She was down with a bad cold, and I tried to help her out by doing some of the household chores. But I learned my lesson. The next time she got sick, I re-wore the occasional shirt and pair of jeans, and went out and bought myself some clean underwear. The laundry sat in the hamper until she was feeling better.

 

My poor, hapless partner certainly hadn’t scored himself any brownie points with my wife this day. And with me, either—what was he thinking, doing chores around the house when he’s supposed to be resting?

 

But Joanne wasn’t finished. “And he also decided to do a little housekeeping. He washed the dishes and put things away—in the wrong place!”

 

It was time to do some damage control. “He was just trying to be helpful, Jo.” And as soon as the words left my mouth, I knew it had been the wrong thing to say.

 

HELPFUL?!” Jo took a step backwards, and I let my arms drop to my sides. “Roy, now I’ve got to get off all the lint on the clothes and then wash them all over again. And I have to wait for my favorite dress blouse to dry to see if it shrunk…if any of the clothes have shrunk! That blouse needed to be dry cleaned, Roy!”

 

Now I was starting to get annoyed. Why was she acting like this? “Joanne, they’re just clothes. It’s not the end of the world! So maybe you might have to spend a little more time with the laundry today, but maybe you should just take this the way Johnny intended it, as his way of trying to repay us for letting him stay here with us and recuperate.”

 

She threw up her hands in the air and started to turn away. “Oh, sure! Take his side!”

 

That’s it. “It’s not about taking sides, Jo! It’s about seeing things for what they are. He was trying to do you a favor.”

 

“Well, next time he should just mind his own business. I didn’t ask for his help!”

 

I swore I could see the smoke coming out of Jo’s ears. I was just about to snap back at her when I realized that the argument we were having was stupid. Laundry, for Pete’s sake! If Johnny was in the guest room, he could probably hear every word we were saying. I needed to do some damage control here, and quick.

 

I softened my voice and relaxed my posture—somewhere in the middle of things I’d stiffened up like one of the backboards on the squad. “Look, sweetheart, let’s not fight, okay? I’m sorry that Johnny isn’t as good a housekeeper as you are.” I offered up a small grin, trying to lighten things up a bit. “He’s a guy, you know? And we fellows don’t do these kinds of things as well as you ladies do. Remember what happened the first time I tried to do the laundry for you?”

 

She tried to smother a smile, but I could see the corner of Joanne’s mouth twitching.

 

“I’ll talk to Johnny, and tell him that, next time he wants to help you out around the house, to check in with you first, okay?” I watched as the tension slowly eased from her body as well.

 

“Okay,” she replied quietly, finally allowing a small smile to break free.

 

We moved toward each other at the same time, sharing a brief hug and a kiss. Boy, how I loved this woman.

 

“Lunch’ll be ready in a little while.”

 

Good, that’ll give me some time to check up on my wayward partner. One brief lecture on the consequences of not following doctor’s orders and trying to do too much too soon, and on the psychology of married women, coming right up.

 

 

I finally gave up laying down and trying to rest after tossing and turning in this bed for nearly an hour, but I felt too tired to get up and pace. Maybe reading would help me relax. I propped myself up and grabbed that book Chet loaned me—Jonathan Livingston Seagull—and tried to read, but I couldn’t stay focused on what I was reading. Who’d want to read a book about seagulls, anyway?

 

What happened with Joanne this morning kept playing over and over again in my mind. I’m still not sure what exactly I did wrong. Colors go in one load and whites in another. A little detergent and fabric softener, and then just throw them in the dryer.  What’s the big deal? Sheesh, women!

 

I allowed a frustrated sigh to escape. That was not the real reason I couldn’t seem to relax. I’d upset her…again. I’m not sure exactly what it was that I kept doing that got on her nerves so much. I wished I knew…then I’d stop doing it, and maybe we could relax a little more around each other. She’d never been anything other than polite to me…but, I don’t know, it always seemed like she just let me hang around for Roy’s sake.

 

Maybe it was a mistake, my coming here to recuperate. I tried to talk Roy out of the idea, but he wouldn’t hear of it and, well…here we are.

 

The sound of voices in the kitchen drew my attention, and I realized that Roy was back from the hardware store. Uh-oh. I hoped Joanne wouldn’t rat me out to him about helping out with the chores. He’d be on my case in two seconds flat about not following doctor’s orders, or trying to do too much too soon. Typical Roy. The guy worries too much.

 

Before I knew it I could hear every word they were saying. Oh, no…

 

They were fighting.

 

About me.

 

*Sigh* I knew it was a mistake, coming here. Maybe I should just ask Roy to take me back to my apartment again and be done with it. I could take care of myself. I’d be fine.

 

But I liked hanging out with Roy. We’re becoming good friends. Maybe it’d be best if we just confined ourselves to being friends on the job. But his kids like me, too! Chris was a cute kid and little Jennifer—heck, she stole my heart the moment I’d laid eyes on her.

 

If only Joanne and I could be friends, too…

 

They’d finally quieted down. That’ll mean Roy would be in here any minute with a lecture. Or he might even be mad at me for upsetting Joanne so much. Shoot. Maybe I should pretend to be asleep? Yeah, that was a good idea!

 

I leaned my head back against the pillows behind me and laid my hand loosely by the book in my lap and closing my eyes, and I tried to relax as much as possible.

 

I heard the sound of the door opening then a quiet sigh came from the vicinity of the doorway. Please, let him think I’m asleep. The door closed again quietly and for a moment I thought I’d gotten away with it, but then I heard footsteps crossing the room and sensed Roy’s presence beside me. Gentle fingers grasped my wrist and I smothered a grin as he took my vitals. Yup, that’s my partner. Roy DeSoto, perennial worry wart. A warm hand brushed my forehead. Nope, no fever, Roy. Then he released me and stepped away.

 

Only to settle into the chair beside the bed.

 

Great. A bedside vigil, just what I needed. Does that mean he’s really worried about me, or that he knew I was faking it and was waiting me out? *Sigh* Might as well get it over with.

 

I stirred as though waking from a light doze and blinked opened my eyes, waiting a beat before I turned my head in his direction. “Roy?” Shoot, I couldn’t tell whether he was buying it or not by the look on his face.  “When did you get back?”

 

“Not too long ago. How are you feeling?”

 

I shrugged my shoulders. “A little tired, but otherwise fine.”

 

“Huh,” he replied, “I thought housekeeping was supposed to be a tough job, but you seem none the worse for wear.”

 

Busted.

 

“Well, you’d be amazed at what those new-fangled washing machines can accomplish these days, Roy.”

 

“Too bad they don’t make something like that for stubborn, headstrong paramedics.”

 

Ouch! I tried for a wounded look. “But Roy, what would all the calm, realistic and sensible ones do if they didn’t have anyone to keep on the straight and narrow?”

 

“Have a lot fewer ulcers.”

 

Touché.

 

“And a lot fewer irate wives, too.”

 

Uh-oh. “Look, Roy, about this morning…and Joanne…”

 

“Don’t worry about it, partner. I got the same reaction once, early on in our marriage, and came to realize that, while a man’s home may be his castle, it’s really the women who rule the roost. So next time stick to the jobs I normally do around the house and you’ll be fine.”

 

Whew!

 

“But next time had better not be any time in the near future, Junior, or I just might have to set Nurse Jenny on you for a refresher course on the Rules for Getting Better.”

 

I burst into laughter at the memory of the stern lecture I received from Roy’s daughter upon my arrival at the DeSoto house. “Well, I’ll tell you, Roy. Dixie’s got nothin’ on Nurse Jenny, that’s for sure.”

 

“Don’t let Dixie hear you say that, or you’ll really be in for it.” Roy got to his feet and gave me a friendly pat on the knee. “Now why don’t you try and get a little more rest and I’ll call you when lunch is ready.”

 

I opened my mouth to state firmly that I most certainly did not need a nap right now, but a yawn set itself loose instead, and I thought I’d better quit while I was ahead. “Okay. Thanks, Roy.” I waited until Roy closed the door behind him before scooting back down on the bed and snuggling up under the blankets. I guess I could always talk to Roy about going home later.

 

 

I was quiet as I entered Johnny’s room. He’d been sleeping so soundly when I’d come in to get him for lunch that I decided to let him sleep in and get up to eat when he was ready. Only he didn’t make an appearance all afternoon, and now it was time for dinner. I’d never met anyone before who literally had a bottomless pit for a stomach, but my partner could go back for thirds at a meal and still have room for two helpings of dessert. I’d seen what would happen when we were so busy at the station that we’d miss multiple meals, and it wasn’t pretty. I wasn’t about to let him miss dinner, too.

 

He had his left arm thrown up over his eyes the way he usually sleeps. I wasn’t too sure about earlier this morning, though. Had he been faking it to get out of a confrontation with me, or had he really dozed off while reading? Well, I could understand it either way.

 

I gently shook his shoulder. “Hey, Johnny. Dinner’s ready.”

 

He brought his arm down and blinked owlishly at me. “Dinner? What happened to lunch?”

 

Figures. Food was sometimes the first, last and only thing on my partner’s mind. “You slept through lunch. In fact, you slept all afternoon. It hasn’t been easy, keeping the kids quiet the past few hours.”

 

“Uh-oh. I bet dinner’s gonna be a free-for-all,” he replied as he climbed out of bed. “Let me make a pit stop first, and I’ll be right in.”

 

“No problem. Take your time.”

 

He was right. Dinner was a free-for-all. The kids had bottled up all their excess energy while trying to keep quiet so as not to wake their Uncle Johnny. And since Johnny had slept all afternoon, he had a lot of excess energy, too, and he was nearly as boisterous as the kids were. Johnny does well with kids. Probably because, in a lot of ways, he’s just a big kid himself. He’s pretty good with the people we deal with at work as well, especially little old ladies. He could be a bit quiet sometimes in some situations, but when he’s comfortable with those around him, watch out.

 

That’s why I couldn’t quite understand why Joanne hadn’t warmed up to him.

 

The meal finally wound down, and Joanne got up and began to clear the table. Johnny got to his feet, his plate and utensils in hand. “Could I help you with the dishes, Joanne?”

 

She looked up at him, her mouth opening to speak, but then she hesitated a moment and replied. “Sure, Johnny, if you’re sure you’re feeling up to it. Roy, could you help get the kids cleaned up?”

 

And with that we all got up from the table.

 

I brought the kids upstairs and got them ready for their baths. Jennifer loved to play in the tub, but Chris was of an age where he was starting to squawk a bit now, and preferred to take a shower. I think I was about seven or so, too, when the “baths are for babies” bug bit me.

 

But soon they were both clean and dry. Jennifer was busy picking out a book for her Uncle Johnny to read to her before bedtime, and I was helping Chris with a last minute homework question. So much homework in the first grade…not in my day.

 

By the time we were done, Johnny was sitting on the couch in the living room watching TV and I could hear Joanne on the phone in the kitchen. Jennifer rushed up and claimed the space next to Johnny, snuggling into his side as he put his arm around her. She had one of her picture books with her, and immediately propped it open and began showing him the pictures.

 

Chris, seeing my partner’s distraction, quietly turned the TV channel to put on cartoons. I called him on it. “Chris, you shouldn’t have changed the channel without asking Uncle Johnny if it was okay. He was watching something.”

 

“But dad, he’s reading that book with Jen now, and Popeye is on!”

 

Before I could answer, Johnny spoke up. “That’s okay, Roy. I don’t mind watching Popeye, even if he does eat spinach.” He gave an exaggerated shudder at the thought of eating the green leafy vegetable, which Chris seemed to find hysterical.

 

“Could you tell my mom that, Uncle Johnny? She’s always trying to get me to eat veggies! Yuck!!”

 

“Well, now, I couldn’t really do that now, could I Chris? Your mom knows what she’s doing. After all, you’re a growing boy, and vegetables are good for growing boys.”

 

My son wasn’t about to let him off the hook that easily. “But you don’t have to eat ‘em! That’s not fair!”

 

A guilty look crossed Johnny’s face. “Yeah, well…I’m not a growing boy anymore.”

 

That was debatable. When I’d first met Johnny he looked like he was just a kid. I was sure he was just a boot, or maybe just a little older. Turned out he’d joined the fire department just out of high school and already had over four years of firefighting under his belt—two of them as a rescue man—before that day when he’d walked into department headquarters and into the room they’d let me use for recruitment and inquired about the budding paramedic program.

 

Joanne joined us in the living room after she got off the phone, and we all enjoyed each other’s company for a while before it was time to get the kids off to bed.

 

“Night, Mom. Night, Dad,” Chris said, giving us both a quick kiss. “Night, Uncle Johnny!” he gave Johnny a hug, then headed off to his bedroom.

 

Jennifer lingered. “Mommy, can Uncle Johnny tuck me in and tell me a story before bed?” she pleaded with Jo in that little-girl voice that more often than not I always gave in to.

 

Joanne, it seemed, was immune. “Johnny already read you a story, honey. Now go on to bed and I’ll be up in a minute.”

 

“Awww, Mommy. Pleeeeeease?!”

 

I forced down a chuckle, and I could see Johnny doing the same across the room. “I don’t mind, Joanne. My little princess actually read that story to me. So now I guess I owe her one.”

 

Uh-oh. Johnny didn’t mean to put his foot in it with my wife, but somehow I could tell he had yet again. I recognized the look that crossed Jo’s face, and thought I’d better step in before things could get any worse. “Uncle Johnny’s probably tired, Jenny, so make sure you pick out a short one tonight. Your mom’ll be up in a little while to say goodnight.”

 

“Yay!!” Jenny shouted as she ran up to me and gave me a goodnight kiss. “Night, Daddy.”  Then she turned back and grabbed Johnny by the hand, tugging him along. “Thanks, Mommy!”

 

Joanne didn’t look like her daughter’s thanks would be enough. Johnny’s eyes met mine for the briefest moment, then as he was pulled past Jo, I heard him say quietly to her, “Thanks, Joanne,” before they disappeared down the hall.

 

I waited a moment then moved to her side. “Jo…”

 

She shook her head at me. “Don’t say it, Roy, okay?” She sighed loudly, shook her head again then gave me a weak smile and a peck on the cheek. “Just don’t say it.”

 

She was asking for time and understanding. “Okay,” I replied with a nod, kissing her back, and we sat back down on the couch together to watch TV.

 

Maybe ten minutes later Johnny came back out, stopping at the end of the hall and awkwardly shifting from foot to foot. “She’s asleep. I’m going to go and, uh, read, okay?” he said softly. “Goodnight, Joanne, and thanks again for dinner. Roy, have a good shift. Tell the guys I said, ‘Hi.’”

 

I had to go to work in a couple of hours, and he was giving me some time alone with my wife. Plus I think he needed a bit of a break, too. I wondered how soon it would be before he asked me to take him back to his place again. Doctor Early had wanted him to stay with us for few days. He’d already been here for two. I was surprised he hadn’t asked me again already.

 

“Okay, Johnny. I’ll check in with you tomorrow between runs, so be sure not to overdo.”

 

“Whatever you say, Roy. Night.” And with that he disappeared down the hall again.

 

We turned our attention back to the TV. A minute or two later Jo snuggled up against me and I wrapped an arm around her.

 

 

After Roy left for work I decided to turn in for the night. It had been a long day, and I really wasn’t looking forward to tomorrow. Roy had picked Johnny up at the hospital after his shift two days ago, and he’d been home yesterday and most of today. But tomorrow would be the first day Roy wouldn’t be here and I would be alone with our house guest, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with him around. If it had just been Jenny and me we could have gone out to the park or someplace. But Roy probably wouldn’t be happy with me if I left Johnny by himself the whole day. He’d want me around to keep an eye on him. I could always have Jenny keep him occupied…but she’d run him ragged in no time, and he was supposed to be resting.

 

Resting. He certainly hadn’t been resting this morning when he’d decided to do our laundry and clean our living room. And tonight after dinner, offering to help with the dishes. Why was he always pestering me? Couldn’t he have just hung out with Roy and the kids and left me to take care of the dishes?

 

I sighed aloud as I changed into my night gown. At least he’d offered to wash. I would have had to tell him where everything went if he’d been the one drying. As it was, he was watching me like a hawk as I put things away. He’d tried to make small talk for a while, asking me about the meal I’d prepared and telling me about the guys and the things they cooked down at the station. But eventually he just stopped talking, and the phone rang as we were finishing up. It was my sister. I was relieved when Johnny finished wiping down the sink and countertops and then left me some privacy.

 

And I was glad that it was my sister that had called. I knew she’d see my side of things.

 

I climbed into bed and burrowed down beneath the covers. I wished Roy was here. Even after all these years with the fire department, I still missed Roy at night. At least we’d had some time alone tonight without the kids or Johnny under our feet. I sighed again. Maybe we could manage weekend getaway in the near future. My sister or mother could take the kids… We could go up the coast, or to some other romantic place… Yeah, a weekend getaway would be nice.

 

I wasn’t aware that I’d fallen asleep with a smile on my face.

 

 

I wasn’t sure what it was that woke me up, but suddenly I was wide awake, my senses on high alert. If I’d been at the station, I would have said it felt just like the moment when the tones go off in the middle of the night, waking us up for a run. I didn’t jump up and reach for my turnout gear, but it was a near thing.

 

I sat up and looked around, uncertain as to what I was looking for. Then I got up and headed for the door. I was half way across the room when I stopped abruptly and rushed toward the window, and then I knew. A bright orange-gold light glowed from the roof of the house next door.

 

Fire.

 

I threw open the guest room door and raced down the hall and up the stairs to Roy and Joanne’s room. No time for niceties, I barged in unannounced. “Joanne! Joanne, wake up!”

 

She’d been asleep on her stomach, and she jolted awake at the sound of my voice. “What?” she asked groggily before focusing on me, “Johnny? What are you—“

 

I cut her off. “The house next door is on fire. Grab the kids and get out as quick as you can. I’ll call the fire department. Come on, let’s go!”

 

She snagged her robe from the back of the door as she followed me out of the room, and I saw her heading for Chris’ room as I rushed down the stairs. There was a phone extension on the credenza right at the bottom, and I snagged the receiver and dialed the number for dispatch.

 

Sam Lanier answered on the second ring. “Los Angeles County Fire Dispatch.”

 

“Sam, this is John Gage out of 51s. We have a house fire at 2908 Clawson Street. Respond a first alarm assignment immediately.” I heard Joanne coming down the stairs with the kids.

 

“Ten-four. Dispatching immediately.”

 

I hung up and shepherded the family out of the house. “Get away from the house, I’m going to make sure everyone’s out of there.”

 

“No, Johnny! Wait for help to arrive!” I heard her shout as I turned and ran for the house next door, but I knew things couldn’t wait. Without stopping, I looked around for any evidence that the family had already gotten out. Neighbors were starting to gather, but there was no sign of the owners. Stopping only momentarily at the front door to plant my feet, I kicked once at the door with all my strength and felt it give way under the force.

 

Then I rushed inside.

 

 

What does he think he’s doing, running into a burning building all alone?! He’s not even dressed! He’s not wearing shoes! Why couldn’t he wait for the fire department to arrive?!

 

Jenny was sobbing in my arms, and Chris was trying to tug himself out of my grip as I tried to lead him toward my neighbor Lisa’s house on the opposite side of our own. “Mommy, Uncle Johnny’s gonna get hurt! He needs our help!”

 

I gripped his shoulder all the tighter and knelt down before him, trying to calm him down. “We can’t help him, Chris, and we’d only be giving him one more thing to worry about if we tried. Johnny does this for a living, sweetheart. He’ll be fine. Now let’s go over to Mark’s house and wait there, okay?”

 

Lisa, her husband Jason and their young son, Mark, were already standing on the sidewalk in front of their house—and we were the only spectators who were wise enough to keep their distance.

 

“What’s going on?” Lisa asked as we met up with them.

 

“The fire department’s on the way. My husband’s partner, John, called them then went inside to see if the Johnsons have gotten out,” I told them.

 

We were quiet as we waited for help to arrive. I brushed my daughter’s hair absently, alternating my gaze between the burning house and Chris, who had moved to stand beside his friend Mark. They were the same age, and good friends.

 

Suddenly Johnny came out the front door, his arms around the waists of both Michael and Sarah Johnson. Theirs were draped across his shoulders. It looked like they were moving forward more under Johnny’s steam than their own as they struggled to cough, breathe and move at the same time. I turned and handed Jenny off to Lisa, all the while focusing on my son. “Chris, stay with Mark and his family!” I commanded using a voice that he knew would brook no argument. Then I rushed to help Johnny with the Johnsons.

 

I could hear Johnny attempting to calm them down as I approached. Johnny was coughing too, as he said, “Now it’s gonna be all right. Help’s on the way. Just take deep breaths. Come on, slow your breathing down. Don’t fight the coughing; it’ll help to clear your lungs…”

 

I knelt down beside my neighbors as Johnny sat them down. “Is there anything I can do to help, Johnny?”

 

He never had the chance to reply. Sarah suddenly gripped her husband’s arm, her eyes scanning the crowd wildly. “Missy?! Where’s Missy?!”

 

“Who’s Missy?!” Johnny asked sharply.

 

“Missy,” I answered, shocked that I had forgotten as well. “Their 8-month old baby, Melissa!”

 

Sarah scrambled to her feet, shouting, “MISSY!!”

 

Both Michael and Johnny followed her up, Johnny gripping both of Sarah’s arms with his hands to stop her from rushing inside the house. “Ma’am, ma’am, listen to me. Listen! Where in the house would she be?!”

 

Sarah finally focused on Johnny. “Her bedroom is upstairs, third door on the right.”

 

Johnny turned and pointed directly at me. “Stay with them, and keep them out of the house!” Then he took off at a run back inside.

 

My heart pounding, I moved to stand directly in front of them and reached out to lightly grasp an arm in comfort. “That’s my husband’s partner. He’ll get Missy out.” Sarah started to cry, and Michael wrapped his arms around her.

 

The wailing of sirens could now be heard off in the distance. Finally!! My knees went weak when the fire trucks pulled up and came to a stop. The paramedic squad caught my eye immediately. Fifty-One. Roy!!

 

Captain Stanley and his crew climbed off of the engine, while Roy and his temporary partner got out of the squad. Stanley immediately started shouting orders, but I paid no attention to them. “Roy!” I shouted for my husband, although I didn’t leave the Johnson’s side. “Roy!!”

 

Roy grabbed his turnout coat from out of one of the compartments then left the other paramedic to get their equipment and made his way over to me. “Are you okay? Where are the kids?”

 

“We’re fine—the kids are with Lisa and Jason. But Johnny’s inside, Roy! He got Sarah and Michael out, but he went back inside again after Missy!”

 

Roy’s eyes widened in fear as I told him about Johnny. For once, I wasn’t angry with him for it.

 

“Cap!!” Roy’s partner showed up with the equipment. “Stoney, take care of the Johnsons here. Cap!!”

 

Hank Stanley joined us as the other paramedic moved off to see to his patients. “What’s up, Roy?”

 

“Johnny’s inside, looking for another victim! Joanne said he’s already brought out two more,” he told his captain as indicated the Johnsons.

 

Stanley didn’t hesitate. “Gear up and go in after him. Kelly!” he shouted to the lineman, who was helping one of his crewmates man a fire hose. “Man a lifeline for Roy. Gage is inside.”

 

I watched the three men move off, my heart pounding even harder. Roy was going into that burning building. Dear Lord, watch over him, please! Please let him and Johnny be okay!

 

 

I hurriedly shrugged into my air tank, knowing that time was rapidly running out for Johnny. With no gear and no protection, I was afraid of what I’d find when I got inside that house. Why couldn’t you have waited for help to arrive? my mind demanded of my absent partner. I sighed as my heart supplied the answer. Because he’s Johnny.

 

As I approached the front door I saw that Chet had already grabbed a rope from the engine and had knotted one end up to form the lifeline. As I reached out for it and began to put it on, Johnny staggered through the doorway, an infant clutched tightly in his arms.

 

“Johnny!”

 

“Roy…” Johnny gasped, coughing harshly. “Baby…breathing....”

 

I lifted the child from Johnny’s grasp and put my ear to her chest. Nothing. “Chet, take care of Johnny!” I shouted as I tuned and rushed toward the squad, beginning Infant CPR as I ran. Chet had already grabbed one of his arms and slung it over his shoulders, wrapping one of his own around Johnny’s waist.

 

“MISSY!”

 

Stoney lunged for the child’s mother as I dropped to my knees, continuing my efforts to revive her. “Ma’am, you have to stay calm and give us a chance to do our job. Vince!”

 

Officer Vince Howard appeared out of nowhere and led the parents a short distance away from the scene. I hadn’t even seen when he’d arrived.

 

Now that he was free, Stoney put a hand on my arm and said, “They’re fine. I’ll take over here, Roy. You take care of Johnny.”

 

Johnny…

 

Chet had already put the O2 on him, but my partner was still struggling to breathe, his body writhing on the sidewalk. Cap arrived with a burn pack from the squad and began setting up—the Battalion Chief must have arrived. “Pulse is 130 and thready and the respirations are 36 and shallow,” Chet informed me. “It looks like he’s got first degree burns on arms and some first and maybe second degree burns on his feet, and there may be some inhalation burns, too. He’s having a lot of trouble breathing—he must’ve ate a lot of smoke. His skin is very warm and dry to the touch.”

 

Not good. Not good at all. I forced myself to go into automatic pilot, for my sake as well as John’s. “Get on the horn to Rampart while I get his BP. Tell them we’ll need an immediate IV and we may need to intubate if he goes into respiratory arrest. Doug?”

 

Stoney looked up from what he was doing. “She’s got a pulse and is breathing on her own, Roy. Color’s improving as well.”

 

Good, at least something was going right. “BP’s 90 over 60.” I reach over to the drug box and pulled out the IV paraphernalia and an airway, once again leaving Stoney to deal with little Missy.

 

“Rampart says to apply sterile sheets and go ahead with an IV with Ringers. Stand by with the airway…”

 

My hands move by rote to comply with Rampart’s orders. Come on, partner, hang in there. But as I prepped Johnny’s arm for the IV my eyes locked on his T-shirt clad chest. Uh-oh. “Respiratory arrest!”

 

 

I went weak-kneed in relief when I saw Johnny come out of the house the second time. Now Roy didn’t have to go in after him, thank God! Roy snatched Missy from Johnny’s arms and ran for the squad, while Chet practically had to drag Johnny over to it. Jennifer was once again nestled in my arms, and while she’d nodded off briefly while Lisa had her, she was wide awake once again, her eyes now on her daddy.

 

Chris, old enough to realize something more was going on than the opportunity to watch his father and the other firemen at work, started asking questions. “Mom, what’s wrong with Uncle Johnny?”

 

I kept my answers as general as I could. “Uncle Johnny was in the house without an air tank, honey, so he must have just breathed in a little smoke. I’m sure he’ll be just fine.”

 

“But what if he’s not?”

 

“Your dad is taking good care of him, Chris. Let’s not borrow trouble, okay?” Chris stopped asking questions, but he did move a little closer to me, so I gave him a reassuring pat on his shoulder.

 

I’m very proud of my guy and the work that he does, but I’ve never seen Roy working a rescue before, and so as I watched him work now my pride in him grew. It must be tough enough to work on complete strangers, but to have to work on someone you knew…

 

Suddenly the activity near the squad picked up even more, and I could tell by Roy’s posture something was wrong with Johnny. Chris must have picked up on it too, or else he realized that I’d just tensed up and was reacting to that. “Mom?!”

 

“It’s okay, Chris. Your Dad’ll take care of it. He knows what he’s doing.” We watched as Roy stuck some sort of tube down Johnny’s throat, and Chet started doing something with it as Roy started an IV on him. A gurney was brought over from the ambulance—when did they get here?—as the captain covered him with sheets and then began pouring something liquid over him. They wrapped him in some kind of yellow blanket before moving him onto the gurney. Chet followed along beside them while continuing to work Johnny’s mask and the other paramedic carried little Missy as they moved toward the vehicle. An ambulance attendant climbed in with them and the other one closed the door behind them. Michael and Sarah joined the ambulance driver in the front cab, and a moment later they were gone.

 

I felt numb and was at a loss at what to do next. I looked around and realized the fire in the Johnson’s house was out and the crews had begun what Roy called “overhaul and clean up.” How much time had gone by since Johnny had burst into my bedroom, waking me up? It felt like hours.

 

“Jo,” Jason began, “it might not be safe for you to go back into your home yet. Why don’t you and the kids come and sack out at our place for the rest of the night? It’s only a couple hours until morning anyway.”

 

Jennifer was once again asleep in my arms, and I could feel that Chris’s grip on my leg had grown very loose. The kids needed to be put down for a while. Lisa grabbed Mark and Jason picked up Chris, and Jenny and I followed them into the house.

 

 

Come on, Gage, you didn’t let that monkey beat you, don’t let a little house fire do it.

 

I was doing my best to keep focused, to keep up a steady rhythm of ventilations, and yet little things kept drawing my attention. The loudness of the siren blaring, the rocking of the ambulance as it struck a pothole, the feeling of heat that rose from Gage’s skin as the edges of my hands wrapped around the ventilation mask on his face. Okay…maybe that one wasn’t so little after all.

 

Roy was on the biophone with Rampart again and Stone was rechecking the baby’s vitals. All that medical mumbo jumbo was all Greek to me. Give me a primed hose and point me at a fire, and I was happy. Maybe one day I’ll try for Engineer, but for now…

 

It was weird, how still Gage was. The guy was always moving, and he could jabber away with the best of them. Maybe the Phantom should pay him a visit at the station next shift. My shoulders sagged and I smothered a sigh. Well, the next time Gage was on shift.

 

And you’d better be back soon, Gage, or the Phantom’ll likely get impatient and have to pull more than one gag on you to use up all his excess energy.

 

The ambulance came to an abrupt stop and the rear doors opened to reveal Dr. Early, Dr. Morton and a couple of nurses. They were talking a mile a minute, and it was all I could do to keep up with the gurney and keep up my rhythm on the ventilator. Stoney followed Morton and a nurse into one treatment room with the baby and Early and the rest of us went into another. I supported Gage’s head with one hand and kept ventilating with the other as he was transferred to the examination table, then backed away as I released my charge to one of the other nurses in the room. I wasn’t needed any more, but I couldn’t make myself leave.

 

I watched as they hooked him up to a respirator, cut off his clothes and redressed his burns. They covered him with a cooling blanket, rolling him to slip another underneath him. Another IV was added, and some meds along with it. Roy helped the medical staff, and I’ll bet he was grateful to have something to do. And even when he wasn’t helping, he was right there at Gage’s side, touching him in some way, probably to let him know he was there. Johnny and Roy are tight, you know?

 

And through it all, Johnny hadn’t moved a muscle…hadn’t made a sound.

 

Eventually we were made to leave the treatment room. Stoney was waiting for us at the base station, wanting news on Gage. He and Johnny had gone through paramedic training together here at Rampart, and were friends. Roy was filling him in on Johnny’s condition when the rest of the guys walked through the ambulance bay doors.

 

“How’s John?” Cap asked as they met up with us.

 

“He’s still not breathing on his own,” Roy answered. “He’s on a vent and will be moved up to ICU after they finish treating the burns on his arms and feet.”

 

“Hey, don’t worry. You know Johnny,” Marco said, “I’m sure he’ll bounce back from this in no time.”

 

“If anyone can, it’s Gage,” Mike added.

 

“Well, as much as I’d like to stand down the squad, I’m afraid you’re going to have to stay in service, Roy,” Cap told him with a pat to his shoulder. “But I’ve no problem if you want to remain available here from Rampart instead of returning to the station.”

 

I wished we all could stay available from here—not that I’d admit that out loud—but there was no way Cap was going to let us. We’d go back to the barn and try and get some shut-eye, and in the morning he’d assign us our usual chores and then probably run some drills to keep us occupied.

 

“I’ve got no problem hanging out here, Roy. It’ll give me a chance to scope out the new nurses before Gage gets the chance to,” Stone chimed in, trying to lift Roy’s spirits because it looked like the last thing he wanted to do right now was leave.

 

Roy’s reply was interrupted by the sounds of the handi-talkie going off. “Squad 51 are you available?”

 

“Affirmative, LA,” Stoney responded. “Squad 51 available from Rampart.”

 

“Squad 51, woman down. 685 Rose Avenue. Six-Eight-Five Rose Avenue. Cross street Magnolia. Time out: 05:28.”

 

“Squad 51, 10-4.”

 

“We should get back to the station, too. We’ll catch up with you later, pal.”

 

“Thanks, Cap.”

 

The six of us turned and headed back toward the ambulance bay doors, but I trailed along behind the rest of them. I couldn’t resist the urge to take one last look down the hall to Treatment Room 1, though, before I turned the corner and walked out the door.

 

You’d better pull through this, Gage…

 

 

I gripped the wheel tightly with my hands as I drove the squad toward our destination. DeSoto sat silently beside me in the passenger seat. It was a testament as to how upset the man was—this was the first time since I’d been covering for Gage that Roy had let me drive the squad to a call.

 

I didn’t feel much like talking, either. No fireman liked to hear that a brother has been hurt. No friend wanted to hear that another friend was in trouble. Unfortunately the two of us were facing both, and I guess talking was too much of an effort at the moment.

 

Johnny and I went through paramedic training together. He was a little quiet at first…I think it was nerves--he was the youngest one in the room. He was pretty loose around DeSoto, though, and once the good grades started rolling in, he loosened up a bit around the rest of us, too.

 

A group of us got to talking one day about who knew who in the department, and that led to stories about the fires and rescues we’d been involved it, and before I knew it we were heading down to the local fireman’s hangout for some drinks after class. DeSoto had had to bow out. A couple of rounds of pool later, I was twenty bucks up on Gage and buying him a beer in consolation.

 

The rest of the training went quickly, and before I knew it we were out in the field. The bill was signed into law, even though it took way too long, and there we were: real, live paramedics. Even by then, Johnny and Roy had already started building up quite a reputation, but once that bill passed…

 

And yet, Johnny was still Johnny. Still a fresh-faced kid who couldn’t play pool—or cards—worth a damn, yet had come in at the top of his class and was turning out to be one hell of a paramedic.

 

Johnny was a straight-shooter, and I liked him. And now…

 

First it was that damned monkey. Now it was a fire.

 

I hoped the kid was gonna be okay.

 

 

Waiting. Again. I couldn’t believe that Johnny was in the hospital—fighting for his life—for the second time in less than two weeks! I couldn’t do anything for him the first time, well except pull him off the side of that building where he’d passed out 150 feet in the air and hung off the side of that scaffold, only saved from getting killed by his lifebelt. And it seemed that I really couldn’t do much of anything for him this time around, either.

 

I called the hospital a little after their usual time for shift change for an update on Johnny’s condition.  He was comatose and still not breathing on his own. Doctor Early thought his body was simply too weak right now, with him still recovering from that virus, and now with the heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation, to put any energy into breathing. The burns, thankfully, were relatively minor, but that was probably just one thing too many for Johnny to have to deal with right now.

 

And here I am, stuck on shift until 11PM.

 

It had been a busy morning, at least for the squad, but Doug was a good paramedic. And while all the calls might have been good for keeping my mind off Johnny on the one hand, it also kept me from being able to go up to ICU and visit him between runs on the other. Updates from the staff at Rampart have been the best I’ve been able to manage so far. Each time it’s been the same thing.

 

No change.

 

*Sigh* It wasn’t so much the coma that bothered me. I knew his body needed time to recover. But…

 

I just wished he’d start breathing on his own again.

 

*Beep.* *Beep.* *Beep.*

 

Sam Lanier’s voice.

 

Here we go again.

 

 

My eyes went straight to the monitors as I walked into Johnny’s room in ICU. The readings had come up a bit since he was brought in a few hours ago, but I’d been hoping for a bit more of an improvement by now. The improvement in the lab numbers in his chart was just as marginal.

 

“Hey, Johnny,” I said aloud as I began to unwrap the bandages around his right arm, “I’m just going to check on the burns on your arms and feet, okay?”

 

I was a firm believer in explaining to unconscious and comatose patients what was going on around them just in case, on some level, they could hear what was going on. My examination went quickly. “They’re looking pretty good, Johnny. You’re very lucky. With no turnout coat or shoes, things could have been a lot worse.”

 

He’d suffered some superficial partial thickness burns on his feet, but luckily they were relatively minor. Still, he’d have to stay off them for a while. That wasn’t going to sit very well with my young, energetic friend. I’d never seen anyone with as much energy as John Gage. Not an adult anyway...and not even a majority of kids. The thought brought a smile to my face. Well, this overgrown kid was also one of the most consummate professionals in his field, and I considered myself privileged to work with him.

 

One day I’m going to have to tell him that.

 

“Doctor Early?”

 

I pulled my thoughts back to the task at hand. “Yes, Sheila?”

 

“Doctor Morton called and asked to speak with you on a consult down in the ER.”

 

“Tell him I’ll be right there.”

 

“Yes, doctor.”

 

Once she left I turned back to Johnny and gave him a pat on his shoulder. “You’ve got a lot of people waiting on you, Johnny. But I know you’re a fighter and you won’t let them down.”

 

 

I sat down at the kitchen table with a hot cup of coffee and sighed. I was tired, and it wasn’t even noon. We didn’t get much sleep after everything that happened early this morning—the kids were too worried about Johnny. Lisa tried to distract them by fixing a large breakfast, and as soon as I got the kids home I put them down for a nap.

 

Roy managed to call me a short time later, to see how we were doing. He also let me know how Johnny was doing.

 

I knew that Johnny must have taken in a lot of smoke, going into the house twice to get the Johnsons out, but I hadn’t realized at the time that Johnny had stopped breathing.

 

Or that he still wasn’t.

 

He didn’t have to go running into that house, with no shoes, no coat or no air mask. He could have waited for the fire department to come….but would the Johnsons have survived that long?

 

And he didn’t really have to roust me and the kids out of bed and out of the house at four in the morning either, for that matter. After all, our home wasn’t on fire. And yet, he did.

 

He got me and the kids out first.

 

He was a trained fireman—a rescue man, just like Roy. His first instinct would have been to get anyone in harm’s way out of it as soon as possible. And yet… There was something about the look on his face when he barged into my room this morning and woke me up. It wasn’t fear—he was in full control of the situation, even in t-shirt and sweat pants. It was more like…

 

It was more like the look on Roy’s face when he was worried about one of us—his family. And, lately, like when he was concerned about Johnny.

 

But why would Johnny have that look on his face? Sure, Roy was his partner and his friend—okay, maybe even his best friend—but not me or the kids. We were not his family.

 

But he got me and the kids out first…and he was wearing that look on his face when he did it. Maybe…

 

No, not possible. Not after the way I’ve treated him. It has to be because we’re Roy’s family, and since he cares about Roy, we came with the deal. Surely that had to be the reason.

 

Hadn’t it?

 

I got up from the table and washed the coffee pot and mug, then began straightening things up in the kitchen, even though I’d cleaned everything up last night after dinner. My hands needed something to do, but it wasn’t enough to keep my mind occupied.

 

Was my family really that important to him?

 

Was I?

 

*Sigh* Maybe I’ll see if my sister was free to take the kids out for an early lunch while I took a ride over to Rampart.

 

 

I met Doug at the ambulance bay and followed the gurney in. Betty met us as we turned the corner.

 

“Treatment Three.”

 

We followed her into the treatment room, where Doctor Morton was already waiting, and made short work of transferring the patient from the gurney to the exam table. The woman’s condition was not serious, so hopefully Morton would release us and I could try, once again, to get up to ICU and see Johnny. “Doc, do you need us?”

 

He glanced up at me and shook his head. “No, Roy. You guys can go.”

 

“All right. See you later, Doc.”

 

Stoney and I walked out. “I’m going to go up and see, Johnny,” I told him with a slight wave of the HT.

 

“Sure, Roy. I’ll go grab a cup of coffee in the lounge.”

 

No one was in the elevator, so I gave into the impulse to sigh heavily once the doors closed, wiping my face tiredly. I just couldn’t believe the way this shift had been going and that, after nearly six hours, I still hadn’t had the chance to go up and visit Johnny….

 

…or that he still wasn’t breathing on his own.

 

The Johnsons were going to be fine, and I’d heard that Melissa was going to be released in the morning. Johnny had saved the entire family. If he hadn’t gone in…

 

The elevator doors opened and I turned toward ICU. It was silly, but until I saw him again with my own eyes—

 

*Beep.* *Beep.* *Beep.* Squad 51, what is your status?

 

*Sigh* “Squad 51, available at Rampart.”

 

Squad 51, possible heart attack. 953 Mandarin Circle. Nine-Five-Three Mandarin Circle. Cross street Ivy. Time out 10:15.

 

“Squad 51, 10-4.”

 

Damn it!

 

 

Of all the days to be running late! First I overslept my alarm, and then my car wouldn’t start. Luckily I managed to get a jump from one of my neighbors. I’ll probably have to get a jump from someone on the way home, too. So I knew before I’d even walked in the entrance to the ER that this shift wasn’t going to be a good one.

 

I wasn’t even in the building two minutes when I was proven right.

 

“Dix,” Joe spoke quietly as he came up beside me. He looked tired…and worried. Nope, not going to be a good day at all.

 

“What’s wrong, Joe?”

 

“There was a fire at the house next door to Roy & Joanne DeSoto’s early this morning. You know that Johnny’s been staying with them to recuperate from the Koki Fever virus? Anyway, it must have woken him up somehow, and he got Roy’s family out of the house, called it in then went in to the house to make sure everyone got out okay.”

 

Oh, no… “Is he okay?”

 

“He took in some smoke as he got the owners out, but then he found out that there was still a baby inside, and he went back in. The fire department had arrived by the time he’d managed to get the infant out, but by then he’d taken in a lot of smoke, and was suffering from heat exhaustion. There were first and minor second degree burns on his arms and feet—he was barefoot, wearing only a t-shirt and sweats. But all that, coming so soon after that virus, was too much for his body to handle. He went into respiratory arrest at the scene. Right now he’s on a vent up in ICU.”

 

I glanced down at my watch and nodded slowly—10:58 a.m. I didn’t even have time to go up and see him before starting my shift. “Thanks for telling me, Joe.”

 

He reached out and gave my arm an encouraging squeeze. “Come on now, Dix, you know Johnny. He’s a fighter. I’m sure he’ll bounce back after he’s had a chance to recharge his batteries a bit.”

 

All right, I admit it: while I’m friendly to all the paramedics that work out of this hospital, Johnny and Roy were my favorites. They’d saved my life on a rescue once, before the paramedic bill was signed into law. Besides, they were good men. I considered them my friends.

 

I gave him a reassuring smile. “I’m sure you’re right. Nothing can keep Johnny down for long.”

 

No, nothing could keep Johnny down for long.

 

Rampart base, this is Squad 45…

 

I nodded at Joe once more then turned around to answer the call at the base station, forcing myself to focus on the task at hand. The call was minor, and the patient refused treatment, intending to see his own doctor later in the day. Smart man.

 

I was alone at the base station now, and taking advantage of the momentary lull in activity, I went for the phone to call up to ICU. I’d no sooner picked up the receiver when I saw Joanne DeSoto heading toward me. She looked tired and worried, too. Small wonder. I hung up the phone.

 

“Hello, Joanne. How are you doing?”

 

“Hi, Dixie. I’m doing alright. Roy wouldn’t happen to be around here anywhere, would he?”

 

“Not at the moment. I only just came on shift.”

 

She set her purse on the counter and began fiddling with the straps. “Have you heard the news about Johnny?”

 

“Yes, Joe told me a little while ago. I haven’t had a chance to go up and check on him, though.”

 

“Neither has Roy, or he would have called me. Dixie, is there any way I could possibly go up and see him?”

 

“Well, normally only family is allowed to visit patients in ICU, but I think we could make an exception in this case. After all, we would for Roy…” She looked at me suddenly with a strange expression on her face, and I wasn’t exactly sure why. “I’ll call ICU and notify them that you’re on the way. Why don’t you go on ahead. ICU’s on the fourth floor.”

 

She gave me a weak smile. “Thanks, Dixie. I’m sure I’ll find it.  See you later.”

I watched her as she walked toward the elevator then picked up the phone once again.

 

 

My stomach was full of butterflies as I approached ICU. I’d never been in there before, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. The nurse directed me to Johnny’s cubicle, and I hesitated for only a moment before taking a deep breath and pushing the door open. What I saw nearly took my breath away.

 

I’m a mother. I’ve dealt with skinned knees and the flu, and had even visited Roy in the hospital the few times he’d been admitted for minor (thank God!) job related injuries. But nothing had prepared me for what Johnny looked like at this moment. A tube was taped to his mouth, and with the accompanying hiss-thump of the equipment beside it, I assumed it was the ventilator that was helping him breathe. The noise nearly drowned out the constant beeping of the heart monitor, and an IV hung from a pole beside the bed, its tube snaking down to somewhere beneath the bedding. His hair was a bit disheveled, and his face had an odd unhealthy coloring to it, even more so than he’d been looking recently after dealing with that virus.

 

I moved closer to the bed, resting my hands on the bed rail. I couldn’t bring myself to touch him. I didn’t know what to do…what to say. What could I say to this man who had risked everything to save me and my neighbors with no thought for himself or his own safety? Who would drag himself out of his sickbed to help out around my house in an effort to make up for my ‘allowing’ him to recover there? Was this what Roy saw in him, what my kids saw in him, and what I was only now opening my own eyes to see?

 

Again the thought passed through my mind…Did he really think of us as his family?

 

Dixie’s comment kinda threw me, her letting me up here as though I were a part of his family. I realized now that ‘part of the family’ was the last way I’d made him feel, and I’d made sure he knew that I was merely tolerating his presence there for my husband’s sake.

 

And I realized now that Johnny had known it, from the very first time Roy’d brought him home for breakfast after one of their first shifts together. And that was probably the reason why he dragged himself out of bed yesterday morning and tried to ‘help out’ around the house, instead of staying in bed where he rightfully belonged.

 

“What kind of person am I, Johnny, that I would treat someone the way I’ve treated you these past few months?” I whispered, ashamed at myself as glimpses of past encounters with him ran through my mind…his expressions of discomfort and sadness when he’d thought I wasn’t looking branding themselves on my conscience. “I never really gave you a fair chance. All I saw, that first time I met you, was how young and awkward you were, and how could someone like you ever be trusted to watch Roy’s back and keep him safe on the job. Roy’s told me about some of the things that go on at work, of course, but then your name kept coming up more and more in the conversation, first during your paramedic class, and then at 51’s. Roy was never really close to any of the guys he worked with before he met you. Then he started hanging out with you more often, even though you already spent so much time together at work. And when you got sick from that monkey, he was beside himself with worry! I just couldn’t figure it out, you know, and…” I stopped and shook my head as I realized how childish this all sounded, and let out a nervous giggle. “Goodness, listen to me! I sound like a kid in grade school who’s jealous because her best friend suddenly has a new friend! But as ashamed as I am to admit it, Johnny, I guess I was jealous of you.”

 

I finally reach out and rested my hand on his shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. “Anyway, I just wanted you to know that I’m sorry. I really am. And, if you’re willing, I’d like to try and start over when you’re feeling better. Please, Johnny, not just for Roy’s sake, but for mine…and for yours as well. I know I don’t really deserve it, but—”

 

A loud buzzing noise abruptly sounded from one of the machines, causing me to jump. I quickly looked Johnny over from toe to foot, and nothing seemed to be wrong, but then why was that alarm still ringing?! I opened my mouth to shout for help, but a nurse breezed through the door before I could utter a sound.

 

She approached the bed, taking in all the monitors at a glance then pressed a button on the ventilator, causing the alarm to stop ringing. “Good work, Mr. Gage,” she said softly while doing so, “keep up those efforts and you’ll be off of this vent in no time.”

 

She turned to face me at that point and continued. “It’s okay. The alarm you heard was just telling us that he took a breath on his own. It’ll go off every time he does. It’ll start ringing more and more frequently as his lungs resume their normal functioning. If it happens again, just press the blue button like you saw me do a moment ago. We’re monitoring him at the nurses’ station, so you won’t need to let us know about it.”

 

I nodded, my heart rate finally slowing down to near-normal by the time she finished her explanation. “Thanks.”

 

“No problem,” the nurse replied as she wrote something in Johnny’s chart then left the two of us alone once again.

 

Taking a deep breath, I moved back toward the bed again. “Whew, you scared me there, young man. But now that I know what that sound was I wouldn’t mind hearing it again a couple more times before leaving.”

 

They say people in comas can sometimes hear what’s going on around them. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever really believed that before, but I did by the time I left ten minutes later.

 

The vent alarm had gone off two more times.

 

 

I hopped off the side of the engine, pulling off my turnout coat and tossing it back onto my seat before slamming the door shut. Dumpster fire in the middle of the afternoon—probably set by some kids cutting school and out looking for kicks. The four of us headed for the kitchen for drinks and a snack.

 

Mike sat down to finish reading the paper he’d been trying to get through since this morning. Marco began pulling the fixings to make tonight’s dinner out of the refrigerator, and Chet sat down at the table, staring at the tabletop. None of the usual firehouse banter today…everyone’s mind was on John’s condition.

 

Since the squad wasn’t back yet from their latest run, I figured I’d better put us all out of our misery. “I’m going to call the hospital.”

 

“Good idea, Cap,” came Chet’s immediate response. I shook my head silently as I began dialing the phone. I’d not been at this station very long, but I had the feeling I wasn’t the only one around here that couldn’t figure out the relationship between Kelly and Gage.

 

Rampart Emergency. Nurse Williams speaking.

 

“Is Miss McCall available, please?”

 

Hold on and let me see if she’s available. May I ask who’s calling, please?

 

“Captain Stanley from Station Fifty-One.”

 

Okay. Please hold.

 

I stood there, alternating between bouncing on the balls of my feet and pacing back and forth, waiting, my mind wandering back to the scene earlier this morning. Seeing Gage go down, so soon after he’d nearly died from that virus… I hoped, and not for the first time, that I would never lose a man under my command. I’d seen first-hand what it could do to a man, and I didn’t ever want to find myself in that same position.

 

Nurses’ Station, Miss McCall speaking.

 

I automatically stopped and straightened to attention. Force of habit. “Miss McCall, this is Captain Hank Stanley, Fire Station Fifty-One. I was calling to find out how John Gage is doing.”

 

Hello, Captain Stanley. Johnny hasn’t regained consciousness yet, but he is starting to show some improvement. He’s also begun to breathe on his own again.

 

That bit of news brought a smile to my face. “Well, that’s good to hear.”

 

Captain, I know you and your men are worried, but while what happened this morning might extend his recovery time a little, Johnny’ll be back at the station before you know it.

 

I wilted a bit in relief. “Thank you, Miss McCall. I appreciate your taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with me.”

 

Not a problem, Captain. I’m keeping tabs on that young man for myself as much as for the rest of you guys.

 

“Well, thanks again. Have a good afternoon.”

 

You, too, Captain.

 

By the time I’d hung up the phone the rest of the men were gathered around me. “He hasn’t regained consciousness yet, but he’s starting to breathe on his own again.”

 

“All right!” Chet again.

 

“Then he’s getting better, right, Cap?” Marco this time.

 

“Sounds like it, Marco. It certainly sounds like it.” I clapped my hands together, giving them a quick rub, before dropping them again. “So what do you say we start getting ready for supper before we get another run?”

 

“Right, Cap,” Marco replied, and the men moved off to make themselves busy. Yup, this was a good group of men. And we’ll be even better once we were all back together again where we belonged.

 

 

Johnny was breathing on his own again.

 

I passed the HT back and forth between my hands as I rode up the elevator trying, yet again, to pay a visit to ICU. Suppertime had come and gone and I think we were on the verge of finally slowing down a bit. Doug was down in the cafeteria grabbing a bite to eat before it shut down for the night. He’d pick me up something to take back to the station with me.

 

I saw Doctor Brackett at the nurses’ station. “Hi, Doc. Glad to see you back.” For some reason he’d recovered from that monkey virus faster than Johnny and was already back at work.

 

“Hi, Roy. It’s good to be back. You here to see our favorite hose jockey?”

 

“Yeah. How’s he doing?”

 

“I was just on my way to look in on him now. Let’s go.”

 

We entered Johnny’s cubicle and I got my first look at my partner since I’d left the hospital early this morning. The dirt and soot had been washed off, and his hair was now clean. He was still a bit pale, and the dark smudges beneath his eyes spoke of an exhaustion that was deeper than simply being woken up in the middle of the night. A quick glance at the respirator showed the blue alarm light flashing on a fairly consistent basis, although the alarm had been turned off.

 

I left Brackett to take care of the medical exam and parked myself near the head of the bed. “Hey, partner. Sorry it’s taken me so long to stop by. It’s kinda been one of those days, you know? The staff here tell me that you’ve been behaving yourself, but I have it on good authority that a few of the younger, good looking nurses are just waiting for you to wake up so that they can come in here and bat their long eyelashes at you…so why don’t you wake up now, so that you can make them all happy. Maybe even score a date or two?”

 

Was it my imagination, or did Johnny’s eyes flutter just a bit? I reached down and gently wrapped my hand around his bandaged one lying limply on the bed, careful not to squeeze too hard. “Come on, Junior. You’ve been slacking off for long enough. It’s time to wake up and let the rest of us get a good night sleep tonight.”

 

Another eye flutter…and there it was. A barely perceptible squeeze of my hand.

 

“That’s right, Johnny. You can do it.”

 

“Roy?”  Brackett asked.

 

“He’s starting to come around, Doc.” My hand was squeezed once more as he tried to move his head. He didn’t get very far.

 

“You’re on a vent, Johnny,” Doctor Brackett told him. “Let it do the work for you.”

 

Johnny’s eyes slowly opened, blinking repeatedly as he struggled to bring the world around him into focus. His gaze moved from Brackett to me, and I could read the question in his eyes. “You’re at Rampart. Do you remember what happened?”

 

He looked at me blankly for a moment before his eyes widened slightly. The beeping of the heart monitor began picking up speed. “Hey, hey, just calm down now. You got everyone out of the house, Johnny, and they’re all okay. The Johnsons will take Missy home in the morning—they’re only keeping her for observation. You’re the only one who was really injured, Junior.”

 

Even Doctor Brackett had no trouble figuring out the next question in my partner’s eyes, and this time he answered it for him. “You suffered some first and mild second degree burns on your arms and feet, Johnny, as well as some minor inhalation burns. You’re on the vent because you went into respiratory arrest at the scene. It took a little while for your body to regain enough strength, but you’ve been breathing over the vent for the past few hours. If everything goes well, I’ll pull the vent in the morning, and start you on breathing treatments to rid your lungs of whatever debris you may have breathed in during the fire. You also were suffering from heat exhaustion, but we’ve had you on an IV along with cooling measures, and so that’s been taken care of. You’ll be on bed rest for a couple of days because of the burns to your feet, but there should be minimal scarring on them or your arms.”

 

By the time Brackett finished with his explanation my partner’s eyes were already starting to droop. I gave his hand another gentle squeeze and I could tell it took an effort for him to return his attention to me. “I’m going to go now and let you get some more rest. I’ll go home tonight after shift and come back in the morning, okay?”

 

He gave me a barely perceptible nod of his head, and a mere twitch of his fingers beneath my hand, before his eyes closed again in sleep.

 

“It’s good to see him awake again, isn’t it, Roy?”

 

I couldn’t help the smile that broke out across my face as I gave Johnny’s hand one last little squeeze before letting it go. “You’d better believe it, Doc.”

 

 

The sound of the front door opening woke me up from the light doze I’d fallen into while watching the late night news. As I sat up, I saw Johnny Carson was now on, but he was still doing his opening monologue, so I hadn’t been asleep long. Roy tossed his keys on the credenza and headed straight for me on the sofa. He looked wiped out. I got up and greeted him with a warm hug and a kiss, then reached for his hand and tugged him downward to sit on the couch beside me.

 

“Hey, sweetheart, you look beat. Did things slow down at the station at all tonight?”

 

He nodded, leaving his hand within mine, and I snuggled in to rest my head on his shoulder. “We had a couple of runs this evening—the birth of a baby and a broken ankle—but nothing like it had been earlier. Stoney said it was because a full moon is coming up, but the engine didn’t have nearly as bad a day as the squad.”

 

“Well, you’re off tomorrow before switching back to day-shift, so you can get some rest.” I answered although I already knew where he’d be most likely be spending at least part of, if not most of, the day tomorrow. “Has there been any more news on Johnny?”

 

“Not since I was able to get up to see him a few hours ago. But since he finally regained consciousness and is breathing pretty well on his own now, all he really needs now is to get some rest and recover. Doctor Brackett said he’ll probably pull Johnny’s vent tomorrow morning, and they’ll keep him in the hospital a few days to make sure he doesn’t come down with pneumonia or any other respiratory problems.” He snorted softly. “Of course, he’s not going to be very happy about that.”

 

I smiled at the affection in his voice. Family. “I’ll bet.”

 

“Jo, Dixie told me you’d gone up to visit Johnny earlier in the day.”

 

And now it was finally time to come clean with him. “Yes, I did,” I answered, sitting up straighter and turning to look at him. “Roy, I owe you an apology.”

 

He frowned in confusion. “What for?”

 

“For the way I’ve been treating Johnny these past few months…” I explained to him the realizations I’d come to earlier in the day—my initial concerns about someone so young being responsible for watching his back on the job, my petty jealousy of his growing friendship with Johnny and my realization that Johnny had been well aware of my feelings where he was concerned. “But it was the look on his face when he woke me up during the fire that finally got through to me, Roy. That, in spite of everything I’d put him through, he still had that same look on his face as you get when you’re worried about one of us…your family.”

 

Roy nodded slowly. “That’s because he cares, Joanne. Look, I don’t know much about his past—he’s very closed-mouthed about his personal life—but I get the feeling he doesn’t have a lot of family, at least not nearby, anyway. We could remind him of the family that he misses, or that he no longer has. I just don’t know. But what I do know is that he’s more than just my partner, we’re becoming good friends too. The kids absolutely adore him, especially our daughter, and you’ve seen the way he dotes on them. So, yeah, I think it’s only natural for him to be worried about us when we’re in danger, or be happy, not only for us but right along with us, when something good happens…”

 

I suddenly remembered the look of pride on Johnny’s face when he happened to be here helping Roy with some yard work one day last month and Chris had come home from school with an award from the principal. My goodness, I have been blind. “…because that’s what families do for each other, right?”

 

That brought a smile to my husband’s face. “Right…”

 

“Oh, Roy,” I moaned with a sad shake of my head, “I feel just awful. How could he ever forgive me after all I’ve put him through?”

 

Roy’s smile grew wider. “Jo, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Johnny, it’s the fact that he seems to be incapable of holding a grudge.” He snorted. “It’s a good thing, too, or else he would have decked Chet Kelly a long time ago.”

 

Now it was my turn to smile. The Phantom and his pigeon.

 

Roy squeezed my hand, still resting in his. “Honey, I’m sure that if you apologize, Johnny’d be more than willing to let bygones be bygones and wipe the slate clean.”

 

Our eyes met and held for a moment, and then I leaned upward and gave him a quick kiss. “I’ll drop by the hospital tomorrow to see him.”

 

“Good,” he replied, kissing me back. “Now, Mrs. DeSoto, I think it’s time turn in. It’s been a long day.”

 

I allowed him to pull me to my feet and waited until he shut off the TV and the light, and together we climbed up the stairs.

 

 

A faint whisper of voices filtered in through the darkness, and I found myself rising unwillingly toward the light. Man, I was so tired. Why was I this tired? I tried to swallow only to nearly gag around something that was stuck in my throat. Ugh! What the heck...?

 

A hand touched my shoulder, and a voice spoke softly beside me. That voice…even in the darkness I’d know that voice. I’d know that voice anywhere. I made an effort to open my eyes…and when nothing happened I tried again.

 

Third time’s the charm.

 

My vision was a bit blurry, but after a moment the owner of that voice came into focus. Roy.

 

“Hey, Junior. I was beginning to think you were going to sleep the entire day away.”

 

Day? What time was it? Heck, what day was it? Ugh! Why is this stupid tube down my throat?!

 

I felt Roy’s hand grip mine and gently lower my arm back to the bed before I realized I had tried to reach up and pull the tube out myself. But it wasn’t his voice I heard next, it was Brackett’s.

 

“Looks like somebody’s ready to have the vent removed.” My eyes drifted over to my left to find the Doc making notes in my chart. He set it down on the tray table and approached the head of my bed. “All right, Johnny. You know how it’s done. When you feel me start to pull, cough as deeply as is comfortable for you. You ready?” I gave a slight nod.

 

One time, when I was still a boot, I fell off my motorcycle and earned myself a nasty case of road rash along my leg. It burned for days until it finally healed. Well, having a ventilator tube yanked out of my throat felt ten times worse. I coughed hard as Brackett pulled, and thought I’d feel relieved when it was finally free, and I was, except…

 

Once I started coughing, I couldn’t seem to stop. A loud buzzing filled my head as the world turned gray…

 

“…okay, Johnny…deep breath…that’s it…”

 

The haze slowly lifted. Someone’s arm was across my chest, and…was I sitting up? I felt something cold move across my back here and there, and a soothing warmth was rubbing my back just beneath the base of my neck. I was leaning against something soft and warm and felt the deep vibrations of that voice as it continued to pull me back to reality.

 

“Come on, Junior. That’s it, slow your breathing down. Take deep breaths. You got it…”

 

I opened my eyes to find I was sitting up—or more like I was being held up—by Roy, who was still at my side and bracing me against his chest. My chest was still heaving like I’d just run the 440, and the occasional cough still punctuated Roy’s litany of reassurance.

 

“Aw, man…” I tried to say, but it came out as a croak.

 

“Better?” I nodded weakly. “Okay then, let’s get you settled back here…” Roy lowered me back down to the bed, which wasn’t nearly as far away as it had been when I’d first woke up—someone must have raised it while I was otherwise occupied with trying not to cough myself to death. A nasal cannula somehow had appeared beneath my nose to increase my oxygen intake as well. Thank goodness it wasn’t the mask.

 

Brackett went about taking my vitals and Roy spoon fed me some ice chips, but things were finally settling down to normal again. What the heck had just happened?

 

Doc must have read the question on my face. “You took in a lot of smoke at the fire, Johnny, and went into respiratory arrest at the scene. You’ve been on the vent ever since, and your body hasn’t had the chance to expel the remaining debris in your lungs. I’ll notify respiratory therapy to begin breathing treatments right away, and you’ll get at least one before we move you downstairs to a room. Your lungs sound a little congested, but so far it doesn’t seem to be too bad. We’ll keep an eye on you for the next few days and see how it goes, and I’ll start you on some antibiotics as a precaution against pneumonia.”

 

Great, another hospital stay. But the fire… “Everyone alright?” My voice was still a croak.

 

“The Johnsons are fine, Johnny—you got everyone out in time—and Missy should be home with her folks by now. You were the only real injury.”

 

“Figures…” I thought to myself.

 

“Well, I think what you did was certainly very brave enough,” Brackett replied. “Crazy, but brave.”

 

Ooops, I must have said that last thought aloud. I snorted at Brackett’s comment, but that only triggered another brief round of coughing, which was enough to cause the Doc to frown. “I’m going to go ahead and get respiratory therapy up here, Johnny. You be sure to get some rest, and I’ll be back to check on you after you’ve been moved to a room downstairs.”

 

“Thanks, Doc.”

 

As Roy and I watched him leave I felt the urge to yawn, but I forced it down. I wanted to spend some time with Roy. “Nothing happened to your house, did it?”

 

Roy sat down in the chair beside the bed. “No, our house is fine. Joanne and the kids spent the rest of the night with our other next door neighbors, just to be on the safe side. The Johnson’s house is a real mess, though. It’ll take a lot of work to rebuild.”

 

“That’s too bad.” I had to force down another yawn, but this time my partner caught me at it.

 

“Look, Johnny, why don’t you try and grab a nap before your breathing treatment…”

 

“Aw, Roy, I just woke up! Besides, I don’t want you to have to waste your day off sitting here watching me sleep.” I shouldn’t have opened my mouth, because that darned yawn took the opportunity to finally escape. Unfortunately, the cough I’d been managing to smother did, too.

 

“Hey, I’ve got nothing else planned for the day. Besides, staying here gets me out of that ‘Honey-Do’ list Joanne has got waiting for me back at the house.”

 

Oh, great, I’m sure Joanne will be thrilled with that. I hope she doesn’t get mad at Roy for spending time here at the hospital with me instead of being with his family. He needed to go home… “But Roy, you’re on duty tomorrow. Don’t you think it’d be better to spend your day off with your family?”

 

Roy frowned and was just about to reply when the door opened and a male nurse walked in. “Hello, Mr. Gage. I’m Rick and I’m you’re respiratory therapist. Doctor Brackett has ordered some breathing treatments for you, so if your friend here wouldn’t mind going out to the waiting room for a bit, we can go ahead and get started.”

 

Roy stood up and moved the chair back out of the way. “Johnny, I’ll just go grab a cup of coffee in the cafeteria. I’ll be back up in a little while, okay?”

 

I tried again. “Roy, it’s not that I don’t appreciate it, but you don’t have to stay here and babysit me. I know you’ve got other things to do. Why don’t you just go on home and spend the day with Joanne…”

 

Roy stopped and stared at me for a moment, and I fought the urge to squirm under his intense gaze. “I’ll be back in a little while, Johnny.”

 

Uh-oh.  I knew what that look meant and I knew better than to continue to argue. I dropped my eyes to the blanket and nodded. “Okay, Roy.”

 

I looked back up as the turned to leave. “Hey, Roy?” He stopped in the doorway and turned back to face me, and I offered him a small smile. “Thanks.”

 

He nodded, somehow hearing the words I hadn’t spoken, and then continued on out of the room.

 

 

Two thirty-six. As I stepped out of the elevator I glanced briefly at the directory sign on the wall then turned left and headed down the hall. Roy had called me earlier when they were moving Johnny out of ICU to a regular room to let me know where he’d be. I made arrangements for the kids to have a play date at Mark and Lisa’s next door, and allowed Jennifer to help me bake up a batch of corn muffins for supper tonight. I packed a few to take with me to the hospital, hoping Johnny might like them. But as I walked down the hall to his room now, I found myself clutching the bag tightly in my hand.

 

I felt like I was on my way to face a firing squad.

 

I paused outside the doorway to Johnny’s room, and I could hear Roy’s voice speaking quietly. It sounded like he was telling some sort of story to his partner. If Johnny was responding to him in any way I couldn’t hear it. I took a deep breath and let it out in a deep huff. Time to take the bull by the horns.

 

“Hi boys,” I said cheerfully as I walked into the room, my eyes taking in the scene before me. Roy was sitting next to the bed, looking more relaxed than I’d seen him in days. Johnny was looking a bit pale, but the thing that struck me most was that the smile that had been lighting up his face fell as soon as he’d realized who had entered his room. Shame flared through me and I prayed I could make things right with him again. “I baked some corn muffins today, and I thought you might like them—fresh out of the oven!”

 

“Mmmm, honey, sounds good,” Roy said as he stood up and gave me a kiss. “Joanne makes the best homemade corn muffins. Thanks, Jo.”

 

Johnny looked up at me as I set the muffins down on the tray table. “Thanks, Joanne,” he spoke quietly. “They smell really good.”

 

“Would you like to eat one now?”

 

He shook his head. “I’m…I’m not really hungry right now. Maybe later, though…”

 

I met Roy’s gaze at that. John Gage not hungry?! He must really be sick… But the look on Roy’s face gave me pause. If he wasn’t that sick then what else was going on? He glanced quickly at his friend and then back to me, then said, “Well, I plan on having one just as soon as I can scare up a hot cup of coffee. Can I get either of you a cup?”

 

Ah, he was giving me a chance to speak with Johnny alone. “Sure, Roy,” I answered with a nod.

 

“Johnny?”

 

He glanced up at Roy, then away again. “No thanks.”

Roy sighed. “Okay, I’ll be back in a bit.”

 

That quickly brought Johnny’s head up, his mouth dropping open as if he wanted to say something, but he held back. Apparently he’d just realized that he’d be left alone in the room with me…and he seemed to be rather nervous about the idea.

 

I watched as Roy left then turned back to the younger man and caught him watching me before he moved his eyes away from me again. Well… here goes nothing. “Johnny—”

 

“I’m sorry, Joanne…”

 

His voice was so soft that I almost didn’t hear him, yet he’d managed to stop me dead in my tracks. “What? What for?”

 

He finally met my gaze. “For barging in to your room the other night…for rousting you and the kids out of bed in the middle of the night…for messing up your laundry…”

 

What on earth…? He looked positively guilt-ridden. He’s apologizing to me?! “No, Johnny…stop!” I reached out quickly and grabbed his hand. “Don’t apologize to me. You have absolutely nothing to be sorry about. I’m the one who needs to apologize to you!”

 

He looked back at me, startled, and I rushed on, not giving him a chance to speak. “Johnny, I’m the one who’s been behaving like a spoiled brat. I’ve made you feel so unwelcomed in my home that you can’t even be in the same room with me without feeling like you’re walking on egg shells.” I took a deep breath and tried to slow myself down a little. “Please, Johnny, let me try to explain…”

 

He nodded silently, and I reached out with one hand to pull the chair Roy had been sitting in back up beside the bed, still keeping hold of his hand with the other. “Johnny, I’ve known Roy since we were both in the fourth grade. We grew up together, hung out together and had many of the same friends. But, as friendly a guy as Roy is, and as much as he gets along so well with other people, he never really had any close friends, you know? Once we started dating, his attentions were mostly focused on me, and then, once we were married, on me and the kids. All our friends were just that: our friends…mine included the wives of his firemen friends and his included the husbands of my girlfriends. Then one day he started talking to me about a young man he’d met who he’d signed up for the new paramedic program, and before I knew it your name was coming up in conversation more and more frequently as his training at Rampart went on. When he brought you home for dinner that first time, I’m afraid I took an instant disliking to you, but not for anything you had done. I’m ashamed to admit it, Johnny, but I was feeling jealous of you.”

 

“Jealous, of me?!” He seemed to be shocked by the very idea of it.

 

“I’m afraid so, Johnny,” I continued. “When Roy told me he was thinking of asking you to be his partner, I nearly hit the roof. I thought you were so young, and I did not want you to be the one responsible for making sure my husband came back home to me every night. But the choice was always Roy’s, and he’d chosen you. So I simply tolerated you, telling myself that I was still being polite even as I knew it obvious to you that I was merely tolerating your presence.  And I only got worse as your friendship with Roy grew…”

 

“Joanne, stop…” he said, squeezing my hand. “It’s okay. I understand.”

 

Roy had said his partner was a forgiving man, but I wasn’t ready to be absolved of my guilt so easily. “No, Johnny, it’s not okay. I treated you terribly, and I’m so sorry.”

 

A small grin tugged at his mouth and he shrugged. “Look, Joanne, I know I’m not the easiest person in the world to get along with—just ask Roy—so you probably didn’t over-react as much as you think. What do you say we just wipe the slate clean and start all over again, alright?”

 

I couldn’t help it, I found myself answering his smile with one of my own, finding it ironic that Johnny had used the exact same expression my husband had. Family. “I’m game if you are.”

 

That crooked grin grew a bit wider. “Good deal.”

 

Relief flooded through me and I nodded. “Okay, you got it.” I let go of his hand. “Good. So now how are you really feeling, Johnny?”

 

The door opened before he had the chance to answer, and in came Roy with two cups of coffee. He looked at Roy, then back at me and said, “Actually, I am feeling kinda hungry. I think I will have one of your muffins, Joanne.”

 

Roy caught my eye as he put the coffee down on the tray table and I smiled at him. “That’s great, Johnny. Here,” I said, snatching Roy’s coffee from the table and giving it to his partner. “Wash it down with this.”

 

Roy put on his best ‘put upon’ expression. “Hey…”

 

“Thanks, Joanne,” Johnny said cheerfully as he gingerly took the coffee from me with one hand and popped a piece of corn muffin in his mouth with the other. He coughed as he swallowed the muffin and he took a drink from the coffee cup. “Mmmmmm. Delicious!”

 

“I’m glad you like it, considering it tastes even better with coffee than without,” Roy complained, although I could tell he didn’t mean it.

 

Apparently Johnny could too, because he said, “Yeah, well, you’re always telling me how you need to cut back, so I’m just helping out a friend here, pal.”

 

“Thanks a lot, partner.”

 

“Oh, here you big lug,” I handed him my cup. “Share some of mine.”

 

“Thanks, sweetheart. At least somebody around here appreciates me…”

 

*Cough* “Oh I appreciate you, Roy, I appreciate you.” He looked at me and winked. “I appreciate the fact that you found yourself a wife who’s a great cook!” He popped another piece of muffin into his mouth.

 

Roy dropped the pretense and a smile broke out on his face. “You’ve got that right,” he said coming to stand next to me and wrapping an arm around my waist.

 

We stayed and chatted for a bit before the respiratory therapist arrived for Johnny’s next breathing treatment. Johnny insisted that we go on home and spend the rest of the day together, and after a bit of cajoling Roy finally agreed.

 

“I’m on duty tomorrow, Johnny, but I’ll drop by between runs when I can.”

 

“No problem, Roy. I’ll see you when I see you.” *Cough*

 

I bent over and gave him a peck on his cheek, and wouldn’t you know it, he actually blushed! I struggled to keep from laughing. “We’ll see you soon, Johnny.”

 

“Thanks for everything, Joanne.”

 

“No, Johnny. Thank you.”

 

 

I met the guys in the hospital lobby. We were going up to see Johnny together and I was the first one to arrive. Marco and Mike showed up a few minutes later, and Cap was right behind them. Good. I hadn’t seen Johnny since the night of the fire and even though Roy had been updating us on how he was doing, we all wanted to see him for ourselves. It wasn’t like I was concerned about him or anything, though. I mean, after all, a good Phantom always keeps an eye on his Pigeon.

 

“Roy said Johnny’s in room 236,” Cap said, rubbing his hands together, “so let’s go.”

 

I never really liked hospitals. I came from a large Irish family, and after watching too many of them go into one and never come out again as a kid, the place just gave me the creeps. I don’t just mean Rampart—all hospitals gave me the creeps. Now I’m here more often, like when Cap tells me to drive the squad over from a scene if both Roy and Johnny have to go in with the victim, but I still don’t like it.

 

Cap led the way as we entered Johnny’s room, with Mike and Marco following and I brought up the rear.

 

Johnny was asleep.

 

“Shhh,” Cap instructed. “Let’s not wake him up.”

 

“You think maybe we should go and come back later?” Marco asked.

 

“Nah,” I answered. I didn’t want to have to come back here again if I could help it. “Let’s just wait a while and see if he wakes up.”

 

“We could always go grab a cup of coffee in the meantime,” Mike offered up the suggestion.

 

I approached the bed and took a good look at Gage. He wasn’t sleeping like he normally did at the station, with one arm thrown over his face. Both of them were wrapped to cover the burns and lying by his sides. Maybe sleeping with one arm over his face was uncomfortable for him right now.

 

“Don’t wake him up, Chet.”

 

“I wasn’t planning to,” I answered, pretending to be annoyed, and turned back toward Marco. “I just wanted to see if he was fakin’ it.”

 

“Why would he be faking it?” Mike asked.

 

“You know Gage, anything to get out of latrine duty.”

 

“Kelly, you twit, he’s not even on duty right now!”

 

I heard movement behind me and turned to find Gage was waking up. Ooops.

 

“Hey, guys,” he said as he noticed he had visitors, his voice sounding like sandpaper. “You been here long?”

 

“We just got here a few minutes ago, John. How are you feeling?

 

“I’m okay, Cap. Everybody’s making a big deal out of nothing. I just ate a little smoke.”

 

“A little smoke, huh? You’re gonna make me gray before my time, pal.”

 

He grinned sheepishly. “Sorry, Cap.”

 

“Just don’t make a habit out of being here, okay?”

 

“Don’t worry, Cap. I don’t intend to.”

 

Ah, the perfect opportunity to get my pigeon riled up. “What are you talking about, Gage. You’re a walking disaster magnet!”

 

“Chet…” Marco warned.

 

“What, I’m serious! First it was radiation poisoning, then that monkey virus and now this. What’s next, Gage, falling down the side of a mountain or something?”

 

“Oh, shut up, Chet,” Johnny replied. It was his standard comeback when he couldn’t think of anything better to say. “It’s not like I knew that monkey was infectious!”

 

It was so much fun to wind him up and get him going. “Right, the chick was sick as a dog and you couldn’t figure it out…”

 

“Chet…” Johnny sputtered then broke off, coughing.

 

“Boys, boys, why don’t you give the other patients on this floor a break go back to your neutral corners, alright?” Cap interrupted. Shoot, just when it was getting good.

 

“Here, Johnny,” Marco handed Gage a cup of water, which he downed in a few gulps.

 

“Thanks, Marco,” he gave me a glare then looked back at the others. “So how’s it been, working with Stoney?”

 

“He’s a good paramedic, John, and gets along with everyone.”

 

“Unlike some others,” I added.

 

Gage ignored me.

 

“But the station’s not the same without you, pal, so you just do what the doctors tell you and you’ll be back on the job in no time.”

 

“You got it, Cap.”

 

Yeah, Gage, you’d better hurry back. The Phantom was bored without his pigeon around.

 

 

I managed to grab a cup of coffee from in the doctor’s lounge before heading back out to the base station to check on things. The shift had been busy during the night and I was looking forward to heading home and sacking out for a while. Joe Early should be arriving any moment now, not a minute too soon as far as I was concerned.

 

Speak of the devil, here he comes now. “Morning, Joe.”

 

“Hey, Kel. You look pretty beat. Busy night?”

 

“Busy shift. How was your day off?”

 

“Great. I managed to catch that new movie about Billie Holiday last night while I was out with some friends—Lady Sings the Blues. It was really very good.”

 

I shook my head. Joe and his music. “Well, while you were out enjoying yourself, I was here slaving away, so now I’m going to go home and take a much deserved break.”

 

“Before you go, have you had a chance to check on Johnny this morning?”

 

“I was up there a little while ago. He was asleep. But his labs were looking good, and the breathing treatments seem to be doing a good job clearing his lungs out—he’s sounding much less congested.”

 

“Good, I was afraid he’d wind up with pneumonia on top of everything else, which is something he definitely doesn’t need. I’m glad he’s getting some rest.”

 

“Me, too. He woke up during the exam and stayed awake long enough to ask when he was going to be released, but he’d fallen asleep again by the time I’d left the room. I have a feeling our young friend is going to start pestering us to release him very soon.”

 

Joe smiled at that. “Yes, if there’s one thing John Gage hates to do, it’s stay still for too long. I’ll check on him later. If his lungs sound good in the morning, I’ll release him if he agrees to go back to Roy’s house for a few more days. Of course, he might need some convincing…”

 

“Ah, yes. We can’t have a big, strong fireman like Johnny thinking we’re a bunch of pushovers around here, can we?” We both shared a laugh then I gave him a slap on the back as I started toward my office to grab my jacket. “Make him work for it, Joe.”

 

The sound of his laughter followed me down the corridor.

 

 

I’d slept most of the morning away—the pain meds I was on made me feel a bit sluggish —and now that lunch was over I was getting kinda bored. The guys were working and there was nothing on TV but soaps. No way was I gonna get hooked on those things. I grabbed a copy of Car & Driver magazine and started thumbing through it for the third time, but the words only blurred across the page.

 

Man, I hope they let me out of here soon.

 

The door opened and Dixie walked in. “Hey, Johnny, you have some visitors.” Behind her were the Johnsons. Dixie moved out of the doorway so they could come in before disappearing out the door again, and I sat up straighter in the bed.

 

“Hi, Mr. Gage,” Michael said as they approached me. “Joanne told us you were up to having visitors now.”

 

“I hope it’s okay, us coming in to see you like this,” Sarah added, bouncing Missy in her arms a bit.

 

“Please, call me Johnny. And it sure is. I’m glad to see you’re all alright.”

 

“We are, thanks to you,” Michael replied.

 

“We just wanted to come here and thank you for what you did for us—especially going back in to save Missy. If anything had happened to her I don’t know what we would have done.”

 

I shook my head. “You don’t need to thank me. I’m just glad I happened to wake up in time to get you all out of there. Have they figured out what started the fire yet?”

 

“Faulty wiring in the kitchen,” Michael answered. “Luckily we have insurance, but it’s going to take a while to rebuild.”

 

“We’re staying at my sister’s house in Pasadena for now. It’s a longer commute to work for Michael, but it’s cheaper than staying in a hotel.”

 

I looked at the baby cradled in Sarah’s arms. “How’s she doing?”

 

Sarah smiled. “Good. They kept her for a little over 24-hours to keep an eye on her and had her on oxygen and all, but she’s doing very well.” She looked up from the baby to meet my gaze. “Would you like to hold her?”

 

“Sure!” I reached up to take the baby and drew her into my arms. It hurt a bit, even though the bandages were cushioning the burns, but that didn’t matter. The last time I’d held this little girl in my arms she wasn’t breathing. But here she was, all pink and warm and alive. Green eyes watched me for a moment then her little hand reached up and grabbed my hospital gown, keeping it clutched in her fist. She stuck her other thumb in her mouth. She definitely seemed like a happy baby.  “Hey there, darlin’. You feeling better now?”

 

Missy continued to look up at me, clutching and sucking away.

 

“Wow,” Michael sounded surprised, “she really likes you. Missy normally doesn’t take so well to strangers.”

 

“Well, we’re not strangers are we, sweetheart?” I spoke in that sing-song voice most adults tended to use with babies around—it must be genetic or something—adding a slight bouncing motion as I rocked her from side to side. “Nah, we’re not strangers at all. She knows she can trust me, right darlin’?”

 

Missy just cooed. I loved the noises babies made, and I found myself grinning down at her like an idiot. Good thing Chet wasn’t here to see this. I’d never hear the end of it.

 

After a few minutes Sarah looked at her watch and sighed. “I’m afraid we can’t stay for much longer. We’ve got an appointment with the claims adjuster in half an hour.”

 

“Yeah, man,” Michael added. “We don’t want to overstay our welcome. We just wanted to come by and thank you in person. It’s not every day someone risks their life for us like you did.”

 

I handed Missy back to Sarah. “Hey, it’s my job. I’m just glad I happened to be at the right place at the right time.”

 

“We are, too. Believe me, we are, too. Take care of yourself, Johnny,” Sarah said as she and her husband turned to leave.

 

“Thanks for stopping by!” I called out after them. That was nice of them, coming here just to see me. We helped a lot of people in our job, and it was always nice when they stopped by to say ‘thank you.’ Sometimes it seemed like not enough people bothered to do that.

 

I looked at the clock on the wall, settling myself back down in the bed. My next breathing treatment should be coming up soon. I think I’ll just close my eyes for a few moments while I waited...

 

 

I went upstairs to see Johnny later that afternoon after I’d received the final report from respiratory therapy. I opened the door to his room to find him entertaining a gaggle of young nurses, who seemed to be hanging on his every word. I wasn’t surprised—the same thing happened during his last hospital stay. Ah, to be young again.

 

“Hey, Doc,” he greeted as the nurses, while not leaving, did clear a path for me. “How are things down in the ER?”

 

“Not too bad, Johnny. And while I’m sorry to have to break up your little party here, I’m afraid I need to examine you.”

 

“Ah, well, I guess you gotta do what you gotta do, Doc.” The nurses started leaving, but Johnny wasn’t simply content to let them go. “I’ll see you girls later, alright?”

 

The last of the student nurses waved goodbye as she left, and we were finally alone. As I began my examination I asked, “So, Johnny, how are you feeling?”

 

“I’m doing alright. I’m anxious to get out of here, though. So when can I go home, Doc?”

 

Now how did I know that was going to be the first question he’d ask? “Well, Johnny, that’s what I’m here to find out. Have the nurses gotten you on your feet yet today?”

 

“A couple of times. It wasn’t exactly the highlight of my day.”

 

I looked up from examining the burns on his arms. “Painful?”

 

He shrugged. “Nothing I couldn’t handle.”

 

This in Gage-speak, I knew, meant painful. “Your arms are healing up nicely. The skin is starting to peel, like a bad sunburn. Now let’s take a look at your feet.”

 

I removed the wrappings and saw that the blisters had broken and the swelling was already starting to go down. “They’re looking good, Johnny. I think if you keep up with the antibiotics and silvadene, use pain medicine as needed and keep well hydrated, you should heal up within two to three weeks. Get on them a little at a time, as you can tolerate it. Try and keep your feet elevated when you’re off them, though, at least for the next few days.”

 

“No problem, Doc.”

 

My, he was really being cooperative. He must really want out of here. “Let’s take a listen to your lungs.”

 

They’d cleared up a lot since he’d been brought in. Good, that meant the breathing treatments had done their job. “Not too bad, Johnny. Not too bad.”

 

“So does that mean I can go home?”

 

I swallowed my laughter at the earnest expression on his face. “Well…”

 

The door opened and Roy walked in. He stopped when he saw that I was examining Johnny. “Can I come in, or do you want me to wait?”

 

“No, come on in, Roy. I was just finishing up my exam.”

 

“And Doc was just about to tell me it would be okay for me to go home tomorrow, right Doc?”

 

Make him work for it, Kel had told me. Well, here goes nothing. “Now hold on a minute there, Johnny. I never said you were ready to be released.”

 

“But…”

 

“Your feet need looking after, after all, to prevent infection.”

 

“But…”

 

“And I know that, if I let you go back to your apartment alone, you’d probably start doing too much and not rest your feet enough.” I managed to angle my body away from Johnny enough to keep my face in profile, and I gave Roy a wink that Johnny couldn’t see. I saw Roy’s eyes light up as he caught on.

 

“But…”

 

“I don’t know, Doc,” Roy suddenly chimed in, “I think that if you don’t let him go soon, you’re liable to have an uprising with the nursing staff. He’s liable to drive them all crazy.”

 

Johnny frowned at that. “Are you insinuating I’m a bad patient, Roy?”

 

“No, Johnny, I’m not insinuating that you’re a bad patient…” He paused a moment for effect. “There’s no insinuation at all.”

 

“Thanks a lot, partner!”

 

Oh, Kel was missing such a good show. I shook my head. “I don’t know, Johnny. I think it would be better to keep you here a few more days, just to be on the safe side.”

 

“But, Doc—“

 

“Hey, Doc, I’ve got an idea,” Roy threw in the hook, “how about if Johnny spends a few days at my house. Joanne’ll be home to keep an eye on him, and I can look after the burns and make sure no infection develops.”

 

“But Roy…”

 

“I’m not so sure that’s such a good idea, Roy,” I interrupted. “I mean, if Johnny can drive our nurses crazy, what would he do to your poor wife?”

 

And there’s the bite. “Hey! I just stayed at Roy’s house a few days ago and…” he broke off suddenly and an odd expression came over his face before he began again, his voice a little quieter. “Well, I mean, I can try and behave myself better when I’m around Joanne.”

 

The amused expression on Roy’s face faltered. “Johnny…”

 

Uh-oh. What was all that about? I wondered. I’d better reel this fish in before he got away. “Johnny, are you saying that that you’d be open to going to Roy’s house for a few days, and that you’d behave yourself while there, if I released you tomorrow?”

 

The two paramedics looked at each other silently, and I had a feeling that there was a whole other conversation going on in that look that I wasn’t privy to. But when the silence was broken, it wasn’t Johnny who spoke. It was Roy.

 

“Yeah, Doc, that’s exactly what he’s saying. Right, Johnny?”

 

Oddly enough, a small smile began dawning on Johnny’s face. “Yeah, Doc. I think that solution’ll work out just fine.”

 

O-kay…that didn’t go exactly the way I thought it would, but the end result was the same, so who was I to complain? “Alright then, I’ll get the release papers ready and signed for tomorrow morning.”

 

The walkie-talkie in Roy’s hand went off, and he headed for the door. “I’ll see you in the morning, Johnny.”

 

“Yeah. See you later, Roy. Be careful out there!” Johnny called to his partner as he disappeared out the door.

 

I glanced at my watch and realized I’d spent more time up here than I should have. “And I’m afraid I’ve got to get back to the ER. I’ll see you in the morning, Johnny.”

 

“Okay, Doc. Thanks again!”

 

As I left his room, I again wondered about what had passed between the two men that I had missed and shrugged. I’d probably never know.

 

 

Waiting for Johnny to be released from the hospital was not an easy thing. If things didn’t move fast enough for him—and, let’s face it, it never did for anybody, but for Johnny more than most—he’d work himself up into a rant that would have him going for hours, depending on his true state of health. Today was shaping up to be one of those days.

 

“I mean, come on, Roy. Those guys down in Pharmacy must put med orders for patients being discharged at the bottom of the stack. All I need is a lousy bottle of antibiotics, some pain meds and a tube of burn cream...”

 

“I’m sure that while the prescription orders must prioritized in some way, Johnny, they don’t purposefully make patients being discharged wait any longer than necessary,” I tried to reassure him, although I had to admit, I’d wondered the same thing myself the last time I’d ended up here, before I’d even met Johnny.

 

Luckily I was spared from my partner’s reply when Dixie arrived with a wheelchair. The bag with Johnny’s medication was on the seat. “Here you are, Johnny. Your chariot awaits.”

 

A broad grin broke out on Johnny’s face. “Dixie, you’re a lifesaver!”

 

I caught the wince as Johnny set his feet on the floor and stood up from the bed. I knew he needed to walk on them in order for the skin to toughen up, but I was sure it was probably pretty painful for him. But my partner wasn’t one to shy away from pain, and he slowly walked over to the wheelchair and sat down, releasing his breath with a whoosh. Dixie set his meds on his lap and I grabbed his bag and slung it over my shoulder.

 

When Johnny had called Dixie a lifesaver he’d been right. In just the short time it took us to get from his hospital room to the car she’d managed to sooth and distract him enough that he’d calmed down quite a bit for the ride home. So she was not only his lifesaver, but she was mine, too.

 

By the time we reached the house, I had finished telling him about some of the more interesting things that had happened last shift, and he had pretty much relaxed. “So, are you ready for another examination by Nurse Jenny?”

 

Johnny grinned broadly. “Aw, man. You sure she doesn’t want to be a doctor when she grows up?”

 

“She can be whatever she wants. Once she sets her mind to something there’s no stopping her. She takes after her mother that way.”

 

“And after her father, too. I remember a certain fireman who was so convinced that a paramedic program was needed that he just kept on pushing and wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

 

I puckered my face into a frown. “Hmmm, I wonder who that could be?”

 

He snorted with laugher as I pulled the car onto the driveway and turned off the ignition.

 

“Hey, Roy?” he asked quietly.

 

“Yes, Johnny?” I turned to look at him.

 

He met my gaze. “Thanks for not taking no for an answer, Pally.”

 

We shared a moment of silent communication before I finally answered, “Anytime, Junior. Anytime.”

 

 

I glanced at the clock on the wall for what must have been the hundredth time this morning. Nine-thirty a.m. Roy had called me from the station last night and told me the good news.

 

Johnny was being released this morning and Roy was picking him up and bringing him back to our house to recuperate for a few days from the last of the effects from the fire.

 

I couldn’t keep the smile that threatened to escape off my face. Six days ago, when this whole scene played out the first time, I dreaded the idea of having John Gage staying here with us and had only allowed it because I couldn’t say no to Roy.  This time around, I was the one who did the asking.

 

What a difference a week makes…

 

“Mommy!” Jennifer shouted from the top of the stairs. “Is Uncle Johnny here yet?”

 

“Not yet, sweetheart,” I answered as I headed for the stairs, feeling a sense of déjà vu. When I was face to face with my daughter I continued, “Now I know we went over this when Uncle Johnny came home from the hospital a few days ago, but I think we need to go over it again—”

 

“I know, Mommy. Uncle Johnny’s been sick. Don’t bug him too much.”

 

I laughed softly. “That’s right. And I think Nurse Jenny needs to be away on vacation this visit, okay?”

 

“Awwww, Mom!”

 

“Awwww, Jennifer!” I mimicked, causing her to burst into giggles. “Why don’t you come down here and help me whip up a batch of peanut butter cookies so that Uncle Johnny can have something special with his lunch today?”

 

“Yaaaaaay! Peanut butter cookies!!”

 

In no time flat the cookies were in the oven. She sat at the table working on a ‘Welcome Home’ drawing for Johnny as I cleaned up the kitchen. When the cookies were done I pulled them out of the oven and set them on a rack to cool.

 

“Mmmmmm, they smell so good, Mommy. Can I have one?”

 

“No, sweetheart, they’re too hot to eat right now. You can have them at lunch. Besides, you want to show them to Uncle Johnny first, right?”

 

She nodded vigorously. “And tell him that I helped make ‘em, too!”

 

The sound of Roy’s car pulling into the driveway drew my attention. “Jenny, guess what?”

 

Apparently she’d heard the sound as well. “Uncle Johnny’s here!!”

 

Her enthusiasm was catching. “That’s right, Uncle Johnny’s here! Let’s go and meet him and daddy at the door, okay?”

 

I had to rest my hands on her shoulders to keep her from running out the door to greet him, and we watched silently as he climbed slowly out of the car and gingerly made his way toward the house. His feet must really be hurting him. Roy hovered nearby, just in case Johnny needed any help, but didn’t make any overt moves to assist him. I shook my head. Men.

 

“Uncle Johnny!!” Jennifer cried out, and my hands tightened on her shoulders. No jumping into her uncle’s arms this time around.

 

He looked up from the ground, where he’d been watching his steps, and grinned broadly at her. “Hey princess! Did you miss me?”

 

She opened her arms as wide as they could go. “I missed you THIS much!”

 

“Oh, wow! That much, huh?” He gave her a quick pat on the head.

 

Johnny raised his eyes to mine, that crooked grin softening as he did so. “Hi Joanne.”

 

Six days ago he was so uncomfortable with being here—I’d made it that way for him. But during that time I’d finally come to realize that he’d come to think of my husband and my children…and even me…as his family. Now it was time for me to finally make it clear to him that he was really a part of mine now as well.

 

I smiled warmly at him and leaned upward to give him a kiss on his cheek, once again fighting off the urge to laugh as a blush rose up his face.

 

“Hi, Johnny. Welcome home.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

The End

Realizations

By Anela51

Published to site 02/17/12

 

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