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While You Were Sleeping…
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.
John Gage whistled a happy tune as he walked into the station—early, for a change. The weather was damp and drizzly, but that didn’t matter to Johnny. Today was going to be a good day! He’d made a bet with Roy that weekend and he’d won--the Rams had lost to San Francisco 24-23*, and Johnny was eager to collect his winnings. Not money, but something even better—he’d bet Roy a day of driving the squad, and today he was going to collect!
He changed into his uniform and then breezed into the kitchen for a cup of coffee. The guys from C-shift were hanging around waiting to be relieved. “Good mornin’, good mornin’, good mornin’!”
“Hey, Johnny,” Charlie said as he made room for the paramedic near the stove. “Good day off?”
“You bet!” he answered, then chortled at his own joke. “How was the shift?”
“Pretty busy, but no runs last night, which is always a good thing. The drug box is pretty full, so you guys won’t have to make a supply run to Rampart right away.”
The guys continued their conversation as the rest of A-shift made their way in and C-shift straggled off to go home. Johnny’s face lit up as his partner, Roy DeSoto, joined them. Roy stopped dead in his tracks when he caught sight of Johnny’s expression, sighed and shook his head ruefully. “Great game last night, huh, Roy?”
“Are you kidding?” Chet exclaimed, a disgusted look on his face. “I can’t believe the Rams lost by one lousy point—to the 49ers, no less!”
“LA should have won that game,” Marco piped in.
“Yeah, the 49ers are having a lousy season this year,” Chet continued.
“Well, they didn’t yesterday, and that’s what matters. So now, Roy my man, it’s time for you to pay up!” Johnny was still all smiles.
Captain Stanley’s eyebrows rose toward his hairline. “Is your captain actually hearing that some of his men are gambling on department time?”
“Not for money, Cap,” Johnny reassured him hastily, “but only for the squad.” He shrugged his shoulders sheepishly before continuing. “I bet Roy that, if the 49ers beat the Rams, I’d get to drive the squad for a whole shift…” The grin found its way back to his face. “…and I won!”
Chet shook his head, turning his sights once again on his favorite pigeon. “Man, Gage, you must really be hard up. There’s a reason why Roy doesn’t let you drive on shift—it’s that he’s driven with you OFF-shift and knows better than to let you get behind the wheel of public property. He’s saving the taxpayers a bundle of money because, if you drove the squad—with your record of on-the-job injuries—you’d be involved in an accident every other shift!”
His grin was rapidly swept away by Chet’s comments, causing his mouth to drop open in shock. That shock was immediately chased away by anger, but before he could draw a breath and gear up for a reply, Captain Stanley held up a hand and said, “Gentlemen, before the rest of us have the chance to settle in for the next 14 rounds, let’s get to roll call, shall we?”
Johnny’s gaze narrowed and he fixed Chet with a ‘this isn’t over yet’ look before following his partner out into apparatus bay.
Roy attempted to placate him as they conducted their morning equipment check, the others heading off to their duties after roll call. “Don’t pay any attention to Chet, Johnny. He’s ridden in a vehicle that you were driving plenty of times and knows you’re a good driver. You know he’s just trying to yank your chain.”
Johnny shook his head. “Man, Roy… Look, I know you’re right. I’ve got a great driving record, and I’ve never been involved in an accident while I was driving. And it’s not like I’m careless on the job or anything…”
“We all know that, Partner,” Roy reassured him. “If we didn’t, Cap would have called you on the carpet years ago.”
Johnny busied himself with the drug box for a moment then quietly asked, “Then why don’t you let me drive the squad more often, Roy?”
Roy looked up at him in surprise, apparently startled by the seriousness of Johnny’s question. He appeared to think about it for a moment, then shrugged. “I don’t really have a reason, Johnny. It’s just seemed natural—to me, anyway—to get behind the wheel. It’s not because I don’t trust you or anything. Hell, I trust you with my life each and every shift together.”
Johnny kept his eyes fixed on Roy’s expression as he answered and knew that his partner—and his best friend—was being completely honest with him. He tried to lighten up both his mood and the discussion. “It’s probably because you’re the senior partner and took charge of things immediately—like you did with a lot of things back then!”
“Hey, I resemble that remark!” Roy said, a frown marring his features.
But Johnny knew it was all an act, and the corner of his mouth quirked upwards. “Well, if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the fire station, as I always say.”
Roy smiled and shook his head at his antics, a grin finding its way onto his face once more, and Johnny found the dark cloud caused by Chet’s crack fading away. His friend always did know how to lift his spirits.
The Station Control Unit tones chose that moment to go off. “Squad 51, man down. 2386 Old Ridge Road, one mile north of Canyon Blvd. 2-3-8-6 Old Ridge Road, one mile north of Canyon Blvd. Time out: 08:45.”
Johnny moved to the radio as Roy loaded the equipment back into their proper compartments in the squad then got into the passenger side of the vehicle.
“Squad 51, KMG 365.”
Johnny handed the call slip to his partner as he settled himself behind the wheel, quickly slipping his helmet on and tightening the strap. A moment later the squad began to roll.
The call was out in the Topanga Canyon area, where the roads were narrow and winding. Johnny kept his grip tight on the steering wheel, trusting his partner to keep lookout for potential dangers.
“Here’s Canyon Blvd,” Roy informed him as he looked down at the map. “It looks like there are a couple of hairpin turns coming up. The turnoff will be on your left.”
“Got it,” Johnny replied.
As they were coming out of the first hairpin curve a large animal …was it a deer?... leaped over the guardrail from the canyon below and ran across the road, startling both men.
Johnny jerked the steering wheel hard, trying to avoid the animal and keep the squad on the road at the same time, but recent rains had caused the oily residue from the road to rise to the surface, and the squad began to skid, sending it toward the guardrail and the steep embankment below.
“Hang on!” he shouted as the vehicle left the pavement, crashed through the guardrail and began to roll over.
A moment later there was nothing but silence.
Sound…. Mere wisps of sound that made no sense to him, lost in the dark void of emptiness where nothing was real…where nothing existed. As quickly as the thought came, it was gone, leaving him alone and adrift once more.
They were back—the sounds—causing the barest of ripples in the unrelenting darkness. He watched the small waves roll past him, uninterested in even attempting to reach out and grasp them. In what could have been only a moment…or a lifetime…they were gone again, and the utter stillness returned to envelop him once more.
The blackness gave way to deep gray, the sounds around him forming barely discernible shadows all around him. He found himself looking for patterns, but the shadows moved too quickly for him to follow. He wanted to reach out for them, but he didn’t have the energy. He sighed and let himself drift away.
The sounds were louder now…not so far away…and he could almost make out the different patterns that moved across the light gray mist that surrounded him. He felt them drawing him along, and he followed rather reluctantly for a time, but he had to stop and rest for a moment, and before he knew it the shadows had left him behind once more.
Words. The sounds were words. Near now, and almost understandable. The shadows were strong against the dissipating mist. He tried again to reach out for them, but they were just out of his reach.
Someone was calling him. The mist was all but gone now—the shadows almost tangible. He reached out once again, but his arms felt so heavy…
“Come on, Johnny. You’ve been gone long enough. It’s time to come back to us now.”
He put all his strength, feeble though it was, into pushing the gray mist away…and was rewarded by the feeling of someone’s hand grasping his.
“That’s it, Johnny. Now open your eyes.”
It was nearly beyond him to obey…nearly. One moment it was dark, the next blurry images of color made their presence known. He blinked a few times, but was unable to get things to come into focus.
“Welcome back, Johnny.”
Both the blurred figures above him, as well as the voice that belonged to one of them, were vaguely familiar, but he was exhausted and he couldn’t be bothered searching his memory for a name. The lead weight of darkness was pressing down on him again and he let himself sink back into its comforting stillness.
But the darkness was not nearly as dark as it had been before.
The next time awareness filled him Johnny found himself blinking upward at a metal triangular trapeze hanging over his head, a white-tiled ceiling beyond it. The sound of a cardiac monitor beeped softly from somewhere behind him. He moved his head slightly to the right, his eyes scanning the small room.
Movement from the opposite side of the room caught his attention and he turned his head to find his captain sitting beside him, watching him closely. “Hey, pal,” Stanley said as he stood up and moved to the side of the bed. “It’s good to see you awake for a change.”
“Cap…” He could barely make out the word as the sound of his voice was somewhere between a croak and a whisper.
Hank fed him some ice chips that were in a cup on the table beside the bed. “There, I think that’ll help make you feel a bit better. How are you feeling, John?”
Johnny thought about that for a moment, but he couldn’t make heads or tails of the conflicting signals his body was sending him. Finally he settled on, “Tired…”
Cap smiled. “Well, that’s completely understandable. Why don’t you try and get a little more rest now before the doctors show up for their rounds.”
Rest. That sounded good. “’Kay…”
And he drifted away once more.
He felt his hands clench, his body go ridged, as a voice cried out from the darkness. “LOOK OUT!”
He snapped back into awareness as a nurse charged into his room and immediately started taking his vitals. “Take it easy, Mr. Gage. Everything is alright. Just try to calm down and take deep breaths.”
He willed his pounding heart to slow its frantic beating, closing his mouth and trying to breathe in and out through his nose, the pain in his ribs flaring.
“That’s it, you’re doing great…”
A moment later, Dixie McCall came in, moving to his side and lightly brushing a hand through his hair in comfort. “Hey, tiger, are you giving my nurses a hard time already?”
Something wasn’t right, but he couldn’t seem to put his finger on what it was. “Dix…”
“You just had a nightmare, Johnny. It’s all over now, and everything is going to be just fine.”
Fine? What was going to be just fine?
Doctor Brackett moved into his field of vision. “Johnny, do you remember what happened?”
Did he? Right now he felt oddly detached from everything—his past, his present… He felt a wisp of concern for his future, but even that was fleeting.
Something of what he was feeling must have shown on his face, because Brackett said, “That’s okay, Johnny. No need to worry about it now. Right now you just concentrate on getting better and we’ll worry about all the rest of it later.”
The rest of what?
“Shhh…” Dixie said softly, her hand returning to his hair. “It’s alright. Go back to sleep.”
He found himself unable to disobey.
Brown mud…brown brush…and a brown object that unexpectedly shot out in front of them.
Two more colors suddenly filled his world, swirling about him so swiftly that the sight of it was making him nauseous. Brown. Gray. Red. Brown mud, gray sky, red squad…
He jerked awake, his heart pounding so loudly in his ears that he couldn’t hear the voices of the doctors and nurses that suddenly swarmed around his bed.
His own panicked voice he could hear though—loud and clear.
“Roy! Where’s Roy!?!”
“Johnny! Johnny calm down. You’re not doing yourself any favors by getting all riled up…Dix!”
He could feel hands, pushing him down, holding him against the bed, but he continued to struggle weakly against them. “Please, I have to know…” His struggles grew weaker. “He has to be alright! Please tell me Roy’s alright…”
“Everything is going to be okay, Johnny. Right now you need to concentrate on getting better.”
He felt the icy coldness of a sedative flood through his arm and knew he didn’t have much time before it pulled him under again. “Dix… Roy… Please tell me about Roy…”
The effects of the drug he’d been given were outpacing him, but with the last of his strength he called out weakly once more.
The lighting in the ICU cubicle had been dimmed. How much time had gone by since he was last awake Johnny wasn’t sure, but it felt to him like it had been a very long time.
No… He closed his eyes again, wishing he could close his ears as well. He knew what his captain was going to tell him, and he didn’t want to hear it. The heaviness…the emptiness…he felt in his heart already told him, and he didn’t want to hear Cap’s words…words that would make it all real.
I’m sorry, Roy…
Stanley cleared his throat before trying to reach him once more. “Uh, John…”
“He’s dead, isn’t he?” Johnny whispered, his statement not really a question.
Hank sighed heavily. “I’m so sorry, John.”
No, Cap. Don’t apologize to me…I don’t deserve it.
“The squad went over the side of the road. There was a steep drop off, and the vehicle rolled. You were found pinned inside the cab, but…Roy had been thrown from it. He was gone by the time we… by the time the rescue crew arrived.”
My fault. This is all my fault…
“I want to see him.”
“John, you were pretty badly hurt—”
Johnny cut him off. “I don’t care about that. I want…I need to see him.”
The older man finally moved into his field of vision—he’d been staring up at the ceiling again. “I’m sorry, pal. You were hurt so badly in the accident, that you’ve been unconscious for the past two weeks. They’ve, uh, they’ve already had the funeral.”
Aw, man... “Joanne? The kids?”
“It was rough on them, pal. We still weren’t sure that you’d pull through. And since you weren’t able to be there to offer support to Roy’s family… Joanne’s family came in for the funeral and Joanne didn’t want to stay in the house alone… Too many memories, I guess. Her parents convinced her to go back with them. I think she’s planning to stay there for a while.”
It’s all my fault…I was driving.
“John, can you tell me what happened?”
I was what happened, Cap. Chet was right…
“A deer, it ran out in front of the squad. I lost control trying to avoid it. I lost control…” His eyes filled with tears, but he would not let them fall in front of his captain. “It’s all my fault, Cap.”
“Don’t!” His voice was hoarse, and he was disgusted with himself as even he could hear in it the emotions he could not quite control. “I don’t want to be comforted, Cap. I was behind the wheel…and I lost control.”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
One tear managed to escape, slipping down into his dark hair, unnoticed. “Yes it was.”
“Please, Cap,” he begged, finally allowing his eyes to meet his captain’s. “I need to be alone right now.”
Stanley sighed. “Okay, pal. But not for too long, okay?”
Johnny didn’t answer as he returned his gaze once more to the ceiling. He heard the older man’s footsteps retreating and the door open and close quietly.
The sense of loss he felt was overwhelming. If he could only see Roy alive again one more time…to let him know how sorry he was… The sigh he released came from the depths of his soul, and immediately turned into a sob as he could no longer hold the tears at bay.
He was still sobbing as he drifted off to sleep.
Sunlight streamed through the window of Johnny’s hospital room, the light rousing him from the exhausted sleep he’d fallen into only a few hours before. Wait a minute—there are no windows in ICU. He blinked his eyes open, squinting at the brightness.
“Well, it’s about time you woke up, Junior.”
That voice! Johnny’s eyes flew open as he whipped his head around so quickly that the room spun about him dizzyingly. He squeezed his eyes shut to keep the nausea at bay, opening them a second later, unwilling to risk losing sight of the person before him.
Roy must have seen the color drain from his face, because he quickly got to his feet and approached the bed. “Johnny, are you alright?”
His partner stood there, anxiously awaiting his reply. With the exception of a casted arm that rested in a dark blue sling, and some healing cuts and bruises on his face, Roy looked incredibly healthy. Healthy and... “You’re alive!”
Roy frowned at the seeming non-sequitur. “Am I not supposed to be?”
Man, if you only knew... “Roy, they told me you were dead!” Johnny practically shouted. Thankfully the other bed in the room was currently unoccupied.
Roy’s eyebrows shot upward. “Who?”
“Cap! Brackett, Dixie...well, the two of them didn’t, not in so many words, anyway, except for Cap. But still...they said you were dead!”
Roy offered him a smile. “Well, like they say, ‘Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.’”
Johnny looked around the room quickly, afraid he was hallucinating. For the first time he noticed his own leg, wrapped in a hard plaster cast and propped up on a couple of pillows. The rest of his body was full of aches and pains, but nothing to write home about. But everything looked normal—even Roy.
Except that Roy was supposed to be dead.
Johnny began to feel nauseous again. “I don’t understand...”
Roy shrugged and sat back down in the chair beside his bed. “What’s to understand? You’re here, I’m here. We’re both on the mend and will be back on duty again before we know it.”
His stomach rolled and he felt bile rise up to the back of his throat. An emesis basin was shoved into his hands with no time to spare and he found himself dry-heaving over the plastic bowl for what seemed like forever. He felt Roy’s free hand supporting his forehead and the fingers of his casted arm gently rubbing his back.
Well, if I’m hallucinating, it certainly feels real enough.
“There, all finished?”
Johnny nodded and leaned back onto his pillows, exhausted. Roy handed him a cup of water, the straw bent to an angle that allowed him to drink from it easily. He sipped from it gratefully.
Johnny stopped drinking and closed his eyes. “Yeah... Thanks.”
“No problem. Why don’t you sack out for a while and I’ll go down to the cafeteria for some lunch?”
Johnny hesitated to let Roy out of his sight, afraid that if he did he would never see him again, but in the end Johnny let him go. But before he did, there was one thing he knew he had to do.
Roy stopped at the door and turned back. “What is it, Johnny?”
Sleep was claiming him, but he willed his eyes to open and focus on the man who had become the best friend he’d ever had. “I’m sorry...”
“What for, Junior?”
Johnny could no longer halt his decent into slumber. “I’m sorry...”
The sound of the hospital staff delivering his lunch tray roused Johnny from sleep, and he raised the head of the bed. Roy was still sitting in the chair beside the bed, a book open in his lap and a cup of coffee on the bed stand.
The aide placed the tray on the tray table. “Enjoy your lunch, Mr. Gage.”
Johnny took no notice of her when she left. Roy is still here!
“Did you have a good nap?” his friend asked.
Johnny shrugged. “I guess...”
Roy moved the tray table closer to him and helped him remove the coverings over the various dishes. “Well, hospital food isn’t the greatest, but it’s even worse when it’s cold, so go ahead and eat it while it’s still relatively warm.”
Johnny took the proffered utensil from his partner, his thoughts still distracted by the man’s very presence. He forced the food down only because Roy’d asked him to, and he didn’t want to do anything that might make his friend leave.
Roy watched him eat, and Johnny watched Roy watching him eat, and the meal passed by silently.
Once Johnny was finished, Roy moved the table out of the way and sat back down in his chair. “Now, what’s this all about, me being dead?”
Hearing Roy say it caused his stomach to churn, but the last thing he wanted to do was lose his lunch so soon after eating it, so he swallowed hard in an effort to keep it where it belonged. “Well, things are a bit hazy at first...but I was in ICU, and I remember Doctor Brackett being there, and Dixie—Cap was there a couple of times, too. At first everything was disjointed, you know? But the more I woke up the more I realized that something was wrong. I, uh, I had a couple of nightmares. I was starting to remember what had happened...the accident.” He could feel his face growing warm. “At one point I woke up calling for you, and I guess I panicked a little, ‘cause Brackett sedated me... But the next time I woke up, I knew...”
Johnny raised his gaze up to meet Roy’s. “I knew.”
“Johnny...” Roy’s voice was a quiet whisper.
“Cap told me the squad went off the edge of the road and rolled. You were thrown from the cab...”
Roy tried again to stop him, but the words would not be denied. “You were dead at the scene, Roy. Cap told me I was in a coma for two weeks and had missed your funeral! Joanne had taken the kids and gone to stay with her folks. You were gone, Roy...the whole family was gone!”
“Johnny, stop it!” Roy’s voice was no longer quiet, and he was on his feet and at Johnny’s bedside in an instant. “It was all a nightmare! It wasn’t real. I’m right here—flesh and blood. Alive! And I have every intention of staying that way for a very long time!”
Johnny’s breaths were coming in ragged gasps. “But it was so real...”
“But it wasn’t real. It was just a dream. Yes, there are similarities—I was thrown from the squad, but I didn’t die. I regained consciousness while Bellingham was working on me. Thompson and most of the rest of the guys from the station were helping to get you out of the squad. Besides a broken leg, you suffered a pretty serious concussion, and you’ve been pretty out of it for the past few days, but one thing you most certainly did not miss was my funeral. The accident only happened a week ago.”
Johnny stared intently at Roy, hoping beyond hope that his friend’s death had indeed only been a dream. He shuddered involuntarily at the idea that this man who had become such an important part of his life had been lost to him forever. He leaned back against his pillows and closed his eyes with a sigh of relief. A dream... It had all been just a dream.
“Yeah... Man, Roy, when it finally hit me that you were...well, that’s something I never want to experience again, let me tell you.”
“Don’t worry, Junior. If I have anything to say about it, you won’t. Trust me.”
They passed the next few minutes quietly before Roy’s soft voice broke it again. “So what was with that apology earlier, Johnny?”
Johnny’s shoulders sagged. “I remember thinking, when Cap was telling me what had happened, that if I...” He swallowed hard past the sudden lump in his throat. “If I could only have the chance to see you one more time, I’d tell you how sorry I was, because it had been my fault that you’d... That, if I hadn’t been the one driving, you wouldn’t...” He closed his eyes and his words stumbled to a halt.
Silence reigned once more, and when Johnny could no longer stand it, he opened his eyes and found Roy had taken as seat again in the chair beside him. “It wasn’t your fault, John—the accident. I’ve thought about it over the past few days, while waiting for you to come around. I’ve thought about it a lot, and I’m pretty sure I would have reacted the same way you did.”
Roy had called him John, something he rarely did, and Johnny knew he was serious and not simply trying to placate him. But Johnny would have none of it. “But you would have been able to keep the squad under control, Roy. I know you would have!”
Roy shook his head. “Johnny, I appreciate the kind of faith you have in me, but I’m not Superman...I’m just a man. The pavement was slick and that road was pretty narrow. You can’t know for certain that I’d have done any better than you if I had been the one driving the squad. Accidents happen, and sometimes it’s nobody’s fault. This was one of those times—guaranteed. Just let it go, okay?”
There was nothing more to say, really, at least where Roy was concerned. So Johnny merely answered, “Thanks, Roy...”
Roy remained at the hospital until after Johnny had eaten his supper, when Joanne dropped by to pick him up. He enjoyed her visit, but she couldn’t stay long, as she had to get home and get the kids ready for bed.
Johnny was sad to see them go. “Take it easy. I’ll come back and visit again tomorrow,” Roy told him as they prepared to leave and Joanne gave them a moment alone and went to wait for her husband by the elevator.
Johnny shook his head. “You’re still recovering too, Roy, and I’m sure you’ve been here a lot during the past week, even if I don’t remember any of it. Stay home and get some rest. If you come by at all make sure it’s not until the afternoon sometime, alright? I’ll be okay here on my own for a while.”
Roy smiled at him knowingly, but decided to give in. “Okay. I’ll see you sometime tomorrow afternoon then. Get some rest.”
Johnny returned the smile. “You too, Pally.”
He woke up slowly, lingering in the peace of knowing that his partner was alive and his belief in the opposite had all been just a nightmare. And what a nightmare! He didn’t think he’d ever had a dream worse than that one—and he’d had some doozies over the years. He stretched slowly, cautious of his broken leg still hanging in balanced suspension above the bed as well as the myriad of aches and pains he was still feeling even though they were probably giving him something for it
through his IV.
He opened his eyes to see the metal triangular trapeze once more hanging over his head, then looked down at his arm, which bore an IV once more. He glanced wildly around the room—an ICU cubicle, not a regular room—and became aware of the steady beeping of the cardiac monitor behind him.
That made no sense—he hadn’t been in traction yesterday. He hadn’t even been in ICU yesterday! Had something happened to him during the night that caused him to be moved down here?
His fingers found the call button lying by his side and he pressed it—hard. A few moments later a nurse came in. “What can I do for you, Mr. Gage?”
“When was I moved here? Last night?”
The nurse looked at him, a confused expression on her face. “No, Mr. Gage. You had a quiet night last night. I checked on you several times, and everything was fine.”
Now it was Johnny’s turn to look confused. “But I was in a regular room yesterday,” he raised his left arm a few inches off the bed, “and I didn’t have an IV in, either. I also wasn’t in traction. What’s going on?”
The nurse didn’t answer him, but began taking his vitals instead. Johnny waited with growing impatience until she was finished taking his blood pressure before he demanded, “Well?!”
“Just give me a moment, Mr. Gage. I’ll have Doctor Brackett paged as soon as I’m finished here. I’m sure he’ll be able to answer all your questions.” Without another word, she left the room.
Patience had never been one of his strongest personality traits—except when it came to treating victims out in the field—so it was with great apprehension that Johnny waited for his boss, doctor and friend to arrive from the ER downstairs.
“Hey, Johnny,” Brackett said as he entered the room and picked up his medical chart, giving it a quick scan. “Nurse Dickson said that you’re a little concerned about some things this morning. What seems to be the trouble?”
Now maybe I’ll get some answers. “Doc, what’s the deal? I was in a regular room upstairs yesterday and today I’m in ICU. I also didn’t have one of these,” he held up his arm again briefly, “so I figure something bad must have happened during the night. Did I fall out of bed or something? Is that why my leg is in traction today?”
Johnny had been watching the older man’s expression becoming more and more concerned as he’d spoken, and his heart sank to somewhere in the vicinity of his gut when the doctor began to speak. “Johnny, I think you’re a little confused. You weren’t in a regular room yesterday—you were admitted into ICU straight from the OR two weeks ago, and have been here ever since. So have the IV in your arm and the traction on your leg. You suffered a serious concussion and hairline skull fracture in the accident, which resulted in your being comatose until waking up two days ago, so some confusion is normal and to be expected at this point. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
Brackett’s words were meant to be calming, Johnny knew, but found their effect to be exactly the opposite. His heart began pounding in his chest. “No, Doc. I’m not confused! I was in a regular room yesterday. Just ask Roy—he spent the whole day visiting. Joanne dropped him off in the morning and picked him up after I’d eaten supper. Doc, what’s going on here?”
The older man closed his eyes, and it appeared to Johnny that he was summoning the strength he needed from the depths of his soul before he opened them again and regarded him sadly. “Johnny, you couldn’t have visited with Roy yesterday... Captain Stanley was here yesterday. He told you...he told you that Roy was gone. Don’t you remember?”
“No...” Aw man, not again. This is a nightmare. Roy said this was all just a nightmare. I’m only dreaming. Please, God, let me wake up now...
Doctor Brackett mistakenly took his softly spoken denial to mean that Johnny didn’t remember what Cap had told him. The older man drew nearer to him and rested a hand on his shoulder. Johnny didn’t notice the man’s other hand reach down to surreptitiously press the call button. “I’m sorry... Maybe with the head injury you’d forgotten, and I’m sorry if it seems that I’ve just sprung the news on you. But Roy was killed in the accident in which you were also seriously injured—two weeks ago.”
He didn’t want to believe it. “No, Doc,” his voice quivered from the strength of the conflicting emotions that buffeted him. “You’re wrong... Roy was here! He had a broken arm and looked kinda tired, but other than that, he was fine. He’s alive, Doc. He told me so!”
A nurse entered the room, syringe in hand. Johnny’s eyes widened when he realized Brackett intended to sedate him again. “No, Doc. Don’t put me under again. You have to believe me—Roy’s alive!”
Brackett took the syringe from the nurse and moved to inject it into his IV port. “Johnny, just calm down. I know all this is very upsetting for you and hard to deal with right now, but after a little more rest I’m sure things will be a bit clearer to you.”
“Doc, please...” Johnny begged, wanting desperately to be believed...needing desperately for what he was saying to be the truth.
“Just relax. Everything’s going to be alright. Give the medicine a chance to work.” The doctor’s voice seemed to come from far away as the world around him reduced itself to a mere sliver of light.
And as the darkness finally overtook him he called out for the only thing that would indeed make everything right in Johnny’s world once more. “Roy...”
When he became aware of his surroundings once more he found Dixie keeping vigil at his bedside. It took a moment for his groggy mind to register that she was dressed in a white blouse and jeans, and was obviously off duty. She smiled at him when she noticed he was looking at her. “Hey, handsome, it’s good to see you awake.”
Yup, Brackett definitely brought in the big guns... I might as well fire the first salvo.
“I’m not crazy, Dix.”
“I know you’re not, Johnny. Kel does too. But you’ve had a pretty nasty head injury, and that’s bound to make even the most strong of us confused for a while.”
He sighed. She doesn’t believe me either. “Alright... You say things happened one way, and Roy has said things happened another way. Convince me, Dixie, that your version of things is the one I should believe.”
She regarded him sadly. “Johnny, are you sure you’re up to this? I mean, it isn’t going to be easy for you to hear.”
“I have to know, Dix...one way or the other.”
The older woman sighed. “Alright... When you and Roy failed to arrive at the scene, Squad 45 was called out for your run and the police were called in to search for you. It didn’t take long to locate the scene of the accident, and Squad 36 and Engine 51 got the call at 9:20 a.m. Roy...” Dixie’s voice broke and her eyes filled with tears. “Roy was pronounced dead at the scene, and you were found trapped in the squad. It took them a little while to get you out. You were diagnosed with a concussion and possible skull fracture and a compound fracture to your right leg with substantial blood loss. After you arrived at the hospital, the test results showed that you did indeed have a hairline skull fracture. You were stabilized then taken up to surgery for the debridement and setting of your leg. You hadn’t regained consciousness yet, so you were brought to ICU straight from recovery. We tried to contact your aunt, but were unable to reach her at the number you provided to Fire Department headquarters. Since we didn’t know who else to contact, we allowed Captain Stanley to visit you in ICU. It was...it was all very hard on your crew. And on Joanne it was even worse. She had her sister and her parents to help her but... you weren’t able to be there for her and the kids...and she missed your presence desperately, I think. She tried to visit you in ICU once but...it was just too much for her.”
As Johnny listened to his friend describe what happened in gruesome detail he felt the lump in his throat growing larger and larger, making it difficult for him to even breathe, let alone think.
“The funeral...” Dixie’s voice broke once again, and this time she was unable to hold back her tears, which rolled unnoticed slowly down her face. “The funeral was something I’ll never forget. Paramedics and fire department personnel came from around the country. You and Roy were instrumental in getting the paramedic program off the ground in the state of California, and a lot of people recognize that fact. The procession was...huge. That’s the only word I can think of to describe it. But...as big as it was, it still wasn’t complete, and lot of people knew it, Johnny. You weren’t there...”
Johnny could feel his own eyes filling with tears, and he fought to keep them from falling. Dixie had long since stopped trying.
“You may not have been able to be there, but you were not forgotten—by anyone. They...” her voice caught in a sob. “They left a place for you...an empty space beside the family, both at the church and at the cemetery afterward.” The pain this was costing Dixie was evident to Johnny, but she forged ahead, giving him every last promised detail. “Captain Stanley gave the eulogy. He said...” Another sob escaped. “He said that he felt like a poor substitute for the person that should have been there to speak for Roy, but couldn’t... You...
“Chet drove the squad. He insisted that you wouldn’t have wanted it any other way...and I think he was right.”
“Stop...” The word came out in a harsh sob. Too much. It was all too much. “Please...”
It was true. Oh, God...Roy is really gone...
Once that first sob escaped, the rest of them refused to remain confined. Dixie was out of the chair and beside him on the bed less than a heartbeat later and she pulled him into a tight embrace as they released their grief together. He clung to her like a drowning man clung to a life preserver, and perhaps at that moment that was what she truly was for him.
He had no concept of how much time had passed before his tears slowed and eventually stopped. His body rested limply against Dixie’s and he found himself completely devoid of even a shred of strength, unable to even sit up under his own steam.
Dixie’s voice was a mere whisper, but Johnny wasn’t ready to deal with anything more at the moment, and so he did not respond. She subtly shifted her body beneath his as she reached up and gently lowered him back down to the mattress. He blinked up at her silently.
“Johnny, do you need something to help you sleep?”
He didn’t want to sleep. He just wanted to be left alone. He shook his head.
“Okay, tiger,” she got to her feet and pulled up the covers for him, tucking him in maternally. “You get some rest and I’ll check back in on you later.”
That finally prompted Johnny to speak, although his voice was raw and raspy. “You don’t have to do that, Dix...I know you’re off duty now.”
She leaned over him, gently brushing his hair back and giving him a soft kiss on his forehead. “I know I don’t have to, but I want to, okay? I’ll see you in a little while.”
She stopped on her way to the door and turned back to face him.
She gave a slight nod, a sad smile on her face, then left him alone to grieve.
When Dixie returned later on that afternoon she wasn’t alone. Doctor Brackett was with her. He hadn’t slept at all, but stared up at the ceiling, oblivious to the comings and goings of the nurses that came in to massage his limbs, check his vitals or to shift his body around so that he wouldn’t develop bed sores. He spoke to them only when necessary. His food remained untouched—granted, it was only a clear liquid diet and not very appetizing to begin with, but he had no desire to eat.
Apparently his odd behavior had been noticed.
“Johnny,” Doctor Brackett greeted him as he glanced through his chart. “How are you feeling?”
“I’m trying not to, Doc...”
Johnny caught the quick glance the doctor shared with Dixie. This time it was Dixie that spoke up, reaching out to take his hand in hers. “Don’t hold it in, Johnny. This has been hard on so many people, including Kel and I, but at least we’ve had a couple of weeks to deal with it. Let yourself grieve...and let your friends be there for you to help you get through it.”
Silence blanketed the room as Brackett continued with his examination. “Everything is looking good. I’ll probably move you upstairs to a regular room tomorrow. We’ll take some X-rays of your leg in a few days and see if we can get you out of traction. If we can, we’ll get you up on crutches by the end of the week. But you do need to start eating, even if you’re not feeling hungry. You’ve been losing weight, even with hyperalimentation. As soon as we see you can tolerate the liquid diet we’ll update your diet card to soft foods. When that sits well we’ll move you up to a regular diet and get rid of the TPN.”
“Thanks, Doc,” Johnny offered, knowing a reply was expected.
Another knowing glance was shared between doctor and nurse, and Brackett sighed. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Johnny could no longer ignore the elephant in the room. “Doc... I’m sorry about this morning. I...I guess I just got a little confused.”
The doctor smiled understandingly. “It’s perfectly understandable, Johnny. Like I told you, you’re recovering from a severe head injury—some confusion is to be expected. But Dixie’s right—you’ve got to trust us and let your friends help you deal with everything that’s happened. There’s no shame in needing help sometimes, you know.”
“Yeah...” Trust us. ‘Trust me’—that’s what Roy had told him, too. These were his friends, and he wanted to trust them—just as much as he wanted to trust Roy—but they couldn’t both be right. Either Roy was dead or he wasn’t.
But which of them was telling him the truth?
“Good,” Brackett replied. “I’ll have a tray sent up in a little while, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Dixie remained with him as he ate his meal, making small talk and encouraging him to polish off all the food on his tray. He did so just to please her, because while the last thing he had the desire for right now was food, he also wanted to get rid of the tube feeding as soon as possible.
She brought the tray back out to the nurses’ station and then returned to his bedside. “How is the food sitting?”
He tried to lighten the mood a little. “So far, so good. You back on shift tomorrow?”
“Yes, but I’ll be sure to drop in and visit with my favorite paramedic as often as I can.”
Paramedic. He was now a paramedic without a partner. Could he return to Station 51 without Roy at his side? Would he transfer to a different station and work with a new partner? Did he want to work with another partner? Did he even want to return to the job Roy had taught him to love even more than being a Rescue man? Would he stay with the Department and go back to hauling hose...or maybe try for Engineer?
Or would he leave the department altogether?
He forced himself to offer her a smile, but it was mere shadow of his usual mega-watt grin. “That’ll be great, Dix. It’ll give me something to look forward to.”
She seemed to buy it and leaned down to give him a kiss on his cheek. “Good. Then I’ll see you tomorrow. Get some rest, okay?”
He watched her leave, then sighed as he allowed the whirlwind that was his thoughts to sweep him away.
“Breakfast, Mr. Gage.”
The sudden sound of the woman’s voice startled him, and Johnny jerked awake, rising up on his elbows without conscious thought. It took him a moment to get his bearings and he began to raise the bed so that he would be in a better position to eat. It was only when he took his hand off the remote control when he realized it.
He’d lost the IV again.
His head snapped up as he glanced around the room—the same semi-private room with sunlight streaming through the window and the second bed empty as he had awaken in before.
Oh, man...not again!
The nurse was gone before he could ask her what day it was. Roy had said only that a week had passed since the accident. But Brackett had said two. He looked down at the meal tray and found himself hesitant to lift off the lid, knowing that he wasn’t going to find a plate with a ‘soft diet’ meal sitting on it.
He took a deep breath and removed the lid. Bacon, waffle and scrambled eggs. Hot coffee in the covered mug, a 6-ounce glass of orange juice and a container of whole milk rounded out the tray.
He sighed deeply. I guess I’m not in Kansas anymore.
He forced himself to eat the meal to appease his growling stomach, although he practically had to choke the food down. While he ate a single thought ran rampant through his mind. What the hell is going on here?
No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t come up with a satisfactory answer.
The door suddenly opened and Captain Stanley and the rest of 51’s A-Shift crew walked in. “Hey, John,” Hank greeted him warmly, “it’s good to see you awake, pal!”
Grateful, and somewhat relieved now that the guys were here, Johnny offered them a smile in return. “Mornin’, guys. I guess it’s good to be awake, Cap.”
But am I?
“We just finished working a 48, so when we went off duty we went out for some breakfast to kill some time before coming here to visit you,” Stanley explained.
“We brought you this,” Mike added, putting a brown paper bag down on the now-empty tray table. Apparently Johnny had been so wrapped up in his thoughts that he’d never noticed when the aide came back in to pick up his empty breakfast tray. Stoker reached in and pulled a tall, lidded cup from the bag. “A freshly made vanilla milkshake, just for you.”
“Yeah, Johnny,” Marco added, “We figured you must be getting sick of hospital food by now, so we snuck that in as a little treat.”
Johnny looked at each of his fellow crewmates in turn. They all seemed to be very upbeat and relaxed—nothing like the way Cap and Brackett and Dixie had been...before. That is, all except Chet, who hovered near the doorway looking for all the world like he was trying to blend into the wallpaper.
“Hey, Marco, should I be worried that The Phantom spiked my shake with tabasco sauce or something equally disgusting?”
Marco was about to reply when Chet finally spoke up from his position holding up the wall. “I wouldn’t do that to you, John. Not after...” The lineman drifted off into an uncomfortable silence.
What’s up with him? “Chet?”
Kelly sighed heavily and finally approached his favorite pigeon. “This is all my fault, Johnny. I should never have said what I did about your driving the squad the other day. I didn’t mean for anything bad to happen! I was just kiddin’ around with you, honest!”
Chet’s teasing words flashed through Johnny’s mind. If you drove the squad, with your record of on-the-job injuries, you’d be involved in an accident every other shift!
Truer words were never spoken, Chet. I couldn’t even get through one...
Johnny’s shoulders sagged, and any relief he’d gained from his crewmates’ unexpected appearance in this strange situation he’d found himself in immediately vanished. But he didn’t want Chet to shoulder any guilt that wasn’t his to bear. It’s my fault, Chet. Only mine. “Chet, you didn’t jinx me, if that’s what you’re worried about. You don’t have anything to feel guilty about. Forget it, alright?”
Chet’s expression lightened immediately. “Really? Thanks, Gage.”
Johnny was glad to have put his friend’s mind at ease...if his friend was even real.
“You’d better drink that shake up, John, before melts completely,” his captain advised.
Johnny obliged the man, but the cold vanilla taste never even registered as the guys filled him in on the goings-on at the station, starting with their temporary paramedics.
“Man, I never thought I’d miss you and Roy until your replacements showed up at the station!” Chet complained enthusiastically.
Me and Roy—they believe that Roy is alive, too! Johnny felt a strong wave of relief wash through him at the thought. But his relief was only momentary, because his next thought wiped it away immediately. Of course, they would think he’s still alive if all this is just a dream.
He refocused on what Chet was saying. “Both of these guys just graduated in the most recent paramedic class, but that’s not the worst part. One of these guys, Brice, he’s some kinda walking rulebook or somethin’! A stickler for regulations, doesn’t use anybody’s first name—a real pain in the keester. The Phantom might just have to pay him a visit real soon...”
“Uh, if I were you, Chet,” Stanley put in mildly, “I’d make sure The Phantom takes off on a long vacation right about now...that is, unless he wants to spend the next six weeks pulling latrine duty.”
Chet had the grace to look sheepish. “Yes, sir. I’ll be sure to pass that advice along to The Phantom the next time I see him.”
“You do that, Chet.”
Brice. The name sounded familiar to Johnny, and then he remembered where he’d heard it. The week before the accident both he and Roy had met Craig Brice at a cardiology meeting that had been held for county and municipal paramedics at Harbor General. They’d both counted themselves lucky not to have to worry about being paired up with the guy.
His crewmates spent over an hour visiting with him, but after pulling a 48-hour shift they were all quite ready to head home to a nice warm bed. “Well, we’d best be heading on out now,” Captain Stanley said as the guys began getting ready to leave. ”We’ll be back again to visit soon.”
“Any idea when you’ll be getting sprung from this place?” Mike asked.
“Not really.” His station mates exchanged concerned glances at this remark, and Johnny realized he’d better add to his answer or they just might start asking him questions he wasn’t prepared to answer right now. “I tell you though, it can’t come soon enough for me as far as I’m concerned.”
Their smiles reappeared with that—they knew from past experience how much Johnny hated being cooped up in the hospital.
“Well, we’ll check back in with you, or with Roy, for an update later. You take care of yourself, pal,” Hank patted him on the shoulder. The rest of the crew wished him well before leaving.
They’d check in with Roy...
Everything feels so normal here, but in that other— Johnny felt foolish for even thinking the thought— but in that other place, in that other life, everything just felt so wrong... Of course it feels wrong, you knucklehead—Roy is dead there!
Is this all just wishful thinking on my part? That everything here is just chugging away as it normally would? Sure, it would be easier to believe that this life is real and that other life was the nightmare... But that life feels incredibly real as well.
Johnny swallowed hard. So which one was real and which one was the nightmare?
He was no closer to finding the answer than he had been before.
The physical therapist arrived after lunch.
“Hi, Mr. Gage. I’m Claudette, and I’m here to get you up on your crutches.”
Oh good, crutches. Crutches were a prelude to being released. He’d been down this road before, after he’d broken his leg—the same leg, in fact—at a gas leak at an apartment building just over a year ago. He’d been checking the top floor of the building, making sure everyone had gotten out safely, but had run out of time as he’d tried to escape the impending explosion, the violent force of the blast throwing him uncontrolled down a steep flight of stairs.
“Thanks, Claudette,” Johnny replied, “but I’ve been on crutches before, so this’ll be no big deal.”
She smiled back at him knowingly. “Ah, but this time you’re dealing with crutches on top of a head injury, so mind if I keep an eye on you while you go for a little test drive on them?”
Johnny shrugged his shoulders and moved to sit up. The lightheadedness hit him as he carefully swung his legs over the side of the bed, and he sat still for several moments, his eyes squeezed tightly shut, as he waited for it to pass.
He opened his eyes once more and met her gaze. “Yeah, but I knew it was coming.” He grinned sheepishly at her. “This isn’t my first head injury, either.”
She handed him the crutches. “Okay, then. Fire when ready, Gridley.”
He slipped the crutches under his armpits and, giving himself a steady push upward, slowly made it to his feet. Or rather foot—the right one hovered several inches off the floor. Claudette moved in to stand close by in case he lost his balance.
“You really have done this before!” She said with a laugh. She was cute, he had to admit, but given his uncertainty about things at the moment Johnny returned his focus to the task at hand. “How about we take this test drive out into the hall for a walk?”
They walked up and down the corridor a few times until the therapist was sure he could manage turns and corners, then returned to his room.
“Well, Mr. Gage, it looks like you passed your road test with flying colors. I’ll inform Doctor Early of your success. Who knows? Maybe you’ll end up being discharged soon.”
Test drive... I sure flunked the test while I was driving for real, didn’t I, Roy?
But then the rest of Claudette’s statement registered with him. What would happen once he was actually released? If all this was real, he’d probably have to wait around four to six weeks before the cast came off, and then have some physiotherapy before he could return to work.
To return to work with Roy. Roy’s arm should be healed up by then, too.
But if all this was not real?
“Mr. Gage, are you alright?”
He forced his attention back to the woman before him. “Yeah, I’m fine. Thanks for all your help.”
“No problem,” Claudette responded cheerfully. “I hope you have a speedy recovery.”
He waved a hand at her distractedly as she left.
“Hey, Johnny,” Doctor Joe Early said cheerfully as he walked into the room. “I hear you were up for the LA Marathon on your crutches today. Nurse Reese said she had to practically jog down the halls to keep up with you.”
“Yeah, Doc, pretty soon I’ll be giving Bruce Jenner a run for his money,” he answered as the kindly doctor began to scan through his chart.
Early put the chart down and looked at him. “She also said you appeared preoccupied.”
Johnny sighed. Preoccupied—that’s one way of putting it. He shrugged his shoulders. “Nah, Doc, I was just thinking about how soon I can get out of here.”
The doctor smiled. “Now why am I not surprised? Well, everything looks good, so how’s tomorrow sound to you?”
This time it was Johnny’s turn to smile, although it felt a bit forced. “Sounds good to me, Doc.”
“Will you be staying with Roy for a few days after your release?”
Johnny felt himself stiffen at the doctor’s question. “No. Roy’s recovering from his own injuries—I’m sure the last thing Joanne needs is to have to take care of me on top of her injured husband and two young kids.”
“Oh...” The older man frowned. “I guess I’d just assumed you’d be going home with Roy after your release.”
“Nope, not this time,” Johnny replied. Please don’t change your mind on me now...
“Well, in that case you’ll have to be sure to take it easy. You won’t be able to drive until the cast comes off, so you’ll have to rely on your friends to get around for a while.”
Johnny was not looking forward to that—he hated the idea of having to burden others with his problems.
“But I’m sure that the next few weeks will go by quickly, and you’ll be out of that cast and back on the job before you know it.”
Johnny nodded slowly. “Yeah, Doc...”
Early looked at him, suddenly appearing concerned. “Johnny, are you sure you’re okay? You haven’t seemed quite like yourself lately.”
I wish I felt like myself, Doc. Better yet, I wish that everything else was like it normally did, too. He knew he’d better convince Doctor Early that he was fine or he’d never let him out of here. “I’m okay. Really. I guess being cooped up in here is just getting to me, that’s all. I’m sure I’ll be back to my cheery ol’ self again as soon as I’m released.”
“Well, if you’re sure...” Early didn’t seem too convinced, but apparently was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. “If there’s anything you need, don’t hesitate to ask, okay?”
Johnny smiled reassuringly at the man. “You bet. Thanks again, Doc.”
Early patted his good leg and smiled. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
After Doctor Early left Johnny closed his eyes and sighed. Now if I can just get through the next 18 hours or so, I’ll be free from prying eyes and finally have some time alone to think. He needed to remain on his guard now, and not do anything that could blow it. No sooner had the thought cross his mind when into his room walked the one thing that could cause him to do so.
Okay, Gage—time to put your game face on. “Hi, Roy. What’s up?”
“Well,” he held up the brown bag in his hand, “I either brought you a very late lunch or a very early dinner, depending on your mood.”
He really didn’t feel like eating, but if he told his partner that it would lead to subjects he didn’t want to go anywhere near right now. “Whatever it is, it’s fine with me. What’d you bring me?”
Roy cleared a place on the tray table and unpacked the food from the bag. “Well, since it’s almost time for supper to be brought up, we’ll just call it an appetizer and be done with it. Here’s some freshly made pizza from that little joint over on Midland. Enjoy!”
Johnny forced himself to pick up a slice and begin eating. “Mmmm, that’s good.”
“I know you like their pizza, so I had Jo stop there on the way over.” Roy sat down in the chair beside him. “I would have been here sooner, but Chris chose today to tell us that he has a report due in two days that he’d conveniently forgotten about, so we had to take a trip to the library. Jo dropped me off to spend some time with you while she takes the kids out to Burger Barn for dinner. She’ll be picking me up a little earlier than usual, though, because we have to go back home and help Chris deal with his schoolwork.”
A wave of relief washed over him over the fact that Roy couldn’t stay very long; and then he immediately felt guilty. He’s my best friend—what if he really is dead? Shouldn’t I want to spend as much time with him as possible, even if he isn’t real? “So what’s the report about?”
“History...” Johnny listened as Roy described his son’s project, then moved onto topics such as how much homework Jennifer was being given even though she was only in kindergarten, content to simply listen and avoid getting himself into hot water by saying the wrong thing. Before he knew it, the pizza was gone and Johnny felt himself beginning to get drowsy. Oddly enough, he felt almost normal again.
“Johnny,” Roy said, “if you want to sack out for a while, go right ahead.”
He forced his eyes back open. “You didn’t come all the way over here to watch me sleep, Roy.”
“I don’t mind the peace and quiet, believe me,” Roy spied a discarded newspaper on the room’s air conditioning unit. “Besides, I haven’t had the chance to read today’s paper yet. So, while you get a little rest I’ll just read the paper. See, it’s good all the way around.”
Johnny wondered if Roy was telling him the truth or not—his partner usually read the paper in the morning after breakfast on his days off, just like most people. In the end it really didn’t matter—his eyes were refusing to stay open anyway. “Well, okay,” he answered with a yawn. “Just for a little while, though... Wake me up in 20 minutes or so, alright?”
His eyes slid closed as Roy replied, “No problem...”
The sound of a loud thump startled him awake. Roy was still sitting beside him, the paper once again folded neatly on the air conditioning unit. “Hey, was I asleep long?”
Roy glanced at his watch. “About an hour or so. Sounds like the kitchen aides just brought supper up.”
No sooner had Roy spoken when an aide brought his meal tray in and set it on the tray table, giving both men a nod in acknowledgement before disappearing out the door again. “So much for friendly service,” Johnny observed with a shrug of his right shoulder.
Roy stood up and stepped over to the bed. “So what gourmet delight have you been served with this evening?”
Johnny removed the entrée cover and raised an eyebrow. “It looks to be a veritable feast—overcooked hamburger and soggy fries...along with chicken noodle soup and a slice of pound cake. Well, at least the pound cake looks edible.”
Johnny wasn’t really in the mood for either small talk or the food on his tray. He’d felt vaguely uneasy since waking up from his nap, and he didn’t understand why. If he could keep Roy talking maybe he could avoid thinking about whatever it was that was bothering him. “So have you heard from the guys at the station?” He didn’t bother to mention that they’d been here earlier in the day.
Roy smiled. “I spoke to Cap last night, and he said...”
He said that he felt like a poor substitute for the person that should have been there to speak for Roy, but couldn’t...
No! He didn’t want to think about that right now. He just wanted to feel normal again. Johnny pushed Dixie’s voice from his mind and tried to refocus on what Roy was saying.
“...Brice calmly informed the victim that, according to County regulation...”
Paramedics and fire department personnel came from around the country. You and Roy were instrumental in getting the paramedic program off the ground in the state of California, and a lot of people recognize that fact...
Roy, it was really all Roy. He kept pushing and fighting for the program. Me, I just ran my mouth off at Brackett at every opportunity...
“...cars were backed up for more than a mile...”
The procession was...huge....
You deserved it, Roy. All the credit goes to you. I’m just sorry it ended way too soon...
“...Then Mike started doing cartwheels across the empty bay floor...”
They left a place for you...an empty space beside the family, both at the church and at the cemetery afterward....
They shouldn’t have done that. I didn’t deserve that kind of respect. Didn’t they understand that it was all my fault?
“...when Chet showed up wearing a pink tutu and ballet slippers, then they were ready to blow up the station...”
Chet drove the squad...
I’m so sorry, Roy...
Johnny’s head snapped up at the sudden sound of a loud voice in his ear, and the tear-blurred vision of someone standing mere inches from him caused him to shrink back in shock. “Roy?” he gasped as he realized who it was.
“Johnny, what’s wrong?! What—” Roy stopped speaking abruptly, looking even more intently at him, and Johnny began blinking rapidly in order to clear his vision. When Roy spoke again, the anxiousness was gone from his voice, which was now laced with sadness. “It happened again, didn’t it?”
Johnny immediately knew what his friend was asking, but found he couldn’t answer past the lump in his throat, so he merely nodded.
Roy sat beside him on the edge of the bed. “Tell me what happened.”
Johnny swallowed hard and replied, “Dixie...she told me about your funeral.”
Roy closed his eyes and sighed heavily. “Johnny, it was only a dream...”
This time it was Johnny’s turn to sigh. “That’s what they told me, too, Roy...”
Roy surged to his feet with enough force to shake the bed. “Johnny, look at me!”
Johnny reluctantly looked up at his friend.
Roy extended his uncasted arm to him. “Take my hand.”
He hesitated, so Roy repeated it. “Take my hand, Johnny!”
Johnny reached out and placed his hand in Roy’s, who promptly closed it around John’s and squeezed—hard. “Feel my hand. It’s warm. Alive. Real!”
“Dixie held me too, Roy!” The words burst forth from the depths of his soul. “I was confused! I was asking where you were and why was I back in ICU again. She told me this—” he squeezed Roy’s hand in turn, “was only a dream. I told her to convince me and she told me about your funeral—in painstaking detail! Then she held me when it all got to be too much...for both of us! She felt just as real to me as you do!”
Roy let go of his hand abruptly and began to pace the length of the room. “Of course it would seem real to you, Johnny! How many funerals have you attended for fellow firemen in your career—two? Five? More? Your subconscious mind could supply all the emotional and factual details you’d need to convince you it was real.”
“She told me Cap gave the eulogy—and he felt like a poor substitute, because I wasn’t there to do it!” Johnny continued trying to convince his friend...of what? That Roy wasn’t really standing in this room with him? Maybe he had it all backwards—maybe he was trying to get Roy to convince him that he, in fact, was. “She told me Chet drove the squad in the procession! She told me...” his voice broke and when he continued his words were no longer a near-shout but a mere whisper. “...she told me that Joanne left an empty space for me...at the church...at the cemetery...”
Roy returned to his bedside, casting a sad gaze down upon him. “Of course she would. You’ve become a part of our family over the years, Johnny…and I know you feel the same way…so your subconscious mind supplied that, too.”
Johnny closed his eyes and sighed wearily, dropping his head back to rest upon the pillows behind him. “I just don’t know what to believe, Roy…” He never noticed the single tear that tracked from the corner of his eye down into his dark hair.
He felt Roy take his hand and squeeze—gently this time. “I don’t know how to convince you, Johnny. But I’ve never lied to you before, and I’m certainly not lying to you now. I’m here, I’m alive, and we’re BOTH going to be okay. Please…please believe me.”
Johnny opened his eyes again and turned his head slightly, meeting his best friend’s gaze. “I want to…”
Roy gave his hand another squeeze—harder this time—and his voice took on a sharper edge. “Then do it. Trust me.”
Johnny felt his whole body tense. “I do trust you! I trust you with my life—I always have!”
“But do you trust yourself with mine?!”
Johnny’s mouth opened as if to answer…but no words came out. Yes! was the first thought that came into his mind, but it was quickly and completely overrun by the thoughts that followed. No! I was driving and I killed you! Or at the very least I caused you to get hurt… Oh, God, what have I done?!
Roy’s eyes narrowed as if he could read Johnny’s thoughts—it wouldn’t be the first time—then, letting go of his hand, turned away and began pacing again. “Dammit, Johnny! What can I do to convince you that I’m still here...” He swung around to face him suddenly, his face set determinedly. “Early’s going to release you tomorrow, right?”
Johnny nodded, suddenly feeling as would a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car—trapped.
“I’ll bet you convinced him that you didn’t need to stay with us a few days—that you’d be just fine on your own, right? That you didn’t want to burden Jo with someone else to take care of?” He paused, and Johnny nodded again. “Well, let me tell you something, partner: you’re not going home all alone to drive yourself crazy obsessing about this. When Joe releases you tomorrow, you are coming home with us. I’m going to convince you once and for all that I was not killed in that accident...that I’m alive and well—and that this is what’s real—not that other place, that other life. You’re gonna see so much of me that you’re going to have to believe that I’m still alive. I won’t give you any other choice in the matter.”
Johnny just sat there, stunned.
Roy glanced at his watch and then back up at Johnny. When he spoke again, his voice was softer but no less determined. “I’m afraid I’ve gotta go. Joanne and the kids’ll be here any minute. I’ll help Joanne make up the spare bedroom for you tonight, then I will see you tomorrow morning, Johnny. Do you understand?”
Johnny nodded silently, less from shock and more from the fact that he knew from experience that there was no arguing with Roy when he was in this type of mood.
His partner’s voice softened even further as he continued, “Are you sure you’re going to be alright tonight? I can tell Joanne I need to stay...”
“No...” Johnny was shaken by the sound that came from his throat—if he hadn’t felt the word pass through his own lips he would not have recognized the voice as his own. “I...no.”
Roy gave him a gentle smile. “We’ll get through this, Junior. I promise you.”
And then he was gone.
After a few minutes, Johnny glanced at his surroundings as if he’d just found himself in this hospital room for the first time. He felt...he wasn’t sure what he felt...except that his whole world felt like it was floating in zero gravity and that, if he didn’t manage to get a firm grip around something to ground him real soon, he would float away into the empty void where no one was ever seen or heard from again.
He’d been out of ICU for three days now—and out of traction for less than 24-hours—and so far he’d gotten no indication from Doctor Brackett when he’d be released. He was beginning to go a little stir crazy in this hospital room. There were no distractions and the number of visitors he’d been receiving had fallen drastically.
The guys from A-Shift, minus Captain Stanley, had come to see him and the visit had turned into an unmitigated disaster. His crewmates simply did not know what to say to him, considering what had happened. Johnny had gotten the distinct impression that being in the same room with him was the last place they had wanted to be. And Chet—Chet had never made it further into the room that a foot away from the door...and hadn’t said more than three words to him: “I’m sorry, Johnny.” He’d done nothing more than stare at the floor for the rest of their visit. Marco had tried to drum up some conversation, but with Chet clammed up, all he’d had left to work with was Mike, who had never been a big talker to begin with.
It had been the shortest hospital visit they’d ever paid him, and Johnny had been as relieved as they’d been when they finally left.
The second day after his move upstairs, Chief Sorenson showed up almost as soon as visiting hours began, wanting the “official” version of what had happened the day of the accident. Oh, the Chief had made some effort at small talk, asking how he was feeling and offering him his condolences over the loss of his partner. He supposed the Chief even meant it, but to Johnny it felt like he was being fed the company line...empty and meaningless.
When they’d gotten down to business, Johnny had told him all he remembered in a few short sentences. The weather, the driving conditions, the deer, his loss of control of the vehicle...and then nothing until waking up in ICU two weeks later. He was brief and to the point, not wanting any sympathy or any special treatment.
“And you were behind the wheel?” the Chief asked in clarification.
It was not meant as an indictment, but Johnny felt convicted just the same. “Yes, sir,” he’d whispered in response.
And that had been that.
Several of his fellow firemen had been calling him on the phone since his move upstairs, and some had even dropped by, but the conversations had been strained, and his number of visitors had fallen off fairly quickly.
A string of pretty nurses had filed through his room during the past few days as well, but he couldn’t be bothered entertaining them as he usually did, trying to pick up a date or two for his troubles, and even they had stopped dropping by during their breaks.
His only semi-regular visitors had been Dixie...and Cap.
Dixie stopped by fairly frequently. She didn’t try to force him into trying to be cheerful, content to sit quietly with him and let him be. Captain Stanley had come by to visit a couple of times since his move upstairs, as his work schedule allowed, making small talk and reminding him that, if Johnny wanted to talk, he would be available for him, day or night.
Brackett was in to check on him daily, but had seemed somewhat distracted of late. Johnny tried to concern himself about what could be troubling the man, but in the end couldn’t be bothered about that, either.
As if summoned by his thoughts, Kelly Brackett walked into his room, a concerned expression once again on his face. “Hi, Johnny. How are you feeling today?”
Why was everyone always asking me that? Johnny wondered, tired of all this fussing over him. “I’m fine, Doc,” he answered softly. “So when can I get out of here?” he added for good measure.
Brackett scanned his chart briefly then checked his vitals, but he sat down in the chair beside the bed before answering. “Actually, that’s what I came in here to talk with you about.”
Johnny’s relief was only momentary, though, as the doctor continued. “I’m a little concerned about your numbers. Your test results and lab work aren’t really where they ought to be at this stage of your recovery. I’m also concerned about the amount of weight you’ve lost since being admitted. Your appetite has been off even when offered food from the cafeteria or from outside the hospital.”
Both Captain Stanley and Dixie had brought in food for him, but he just didn’t feel much like eating at the moment.
“Frankly, I’m also concerned about your state of mind. I can understand, of course, that what happened with Roy has been upsetting to you...”
Talk about your understatement of the decade!
“...but withdrawing from everyone won’t help matters any.”
Johnny could no longer meet the man’s eyes and dropped his gaze to focus on his hands resting in his lap.
Brackett’s sudden movement startled him, and he looked up to find the doctor moving from the chair to sit beside him on the bed—not close enough to crowd him, but close all the same. “Johnny, I’d like to think that you consider me to be more than just your boss or your doctor...I’d like to think that you consider us to be friends as well. So I’m asking you, as a friend, please tell me what’s wrong?”
What’s wrong, Doc? Everything... He didn’t stop to second-guess himself, because if he did he knew he’d clam up and never get it all out. He and Brackett may have butted heads quite a bit at the paramedic program’s inception, but as they’d worked together over the years Johnny had come to realize that the man shared the same intensity and integrity about their work—and about life in general—and that it had helped move them both beyond a simple working relationship with each other.
“I keep seeing him, Doc...”
The older man wisely chose to remain silent and let him talk things out at his own pace.
“I don’t know what’s going on, but from the day that Cap told me that Roy...told me what happened, I keep seeing him. Not here, but...” He stopped and shook his head, knowing how crazy this would sound but not knowing how to explain it in a way that would make it sound any better. “It’s like something out of an episode of Star Trek, you know? Like a parallel universe or something. In this ‘universe’ the accident happened two and a half weeks ago, but in the other one it’s only been about a week and a half. In this one, Roy is gone, but it that other ‘universe,’ Roy is alive...”
But Johnny cut him off. “I know how that sounds, Doc, but I’m telling you I’m not crazy—at least I don’t think I am. In that other life, Roy’s alive. He was thrown from the squad but only suffered a broken arm. He’s not only visited me several times, but I’ve been released from the hospital and I’m staying at his house! I’m helping his kids do their homework at night, and during the day his wife is feeding us and driving us around to places.”
“When, Johnny? When do you see him?”
“When...” He broke off suddenly as it finally dawned on him exactly when it was when he was seeing his friend. When he continued his voice fell to a near-whisper, “When I fall asleep at night...here.”
“It’s just a dream,” Brackett stated gently.
Johnny shook his head violently, ignoring the dizziness the movement brought with it. “No, Doc, it’s more than that! I’m living whole, complete days there. When I go to sleep there, I wake up here, and then live complete days here as well. Both lives feel equally real to me—so real that I can’t tell the difference between them. I mean, there’s nothing in either of them that would make me believe that one place is reality and the other is the dream. Roy swears to me that he’s alive and that this—” he gestured wildly around the room, “is a dream. You, Dixie and everyone else here are telling me that this is reality and that that other place is the dream. You can’t both be right...but I can’t tell which of you is wrong...”
He sagged back into his pillows, exhausted.
Doctor Brackett looked at him for a moment, his gaze intent, and his concern very evident. “Johnny, I understand that all this must be pretty confusing for you. I’m not sure what I can say to you to convince you that this ‘universe’ is the real one. And I don’t think you’re crazy...I think you’re upset and grieving, and I also think you need to talk to someone about this—someone who has more experience with this type of situation than I do.”
Aw, man... “You mean a shrink?”
“Yes, but not because I think you’re ‘crazy.’ All the members of your shift have spoken to the Fire Department counselor—they had to before being cleared to return to work.”
Johnny accepted that—with the loss of a crewmember it was standard Department procedure.
Brackett continued. “I’d like to set up an appointment for you with Doctor Robert Smithfield, the staff psychiatrist here at Rampart...today, if possible.”
“But you just said the guys had seen the Department counselor. Why can’t I just talk to him?”
“Well, for one thing, none of your fellow crewmembers was an inpatient in a hospital—Doctor Smithfield is here and immediately available. The Fire Department counselor may not be. For another, their counseling sessions were more of a formality than anything else, although if they’d chosen to see him on an ongoing basis that would have been absolutely acceptable as well.” The doctor hesitated for only a moment before continuing. “I also think that we both realize that your situation is a bit more complicated.”
More complicated...that’s one way of putting it, Doc.
“Will you let me set up that appointment for you?”
Johnny sighed. He was out of his depth here and he knew it. He needed help. He nodded silently, once again unable to meet the doctor’s eyes.
“Johnny,” Doctor Brackett said gently, reaching out to rest a hand on Johnny’s arm. “There’s no shame in admitting that we need some help every once in a while. Just give it a little time, alright? Things will get better, I promise you.”
He stood up and headed for the door.
“Doc…” He waited until the older man had turned back around to face him. “Thanks.”
Brackett smiled warmly at him. “That’s what friends are for.”
Johnny was absentmindedly thumbing through a magazine he’d already read from cover to cover when the door to his room opened and a man he’d never seen before entered.
“Mr. Gage? I’m Doctor Robert Smithfield. I believe Doctor Brackett cleared it with you for me to visit?”
Johnny bit down nervously on his lower lip and nodded. “Yeah. Come on in, Doc…”
Smithfield was an older man—Johnny guessed him to be in his late-fifties. He was as tall as Cap…maybe even an inch or two taller, and while he was not as thin as Captain Stanley, he looked quite physically fit.
“I understand from Doctor Brackett that you’ve been experiencing some difficulties following the death of your fellow fireman…” He looked down at his notes for clarification, “Roy DeSoto. Is this correct, Mr. Gage?”
Johnny frowned at the man’s seemingly casual description of his friend. “Roy’s not just a ‘fellow fireman,’ he’s one of the best paramedics in LA County, if not the entire state. He’s also my partner and my best friend.”
Smithfield’s eyebrows rose at this statement as he sat down in the chair beside the bed. “I see. Well, why don’t we step back for just a moment and lay some of the foundation for our work together. Tell me a little about yourself, John. May I call you John?”
Johnny slowly nodded and with a sigh complied with the doctor’s request. “Well, I’ve been with the LA County Fire Department for seven years. I was a rescue man for 2 years before joining the paramedics. I’m currently working out of Station 51 in Carson, and I’ve been there for the past 3 years.”
“So you’re twenty-five years old?”
“Yes. I joined the Department right out of High School.”
“Did you always want to be a fireman?”
“Since I was five years old,” Johnny replied proudly.
“Where did you grow up?”
“I was born and raised on a Seminole reservation in Florida. My folks died when I was fourteen and that’s when I came to California to live with my Aunt.”
“That must have been very hard on you, to lose your parents at so young an age. If I may ask, how did it happen?”
Johnny didn’t talk about the loss of his parents very often...even after eleven years, it still hurt a great deal. “House fire...” he replied hoarsely.
“But you survived?”
“I wasn’t home...it was a Saturday night and I was sleeping over at a friend’s house...”
“I see. I’m sorry for your loss, John.”
He sighed and remained silent, waiting for the man to move on.
“That type of loss will always remain with you, even if it does get easier to deal with over time. How did you handle the transition from Florida to California?”
“It wasn’t easy at first,” Johnny answered with a shrug of a shoulder. “Being the new kid on the block didn’t help matters any. I threw myself into my schoolwork... But after a while things got better.”
“And your relationship with your Aunt?”
John shrugged again. “She suffered a stroke last summer and is in a nursing home up in Ojai. I usually go up and see her once or twice a month, but her memory’s not what it used to be... It’s hard sometimes, you know?”
“I understand. Do you have any other living relatives?”
“No,” Johnny answered as he glanced down at his lap for a moment. “No close relatives, anyway.”
“But you were close to the DeSoto family?”
A warm smile bloomed on his face. “I guess you could say that.”
“How did you meet?”
“Roy recruited me for the second paramedic training class—the first one out of Rampart. He’d just come out of the first class at Harbor General. Roy sat in on the class, so we went through training together. We became friends, and he asked me to be his partner after graduation—Station 51 was a new station at the time, and we became the first paramedics to man the squad there. We’ve been together ever since.”
“What about his family?”
“Well, his kids took to me right away. Roy’s got 2 kids—a boy and a girl. His son, Chris, who’s ten now, was only seven when we met, and his daughter, Jennifer was four and is now seven. His wife, Joanne, well...our friendship took a little longer to grow, but we’re really close now.”
“What was the problem?”
Johnny shrugged, glancing away again. “No real problem, Doc. It just took her a little while longer to get to know me.”**
The doctor jotted something down on his notepad as Johnny had been speaking. When he finished, he continued, “Did they consider you a part of their family?”
“Yeah, Doc...” Johnny’s voice grew soft. “And I consider them to be a part of mine, too.”
“What about the rest of your co-workers on your shift? Were you close to them as well?”
He thought about that for a moment. “Well, I’m not as close to them as I am to Roy, but I think that Station 51’s A-shift is one of the more tightly-knit shifts in the Department. We do things together, off-shift, sometimes.”
“Well, Marco and Chet are pretty good friends. Chet’s come with Roy and me on a fishing trip or two. Chet and I have gone out on a few double-dates together... Things like that.”
“Was there anyone on your shift that you didn’t get along with?”
A smile came unbidden to his lips. “Yeah—The Phantom!”
Smithfield appeared puzzled. “The Phantom?”
“Chet’s alter-ego. Chet Kelly’s a prankster, and his alter-ego, The Phantom, puts in an appearance at the station every so often—and all of his pranks usually are aimed at me.”
“Were his pranks cruel?”
“No, just annoying. Water bombs in my locker, raw eggs in my boots, cupcakes with icing in my helmet—things like that. When The Phantom shows up, it’s usually for several shifts, and I usually have a larger laundry bill for a couple of weeks.”
“Did you ever retaliate?”
Johnny sighed and could feel his face growing warm. “Not with any kind of success...”
“I see,” the doctor nodded neutrally. “Tell me about the accident, John.”
Johnny felt his stomach plummet down to his feet, and it took him a few moments to find his voice. “There’s not that much to tell. I was driving the squad on our first run of the day. The call was up on Old Ridge Road, up around Topanga. A deer shot out of the brush and into the road as we were coming out of a hairpin turn. I lost control trying to avoid it and we went through the guardrail.”
“I understand that the weather conditions may have played a role in the crash?”
He shrugged one shoulder and said nothing, not meeting the doctor’s eyes.
The silence lingered as Smithfield gave him a few minutes to gather his thoughts, but when Johnny did not continue he said, “Tell me what’s happening to you now, John.”
Still staring at his hands clenched in his lap, Johnny shook his head, the words refusing to come. He’s gonna think I’m crazy. Hell, I’m not so sure he’s wrong...
“Doctor Brackett said something about your seeming to be living in two different ‘realities’?”
Johnny could definitely hear the quotation marks around the word realities. Wearied beyond belief he finally answered, “I know how it sounds, Doc...but I can tell you, as sure as I know my own name, I know that when this day is over here, I’ll be living a whole new day there...and there Roy is still alive, and I’m recuperating at his house, sitting at his table eating meals with his entire family...and it feels every bit as real to me as my sitting here with you does.”
Silence fell over the room. After a few minutes Doctor Smithfield looked at his watch and then climbed to his feet. “I’m afraid our time together today is at an end, but I’ll be back again soon and we can continue our discussion.”
“Yeah, sure...” Johnny couldn’t keep his lack of enthusiasm out of his voice. “Whatever you say, Doc...”
Smithfield watched him for a moment before speaking. “I believe I can help you, John. You only have to let me.”
Johnny did not look up as the psychiatrist left the room, and when he heard the door close he slowly slid down in the bed and curled up on his side, drawing the covers over his shoulders and up to his neck.
He closed his eyes and tried his best to shut out the world around him.
Johnny sat outside at the table on the deck in Roy’s back yard, watching with quiet amusement as his best friend attempted to mow the lawn using his one good arm to guide the mower and his stomach to push it forward.
On the table in front of him was one partially disassembled toaster. Joanne had given it to him as a project to keep him busy, complaining that the toast often got stuck in the right slot, causing it to burn, and asking Johnny to see if he could figure out what was wrong with it. She and Roy had double-teamed him this morning in an effort to get him out of his room and outside into the fresh air.
He knew they were concerned about him, so he let himself be talked into hanging out on the deck. But he’d quickly lost interest in the toaster as he watched his partner work.
It was a scene he’d played out dozens of times before. The only difference was this time he wasn’t helping his partner by clipping the hedges, and there was a lot more Plaster of Paris involved.
Yet it still felt awkward.
He’d been staying at the DeSoto house for several days now, and the kids were ecstatic to have their Uncle Johnny with them. Jennifer had already roped him into playing with her Barbie dolls, and Chris had been quizzing him about the best way to earn his latest Cub Scout badge. Johnny tried to act as though he were interested in the kids’ activities, but his interaction with them felt quite awkward and stilted to him. Thankfully the kids hadn’t seemed to notice his out-of-character behavior. Roy and Joanne ran intermittent interference for him, but Johnny figured that was only due to his physical limitations. As for his psychological ones...that remained to be seen.
He was startled out of his musings when Roy sat down at the table beside him, and Johnny realized the mower had already been silent for several minutes as he’d been lost in thought.
“Well, Junior, I think it’s time for a break, don’t you?”
Johnny shrugged, picking up a piece of the toaster and worrying it in his hands. Roy drained his glass of lemonade before setting it down beside Johnny’s untouched glass. “Aren’t you going to drink that? It’s best when it’s cold.”
Johnny looked down at his glass—the ice had long since melted and it was brimming from the extra water. “It’s not that hot out,” he answered. “Besides, lukewarm lemonade ain’t all that bad...”
Johnny heard his friend sigh. “I spoke to Cap last night. The guys are off next Saturday, so Jo and I thought we’d invite them all here for a cookout. You know, kind of a last fling before the cold weather really sets in. A pre-Thanksgiving get-together. What do you think?”
Johnny forced a smile to his face, even though having a cookout with the guys would have been something he would normally have looked forward to. But that was before… “Sounds like fun.”
Roy watched him, obviously not buying it but willing to let the matter slide this time around. “Good. Cap’s gonna invite the guys while they’re on duty today, and so you can help me and Jo plan the menu. Mike and Cap’ll bring their wives and kids, and Marco and Chet might wind up bringing dates…it should be a blast.”
“Yeah…a real blast,” Johnny quietly mumbled under his breath.
Roy ignored him. “So do we have to give that thing a decent burial or what?”
“The toaster,” Roy replied with a wave of his hand over the table. “Is it reparable?”
Johnny looked down at the appliance with its parts scattered before him and felt an odd sense of kinship with it. I feel like I’m scattered in a bunch of pieces, too. Is it repairable…? Am I…?
“I don’t know…” he whispered in answer to his unspoken thoughts.
The gentle bumping of his shoulder by Roy’s caused him to look up and meet his friend’s gaze.
“We’ll fix it, partner,” Roy assured him gently, and Johnny knew that Roy was not talking about the toaster. “Don’t worry, Johnny. I promise you, we’ll fix it.”
“So tell me what’s been happening to you in your ‘alternate reality,’ John?”
“Well, like I told you before, Doc, I’ve been staying at Roy’s house for several days now.” *shrug* “Nothing really stands out, though. I mean, it’s just normal, everyday life at the DeSoto house...”
“And what’s that like?”
*shrug* “Joanne cooking and cleaning. Jennifer determined to keep me occupied playing dolls and games and stuff. Chris telling me about what he’s doing in school and the Scouts, and how he’s looking forward to Little League next year. Roy mowing the lawn and puttering around the garage...” *shrug* “Normal, everyday family life...”
“Did Roy usually spend a lot of time with his family?”
“Sure! Roy’s family means everything to him. He and Joanne met in the fourth grade and have been together forever. Jo and kids are the center of his whole world.”
“Where did firefighting fit in?”
“Being a fireman/paramedic is who Roy DeSoto is. He was the chief recruiter for the program and when I met him he was so passionate about it—it was that passion that put to rest my doubts about it and convinced me to sign up for the program. He gave up a promotion to engineer because of it. The man’s a born paramedic.”
“And where did you fit in to his life?”
“I’m his partner...and his friend. He’s my best friend, Doc, and I think I can safely say that he considers me to be his best friend, too.”
“Did you spend a lot of time together?”
“Well, we work 24- and 48-hour shifts together. We hang out together fairly often outside of work, too. I’m at his house at least once a week. I help him out with stuff around the house... Yeah, I guess we do spend a lot of time together.”
“Didn’t that bother his wife?”
“At first.” *snort* “Jo didn’t like me much at first—she thought I was too young to be Roy’s partner, and she was a bit jealous of the friendship that was growing between us. Eventually we managed to work things out.”
*shrug* “I was staying at their house, recovering from a near-fatal virus about eight months after Roy and I first met. There was a fire at the house next door and after I woke Joanne and got her and the kids out of the house I went in and tried to rescue the other family before the fire department got there. I got them all out, but I got hurt...I guess the whole thing got her thinking. She apologized to me and we decided to just start over again with a clean slate.** We’re good friends now.”
“You’ve told me that you consider yourself a part of the DeSoto family and that they feel the same way. I’m told that they honored you at Roy’s funeral by leaving an empty space for you. When you found out about it, how did that make you feel?”
“......Sad because I couldn’t be there.....sad that I was the one driving the squad when it happened...”
Johnny rested on the lounge chair on the deck watching Chris, Jennifer, Mike’s son, Mikey, and Chet horsing around on the lawn. Station 51’s A-shift crew,
along with their wives, girlfriends and kids were all in attendance. Roy and Hank were at the barbeque grilling the food, while Marco and Mike were entertaining Marco and Chet’s girlfriends. Barbara Stanley and Sandy Stoker were in the kitchen with Joanne. Everyone’s spirits seemed pretty high, since it was the first time they were all together since the accident, and Johnny resolved to try his best to act normally. The last thing he wanted was for them to start worrying about him, but he found it increasingly difficult to keep up appearances. They knew him too well, working such long hours together. Not for the first time, Johnny wished that he was home in his own apartment—alone—where he could finally let all the walls down.
“Hey, pal,” Stanley said as he sat down in the deck chair beside him, a beer in one hand and some potato chips in the other. “How are you doing?”
Here we go... Johnny smiled at him and replied, “I’m doing good, Cap. Roy’s family is keeping me busy.”
“I’m sure all those tea parties and board games have been making the time just fly by,” the older man said with a shake of his head. He had two kids of his own, but they were in their teens and had decided to skip their father’s co-worker’s impromptu party. “Can I get you anything?”
Johnny nodded toward the half-full glass of milk beside him. “Nope, I’m good. Thanks.”
“Well, I’m glad to see you looking so much better, John... And Roy, too.” His voice grew quieter as he continued, “For a while there, we didn’t know if either of you had survived...”
Johnny swallowed hard. “Was it bad?”
Hank glanced up to look at Roy at the grill for a moment, then looked back at Johnny. “Not as bad as it could have been—if the squad had been another 30 yards down the road when it went over the side neither of you would have made it—there it was a sheer drop off down to the bottom of the canyon. As it was, the squad must have rolled at least a couple of times where you did go over before coming to a stop against some trees. The doctors said the only reason you weren’t hurt more seriously was because your head must have impacted with the steering wheel and knocked you out almost immediately. Just like it is for a drunk driver—your body became so totally relaxed that you weren’t injured as severely as you should have been.”
Johnny sighed. “Yeah...”
“When we got to the scene the squad hadn’t arrived yet. And when we found you both... Well, let’s just say that it was a difficult rescue, and leave it at that.”
“I’m sorry you and the guys had to deal with that, Cap...”
Hank patted him on the leg. “It wasn’t your fault, pal. It was just an accident.”
Roy’s shout brought their conversation to an end as Stanley got to his feet, slapping his now-empty hands together and giving them a brisk rub. Then he handed the crutches to Johnny. “Well, enough with all that maudlin talk. Come on, John. Let’s eat.”
They sat around the table, the dialog fast and jovial, and the food was quickly consumed. Johnny tried to remain focused on the conversations going on around him, but he’d had to ask for comments and questions directed at him to be repeated more than once.
When the meal was over, the ladies migrated to the kitchen for cleanup duty while the guys talked shop. The kids went off to play in the yard. Once again, Johnny tried to act interested but found his attention drifting.
It was good to see the guys all together again. He was lucky to be part of such a great crew—Station 51’s A-Shift was widely regarded as the best crew in the Department. He should have felt relaxed and been enjoying himself...here in what had become like his second home and among people he considered to be his closest friends...
“Hey, Gage,” Chet’s voice brought his train of thought to an abrupt halt. “Is Joanne ready to throw you out yet?”
Johnny shook his head as if he couldn’t have heard what he thought he’d heard. “What are you talking about, Chet?”
“I mean, Joanne must be sick and tired of you being under her feet by now...”
“Chet!” Roy tried to head him off, but as usual, Chet Kelly—once started—was nearly impossible to stop.
“Oh, come on, Roy... I mean, it’s bad enough she’s gotta help you, with that broken arm of yours and all, but now she’s stuck babysitting the hapless wonder, here. And whose fault is that?”
“Chet, shut up!” Roy fairly shouted as he leapt to his feet.
Chet’s eyes went wide as the rest of the guys all sat staring at Roy in shock. The kids had stopped playing, and even the women had come to the open patio doors to see what was going on. Johnny glanced around the table, feeling his heart sink down to the vicinity of his toes as he looked at each of his friends in turn, his gaze finally meeting Roy’s.
He suddenly felt incredibly weary. It took too much effort to keep up this pretense in front of his crewmates, to pretend that everything was just fine. He had no energy left to deal with Chet’s teasing, especially where the accident was concerned... It just hit too close to home.
He felt the stares of his friends shift to him as he reached for his crutches and climbed to his feet. “I’m feeling kinda tired right now. I’m gonna head inside for a while...”
The silence followed him as he hobbled back into the house.
There was a quiet knock on his door before it slowly opened. A moment later, Roy popped his head inside. “Are you awake yet?”
Johnny snorted. “Yeah, I’m awake. Come on in.”
“I checked in on you a little while ago, but you were still asleep. How are you feeling?” Roy asked as he came in and sat down in the chair.
He pulled himself up to a seated position on the bed. “Better. Look, Roy, I’m sorry about causing a scene earlier. I just wasn’t in the mood to deal with Chet’s badgering, you know?”
Roy sighed. “Well, it wasn’t you that actually started it, but yeah, I know. By the way, Chet told me to tell you he’s sorry about what he said. As usual, his mouth was in gear before his brain was engaged.”
A small smile came to Johnny’s face. “So what else is new? Are the guys still here?”
“No, they left a couple of hours ago. They’re on shift tomorrow, so they couldn’t stay very late anyway.”
Johnny watched his friend’s eyes nervously scan the small room and saw him wipe his hands on his pants. Something’s up. Uh-oh, maybe one of the guys got ticked off about what happened after supper... “Did something happen after I came inside?”
“No, no... Not at all,” Roy’s words caused relief to well within him, but that relief was only momentary, for Roy continued, “But Johnny, the guys are a little...concerned about you.”
He felt a sudden sinking feeling in his gut. “What do you mean?”
Roy caught and held his gaze. “They’re not strangers to you, they’re your friends. They can see that you’ve lost weight, that you look exhausted, that you’re distracted and down...and they’re wondering why you’re not bouncing back from this injury like you have in the past.”
Near-panic seized him. “You didn’t tell them anything, did you?”
Roy’s eyes widened. “No, of course not! I just told them that the accident was enough to rattle anyone’s nerves—mine included. But Johnny...to be honest...I’m more than a little concerned about you, myself.”
He ran a nervous hand through his hair, unknowingly causing it to spike out in all directions. “I don’t know what to tell you, Roy,” he answered quietly. “I’m trying... I really am...”
His friend reached out to grip his arm gently. “I know you are, Johnny. But I really think you should give some thought to talking to someone about this...someone professional.”
“But I’m already seeing a shrink!” he protested.
Roy didn’t back down. “Yeah, a shrink who’s going to try his best to convince you that I’m dead and all this,” Roy waved his good arm around the room, “is just some sort of dream...or wishful thinking, or whatever. I think you need someone to help you find some balance...to regain your equilibrium. Someone to help you gain a better perspective as to what the hell is going on.”
Johnny thought about that for a few minutes. Was Roy right? Would talking to someone here be able to stop the seemingly out-of-control tailspin he’d suddenly found himself in? What if this life was the real one, and it was that other life he was living that was the dream? Would talking to someone here help him to figure it all out?
Or, if this was the dream and Roy really was dead, would talking to someone here only prolong the agony?
I don’t know what to do!
He took a deep breath and pushed it out forcefully. One thing was certain, though. He trusted Roy with his life and, dead or alive, he would take his friend’s advice.
Finally he nodded his head. “Okay...”
Roy smiled warmly at him, but his expression was not one of happiness but of relief. “Good boy, Junior.”
Something suddenly occurred to him. “But not the Department shrink. And not Doctor Robert Smithfield, if he even exists here!”
That brought a genuine laugh from his partner. “Hey, I don’t blame you there. So let’s put our heads together and see what we can come up with.”
For the first time in what seemed like ages, Johnny felt a small glimmer of hope well up within him.
“The guys came to over to Roy’s for a cookout the other day.”
“And how did it go?”
*shrug* “Everyone was having a good time. Cap and his wife came, and Mike and his wife and son, too. Chet and Marco brought their girlfriends. We’ve had cookouts at each other’s houses before.”
“Have you ever hosted one?”
“I live in an apartment building, so there’s really no good place for me to have it. Chet and Marco do, too, but they do ‘em at their mom’s house. It’s usually understood that when we hold one at Roy’s house, it’s kind of a package deal.”
“As if you were co-hosting the party along with Roy and his family? Or as a part of Roy’s family?”
“Well...both, I guess.”
“How did the others seem to you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Their behavior, the atmosphere in general—how did it seem to you?”
*shrug* “Normal, I guess. I mean, I don’t know much about Chet and Marco’s girlfriends, but the rest of the guys were just kinda themselves. Mike was still pretty quiet. Chet was still mouthing off, as usual...”
“Did he say something to upset you?”
“...He kinda got on my case about the accident...”
“How did that make you feel?”
*shrug* “...not very good, I guess.”
“Do you think what he said may have upset you because it was an echo of what was running through your own mind at the time?”
“What emotions were you experiencing during the gathering?”
“You said your crewmates seemed ‘normal’ to you, but how did you feel that day? Did you feel ‘normal,’ too?”
*sigh* “Doc, I haven’t felt ‘normal’ since all this began!”
“Why do you think that is?”
“I think it’s because I’m living some sort of crazy double life and I don’t know which one is real and which one isn’t!”
“Are you sure about that? Could it really be that, because you are trying so hard to deny that this reality is the real one, you’ve created a whole different ‘reality’ to compensate for it?”
“No, Doc, I don’t! If Roy’s dead then, as much as I’ll hate it, I’ll deal with it. But if he’s alive, I’m not gonna let you or anybody else convince me otherwise! That other life is every bit as real to me as this one! Maybe you’re the one who’s not real, have you ever thought of that?!”
“If I’m not real, John, and if Roy DeSoto is truly alive, then why am I here at all? Why would you have the need to create this reality to begin with?”
“How the hell should I know, Doc? That’s what you’re supposed to be helping me figure out! But it sure seems to me that you’re not even open to the possibility that this is the dream and that other life is the reality. That’s why Roy wants me to start seeing a psychiatrist, too. I’ve got my first appointment already scheduled for this week.”
“I don’t believe that’s a good idea, John.”
“And why not?”
“Have you been listening to yourself during the past few minutes? You’ve suggested to me that I am not real, and yet you’re seeking my services to help you discern if Roy is real. How can I do that if you don’t truly believe that I’m real in the first place?”
*heavy sigh* “I don’t know what’s real and what’s not anymore, Doc... You tell me you’re real and Roy’s dead... Roy tells me he’s real and he’s alive... To me, it’s all the same...there’s no difference. So why should I listen to you instead of him?”
“Because I have your best interests at heart.”
*vigorous head shake* “Sorry, Doc. Roy has always had my best interests at heart. I know him, and I trust him—I’ve trusted him with my life every day for the past three years—and he’s never steered me wrong yet.”
“And if he’s only a figment of your grieving imagination, John? What then?”
“Figment of my imagination or not, Doc... Dead or alive... I trust Roy with my life, and I’m taking his advice. So I’m gonna keep that appointment with that other shrink and see what happens from there.”
Continued in Part Two
Posted to Site 5/20/12
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