John Gage spoke, his voice deep and quiet.
"You picked a hell of a way to get out of working on Christmas." He had pulled a chair over close. He was still unable to stand for long balanced on a pair of crutches and the pews were too far away.
Light footsteps came up behind him and he recognized the tread and the perfume that accompanied them. Her fingers kneaded the knots in his neck and shoulder and he turned to put an arm around her waist, his breath hitching on a sob in his throat as he buried his face against her side. "I'm sorry! Jo -- oh, God! I'm so sorry!"
"Don't, Johnny. Shhh!" She put her fingers over his lips. "Just . . . don't. It isn't necessary." She ran her fingers through his long, dark hair, comforting him as she would her children. "You know," she said, and there were tears in her own voice though she was fighting to hold them back, "you know, I always suspected that I would lose him this way. He would have died for a stranger, you know? His heart --" her voice broke and she paused a moment to regain her control. "His heart was big enough to encompass the world. But I'm glad, when it came down to it, that it was someone he truly cared about. He loved you, Johnny. Did you know? Roy was never . . . he was never comfortable talking about his feelings, not even with me really. But he loved you. You were a brother to him in everything but blood."
"I loved him too. I never told him."
They clung together in silence then, two shipwreck survivors beside the casket. The viewing had ended and they were alone in the chapel save for a priest waiting unobtrusively in his office. Finally Joanne pulled away.
"I have to go. I need to get back to the kids. I find I get a little clingy if I'm away from them for too long. It's something I'm going to have to work on, but maybe . . . maybe not just yet."
"Do you want me to come with you? Will you be okay?"
"No, I'll be as good as I'm likely to get. Go ahead and stay --" her voice broke again on a sudden sob and she fought for control. "Stay with him a while longer if you'd like. Do you have a way to get home?"
"Yeah. Everyone's being real nice to me." He said it with a trace of bitterness. "I've got a radio with me. All I have to do is call dispatch and they'll send someone after me -- a fireman or a cop or someone." He turned back to face the simple wooden box and hung his head. "I wasn't worth this sacrifice."
"Roy thought differently," Joanne answered him, her voice sharp. "Don't belittle his memory by questioning his judgment now."
Johnny looked up at her, stricken by her tone, but she was smiling kindly at him through her tears. Turning away from him she laid one hand on the casket. "Good . . . night, honey. I'll see you in the morning." Tears streaming down her face, she turned her back and walked away.
Johnny leaned forward, his elbows on his knees and his forehead braced against the cool wooden coffin. When a second set of footsteps approached him he spoke without turning. "It's time for me to go, I know. I'm sorry, Father."
"No, it's all right. I need to leave soon myself, but I'll put the door on the latch and you can stay as long as you like. As long as you need. I know I can trust you to put out the candles before you go."
The young fireman nodded faintly. The old priest laid a hand on his shoulder. "I know it doesn't feel like it right now, son, but you have been truly blessed."
Johnny turned then to give him an incredulous look. "Father, it's Christmas Eve. In the morning we're going to bury my best friend. How is there a blessing in that?"
"Are you familiar with the Bible book that bears your name? There is a passage there, John 15:13. 'There is no greater love than this: That a man lay down his life for his brother.' Love of that magnitude is a reflection of the love that our Heavenly Father holds for us all, and it is a rare thing. Very few people ever know it. I know that as time passes and dulls the pain you feel right now, you will continue to cherish your friend's memory. Cherish also the twin gifts that he has given you: your life, and his love."
Johnny bobbed his head. Every movement that he made seemed awkward and disjointed "I'll try, Father. Thank you. I . . . I'll try."
The priest squeezed his shoulder and was gone. A few minutes later Johnny heard his footsteps crossing the nave and then the sound of the church door closing behind him. Silence settled around him and he was left alone with his memories.
A factory fire. Red flames that boiled like lava and thick black smoke roiling around them, hiding their surroundings, tricking their senses. A muffled shout.
"Johnny! Look out!"
The sensation of being pushed. The sky falling. A pain in his leg, a blow to the head and darkness.
He had awakened in the treatment room at Rampart, Brackett bending over him with concern.
"Welcome back." Brackett gave him a small smile, an unhappy twitch at the corner of his mouth that didn't touch his eyes. "Can you tell me where it hurts?"
"Let's just concentrate on you right now."
"Dammit! Where's Roy."
"Gage, relax! You're hurt and you need to stay calm and let us take care of you."
"Then tell me where Roy is!"
They stared at one another, dark eyes versus dark eyes. Johnny read the truth in Brackett's face before the older man gave in and sighed. "I'm sorry, John. He was gone by the time they dug him out."
In the silence of the chapel Johnny raised his head and studied his best friend's body. Contrary to what the poets say, death does not look like sleep. Roy's warm blue eyes were closed, his expressive face stiff and still as a waxwork, cold as clay.
Ashes to ashes and dust to dust . . . .
He was dressed as he had been when he'd died, in turnout pants with suspenders over a simple white tee shirt. His coat hung on a stand at the head of his coffin, his boots stood on the floor beside him and his helmet rested atop the polished surface. Polishing things, it seemed, was an antidote for grief. Candles reflected in the marble floor and the font and the collection plate caught their light and sent it around the darkened church in golden flashes. Fifty-one had been polishing their apparatus for days -- the big red engine would blind the unwary in sunlight.
Tomorrow the shining engine would lead the procession, when Roy DeSoto took one final ride on his beloved squad. With his broken leg, Johnny couldn't even be the one to drive him. He wasn't sure how he felt about that. He had spent so many hours bugging his partner to let him drive. Now that he was inheriting the place behind the wheel he felt unworthy.
But Roy didn't think he was unworthy. Roy had loved him. No greater love . . . .
Johnny watched his own tears accumulate on the dark floor, watched the puddle of saltwater catching the candlelight.
When a strong man weeps, it rains in heaven. On this, the holiest night of the year, John Gage raised his eyes to the angels in the dark recesses of the church steeple and prayed for grace.
A golden glow built slowly, at first almost imperceptible. The ambient light in the room coalesced into sparkling motes, as mist accumulates into snowflakes. Music grew from the silence, rising like fog. From the music a voice took shape, though later Johnny couldn't have said what it sounded like, old or young, male or female, or even if it was speaking English or Lakota. Perhaps neither. Perhaps it was simply piercing his broken spirit, touching his heart and mind directly.
"What would you give to bring him back?"
Johnny answered immediately. He didn't need time to stop and think. "My life."
"Bold words, but do you mean them? Would you act on them, given the chance?"
To the fireman's right a ruddy glow sprung up. He turned his head. The candles burned golden, but in the glistening marble wall behind the altar their image lengthened and grew, a dark and ugly red. Johnny rose and limped towards the apparition of flames. As he drew near the weight of his cast fell away. He tossed aside the useless crutches and ran into the fire.
He entered the stone with a ripple, as a diver breaks the surface of a still pond. Behind him was the cool quiet of the chapel, before him the fiery hell of a burning warehouse where red flames boiled like lava and thick, black smoke roiled around him. He was wearing his own turnouts now, his helmet and boots and gloves and SCBA. The pain in his leg was gone. He was whole again.
He was whole in ways that were more than physical, for Roy DeSoto stood at his back.
"Johnny! Look out!"
Johnny turned, trying to brace himself, meaning to use his body as a pivot and fling his partner clear of the steel beam that was tumbling towards them -- the steel beam that had crushed the life from him the first time this scenario played out. It didn't work the way Johnny intended, though. Roy hit him before he could get set. They tumbled to the floor together, rolling forward. The sky fell. Johnny felt a pain in his leg and a blow to his head and then there was darkness.
He awoke . . .
. . . on a gurney in a treatment room at Rampart. Dr. Kelly Brackett was bending over him in concern. "Welcome back." He gave him a small smile, an unhappy twitch at the corner of his mouth that didn't touch his eyes. "Can you tell me where it hurts?"
"Roy?" Johnny breathed. I failed! Oh, God! I had a chance and I failed!
"Let's just concentrate on you right now."
John Gage threw back his head and gave voice to the anguish that filled his soul. His sorrowing howl filled the room, spilled over into the hallway and danced away, casting echoes down the long, empty corridors.
Brackett jumped, then grabbed at his shoulders. "Gage, calm down! What's wrong? Tell me what's the matter!"
"Junior? What's the matter? Doc, what's wrong with him? Junior? Can you hear me?"
At the sound of this new voice Johnny's head whipped around, and there was Roy, stretched out on an exam table beside him. There was an IV in his arm. He had an oxygen cannula under his nose and he was tethered to the table with a web of cardiac sensors. Alarms were going off all around him as he fought to free himself from the encumbrances so that he could go to his partner's side.
Brackett looked up and saw him pulling away the cardiac leads. "Roy! Stop that! Stay where you are. If you break that catheter off in your vein there's going to be trouble! I've got Johnny. I'll take care of him. Roy DeSoto! Are you listening to me?" He glanced at Johnny, who had fallen silent, and left him for the moment to run around and grab Roy from the other side. "I said to stay still! I meant it!"
Johnny pulled himself up off the gurney and hopped over to Roy's bedside, noting only in passing that his right leg was once more in a soft cast.
Brackett glanced up at him. "Gage! Dammit! Now you get back to bed! What is the matter with the two of you?"
The door opened and little Sharon Walters, the student nurse, peeked in. Brackett addressed her. "Find Joe and Dixie! Tell them I need some help in here. So help me, I don't care how crowded we get, I am never putting the pair of you in the same treatment room again!"
Johnny didn't even hear him. He took Roy's face in his hands and just looked at him. "You're alive!"
"Yeah," Roy said, bewildered. "Right. I'm alive. At least, I was alive. After that scream you just let out I'm not too sure anymore. Jeez, John! Are you trying to wake the dead here?"
"Yeah." Johnny giggled suddenly and then the laugh caught in his throat and became a sob. He pulled Roy up gently, wrapped his arms around him and wept on his shoulder. Roy reached his free hand up to return the embrace, awkwardly patting Johnny on the back. "I love you," Johnny mumbled. "I've never told you, but I love you, Roy. You're as much my brother as if we had the same blood and I'd rather die myself than have anything happen to you!"
"Uh . . .," Roy fished around for something to say. "That's real sweet, Johnny. You know, I think a lot of you too. The thing is . . . you're kinda embarrassing me here . . . ."
"Oh, shut up! I don't even care." Johnny eased back, letting his partner sink back to the table so he could look him in the eye. "You were dead, Roy! You pushed me out of the way and got killed in my place. You were lying there in a coffin and we were getting ready to bury you!"
Roy ran his hand up Johnny's arm reassuringly. "Hey! It's okay. It was only a dream, see?"
"No. It was real. It was real and I was there. I've already been through this once and the first time when I woke up you were gone."
"But John, think about it. If I was dead, how could I be talking to you? It was a dream. I know it seemed real, but it was only a dream."
Johnny hung his head and thought for a minute. He needed to make his partner see and understand. "When you were in Vietnam," he said, "there was some sort of clerical error and Joanne got a telegram that you'd been killed. By the time she found out you were still alive she'd bought a dress for the funeral. She's never worn it. She kept it hanging in the back of the closet when you lived in San Francisco because she thought she might wear it out to a party or something sometime, but eventually she admitted to herself that it depressed her too much, so when you moved down to L.A. she just left it packed in a box in the attic. It's a black dress made of nylon that hangs like silk and there's black lace over the bodice. It has long sleeves and tiny, heart-shaped buttons."
Roy was looking at him oddly. "Yeah, that's right. How did you know that?"
"I've seen it. The last time I saw her she was wearing it. Listen, in the packet with your will there's a letter with my name on it. You asked me to look after your family and you said that," Johnny had to stop and swallow hard, "you said you knew as long as I was around your kids would always have a father figure to look up to. And you left me your pottery wheel -- in case I wanted to throw something, you said. And, by the way, that's a really lousy place to hide a pun!"
It was Roy's turn to swallow hard. "All the sudden I've got chills running up and down my back," he said.
"Yeah," Brackett put in, "me too. But, Gage, listen. If Roy had been killed, how could he be alive again now?"
"There was," Johnny's eyes grew distant, "a miracle, I guess. I was alone in the chapel, sitting beside your coffin, and a voice asked what I'd give to bring you back. I said my life and then I was back in the fire again. Someone -- God -- gave me a chance to change the outcome. That's why I was yelling. When I woke up and I was still alive, I thought it meant that I'd failed and you were dead again."
"I'm not," Roy reassured him, still at a loss as to what to make of all this. "I'm right here. And, you know," he bit his lower lip. Discussing feelings was not his forte, but something told him this needed to be said. "You know, Johnny, I love you too. Every bit as much as if you were my brother. But, jeez, Junior! Your life? You shouldn't think such a thing!"
Johnny brushed his friend's blond bangs out of his eyes, made a fist and raked his knuckles lightly over Roy's scalp. "There is no greater love than this," he quoted, "that a man lay down his life for his brother. It goes both ways, Pally. I love you that much too, you see."
Joe Early and Dixie McCall had come in unnoticed and were listening to the conversation. Now Dixie sniffled and put the back of her hand to her mouth. "I think I'm going to cry."
"Me too," Brackett said, a trace of humor in his voice. The tension in the room eased slightly.
Roy finally spoke. "Thank you, Johnny. I don't understand any of this, but . . . thank you for being my brother."
Johnny smiled slowly. "Thank you. Merry Christmas, Roy."
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Stories by E!lf Christmas Stories