This is part of a series of stories where the character of Lydia March appears. You should read them in order to make much sense out of them. They are: Conversation Hearts, Tastes Like Chicken and Only With the Heart.
A Penny for Your Thoughts
"So... Shelly... ya got any plans for Valentine's Day?"
The petite blonde woman standing behind the Orthopedics nurses' station paused in her paperwork. It took her a long moment before she lifted her head and favored the blue uniformed paramedic leaning his elbow on the counter in front of her with a skeptical glance.
"And just how many others have you asked before me, Johnny? Five? Six? The entire floor?"
Johnny straightened up, his hand to his chest in an effort to look wounded. "Wha... How... how can you even think that?"
"Hmm... let's see." The blonde made an exaggerated effort to think. "Maybe because I know how you operate, and maybe...just maybe because true to John Gage style, you waited until the last minute. Valentine's Day is tomorrow, Johnny. Did you just remember that?"
"Uh.... well, no, I... I mean, I know it's tomorrow. How dumb do you think I am?" The dark haired man gave a short, self-conscious laugh, hoping Shelly didn't decide to answer that rhetorical question. "What I mean is... I just thought, well, maybe you didn't have any plans and..."
"And what makes you think I wouldn't have any plans?" Now the nurse placed indignant hands on her hips. "Unlike some people, I don't have a problem with my social life. I just so happen to have plans for tomorrow. Plans that were made ahead of time."
She swept up the patient files she was working on and marched away from the desk in a huff.
"Shelly... wait, I... I didn't mean..." Johnny trailed off in disappointment, though he let his gaze linger on the nurse's shapely backside as she headed down the hall. "Sheesh, women," he muttered to himself when she disappeared into the lounge at the end of the hall.
Blowing out a resigned sigh, Johnny finally turned, startled to see another nurse sitting at the desk, trying not to look in his direction. She must have been there the whole time, though he hadn't noticed her. From the little he could see of her face, she was pretty, but Johnny was too embarrassed that she'd obviously witnessed the fiasco with Shelly that he didn't give her much thought. The only thing he wanted at the moment was to make a half way dignified exit from Orthopedics.
"Uh... yeah... um, I gotta.... I gotta get going." He ran a disconcerted hand through his shaggy hair as the words tumbled out self-consciously in the direction of the young woman, but really to no one in particular. He held up the handie talkie as if to add weight to his words, then spun on his heel and headed to the elevator.
As the doors slid shut, closing out any prying eyes, Johnny leaned against the rear wall and blew out a disgusted sigh.
Man, what a total disaster. I must be losing my touch.
The elevator pinged, telling the paramedic that he had no more time alone to ponder his failure to get a date. The doors opened and he emerged into the crowded E.R., spying his partner talking to Dixie at her station.
Oh, great! Now they're both gonna ask me how it went.
He decided to play it cool, put on a smile and sauntered over to join his friends. With any luck he could just brush over any in-depth questions. Of course, if he was really lucky, the tones would sound right about now and he wouldn't have to even discuss it. But the radio stayed stubbornly silent.
"Hey, Dix," the paramedic greeted casually, with a little wave of his hand. He met Roy's eyes only briefly, not trusting his ability to dissemble in front of his partner.
"Hi, Johnny, how's it going," Dixie smiled back. Her voice sounded free of any teasing, so Johnny wondered if maybe Roy hadn't mentioned the details of Johnny's errand up to Orthopedics.
"Uh, fine, Dix. Just fine."
"We were starting to wonder if you'd gotten lost," she continued as she jotted down notes in the file in front of her. A wide smile finally broke through the nurse's innocent demeanor. "I mean, how long can it take to go up and say 'hi' to a sick friend."
Johnny let his shoulders sag and the grin faded from his face. He pinned Roy with an accusing glare.
"You told her."
Roy shrugged, calmly ignoring his partner's tone. "I didn't know it was a secret," he said as he sipped at his coffee.
The younger man's face twisted in a grimace as he shuffled over to pour himself a cup and considered whether he should be angry. He decided it wasn't worth it. Besides, Roy was right. He'd never been subtle in his attempts to wrangle dates from the nursing staff. There was no sense getting mad at his partner for something that wasn't his fault.
"I take it things didn't go well," Roy surmised after a moment.
Johnny leaned against the back counter and shook his head, still wondering at all the negative responses he'd gotten.
"That's putting it mildly," he snorted in disgust and took a drink of his coffee. "I just don't understand it. Every single one of them said I'd waited too long. That they'd already made plans. They can't all have plans." His free hand waved his frustration. "How can they all have plans?"
"How many did you ask, Johnny?" Dixie inquired, only half successful in hiding a smile.
"I dunno... four... maybe... five. Why?"
Dixie sighed and shook her head. Johnny frowned at her expression, then looked to Roy. The older paramedic's face showed his own disbelief. Johnny straightened up and set his cup on the counter.
"So? So, I asked more than one. What's the big deal?"
Dixie didn't answer. She merely sighed again, as if she could never explain it to him in a way he would understand. She slipped off her stool, gathered up her paperwork and moved out from behind the desk. Before she left, she squeezed Johnny's arm in a consoling gesture.
He watched her go, his frown deepening. "I don't think I'll ever understand women," he stated.
"Join the club," Roy chuckled. He grabbed the supplies they'd stopped by for and headed down the hall toward the exit.
Johnny took one last gulp of coffee before he set the mug down and hurried after his partner. It was some consolation that he wasn't the only man who was mystified by the workings of the female mind, but it still left him out in the cold with no date for Valentine's Day.
Fortunately for the paramedic, the rest of the shift was busy enough that he didn't have time to dwell on his problems. By the time eight o'clock rolled around the next morning, and Johnny waved goodbye to Roy and headed for his Rover, the only thing on his mind was the errands he needed to run before he went home. The most important was a trip to the grocery store. His fridge had been pretty bare when he'd left for work yesterday, and if he wanted to eat breakfast, he had to go shopping.
As he drove the few miles home, he made a mental list of the things he needed most - some milk, some eggs, a loaf a bread. He'd pick up a few things for Lydia too. He usually did when he was at the store, to save the older woman the trouble. As much as she called him a worry wart, Johnny didn't like her driving her old Buick. And even though she told him in no uncertain terms that she'd been driving for over fifty years without even a traffic ticket, Johnny had seen too many accidents caused by elderly motorists whose reflexes just weren't as good as they thought they were. It wasn't a big deal to pick up the few things he knew she could use.
He parked the Rover in the nearly empty lot. One nice thing about shopping at this hour was that most people were at work. The grocery store would be pretty much empty. With any luck, he'd be in and out in a few minutes, hopefully missing the coupon cutters and the bratty kids screaming for the candy that was always tantalizingly displayed at the checkout counters.
But walking into the store caused him to groan inwardly, even though there were only a few customers scattered among the aisles. The place was completely overwhelmed with hearts and flowers. From the fresh cut floral displays in the produce section, to the mass of balloons at every checkout, to large a freestanding display of candies, kiddie valentines, cupcake holders, foil doilies and decorations. There didn't seem to be any place that didn't scream out Valentine's Day.
Wondering if he was the only person on the planet without a date for tonight, Johnny grabbed a cart and started his shopping.
* * *
Lydia March heard the knock on her door, glanced at the clock and smiled. This time of the morning it could only be Johnny stopping by on his way home from work. The fact that it was a little later than usual meant that he'd either worked overtime or he'd made a trip to the store and had picked up some things for her.
The woman clucked her tongue at her friend's stubborn insistence on doing her errands, but she wasn't really put out. Though she would never admit it, it was actually a relief not to have to drive, and she enjoyed Johnny's affectionate sternness when he lectured her on the dangers of someone her age being on the road more than was necessary.
Someone her age. Well, she certainly had been feeling her age this past year. Her bout of bronchitis last February had only been the beginning. Twelve months later, many trips to the doctor and two more brief hospital stays had taken their toll. She knew she moved a little slower these days, tired more easily. On smoggy summer days she'd had to be sure and stay indoors or breathing became a painful chore.
She put up a brave front. She kept busy with her small flower garden and with her friends at the Senior Center. She still loved to bake and was always sending plates of goodies with Johnny to the men at Station 51, or over to Roy's children to enjoy. People usually commented that they didn't know where she got all her energy, but most days, by the time evening fell, she was more than done in.
Johnny knew it too. Though he kept his own counsel and never pestered her about doing too much, Lydia could see in his eyes the apprehension he felt over her health. There were unguarded moments when she would catch him watching her, then he would look away as if afraid to bring out in the open a subject that neither of them wanted to talk about. She loved him for both things - for caring about her enough to worry, and for realizing the last thing she wanted was for him to make a big fuss about it.
She pushed all that from her mind, however, as she opened the door to find her favorite paramedic standing on her steps, his arms full of groceries.
"'Morning, Lydia," he greeted with a smile, then stepped inside as she moved to let him in.
"'Morning, yourself," she replied as she shut the door and followed him into her kitchen. "Land's sake, you bought enough to feed an army," she observed with a chuckle as he began emptying the bags.
"Aw, it's not that much. I knew you were low on coffee, and I figured you could always use a loaf of bread... and some butter. Oh, and they had eggs on special, so I went ahead and got you a dozen."
Lydia shook her head as he rattled on, wondering what would have become of her if she'd never met John Gage.
That's easy. You would have died in your apartment, burned to a crisp, ol' girl, she told herself with an inward laugh, as she began to put away the food Johnny had set on the counter. Most of the items were things she was nearly out of, though how Johnny always knew the contents of her cupboards was beyond her. She'd never yet caught him going through her pantry.
"How much do I owe you for all this?" She asked as she put the coffee up in the cupboard over the sink. She knew before he even opened his mouth what he was going to say.
"Don't worry about it." His manner was off handed as he folded up the paper bags. "It was only a couple of bucks."
"Now, Johnny... This old lady's not senile yet. I know all this was more than just a couple of bucks." She fixed him with a stern look, but he flashed her that exasperating grin of his, and Lydia sighed in resignation. This was an argument she could never win.
"Honest, Lydia," Johnny assured her, as if he'd heard the weariness in her sigh and wanted to be sure he wasn't crossing a line. "It wasn't that much."
In spite of her resolve to be firm with him, Lydia felt a smile tug at her lips.
"What am I going to do with you, John Gage?"
The paramedic's grin only grew larger. Lydia chuckled and shook her head. "Well at least come over and let me feed you dinner tonight. That's at least a small way I can pay you back."
"It's a date," Johnny agreed, then paused and regarded her quizzically. "Hey, how'd you know I didn't have a date for tonight?"
Lydia felt an instant of panic that she might have given herself away and ruined her carefully laid plans, but she recovered and merely reached out to take hold of the paramedic's hand.
"I didn't know for sure," she told him. "I just figured if you had a something lined up, you'd have been telling me about it from the minute you walked in the door."
Johnny looked as if he was considering that for a moment, then his mouth twisted in a resigned frown.
"Yeah, I guess you're right." He brightened and managed a wry smile. "Looks like you're still my best girl."
If she hadn't known him so well, Lydia might have missed the longing she heard under Johnny's light hearted tone. As it was, she took his hand in both of hers and smiled warmly. "Never you worry, my boy. Some day I'll be bumped down to second best."
Johnny laughed, the merriment back in his eyes. "No way, Lydia. You'll always be number one in my book."
She smiled more broadly. "We'll see, young man. We'll just wait and see."
He gave her hand a firm squeeze, then dropped it and started for the front door. "What time is dinner tonight?" he asked.
"Come by about six. And dress nice. We'll make it a special occasion."
"Okay. I'll see ya then." He opened the door and started out, but Lydia stopped him.
"Oh, I forgot to tell you," she said, with what she hoped was a casual tone. "I've invited my friend Penelope too. You've heard me talk about her?"
"Sure," Johnny replied with only slight hesitation.
Lydia knew he must be thinking his social life had hit an all time low to be spending Valentine's Day with two little old ladies. She smiled and hoped he would eventually forgive her well meant deception.
"She didn't have anyone to spend the evening with, so I asked her over as well. I hope that's all right. I think you'll like her."
Johnny's face was a mix of emotions, but he cocked an inquisitive eyebrow and asked, "Does she have blue hair?"
Lydia laughed and shook her head. "No. I make sure none of my friends have blue hair."
Johnny chuckled then gave her a little wave as he trotted down the steps. "See ya tonight."
Lydia watched him shove his hands in his pockets and head down the walkway towards his own apartment. She smiled, happy that things were working out the way she'd hoped. Now if only both her friends would be able to rise above any indignation at her meddling and let themselves enjoy the evening.
* * *
Penny Chandler pulled her car into one of the vacant "visitor" parking spaces at the sprawling apartment complex and turned off the engine. As she opened the door, the chill of the February evening caused her to shiver a little inside her linen dress jacket. Pulling the thin fabric closer, she wished she was in jeans and a sweatshirt, but Lydia had talked her into dressing up for the night, even though it was just the two of them. What had sounded like a fun idea at the time, now seemed a little foolish.
Looking forward to the warmth of Lydia's apartment, Penny hurried down the walkway. She'd been here a few times before. Their friendship had sprung up over the last year since the spirited old woman had been in the hospital fighting bronchitis. After that initial stay, Lydia had made it a point to seek Penny out whenever she had to come to the hospital, which unfortunately had been often. There were follow up breathing treatments, as well as a couple more flare ups that required Lydia to be admitted. During all that, Penny had discovered a strength of spirit in the elderly woman that she'd only gotten a glimpse of in their first meeting.
Penny cherished the friend she'd found. The only grandmother she'd ever known had passed away three years ago, leaving a void that Lydia seemed more than willing to fill. As a nurse, Penny knew she likely wouldn't have that friendship for more than a few years at the most. The emphysema that plagued her lungs was wearing the older woman down. Because of that, Penny had been willing to humor Lydia's whimsical idea to dress up for Valentine's Day.
No sense letting our nice clothes hang in the closet just because we're on our own tonight.
Penny smiled at the memory of the twinkle in Lydia's eyes, but hastened her steps as the breeze picked up and whipped at her skirt. It would have been nice to have a date tonight, but with as busy as her job kept her, she really had no time to spend on her social life. She didn't worry about it too much - not like some of the girls she worked with who spent most of their time gossiping about who was seeing whom and which of the handsome, single paramedics might be interested in them.
Not that Penny would have minded if any of those same paramedics showed some interest in her. The ones she knew were nice guys for the most part. Nice enough that she would have agreed to go out with him if he'd only asked - even if it was the day before Valentine's Day.
There I go again, Penny berated herself angrily. Why do I do that? It's not like John Gage ever even looked my way. Why is it any time I even think about paramedics I end up focusing on him?
Maybe because he's Lydia's friend and I know he lives in this building. Maybe because he's who most of the nurses at work gossip about on their breaks. Maybe because he makes himself such a visible presence on nearly every floor of the hospital it's just natural that his face comes to mind.
That made sense. It was a logical reason. There was no other way of explaining it.
Except for the truth, Penny snorted, but shook those thoughts out of her head as she trotted up the last few steps to Lydia's apartment. Whatever schoolgirl crush she had wasn't going to go away by dwelling on it. And she certainly didn't want Lydia to pick up on it and think the only reason Penny had become her friend was to get close to Johnny. Because it wasn't. Penny knew several co-workers who weren't above such ploys, but she didn't want to find herself suddenly put in that group.
She reached the door and rang the bell. In a moment Lydia opened it and ushered her inside, chasing all Penny's self-recrimination away.
"Come in, come in. It's so cold outside."
As Lydia closed the door and ushered Penny into the cozy living room, the aroma of roast beef wafted in from the kitchen.
"Mmmm, smells great," Penny said with an appreciative sniff. "I wish you'd've let me bring something though."
"Nonsense," Lydia laughed. "When I invite somebody for dinner, I don't expect them to bring the meal."
Penny chuckled and took the seat Lydia gestured her to. "At least let me help... get down the dishes, set the table, take out the trash."
"Not a thing, my dear. You just sit down and get warm. Dinner will be ready in a minute." The older woman started toward the kitchen, then turned back around as if she'd forgotten something. "Oh, I invited another friend over who didn't have anywhere to go tonight. I hope you don't mind... it was rather last minute."
"No, not at all," Penny assured her host. She knew Lydia had several friends at the Senior Center who were elderly widows and might welcome some company on Valentine's Day. "The more the merrier, right?"
"Right," Lydia beamed, then headed toward the kitchen.
Penny sat back and luxuriated in the warmth of the overstuffed chair. She smiled to herself. There could be worse things in life than spending Valentine's Day with two little old ladies.
After a few minutes of listening to Lydia bustle about in the kitchen, Penny heard a knock on the door.
"I think your friend's here, Lydia," Penny called over her shoulder as got up to answer the door. Then, not recalling Lydia mentioning a name, added, "What was her name?"
She couldn't quite make out what Lydia answered, so Penny reached for the door thinking she'd be greeting a pleasant, white haired old lady named Bertha or Agnes or some other old fashioned name. The last person she expected to find was John Gage, standing there with flowers in each hand and the most startled expression on his face Penny had ever seen.
* * *
It was hard to say who was the most surprised. As Johnny stood there staring at the pretty young woman who held the door open, wondering why he hadn't been met by an elderly woman; trying to figure out if he was even at the right apartment, it finally registered in his brain that she hadn't been expecting him either. Her eyes were open wide and her face held a look that Johnny might have described as dismayed if she hadn't suddenly recovered and taken a step back. She glanced over her shoulder as if looking for help from that quarter, then returned her gaze. She let her eyes rest briefly on the small arrangements of roses and carnations Johnny held in his hands before they settled again on his face.
"Um... Hi... uh... I guess Lydia is expecting you?"
It was a question, and it told Johnny he wasn't the only one Lydia hadn't been completely honest with. He craned his neck to peer past the girl, trying to spot his friend.
"Yeah... uh, yeah, I was, uh... s'posed to come over for dinner and... I, uh..."
"Oh, there you are." Lydia came rushing up behind the confused woman, her weathered face beaming at both her guests. "Why are you standing around letting all that cold air in?" she scolded with a mock scowl. "Johnny, come in, come in, and close the door."
Johnny finally realized his mouth was open and closed it as he stepped inside the apartment. As the three of them made their way out of the entryway and into the living room, Lydia kept up her stream of conversation.
"Here, let me take your jacket." She reached up and Johnny had no choice but to shrug out of the sport coat he'd worn at Lydia's insistence that tonight was a special occasion. "What lovely flowers."
"They're for you," Johnny told her, holding out his right hand. Lydia took them and buried her nose in them.
"They smell wonderful. Thank you."
Johnny glanced down at the flowers in his other hand. He'd originally only picked up one arrangement, meant for Lydia. But when she'd told him her friend was coming he'd gallantly split them so each woman could have some. But that was when he'd envisioned a lonely gray haired old lady. Now he stood there feeling stupid as he hesitantly stuck out his other hand toward the young woman in front of him. It was the first time he'd been able to see her in full lighting and he felt a vague flash of recognition. But it wasn't enough to tell him where he might have met her, so he dismissed it as unimportant as he stumbled over what he should say.
"I... uh, I guess these are for you... Penelope?"
She really had no choice but to take the flowers, but her pretty face screwed up in distaste. At first, Johnny thought he'd unwittingly committed some faux pas, but as he opened his mouth to stammer out an apology, Lydia spoke up to explain.
"Penny, Johnny... she goes by Penny. Though I think Penelope is a lovely name. But then, I never liked Lydia much when I was younger."
Johnny had never heard his elderly friend talk so fast. It was obvious she was trying to smooth over the awkward moment. Even though she'd conned him like a pro, the paramedic knew she'd thought she was helping him out, so he took pity on her and sniffed the air with exaggerated delight.
"Something sure smells good, Lydia. I hope that's dinner."
"It sure is, it sure is. Come on in and sit down, you two." Lydia shooed them ahead of her into the living room. "Have a seat. We'll eat in a few minutes." With that she moved to hang Johnny's jacket in the closet, then bustled off to the kitchen to check on dinner.
Left alone with Penny, Johnny found himself wracking his brains for something to say that would fill in the uncomfortable silence. He could tell by the young woman's stiff posture and fidgeting hands that she was just as ill at ease as he was, and he blasted his self- conscious ineptness.
Damn it, what's wrong with me? I've talked to chicks before. What's the big deal? So I got set up... so? She's cute. I just gotta open my mouth and say something.
"Um... so, Penny... uh, what..." He cleared his throat and tried again. "What do you do... for a living, I mean."
There. I got that out okay.
"I work at Rampart. I'm a nurse."
A fleeting smile flashed across Penny's face, but it didn't stay there, and Johnny suddenly felt like he'd flunked some kind of test.
"Rampart, huh? You must be new. I'm there a lot and I know most of the nurses..." Johnny let his voice trail off as he realized what he sounded like. "Um... well, what I mean is that you kinda get to know people you work with." He grinned, thinking he'd made a fairly good recovery.
Penny smiled back, but again, it was a token gesture, one that told Johnny he'd stumbled once more.
"Actually, I've worked at Rampart for a little over a year. That's where I met Lydia. I've seen you there. I know you're a paramedic."
"A year? Really?" But even as he spoke, he realized his big mistake. He wasn't stupid, just sometimes fumbled footed around pretty girls. He knew he'd hurt her feelings by letting her know he'd never noticed her before. "Um... which floor?"
"I got rotated around quite a bit the first six or seven months," Penny explained. "So it would have been easy to miss me. I'm mostly in Orthopedics these days."
"Orthopedics? But I was just up there yester..."
He stopped, and knew his face flushed brightly as it suddenly dawned on him where he'd seen her. Penny smiled once more, but this time there was nothing but kindness in it.
"I was there. Shelly wasn't very nice to you."
"Yeah... well, I... I guess I shoulda asked sooner."
"If it makes you feel any better," Penny offered helpfully, "Shelly didn't have a date 'til yesterday morning. So don't believe all that stuff she was spouting off about making plans weeks ahead of time."
Johnny felt his eyebrows lift in surprise. "Yesterday morning?" Penny chuckled and nodded, and the paramedic frowned in puzzlement. "Then why did she lay all that guilt on me about waiting? Why would she do that?"
Penny shrugged and Johnny liked the way her hair bounced on her shoulder when she did that. "Probably because she wasn't the first girl you asked."
Johnny pondered that for a long moment, wondering why it was such a big deal. When he glanced back up at Penny he frowned. For an instant her face wore that same expression Dixie's had yesterday. The look that said she was restraining herself from patting him on the head for his simplicity. But it didn't stay long, and her mouth quirked up in a wry smile.
"Maybe next time don't ask more than one girl on a floor."
He shot her a glare, thinking for a moment that she was being sarcastic, but he hadn't heard that in her tone and he didn't see it in her face. After a moment he decided she was sincere and flashed her a grateful grin.
"That's probably good advice. I'll remember that."
Penny's half smile transformed into a delighted laugh, and the atmosphere at last relaxed between them. And when Lydia entered the room and announced dinner was ready, Johnny was collected enough to offer Penny his arm and escort her to the table.
* * *
"I can't believe you didn't ask her out." Roy finished buttoning up his shirt and sat down on the locker room bench to tie his shoes. "You said she was cute, right?"
"Yeah. She's cute." Johnny hung up his shirt and pulled out his uniform one. "That's not the point."
Roy shook his head in disbelief. "Then I guess I missed the point. You said she's pretty... she was fun to talk to... so why can't you ask her out?"
Johnny shook his head. Roy just didn't get it. "Because it was a set up," he explained patiently. "No matter how great a chick she is, it was still a blind date. I can't act too eager or she'll think I'm a pathetic loser."
"Who's a pathetic loser?" Chet inquired as he strolled into the locker room. "As if I need to ask," he added with a smart alek grin.
"Shut up, Chet," Johnny said wearily. This wasn't going to be a productive conversation at all if Kelly was involved.
"Nobody's a loser. Johnny just doesn't want to look like one," Roy explained with a smile.
"Too late," Kelly quipped, then ducked the wadded up roll of socks Johnny lobbed at him.
"This is a private conversation, Kelly," the paramedic growled. "Get lost, wouldja?"
"Sure, I can take a hint." The Irishman did his best to look offended. "I know when I'm not wanted."
"You're never wanted," Johnny called out after Chet's disappearing figure. He shook his head and turned back to Roy, waiting a moment to be sure Kelly was really gone. Then he sat down beside his partner to further explain.
"Look, Roy, it's called strategy. We had fun, yeah, but I have to wait a little while or she'll think I'm desperate." He paused and regarded his friend with a critical eye. "Didn't you ever date anybody besides Joanne?"
Roy straightened up, looking slightly defensive. "Of course I did. Joanne and I broke up once or twice. I didn't just sit around. Once I even took her best friend to the movies to make her jealous." The blond paramedic smiled knowingly. "See? I understand strategy."
Johnny stared at Roy unimpressed. "How old were you?"
Roy's fair face flushed at the question. "Thirteen," he admitted sheepishly.
"Thirteen. Thirteen!" Johnny threw up his hands in disgusted resignation. "Roy, that's not strategy, that's... that's.... well, I don't know what it is, but you just don't know what it's like to play the field."
"No, I guess I don't," Roy agreed, looking happy about the fact.
"Man... Don't you know there are rules? Rules. I can't ask her out yet."
"But you will?"
"Well... sure. I mean, when I think the time is right."
Johnny frowned at the way Roy shook his head and stood up to tuck in his shirt. His face wore that expression of non-comprehension he frequently got when they were discussing Johnny's dating habits.
He just doesn't get it, he told himself as he finished getting dressed. It's a good thing one of us does.
* * *
Penny set the med tray down on the station counter and paused for a short breather. It was one of those days when it seemed like none of their patients could settle down and get comfortable. The persistent buzz of call buttons had certainly kept the staff hopping all morning.
"My gosh, that's the sixth sponge bath I've given that old man."
Penny turned as Shelly came up beside her, her blonde hair falling out of the bun she was wearing it in. She leaned her elbows on the counter and blew out impatiently.
"Mr. Giovanetti?" Penny asked with a sympathetic chuckle. They'd all had their turns with the man who just couldn't get enough attention from pretty young nurses.
"Who else?" Shelly shook her head and tucked a stray strand of hair back into it's bobby pin. "I swear that old geezer's just a..."
"You don't get paid to stand around, ladies," came the smooth tones of the charge nurse as she brushed past them to move behind the station desk.
Shelly made a face that Miss Tanner couldn't see and pushed the rolling cart with the bathing supplies on it down the hall to the supply room. Penny slipped around the back of the counter to mark down the meds she'd dispensed in the correct charts. She could see her superior out of the corner of her eye as the woman flipped through a stack of X-Ray envelopes, then made a frustrated sound.
"Are you done there, Chandler?" the woman asked brusquely.
"I will be in two seconds." Penny finished jotting down her notes, then flipped the chart closed.
"Good. Dr. Reynolds wants to see the film of Mrs. Stanton's leg, but it's not up here. Can you run down to Emergency and see if they still have it down there?"
"Sure thing." Penny set down the charts and headed toward the elevator. She was glad for the chance to get off the floor for a few minutes, even if it was just to run downstairs.
When the doors opened and she stepped off the elevator the normally chaotic Emergency Room seemed almost peaceful compared to what they'd been dealing with all day in Orthopedics. There were only a few people sitting in the chairs waiting to be seen, and none of the personnel who came and went from the many treatment rooms seemed to be in a hurry. Penny knew it was a false sense of serenity. She'd pulled a few rotations in E.R. as a student nurse and knew that any minute the quiet calm could be shattered and the following hours spent in frantic urgency.
She headed toward the main station where she saw Dixie McCall bent over some paperwork. The head nurse was famous for her order and control, the way she held this department together no matter the crisis. If they had Mrs. Crandall's X-Rays down here, Dixie would know about it.
The older woman glanced up and smiled as Penny approached. They didn't know each other well, had really only been introduced once, but Dixie seemed friendly to just about everybody.
"Hi, Miss McCall," Penny greeted. "I'm Penny Chandler... from Orthopedics." Dixie nodded as if she had remembered. Penny wouldn't have been surprised if she did. "We need the X-Rays for Mrs. Stanton... the tib-fib fracture you guys sent us this morning. There're not upstairs."
Dixie frowned for a moment as if thinking what might have happened, then she brightened and got up from her stool.
"I think I know where they ended up. Hang on a minute, and I'll track them down."
As Dixie came out from behind the station, Penny leaned her arms on the counter, ready to wait a few minutes. She watched as Dixie opened the door to Treatment Room 3, then paused and backed up a few steps to let someone out first. Much to Penny's dismay, it was John Gage and Roy DeSoto.
"Hey, guys," Dixie greeted pleasantly. "Is he going to live?" she asked, directing her question to Roy.
"For a while yet," the blond paramedic chuckled. "Just a few stitches and some iodine and he's as good as new."
"A few? A few?" Johnny held up his gauze wrapped forearm. "You call seven stitches a few?"
Penny watched them banter for a brief time as Johnny protested the casual way his friends dismissed his injury. The young nurse was torn between a desire to find a place to hide so Johnny wouldn't see her and the urge to lash out at him and vent her hurt feelings that he hadn't called her - hadn't even spoken to her - since their dinner at Lydia's.
She wouldn't do either. The first because there was no way she could slip away without the two paramedics seeing her, and she really did need the film Dixie was retrieving for her. The second because even though her heart ached about Johnny's apparent rejection, her head told her it wasn't his fault he wasn't attracted to her. It wasn't his fault she wasn't the gorgeous, model-type he normally chased after. And it certainly wasn't his fault he'd had to spend Valentine's Day with her. He'd been duped just as artfully as she had.
He'd been very nice to her that night. She had to give him credit for that. Once they'd gotten past those first few awkward moments, they'd actually had a nice time. Well, you did, she corrected herself. He was just being a gentlemen... being pleasant to a girl whose company had been foisted upon him.
Maybe that was the problem. Maybe if he'd been less convincing. Maybe if she hadn't gotten the impression that he was enjoying himself. Maybe then she wouldn't have built up her already growing fantasy. Maybe she would have been able to tell herself she'd had her shot and it didn't work out. She was normally a practical person. She should have been able to take the dinner for what it was and move on.
But he had seemed to be having a good time. He'd talked about his job and the funny things he encountered in dealing with the public. He'd seemed sincerely interested as Penny had shared some of her own stories. They'd even managed to talk Lydia into letting the two of them clean up the kitchen, and the time they'd spent at the sink doing dishes together had been the highlight of the evening in Penny's mind. It wasn't until Johnny volunteered to walk her to her car at the end of the night that she'd sensed some of his initial self-consciousness return.
She thought at first it was just the typical end-of-date jitters. It was always an awkward moment when you didn't know if he was going to ask you out again, try and kiss you, ask for your phone number. All those things had run through Penny's head as Johnny had opened her car door and held it for her. But none of them had happened. Johnny has simply closed the door, given her a little wave and watched as she drove away.
For the first few days Penny had waited for him to come talk to her. Even though he didn't get her number, he certainly knew how to find her. But he'd never put in an appearance in Orthopedics. And after a week and half went by, she had to face the unpleasant fact that he didn't want to go out with her again.
So now she stayed where she was, knowing it was inevitable that Johnny would see her. There was no way to avoid it. She squashed her disappointment down to a controllable level. She had to be able to talk to him in a casual and unconcerned manner. She couldn't let him see how much she'd been unnerved just by running into him.
Just as she'd expected, as soon as the two paramedics had finished talking with Dixie and the nurse had pushed on into the treatment room, they both headed in Penny's direction. Too late, she noticed the small box of supplies that Dixie must have gotten ready for them while Johnny was being treated. They'd only gone a step when Johnny caught sight of her.
Penny wasn't sure what she saw flash across the paramedic's face. Surprise, panic, uncertainty. They all could have been there in the widening of his eyes. But as he and Roy came nearer, he managed to put on an almost convincing smile.
"Hey... Penny." he greeted with only slight hesitation. "How are ya?"
"I'm fine," she answered, glad that her own voice sounded steadier than his. "Looks like you're not though." She gestured to his bandaged arm. "Is it bad?"
Johnny glanced at the wound and shrugged. "This? No. It's just a scratch. Only needed a few stitches."
Penny almost laughed at the expression on Roy's face as his partner used his own words to downplay a wound Johnny had earlier acted like was practically life-threatening.
"So...uh, what are you doing in Emergency?"
It was Penny's turn to shrug. "Just picking up some X-Rays."
"Oh." Johnny stood silently for a time, his hands in his pockets. Then, as if he'd latched onto a life preserver, he realized Roy was standing beside him. "Uh, this is my partner... Roy. Roy DeSoto. Roy, this is Penny. She... she, uh, works up in Orthopedics.
"Hi," Roy greeted, his voice warm, but Penny didn't miss the look he gave the man beside him at the mention of her name. She wished she knew if that was a good thing or not. Obviously Roy knew about the Valentine's Day dinner.
"Hi, Roy," Penny replied and shook the man's hand.
After that there was a moment of uncomfortable silence, during which Johnny stood there and fidgeted with a loose string hanging from the gauze on his arm. Penny wracked her brain desperately for something to say, but Roy saved them both from further torture. He gestured to the box of supplies.
"Looks like Dix got everything we needed. You ready to go, Johnny?"
"Yeah, uh, I guess so. I mean, yeah, we gotta go." He waited for Roy to scoop up the box, then held up his hand in a weak goodbye gesture. "Um... I guess I'll uh, see ya around," he stammered out, walking backwards a few stumbling steps before he finally turned around and followed his partner down the hall towards the exit.
Penny stared after him. She'd survived - mostly. But she was more convinced than ever that there would be no future evenings spent in Johnny's company. His discomfort at seeing her was only too obvious. But it hurt. It hurt more than she'd been willing to admit before now.
She felt the sting of tears, but angrily kept them in check. She wasn't going to cry. Especially when it was over something that had never even been in the first place. By the time Dixie came back with the X-Rays, Penny was sure she managed to look like nothing more was bothering her except how busy she was at work.
* * *
March had come in mild for a change. Lydia stood with her watering can in hand. She'd been tending her array of potted plants and flowers that made her small patio bright. She took in a deep lungful of the fresh Spring air, grateful that the breath didn't end in a cough like it had been doing all winter. She liked this time of year.
She heard a loud banging from inside her apartment and frowned. Johnny was inside fixing a leaky pipe under her kitchen sink. He'd insisted on doing it for her, even though she'd told him repeatedly it wasn't that big a problem, and she could wait for the maintenance man to come around. Johnny had only scoffed at how slow the guy was and how it would only take him a few minutes. That had been nearly an hour ago.
Setting down the watering can, Lydia came through the open sliding glass door and shut the screen, wanting to let in some of the brisk air. She was worried - but not about her sink. She was worried about her friend and why he was spending his day off here in her apartment. She knew he had a multitude of hobbies that could easily claim his free time. But here he was, cooped up indoors instead of taking advantage of the beautiful day.
He'd been rather quiet the last week or so, and even though he'd assured her that he wasn't upset with her attempt at matchmaking, Lydia was still concerned that perhaps she'd made a big mistake.
She entered her kitchen and could see two long, denim-clad legs sticking out from under her sink. As she sat down at the table, however, a string of expletives sounded loud and clear from the small space the paramedic was crammed into.
"Not going so well?" Lydia asked with a chuckle.
"Huh?" Johnny wormed his way out and sat up on the linoleum floor. "Oh, Lydia... sorry." He grinned a bit sheepishly. "I thought you were still outside."
"Don't worry," she laughed. "My tender ears have heard worse than that." She tilted her head at the sink. "Why don't you take a break. You're working too hard."
Johnny regarded the pipes with chagrin. "I thought I had it taken care of, but now it looks like there's a second leak."
"Well, then, definitely take a break." She scooted out the chair across from her with her foot. "Come on and sit down for a minute. There's some cold water in the fridge. Help yourself."
Johnny dragged his arm across his sweaty forehead and shrugged in defeat. "Okay. But just for a minute. I want to get this taken care of."
He stood up, wiped his hands on the sides of his jeans, then grabbed a glass from the cupboard. He pulled open the refrigerator door and stared for a moment.
"There's milk if you'd rather," Lydia offered. She knew more often than not milk was Johnny's drink of choice.
"Nah, water's fine." He pulled out the pitcher and filled his glass, then replaced the container and shut the door. He took a long sip, then walked over to plop down in the chair, taking another drink before he set the glass down on the table and swiped his arm across his mouth. "That hits the spot," he declared.
"You shouldn't be working this hard on your days off," Lydia scolded affectionately. "Don't you have better things to do... a young man like yourself?"
"Not so you'd notice." Johnny snorted with bemusement. He ran his finger around the rim of his glass, his face preoccupied.
They sat in silence for a time. Lydia studied her friend and her worry kicked up another degree. Knowing he might not want her to pry, the woman reached out a tentative hand and lay it on top of his younger one. When he glanced up to meet her gaze, she gave his fingers a comforting squeeze.
"You want to tell me what's bothering you?" she invited gently.
He gave her a quick smile, and she thought at first he was going to put her off, but then he pulled his hand away from her and ran it over his face, breathing out a long sigh.
"I dunno, Lydia... I think I blew it big time."
"Blew what, my boy?"
Johnny hesitated, and the hand that had been on his face ran up through his hair as he self-consciously admitted, "Penny. Your friend."
Lydia's brows rose in surprise. It was the first time in a while that they'd talked about the girl. The fear that she'd offended Johnny rose again.
"Oh, Johnny, I'm so sorry. I never meant to put you on the spot that way."
"What? Oh, no, it isn't that," he assured her hastily. "I mean, you surprised me all right, but it was a good surprise." He smiled broadly. "She was nice. I liked her. I liked her a lot."
Lydia felt a small degree of relief. He'd told her this before, but she'd had some trouble believing him.
"Then what's wrong? What did you do?"
The paramedic's handsome features twisted up in self-recrimination. "Nothing. That's the problem. I didn't do a damn... uh, darn thing."
Lydia hid a smile at his attempt to shield her from his language. It was one of the things that endeared him to her - his protectiveness.
"I'm not sure I understand," she told him.
He breathed out a heavy sigh. "It just seems I can't do anything right when it comes to women. Ya know, Chet's always telling me I'm a loser. Maybe he's right."
"Now you're just feeling sorry for yourself," Lydia scolded indignantly, not liking to hear her friend be so down on himself. "And besides, when did you ever believe anything Chet Kelly told you?"
That earned her a half-hearted chuckle. "Okay, okay. But I still doubt she'll ever want to go out with me."
"But why? I haven't talked with her about it, but I got the feeling she liked you too."
"Maybe then," Johnny allowed. "But now she probably thinks I'm the biggest idiot around." Her confusion must've shown on her face for the paramedic elaborated. "I never called her. I never even talked to her. I mean, she was there... at Rampart. All I had to do was hop on the elevator and go find her, but I never did."
"Why didn't you?" Lydia asked quietly. She had a pretty good idea why, but she wanted to be sure Johnny understood his actions.
His thin shoulders lifted and his hand waved through the air helplessly. "I dunno... I was trying not to look... needy... ya know? I thought if I asked too soon... came on too strong...." He paused, his words silent, but his hand still waved helplessly for a time. Then it fell to the table and stayed there. "I dunno," he repeated. "Somehow it all made sense at the time, but now... now it's too late."
"I don't believe in 'too late', Johnny," Lydia counseled evenly. "And you can't go around second guessing what people feel or think. How do you know what Penny will do if you never ask her?"
Johnny didn't look convinced, and he shook his head as he took another drink of water. "Would you go out with a guy if it took him over three weeks to call you?"
Lydia smiled, the memory of Albert and how shy he had been vivid in her memory. She reached out and once more took Johnny's hand.
"I would if I thought he was worth the wait." Her smile grew more introspective. "Albert was more than worth the wait."
"You waited for Albert?"
"For over a month. The poor boy was petrified to come calling. We'd been introduced at a dance by a friend of mine. I liked him right off, but Albert had convinced himself he wasn't my type and was afraid to look pushy." She chuckled warmly. "And I kept wondering what was taking him so long."
Johnny's eyes took on a hopeful light. "You think Penny might be wondering what's taking me so long?"
"I can't say," Lydia replied honestly. "But if she is, I think she's waited long enough... don't you?"
That irrepressible grin returned and it warmed Lydia's heart to see it.
* * *
Penny approached Lydia's apartment door with some degree of apprehension. When the older woman had called and invited her to come over for lunch on her day off, Penny had accepted readily, but then began to worry that Lydia might want to talk about Johnny. And the last thing Penny wanted was to have to explain to her friend that John Gage just wasn't interested in her. It wasn't so much that she was afraid to admit that to Lydia. It was just that Penny didn't want the older woman to play go-between and try and make it right between them. Things had gone badly enough. Penny wanted to at least keep her dignity intact. But when Lydia greeted her at the door, all those anxieties were pushed to the back of her mind, replaced instead with concern for her friend.
Lydia looked tired. Her face was pale and there were lines around her eyes and mouth that Penny could swear had nothing to do with the woman's age.
"Are you feeling okay," she asked as Lydia welcomed her inside and offered her a chair in the living room.
"I'm fine, I'm fine," the older woman assured her. "I just did a little too much house cleaning this morning."
"Well, then you sit down, and I'll take care of lunch," Penny advised. She got up from the easy chair and gestured Lydia to sit down. It spoke volumes to how weary the older woman was that she didn't argue with her guest.
"I'll just rest a bit, dear," she agreed as she sank back into the chair. "If you want to bring in the trays. I have just about everything set up."
"I'll take care of it," Penny answered. "You just relax."
With one last concerned look at the older woman, she walked into the small kitchen. Just as Lydia had said, there were two trays sitting on the table. On each was an empty soup bowl and a plate with a sandwich cut in half diagonally. There were glasses as well, but they hadn't been filled yet.
Penny followed her nose to the stove and a large pot of obviously homemade vegetable soup. After she filled both bowls, she opened the fridge and found a pitcher of iced tea. Knowing Lydia the way she did, she assumed this had been home brewed as well. Smiling, she poured them each a glassful, then returned the pitcher to the refrigerator.
"This looks great, Lydia," Penny said as she carried the woman's tray in to her. "I have a feeling the cleaning the house wasn't the only thing that took up your morning."
Lydia took the tray and settled it in her lap, then rubbed at her left shoulder ruefully. "Well, I've never liked canned soup," she chuckled. "But I may have overdone it just a bit."
"Is your arm okay?" Penny asked as she retrieved her own lunch from the kitchen.
"Oh, it will be. I think I just pulled a muscle or something."
Lydia's voice sounded strong, but Penny noticed the older woman winced a bit as she rubbed her shoulder one last time before she turned her attention to her lunch.
"Just be sure and see a doctor if it keeps hurting," she advised as she took a bite of the soup. "Oh, this is good, Lydia."
"Thank you, my dear."
Their conversation turned to casual things as they both dug into their lunch. Penny kept an eye on her friend, but relaxed a little as Lydia seemed to be eating fine and with no apparent discomfort, except for occasional rubbing at her shoulder. By the time they'd finished, their trays back in the kitchen, and they sat sipping their tea, Penny had managed to put her worry behind her.
"That was delicious," she told her host as she leaned back in her chair contentedly.
"Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it. That's one of the things I love to do is cook for people." Lydia set her glass on the end table beside her and sighed softly. "I have to admit though, lunch was only an excuse to get you over here."
Penny frowned, afraid she knew what the woman was going to bring up. "What do you mean?" she asked tentatively.
"I wanted to apologize for the other night. It really wasn't fair of me to surprise you like that."
"Lydia, I've already told you not to worry about it. I had fun that night. I really did."
Lydia nodded thoughtfully, and Penny waited, wondering what else was going to come up, and afraid it was the one thing she didn't want to talk about.
"I think you both had a good time that night," the woman continued.
Penny smiled ruefully and gave her head a small shake. "I can't speak for Johnny." And then she couldn't stop herself from adding, "And he certainly hasn't spoken for himself."
The moment the words were out of her mouth, Penny regretted them. Hadn't she vowed not to say anything to Lydia? And yet, the first chance she got, she blurted it all out.
"I'm sorry," she murmured self-consciously. "I didn't mean for you to have to hear that. Look, Lydia, I know Johnny's your friend. And I know you were just trying to be helpful when you invited us over for dinner. But it's just one of those things that didn't work out. It's no big deal. I'm just not Johnny's type."
"You didn't say he wasn't yours."
Penny couldn't face the older woman or meet her perceptive eyes. She merely shook her head. "No, I didn't, did I?" she said quietly, then shrugged. "It doesn't matter."
There was a long silence between them, then Lydia spoke up in a kindly voice. "I won't pester you, my dear. I'll only say this and then I'll let it drop. I wouldn't fret too much about being anybody's type. Just be yourself. I think Penny Chandler is pretty special, just as she is."
Penny flushed at the words, but didn't say anything. After a moment, Lydia continued.
"As for Johnny... well, all I can say is that in my experience, men don't always chase what they want to catch. I wouldn't give up on him just yet, if I were you."
Penny listened, afraid to let herself kindle that spark again. Maybe Lydia was right... maybe. But it was hard to risk letting herself be hurt worse. And that's what would happen if she built up false hopes.
She needed to stop thinking about the whole thing, so she stood and reached for Lydia's empty tea glass.
"You need a refill?" she asked brightly, hoping she hadn't offended the woman by switching gears on her.
Lydia rubbed once more at her arm and shook her head. "No, thanks. And don't you worry about the dishes, my dear. I'll take care of them later."
"Don't you worry about them," Penny chided lightly. "There's not a lot. It will only take a minute."
She carried both glasses into the kitchen and spent the next few minutes straightening up. She rinsed off their dishes and put them in the dishwasher, then found a tupperware bowl the soup fit in and placed it in the fridge so it would keep. Lydia would get many meals off what had been left in the pot.
She was just finishing wiping off the stove, when she heard Lydia call out to her from the living room.
"Penny... Penny, I... could you come in here... "
The young woman froze for an instant. Something wasn't right with Lydia's voice. It sounded weak - and panicked. Penny dropped the dishrag into the sink and rushed out of the kitchen. She found Lydia still in her chair, but struggling to draw a breath. Her weathered face was twisted up with pain and the hand that had been rubbing at her shoulder was now clutched to her chest.
"Pen... Penny... I... I can't... can't catch my breath."
Penny took hold of Lydia's left hand and gripped it firmly. "Okay, Lydia... try to relax... breathe in slowly."
She could tell the old woman was trying to comply, but her right hand still clutched at the left side of her chest, and the nurse in Penny cursed her own stupidity for not picking up on the early signs. She could feel Lydia's racing pulse under her fingers as the nurse gave voice to her biggest fear.
"Lydia... Lydia tell me about your chest. What kind of pain is it?"
"It's... it's bad... so very bad. Feels... feels like somebody... like somebody's sittin' on me. Makin'... makin' it hard to... to breathe."
"Okay, Lydia, don't worry. Try to relax your breathing, okay? I'm going to call for some help."
Penny grabbed the phone off the coffee table and dialed in the emergency number. She didn't want to use the words, "heart attack" in front of Lydia, so she kept to describing the symptoms and hoped that would be enough for the dispatcher to put two and two together. Within a few moments she was told a squad and ambulance were on their way. She hung up, then made sure the apartment door was unlocked. She even opened it up to save time letting the paramedics in. She then moved back to the distressed woman who was still struggling to breathe.
Penny ran through a quick mental check list of things she might be able to do to help Lydia be more comfortable until the paramedics got here. The most important was to help her breathe easier. She knew the woman's emphysema wasn't helping matters. And then it occurred to her that there might be something helpful in the apartment already.
"Lydia... do you have oxygen here?" She knew the woman's doctor had wanted his patient to have a supply on hand, but Penny didn't know if Lydia had ever done anything about it.
The gray head gave a small shake. "I'm a... a stubborn ol' girl. Johnny... Johnny says... he says I'm like... like an old mule he... he had as a... a boy."
Penny smiled, but it was a watery one as tears welled in her eyes at the thought that this feisty lady might leave them.
"He's right," she told her friend with an encouraging squeeze to her hand. "And you're too stubborn to give up without a fight, right?"
Lydia nodded, but grimaced again at the pain. It was only then that Penny picked up the sound of an approaching siren. She took Lydia's hand in both of hers.
"Help's almost here. Hang on, okay."
Penny felt the weak acknowledging pressure, but the woman remained silent, saving the effort it took to speak for her battle for air.
They sat together without words as the siren grew louder and louder and then abruptly cut off. Within moments two men in the familiar blue uniforms, their helmets wearing the numbers 95, came in laden with equipment. Penny only knew one of them, Frank Stevenson, but then, she wasn't as familiar with all the paramedics as some of her co-workers.
She watched as they worked, putting Lydia on oxygen immediately, then getting her vital signs, all the while asking Penny enough questions to get a basic idea of the older woman's past history as well as the current problem, though that was fairly obvious.
Lydia sat through the process with her eyes shut, whether from pain or weariness, Penny didn't know, though she suspected both. But when Frank's partner leaned close to her face to ask her is she was allergic to any pain medication, she opened her eyes and blinked at both men.
"Is that Johnny" she mumbled through the oxygen mask.
Penny had been staying out of the paramedics' way, but now she moved forward to touch Lydia's arm reassuringly.
"No, Lydia. It's the guys from 95's. You don't live in Johnny's territory, remember?"
Frank glanced up curiously from where he was getting ready to call in to Rampart. "You talking about John Gage?"
Penny nodded. "He's a good friend of hers."
"51's out at a fire," the other man volunteered. "They got toned out 'bout an hour ago. Our engine company just went out on the second alarm."
Penny knew enough from her brother to know the fire must be pretty bad if they'd called for a second alarm. She also knew that meant there wouldn't be a way to get in touch with Johnny to let him know what was going on.
Frank must've read something in her face, for he leaned in close to Lydia. "We'll be sure and let Gage know," he promised, then smiled. "And which of his girlfriends do I tell him isn't feelin' so good?" He gave her a teasing wink.
It was the right tone, and it got a weak grin from Lydia. "Tell 'im... tell 'im his best girl."
"You got it," Frank replied. "I always thought Gage had great taste in women." He then picked up the phone. "Rampart... this is County 95. We have a woman... approximate age 70. She's having chest pains and respiratory distress."
Penny listened as he continued his report, then heard Dr. Early come on the line. It didn't take long before Lydia was hooked up to the portable EKG machine and then on the receiving end of what the nurse prayed was life saving medication.
* * *
Johnny waited in Emergency only long enough to turn his victims over to the treating physician and make sure Dr. Morton didn't need any further info from him. Once dismissed, the paramedic pushed through the treatment room doors and strode purposefully toward the bank of elevators. In a moment he was on his way up to C.C.U.
It was a short ride to the fourth floor, but Johnny took that time to try and calm himself down. He knew he was filthy and reeked of smoke, but at the moment he didn't really care. If the nurses gave him flack about it, he'd have a few choice words for them. Right now all he wanted to do was to go see Lydia and make sure she was okay.
He could recall clearly the look on Cap's face as he stopped Johnny just before he climbed into the back of the ambulance with the two smoke inhalation victims. Normally with multiple patients, Roy would have come along, but this fire was still out of hand and there were still several people unaccounted for. Roy would stay at the scene. Johnny could wait for his partner at Rampart or, if needed, get the ambulance to bring him back to the fire.
"John, I just got a call from dispatch." Cap's face was as dirty as Johnny's, his voice hoarse from shouting to his men over the fire. "95 took a call to Lydia's today. She's at Rampart."
"At Rampart? Lydia? What happened?"
Captain Stanley shook his head. "They didn't give me a lot of particulars, but it sounds like her heart."
Johnny felt the blood drain from his face and his legs were suddenly weak. Her heart? How could it be her heart? It's her lungs that bother her. Bronchitis... pneumonia... something like that. Not her heart.
Cap's hand had come down on his shoulder and he glanced up to see concern in the soot-covered face. "You don't need to hurry back, John. Just wait for Roy at Rampart."
The paramedic nodded wordlessly and climbed into the back of the ambulance. Cap came up behind him to close the doors.
"I'll let Roy know. I hope she's okay, John."
His mumbled answer of, "Right, Cap," was lost in the slamming of the door.
Somehow Johnny had managed to pull himself together and monitor his patients during the fifteen minute ride to the hospital. Fortunately neither man was very bad off. They were both on oxygen with T.K.O. I.V.'s ordered from Morton. Both were conscious and coughing frequently, but in no great distress. There wasn't much for the paramedic to do, and it was hard to keep his thoughts from flying far ahead.
But they'd finally arrived and now Johnny waited anxiously as the elevator seemed to take forever. At last the doors opened and he emerged onto the Cardiology floor. Knowing how out of place he looked in his dirty turnouts, he strode over to the nurses station to find out where Lydia was.
The nurse at the desk must have smelled him before she heard him. She looked up as he approached and her nose wrinkled slightly, though she was too professional to say anything outright.
"I'm looking for Lydia March. I was told she was brought in earlier today."
"Are you family?" The woman's tone told Johnny she'd already decided he wasn't going anywhere near any of her patients.
"Yes," he replied tersely, trying to maintain control. The one thing he detested about hospitals was their tendency towards officiousness. "I'd like to know how she's doing, and which room she's in."
"Well... let me check."
She made a great show of pulling out a chart and flipping it open to check on just who was allowed in to see the patient. Johnny knew there shouldn't be any problems. Lydia had named him next of kin a long time ago. But this woman was certainly taking her time looking up the information that Johnny knew should be on the paperwork.
Tired and anxious, his temper was on a short leash, and he was just about to unload on the nurse, when someone calling his name turned him.
"Johnny. I see they finally got a hold of you."
The paramedic breathed a sigh of relief. Janice Hayden was a friend, someone he'd dated a few times and had actually stayed on good terms with when they both realized romance wasn't in the cards for them. Johnny turned his back on the desk.
"How's Lydia doing?" He asked without preamble. He knew Janice would cut through any bureaucratic hassle.
She came up beside him and gave him a reassuring smile. "Stable for now. She's been asking for you." She leaned over the counter and jabbed a finger at the proper line on Lydia's chart. "I think you'll find Johnny's name right there," she said sweetly.
The other nurse flushed and began to sputter an explanation, but Janice took hold of Johnny's arm and turned him toward the rooms. "Don't worry, I'll show him where to go."
In spite of his worry for Lydia, Johnny could barely hold back a laugh at the look on the woman's face. But he quickly followed after Janice, unwilling to waste a moment in getting to see his friend.
"Thanks," he said when they'd moved out of earshot. "I was in for a fight."
Janice gave his appearance a critical once over and held her nose dramatically. "Well, you do have a certain... bouquet about you." She smiled to let him know she was teasing. "Honestly, Johnny, she's doing okay. Dr. McKay can give you the whole run down, but it looks like a mild M.I. She's lucky someone was with her though. It might have been a different story."
Johnny felt like part of his brain had shut off and he was having difficulty processing things. "She had somebody with her?" he asked dumbly. "Who?"
"Penny Chandler. I don't know if you know her, but she works in Ortho."
Johnny nodded slowly. "Yeah, I know her," he said quietly.
"Well... anyway, Penny was there and called for help. She even rode in with Lydia in the ambulance. Frank and Jeff say she held her hand the whole time... really kept her calm."
They halted before a door, and Johnny noted the number 456. It was open, and he started inside, but paused to tell Janice thanks.
"No problem," she said. "But don't stay long. She's pretty tired. See ya, Johnny."
With that, Janice continued on down the hall. Johnny turned, took a deep, steadying breath, and walked inside.
He knew Lydia was seventy four years old, and with some of the health problems she'd been having this past year, her face had picked up a few more lines. But she was such strong spirit, that he rarely thought much about her age. He certainly wasn't prepared for how frail she looked lying in the hospital bed, hooked up to monitors, with wires and I.V tubing running from under her blankets to a bank of machines beside her. Nowhere in that pale face could Johnny find his spirited friend.
The fear he'd managed to keep at bay since Cap first told him about Lydia, once more churned in the paramedic's stomach. With jaw clenched, his eyes moved to the monitors, trying to gauge the woman's condition by their readings, then his gaze settled on the chair beside the bed. Penny sat there curled up the best she could in the uncomfortable chair, her head propped on her elbow, her eyes closed in obvious fatigue. Janice had said Penny was there for Lydia and had stayed with her the entire time. He wasn't sure why she'd been at the apartment, but he was grateful nonetheless.
He drew near the side of the bed. Lydia's eyes were closed. She had a nasal cannula giving her oxygen, but the paramedic could still pick up the faint wheeze that told him she was still struggling a bit with her breathing. He reached out, but stopped himself before he touched her cheek. His hands were dirty from the fire, and they looked even worse contrasted with the starchy white sheets.
"Johnny? Oh, I'm so glad you got here."
He glanced up to see Penny unfold herself out of the chair and stand up. She was wearing jeans and a blue print blouse, her hair pulled back in a pony tail. He'd seen her dressed up on Valentine's Day, and in her crisp white nurse's uniform, but this Penny - dressed down and groggy from worry and lack of sleep - this Penny he felt comfortable with.
"We've been at a fire. Dispatch got a message through just as I was bringing in some victims."
Penny nodded and came around to the side of the bed Johnny was standing on. "The paramedics from 95 told us about the fire, so I knew it might be a while. But Lydia's been in and out on medication, so I don't think she remembers. She's been asking for you."
Johnny felt his jaw clench as he worked to keep his emotions in check. He felt a hand on the sleeve of his turnout coat and looked up to see Penny's understanding smile.
"Why don't you sit down for a while. I need to stretch my legs." She gave his arm a squeeze, then left the room, giving Johnny some private time with Lydia.
He stared after her for a moment, then shuffled over to the vacated chair and pulled it up close to the bed. Being this close to her only made her frailty more apparent, and Johnny suddenly had to touch her, regardless of how dirty he was. He reached out his hand and brushed her cheek lightly, not wanting to disturb her.
But her eyes fluttered open at his touch, and she turned towards him.
"Johnny?" she asked a bit breathlessly. "Johnny, my boy, you're here."
"I'm right here, Lydia," he assured her softly. "Everything's going to be fine."
She didn't answer him. Instead she sighed softly and closed her eyes again. Johnny knew she was sedated. He'd been a little surprised she'd been aware enough to acknowledge him.
"She's been fighting the medication, waiting for you."
Johnny glanced up. Penny had come back into the room, looking more awake. She was watching Lydia with a look of relief on her face.
"Maybe now she'll let herself sleep."
Johnny let his gaze return to the elderly woman who had come to mean so much to him. "I hope so. I wish I'd have been here sooner."
"It wasn't your fault," Penny assured him with a smile. "You didn't know."
Silence fell between them, but it wasn't awkward. Finally though, Penny motioned to the hallway.
"The nurse just told me they're gonna kick us out for a while." She rolled her eyes. "Something about rules and visiting restrictions for heart patients. Nurses, huh?"
She was smiling as she scoffed at her own profession and Johnny decided he liked her smile - and her sense of humor. But his attention was still focused on Lydia, he was reluctant to leave her side.
"There's a little lounge up here. You could grab some coffee or something."
Johnny could tell by the touch of persuasion in her tone that his hesitation must have been obvious. There was also perhaps just a bit of concern there too - concern for his well being. The fear that had knotted his insides relaxed a little, replaced by something else Johnny didn't really understand - at least not yet. He stood up, let his fingers brush over Lydia's arm, then slowly walked around the bed toward the door.
His legs felt heavy - a combination of the hours he'd fought the fire, plus the ebbing of the adrenalin rush his initial worry for Lydia had caused. A cup of coffee sounded great.
"It's down there," Penny told him and pointed to a room with large double doors.
As good as coffee sounded, drinking it with someone sounded better. And even better if that someone was the girl in front of him.
"Uh, how 'bout you?" he asked with only a bit of the awkwardness he might have felt given the circumstances. "You could probably use some too, right? Wanna join me?"
She looked at him for a long, studying moment, and Johnny thought she was going to turn him down. But, whatever she was trying to decide must have come out in his favor, for she finally smiled a sort of shy smile and nodded.
"Great." And for the first time since he'd left the fire, he felt like smiling himself. He was still very much worried about Lydia, but at least he wouldn't have to wait here alone.
* * *
Lydia knew she was in a hospital when she woke up. She was still a little fuzzy with drugs, but her memory was clear on the events of the day before. People said the mind didn't remember pain, but she certainly remembered vividly that awful pressure on her chest, and the panic she felt when she couldn't catch her breath. She was certainly glad Penny had been there.
She turned her head to the side, half expecting to see her friend sitting in the chair beside her bed. But there was no one there - not now. But that hadn't always been true. Lydia's memory was more vague about what happened once the paramedics had shown up and given her pain medication, but she knew Penny had been by her side at least some of the time. That girl was a good friend, even if things never worked out between her and Johnny.
He'd been here too. She remembered his face bending over her, and a smell. Smoke. He'd been at a fire. He must've come here straight from the scene. She hoped she hadn't caused him too much worry to make him rush over in the middle of an emergency.
She breathed in deeply, amazed at how good it felt to be able to do that. Her chest didn't hurt anymore either. That too was a blessing. She knew by the nasal cannula that she was still getting oxygen, and she wrinkled her nose in resigned acceptance. Her doctor was certainly going to demand she keep a portable tank at her house now. And Johnny would make sure she did.
She smiled, thinking of how sternly Johnny would lecture her on the necessity of following her doctor's orders.
She turned and her smiled widened as she saw the very person she was just thinking about.
"Johnny, come in." Her voice didn't sound like her own, but she realized she'd been through a lot in the last twenty four hours and tried not to mind it too much.
"I wasn't sure you were awake," he said as he entered the room and pulled up the chair beside her.
He looked much cleaner than she remembered. Somebody must've convinced him to go home and shower. She hoped he'd taken the time to eat.
"I'm awake," she told him. "And sure glad to see you."
"Me, too." He took hold of her hand and squeezed it gently. "You can't go scaring me like that," he told her with a tender smile.
"It scared me too," she whispered, half afraid to admit it. "I thought maybe Albert had gotten tired of waiting for me. Not that I'd mind seeing him again, you know. But it was sort of unexpected."
Johnny was silent for a moment and when he spoke, Lydia could hear the tears that he was holding back.
"You know, Lydia... from all you've told me about Albert, he seems like a pretty fair guy. So..." He cleared his throat before he continued. "So I think... seeing as how Albert gets to have you for eternity... I don't think he'd mind letting us keep you around a little while longer. Do you?"
Lydia felt her own tears well up and she gripped Johnny's hand, unable to do more than just shake her head. After a time, when she was able to trust her voice, she answered, "No. I don't think he'd mind at all."
They sat together in companionable silence for a time, and then she asked, "Do you know how long I have to stay here?"
At that question, she saw Johnny's face change into its paramedic mode and she chuckled, ready for his lecture.
"You know, Lydia... the doc says you were lucky. They found a small blockage, but they're pretty sure they can clear it with an angioplasty. No surgery, but you're gonna have to stay here for a few days."
She made a face at that, but Johnny ignored her as he continued. "And you're gonna have to cut back a little... don't work so hard."
"I don't do all that much," she protested.
He gave her a look that made her laugh, and she gave up trying to argue.
"If all these doctors have their way, I'll be sitting in a little old ladies home knitting," she complained with a laugh.
Johnny smiled and squeezed her hand again, letting her know that in spite of their laughter now, she really had given him a scare.
"All right," she relented. "I'll try to be a good girl."
"You do that," he ordered with mock ferocity. Then he bent a little closer. "I know one worry I can take off your mind right now."
"What's that?" she asked curiously.
His grin was back and there was a definite light in his eyes, but before he could answer, the door to her room opened and Lydia turned to see Penny standing there.
"I'm sorry for interrupting, Johnny, but Dr. Winston wanted to see you. Something about scheduling Lydia's tests." The girl turned to Lydia then.. "Morning, Lydia. How are your feeling?"
Lydia could have sworn the same light she'd seen in Johnny's eyes was there in Penny's. "I'm fine," she answered slowly, letting her gaze move between her two young friends. "Maybe more than fine," she added with a grin that matched Johnny's.
"I'll be right there," Johnny told Penny.
He stood up as if to leave, but Lydia didn't want to let him go before he confirmed her suspicions.
"John Gage," she said in her most no-nonsense tone.
Johnny laughed, then bent down to whisper in her ear. "I'd say your matchmaking days are over."
Then he was gone. Out the door before Lydia had time to even blink. She stared after him for a moment, then her gaze moved to Penny. The girl's face was also turned toward the open door where Johnny had disappeared. And from what Lydia could read there, she was certain Johnny had been right.
Thanks go out to Audrey and Jackie B. for finding all my silly typos. And also to Audrey, as always, for providing a home for my stories. :>
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