Believe it or not, the physical aspects of this story
are actually based on a true event, which a real-life person experienced and
survived. Only a little poetic license has been taken, and that's been to tone
it down, really. And also, believe it or not, I'll leave Johnny as I found him,
pretty much. Never fear.
Better Off Forgotten
By D. Kelley
"Come on, Chris!" Roy yelled anxiously from where he was peeking out the front window. "We're going to be late!"
"I'm coming!" he heard Chris call from upstairs, his annoyed tone of voice making him sound like his father. "Anyway, Uncle Johnny's not even here yet!"
"He is now," Roy called back, wincing as he heard Chris slam his bedroom door and start down the stairs. Roy turned away from the window, but not before he saw his daughter hurtle across the lawn at Johnny. He grinned as he gathered up his and Chris's boxes, knowing that Johnny would have to catch his daughter as she launched herself at him.
"Uncle Johnny!" he heard her high-pitched voice shriek.
Roy watched as Chris came into the room, sat unceremoniously on the floor and pulled on his earth shoes, lacing them up quickly. "You slammed your door again," Roy told him mildly.
Chris looked up at him with only slightly chagrined eyes. "Sorry," he mumbled, standing up. He took one of the boxes from his father, and Roy used his free hand to straighten Chris's Boy Scout tie. They were both dressed in Boy Scout uniforms, Chris in his Scout uniform and Roy in his assistant leader uniform. "You look good," he praised Chris on his job getting ready. "Thanks for combing your hair."
Chris gave him his own grin back. Lately, he'd been reproached a lot for forgetting to comb his hair. "Let's go," Roy told him. Chris bounded out the front door.
"Hi, Uncle Johnny!"
They met Johnny out on the lawn, where he was busy swinging Jennifer around by her arms, much to her very vocal delight. Roy noticed Chris's brief look of longing. He'd only recently decided that at ten, he was too big and too old for such games, but not old enough, Roy noticed, to not miss such treatment. The look faded as Johnny set a dizzy and panting Jennifer on her feet. "Hi, Roy, hi, Chris. You guys ready?" he asked cheerfully.
"You have got to have the balance of a trapeze artist," Roy commented, shaking his head. Whereas Jennifer was still giggling and lurching for balance, Johnny was as steady on his feet as if he had not just been spinning around in fast circles for the past couple of minutes. Roy settled his boxes in the back seat of Johnny's Rover and closed the door after Chris got in too. He took a seat in the front as Johnny gave Jennifer a good-bye hug.
"I wish I could go," Jennifer told Chris through his open window.
"It's not going to be much fun," Chris reassured his six-year-old sister. "It's a cemetery, Jen. You gotta be quiet and respectful," he told her, parroting his Troop Leader. "We're just putting flags on the graves and then we'll be back."
"Hurry back," Jennifer waved at them, looking through the car to Johnny, who was taking his place in the driver's seat. "We can have a tea party when we get back."
Johnny smiled and nodded vaguely in return. Roy was grateful his partner was the humoring kind. His son, however, was under no such compulsion. "Maybe we won't come back at all, then," Chris threatened. "Even a graveyard would be better than a tea party."
"Chris!" Roy scolded. He felt nearly the same way, but he couldn't let Chris know that.
"We'll see you later, kiddo," Johnny called, pulling away from the curb.
Roy buckled his seat belt and listened for the click as Chris did his. Then Roy looked to his partner. "Thanks again for driving us, Johnny," he said. Roy's car was in the shop, and Joanne was going to need the station wagon. "Nobody wanted to swing out here and get us."
"Oh, you're that popular, are you?" Johnny teased. "He must be some mean assistant leader, huh, Chris?"
"Real mean," Chris grinned, loving the chances Uncle Johnny gave him to tease his dad. "Everybody's afraid of him."
Roy rolled his eyes and shook his head as he heard both his son and his partner giggle. "I could be mean if I wanted to," he warned.
"You haven't got a mean bone in your body," Johnny laughed.
* * *
Memorial Cemetery was, as Chris had said, surprisingly quiet and respectful, despite the hundreds of boys on the scene. There was a small service in which the Boy Scouts honored the lost veterans, as they did every Memorial Day. Then the Scouts got down to work. By the time they were done, there would be a small American Flag on each and every grave in the entire cemetery.
Johnny stuck close to Roy, watching his friend with the boys. He was glad he had worn casual dress clothes, instead of jeans. Almost everyone else was in either a Boy Scout or a leader uniform. Johnny opened a new box of flags for Roy, who was handing out bunches of flags to boys as they would run out. Between handouts, they managed to talk a little.
"Looks like the sun's trying to come out," Johnny observed. He pulled his sunglasses out of his pocket and put them on.
Roy noticed the sunglasses were new and realized Johnny had probably been looking for any chance to wear them. "Yeah," he murmured, looking around him at the sky. "It's weird, though. Doesn't the sky look kind of funny to you?"
Johnny pulled down the glasses for a minute and examined the sky, then pushed them back up. "Maybe it's going to rain," he shrugged. The sky was an odd gray color. "I think I heard on the radio there was a chance today."
Roy turned as someone called to him from the next post over. He looked back at Johnny. "Can you give out the flags for a minute, Junior?"
Johnny picked up a bunch smoothly. "Sure thing, Pally" he nodded, grinning crookedly. He looked glad to have something to do, Roy noted as he turned back away. He wondered if his partner, growing up on a reservation, had ever had the chance to be a part of something like the Boy Scouts.
Roy crossed through the rows of graves over to the other leader who had called him. Just before he got there, there was a sudden, powerful, nearly deafening burst of noise, like a giant gun being discharged nearby. Roy felt the ground beneath him shake for a moment and he felt himself almost shoved to the ground by the pressure; around him he could see everyone in view dropping as well.
Then the Earth was ominously silent and still for an instant, and Roy shook his head to clear it as he got up and spun around, scanning for the source of the noise. When he saw it, for another long second his mind refused to comprehend what he was seeing. The tree where he and Johnny had been standing was now smoking, with a white streak splitting it lengthwise up high and running in a colorless scar down the trunk. And Johnny was on the ground. Not getting up. Not moving.
Then the moment was over and he was running before he realized it, crouching down next to his partner, unsure for the first time in his career as a paramedic of just how to begin. He took a deep breath, forcing himself to let his professionalism take over. He felt for a pulse.
Johnny's clothes were entirely shredded into strips and pieces, and he was laid out more unclothed than not. His shoes and socks were laying several feet away, even the leather of his shoes ripped in violent strips. His chest was covered with one huge burn, still smoking slightly. There were smaller burns in odd places all over his body. Blood ran freely from his left ear and his nose. His sunglasses were half-on, half-off, and his hair was frizzed worse than Joanne's had been the time she messed up her home perm. Roy took it all in in the same second or two it took to ascertain that his best friend and partner had no pulse.
The friend in him grimaced in sympathetic pain as he began CPR, forced to push firmly on a chest that was covered in burned skin. The paramedic in him tried to ignore the feeling of the damaged skin beneath his hands, to concentrate on the compressions. He leaned down and listened for breath sounds as people ran up to circle him and Johnny.
"Who knows CPR?" Roy called out in a mechanical voice that didn't sound like his own. The paramedic in him had momentarily forgotten that as Boy Scout Leaders, most of the adults in the cemetery knew CPR.
One of the Leaders fell to his knees on the other side of Johnny and began doing mouth-to-mouth, not waiting for Roy's instructions. Roy went back to the chest compressions. "Call 911!" he yelled.
He heard people running, and someone began to take charge of the others, but Roy couldn't spare too much energy to pay attention to that. He continued compressing Johnny's burned chest, eyes focused on Johnny's mouth between the breaths the other Leader was giving him. "Breathe," he whispered, terrified. "Come on, Johnny, breathe."
As time seemed to slow to a crawl, Roy was amazed at the frantic speed of his thoughts and an odd splitting of his personality. The professional in him continued chest compressions efficiently, while the friend in him cringed at the site of Johnny, who was only in this horrifying position because he had offered to do Roy and Chris a favor. The father in him realized Chris was here somewhere, possibly seeing this, and he hoped someone had pulled him back. Roy noted peripherally that it was now pouring, and wondered when it had started. He watched fearfully as the other Leader continued to breathe for Johnny.
"Breathe!" Roy yelled angrily, startling everyone, even himself. He found himself starting to curse as moment after moment passed, and Johnny became grayer and grayer. The father in him really hoped all the children had been moved back as he heard some part of him cursing a blue streak as he shouted to his friend.
Someone tried to relieve him in his compressions, but Roy refused to budge. His arms were shaking with the physical effort required to keep compressing Johnny's chest hard enough to encourage his heart muscle to restart its own movement. He wondered how long it had been. It felt like hours.
Roy felt himself falling into a kind of shock. He forced himself to focus on Johnny's heart. He heard himself still cursing frequently, mostly each time he wanted to reach for a piece of equipment and realized it wasn't there. His paramedic training kept telling him what needed to be done; Johnny needed shocking, he needed meds, he needed intubation as his tongue began to swell. All Roy could do was keep focusing on his hands, forcing Johnny's heart to pump.
Then there were people pulling him back forcibly, and Roy fought it violently at first, but then he realized that the paramedic team from 16s had arrived. Roy took a deep, gasping breath and struggled to come back to himself. He stood behind the paramedics and watched, wanting with all his heart to take care of Johnny, but realizing he was too close in this case. Someone wrapped a jacket around his shoulders and brought a box over for him to sit on. They had to push him down to it. Roy couldn't spare the energy from watching his fellow paramedics work on his best friend.
A thousand thoughts were flying through Roy's head, he noted somewhere in the back of his mind. He was shocked by the idea of what had really happened, and he found it difficult to put into words even in his own thoughts. His brain felt thick as he watched the men work on Johnny, but his senses seemed strangely heightened. He noted everything that was going on in almost cataloging detail.
He could hear someone across from him in the circle ask who the fallen man was, and another person replied faintly that he was Roy DeSoto's friend. Behind Roy, someone spoke softly of having seen Johnny when it happened. Roy knew the sound of the man's words would be etched in his brain forever. He heard in the clearest detail the whispered voice telling of having been looking that way at just the right second, seeing lightning hit the tree and travel down the trunk in the blink of an eye, drawn away from the tree as it neared the ground to the only other vertical conductor nearby, the man standing next to the tree, Johnny.
That whispered voice was at once both sympathetic and ruthless, and Roy wished he could make it stop. He heard the man murmur about having seen Johnny surrounded by light, like an aura, standing still for just a second, and then falling to the ground like a rag doll.
Roy remembered learning once that the first and last lightning strikes of a storm were the most powerful; that the voltage couldn't be measured. He heard the relentless whisperings coming from everywhere: "I know you're not supposed to stand under a tree in the rain, but it wasn't even raining!" "There wasn't any lightning at all before this!" Johnny had gotten the first strike. Roy felt irrationally like screaming at these people, friends who were justifiably horrified and doing no harm, to make them all shut up, but he couldn't spare the energy. He felt very tired all of a sudden. His arms were still shaking.
Roy watched mutely as the paramedics - Johnson and O'Hara - quickly got approval from Rampart to shock. Johnny's thin form convulsed briefly off the ground, and then again when they shocked him a second time. Roy put his head in his hands when he finally saw sinus rhythm on the monitor and he gulped for air, not realizing he had been holding his breath. He looked up again to see O'Hara intubate Johnny and put him on oxygen.
The ambulance attendants seemed to come out of nowhere, and the crowd parted as the paramedics hung IVs and lifted Johnny onto the stretcher. Roy followed behind numbly, unable to do anything else. "Chris," he mumbled, his father-self coming to the fore.
Someone clasped his shoulder briefly. "I'll take care of Chris," he heard that same someone promise. He pushed down his guilt at leaving Chris like that, without truly realizing who would have him. He told himself that he knew everyone present from the Scout camp-outs. Chris would be in good hands - and hopefully, hadn't seen too much. Roy wasn't even aware of Johnson helping him get in the ambulance. He only knew he had to go with Johnny.
* * *
"Where are they?" Dixie worried, hovering near the Emergency Room entrance. The team had given them an ETA of ten minutes, but ten minutes had come and gone.
As if in answer, Mike Morton hurried around the corner, a little out of breath. "They had to stop," he told Dixie and Brackett quickly. "They had to shock him again. He's back in sinus rhythm for the moment and they're a couple of minutes away."
Dixie bit her lip worriedly, looking over at Brackett. Though he hadn't said anything, she knew he was just as worried, or he wouldn't be out at the entrance with her. Morton leaned up against the wall next to him. "What are the odds?" he mused softly.
Brackett looked over at him coolly. "Of getting hit by lightning? Or of surviving it?" He looked away.
Morton hesitated, then nodded soberly, accepting the answer in the dark tone of Brackett's voice.
"This is Johnny we're talking about," Dixie pointed out defensively. "Johnny is a survivor - we've all seen that."
Brackett nodded, and tried to give her a smile. "You're right, Dix," he told her. "Maybe with us doing our best and Johnny doing his best--well, maybe."
And maybe not, were the unspoken words hanging in the air between them. Then the ambulance pulled up, and they all hurried out the entrance.
He looks awful, Dixie thought to herself as she moved in unison with the doctors, quickly whisking the young man into a treatment room. They hooked him to the ventilator and cardiac monitor in the room. Johnny had numerous small burns and one huge burn on his chest that they needed to care for. Brackett confirmed quickly that Johnny had, as the paramedics had suspected, lost his left ear drum. The bleeding from his ear and nose had stopped but needed cleaning. Dixie inserted a Foley and inflated a blood pressure cuff on Johnny's good arm. They all paused as the heart monitor began to twitch irregularly, and then they pulled the crash cart close as Johnny went into arrest again.
"Clear!" Morton shouted. They shocked Johnny and his heart rate settled into sinus rhythm again. Brackett put his stethoscope back to Johnny's lungs and confirmed fluid collecting at a rapid pace.
"Chest tube," he told Morton, who inserted one swiftly and started the suction. "What the hell is that?" he asked, as a thick black sludge began to drain slowly from Johnny's chest.
Brackett looked at it in amazement and back up at Morton. "Your guess is as good as mine," he told the resident. "Dix, IV antibiotics."
Johnny's muscles started to twitch, then to shake, and the three exchanged glances. They quickly each grabbed portions of Johnny to hold him down as he began to convulse.
Dixie struggled with one hand to pull out restraints while simultaneously trying to keep Johnny from accidentally tearing out his IVs. Morton grappled with the restraints on the other side. "Diazepam?" Morton asked Brackett, a little breathless.
"No," the doctor told him firmly. "See his eyes? That's brain edema. There's probably going to be damage." He didn't have to say more.
The convulsion finally died down, and Morton took advantage of the opportunity to examine Johnny's eyes. Brackett was right; they were beginning to protrude. Dixie used the moment to firmly restrain her patient. His wrists and ankles were restrained, and then a broad chest restraint was pulled across the bed. Morton absently connected it for her.
Dixie added antibiotics to Johnny's IV, then went back to his burns. "Entrance," Brackett said to himself, examining the chest burn. He looked over at Johnny's left elbow, left knee, ankles and heels. "Exits," he pronounced.
"Not to mention the ear drum," Morton added.
"What is this?" Dixie asked, looking closely at the left side of Johnny's head. The two doctors came to look. There was melted plastic fused to Johnny's left temple, extending to just above his ear.
"What in the--"
"Sunglasses," Morton announced proudly, having figured it out. "He must have been wearing sunglasses, and part of them melted onto him."
Brackett nodded. "I think you're right," he said slowly.
"Well, how do I get it off?" Dixie asked.
"Later," Brackett ordered. "We've got tests to run and we're not out of the woods yet," he said darkly. As if to prove he'd heard, Johnny began to convulse again.
* * *
After Dixie ordered the tests Brackett wanted and the first portable unit arrived, she took advantage of the brief respite to step out of the room. It was nerve-wringing to see one of her most favorite people in such dire straits.
Dixie stopped short as she saw Roy standing on the opposite side of the hall, motionless except for the thorough wringing he was giving a jacket in his hands. He stared at the door behind Dixie as if he couldn't see her, only it.
"I tried to get him to the lounge," Carol whispered, coming up beside Dixie. "He wouldn't budge."
Dixie crossed to Roy, blocking his view of the treatment room door, and put a hand on his shoulder. "Let's go down the hall, Roy," she told him gently, but firmly grasped his elbow and compelled him along.
"I couldn't go in," she heard Roy say softly.
Dixie pushed the door to the lounge open and ushered Roy over to the couch. "You shouldn't have been there anyway, Roy. You were right not to go in."
Roy turned to face her as Dixie brought over two cups of coffee and took a seat beside him. "He'd have been there for me," he said tensely, not even looking at the coffee cup she pressed into his hand.
"And I would have kicked him out," Dixie said firmly. "There's a reason we have a sign on those doors about friends and family."
"I've been with him in there before," Roy shook his head, not wanting to let himself off the hook.
Dixie wondered what it was about Roy DeSoto that made him feel he had to take the blame for everything. "Roy, you haven't been in there for something like this," she told him firmly. "No family or friend should have to see a loved one go through that."
Roy's eyes grew bright and he turned his face. "Dix," he whispered, "is he gonna--"
Dixie moved closer and put an arm around the paramedic. "He's stable for the moment," she told him guardedly.
"I heard you shock him again," Roy whispered.
Dixie nodded. "His heart rate is fairly steady right now, Roy. He's young and strong, and he's got a lot going for him."
"I know a little bit about lightning, Dixie," Roy said bitterly. "I know there are a lot of complications. Serious complications."
"Yes, that's right," Dixie nodded matter-of-factly. "And Johnny may get them. He's already shown signs of some. But you can't go into the battle thinking you've already lost, Roy.
"I'm not going to kid you; Johnny's in for a real rough time. Since he doesn't have any family, he's going to need to borrow all the strength he can get from his friends. You have to be able to give it to him."
Roy turned back to face her, and forced himself to give a tentative, grim smile. He nodded and opened his mouth, but Carol burst into the lounge at that moment.
"Dixie! Dr. Brackett wants you to bring Roy right away!"
Roy was at the treatment door way before Dixie reached it. She saw Brackett step out just before he reached the door, and he stopped Roy in his path. Dixie could hear alternate strangled screams and moans behind the closed door.
"He's conscious," Brackett told them, addressing Roy earnestly. "But as you can probably tell," there was another panicked yell behind the door, "he's very disoriented and confused. He doesn't recognize me or Mike. I'd like to see if you can get him to calm down, Roy. We can't give him a sedative because--" he faltered for a moment, remembering who he was talking to, then took the plunge. "We can't give him a sedative because he might have brain damage." There was another scream. "And we have got to get him calmed down."
"Let me in," Roy answered him. He felt none of the fear he had before. Now he had something to do again, an active role to play in saving his best friend. Brackett pushed the door open.
Although he had seen Johnny immediately following the lightning strike, and had watched other paramedics treat him, it was still horrifying to see the young man again as he currently looked. He had tubes snaking out from under the sheet covering him, two IVs, and a chest tube draining out some thick black fluid that Roy had never in all his years seen come out of a human chest before. There were wires tethering Johnny to an EKG monitor. He was intubated, but his tongue was swollen and he didn't seem to have control over it or his mouth. He was burned in several places, and under five point restraints. As Roy paused, he saw Johnny heave himself up, arching against the restraints, crying out in terror.
Roy stepped up close and Mike Morton backed off. Johnny sank back down with a moan half-strangled by the vent tube. Roy laid his hands on Johnny's arm and leaned in a little. "It's okay, Johnny," he said softly, frightened himself by the uncomprehending fear and pain in his friend's dark eyes.
"It's okay," Roy spoke softly, moving his hands over Johnny's arm in the same way he would soothe his children after a nightmare. "I know it hurts, but it's going to get better."
Johnny moaned, but his eyes seemed to focus on Roy's face.
"You're at the hospital," Roy told him. "We're working real hard to make you feel better." There was another moan, and Roy imagined he heard the protest in that one. "I know it hurts now," he soothed. "But it'll get better," he promised. "It's going to be okay."
Johnny's hands relaxed a little in their relentless tug of war with the restraints. He focused more clearly on Roy.
"Keep going, Roy," Brackett whispered, coming around to Johnny's other side.
Johnny's eyes caught the motion and he shrieked around the vent tube again, pulling fiercely away from that side of the bed. Brackett quickly backed off.
"It's okay," Roy said quickly, trying to draw Johnny's attention back. "It's going to be okay, Johnny. No one's going to hurt you. I won't let anyone hurt you."
Johnny turned his eyes back and relaxed in clear exhaustion.
"That's right," Roy encouraged. "You rest. I'll take care of everything. It's going to be okay. I won't let anyone hurt you."
Either recognition of Roy's face or his soft voice seemed to have a magical effect on Johnny. His eyelids slid shut with a last small whimper. That sound tore into Roy more than any other, and he felt his eyes tearing up. He looked over to Dixie, who stepped up and gave him a silent hug.
He suddenly flashed on a memory of Johnny, talking about the dancer, Jenny, whose pet monkey had given her a deadly strain of flu. Johnny had commented on how awful it must be to feel that bad and not have any idea why.
* * *
Chet Kelly hurried down the hallway into the small lounge where he'd been told he could come to wait if he wanted to. He pushed open the doors harshly, almost expecting Gage to jump out from behind the door in a half-witted prank attempt. Instead he found Joanne DeSoto, crying, and Captain Stanley, sitting beside her on the couch. Kelly felt his stomach drop the rest of the way. "My God, it's true," he gasped. He had been hoping it was a prank.
"Yes, Chet, it's true," Stanley told him, obviously annoyed that Kelly had thought it might be a joke, but also trying to be patient. He knew Kelly cared about Johnny more than he let on.
Chet dropped heavily into a chair. "How is he?"
Stanley sighed, distraught. "Dr. Brackett was in here a while ago to give us an update," he explained. "It doesn't look good, Chet, but he's hanging in there so far."
The captain leaned forward on his elbows. "They've got him intubated," Stanley told Kelly. "He's draining some really bad stuff out of his lungs and chest. All his internal organs are stressed and they don't know yet what effects there may be, or how permanent it'll be. His heart is stabilized now, but his brain is swelling, and he may--" Stanley stopped speaking abruptly.
"He may have brain damage," Joanne told Chet quietly, slightly more composed. "That's the biggest problem right now--the effects on his brain and how lasting it'll be."
"He's having convulsions," Stanley continued, shuddering a little as he remembered his own bout with excessively high voltage on a rescue involving power lines.
"Dr. Brackett said we should prepare for the worst," Joanne added, tearing up again.
"His body can't take much more strain," Stanley explained to a gaping Kelly. "And to top it off, he's regained consciousness and doesn't recognize anybody. They're not even sure he recognizes Roy, but at least he'll look at Roy. He's very combative, and he's wearing himself out even further. They can't give him a sedative because of the possible brain damage. It could make things a lot worse in the long run, if he survives."
Stanley rubbed his hands over his face. "Roy's with him now," he told Chet. "Johnny's a little calmer when Roy talks to him."
"Sure," Chet nodded thoughtfully. "Roy's his best pal."
Dixie stuck her head in the lounge, and seeing the three of them, came in. She gave them a guarded smile. "Well, I have some good news," she offered. "The seizures seem to be stopping--"
"Thank God," Stanley breathed.
"--and Kel thinks he's stabilized enough for transport to the ICU." She held up a hand quickly to forestall any misconceptions. "His condition is still critical," she told them apologetically. "His brain is continuing to swell, and it's sending out a lot of confused signals to his body. Most of his organs have shut down at least once in the past few hours. But he's doing a little better at the moment."
Dixie sat down opposite Kelly and across from the couch. "He'd be doing a lot better if we could keep him calm," she said, shaking her head.
"I thought Roy was helping?" Joanne asked.
Dixie nodded. "He is, he is. But Johnny's in a lot of pain, and he's afraid, and he just can't think clearly right now with all the stress his brain is under. We don't think he understands any of this. He's fighting sleep, and when he does drop off, he keeps jolting awake. Each time he does he's just as scared as he was the first time he woke up. Dr. Brackett thinks his short-term memory is affected.
"In fact, Johnny's given no sign that he recognizes anyone, but we think maybe he remembers Roy a little, because he's calmer when Roy is talking to him--as long as Roy stays on Johnny's right side. Could be Roy's just got a soothing voice, though," she shrugged.
"What do you mean, his right side?" Chet asked, leaning forward.
Dixie grimaced. "Well, Chet, it seems that when you get hit by lightning, you don't just get hit by it. It actually goes into you, and then it has to exit. Now, Johnny's got a bad burn on his chest where the lightning bounced off the tree and went into him. It came out in a lot of other places, his heels, his ankles, his left knee, left elbow - a lot came out at his elbow, and unfortunately, his left ear. When it exited his ear, it blew the ear drum out."
"What!" Chet couldn't help himself. "He's deaf?"
"No," Dixie quickly reassured him. "Only in one ear, and you'd be surprised at how little difference that makes. Besides, Dr. Brackett's already talked to the otolaryngology surgeons. They've got a new procedure now where they take tissue from the back of your jaw," she indicated the place just below her ear, "and use it to fashion a whole new ear drum."
Chet looked at her in suspicion and horror. "And that works?"
"Apparently," Dixie shrugged. "He should end up with almost full hearing. But that's a long way off, Chet. Johnny's got a lot to get through before he gets to that point."
If he gets to that point, Chet thought.
"Can I see him?" Chet asked abruptly.
Dixie braced herself. She had discouraged the guys from coming down to the hospital because she knew Johnny wouldn't be allowed visitors. Captain Stanley had come to keep Joanne company, knowing she viewed Johnny as a little brother--and sometimes, an oldest child. Most of the other guys agreed to stay home when she told them they wouldn't be allowed to see Johnny. Kelly she hadn't been able to discourage; he insisted he was coming, if only to see if Gage was trying to pull some sick prank on him.
"Chet," Dixie said softly, "Johnny is very confused right now. He's in a lot of pain and he doesn't understand why. We're not even sure he understands what we say to him."
"I won't bother him," Kelly told her.
"That's not it," Dixie answered, trying again. "Johnny probably won't remember you, but--"
"Then what's the--"
"--But if he does," Dixie went on firmly, "he may, in his current state, associate you with the Phantom. He's already frightened nearly to death. We don't want to add anything that may upset him. Even the doctors are keeping their distance, only bothering him as much as they have to."
Kelly truly regretted the Phantom for the first time in his career. "Gage may die and I can't even say good-bye?"
"Don't talk like that," Dixie snapped, then softened her tone. "You'll get to see him, Chet. You just have to give him time."
"He's gonna be okay, Chet," Stanley put in, trying to buck them all up.
* * *
Bright light, blinding light. Johnny jerked out of a nightmare with a start and moaned involuntarily at the immediate crushing pain in his body. Every cell in his body pulsed with fire. His brain whirled like a merry-go-round.
Get out, get away, run! some primal portion of his instincts screamed. It wasn't thought exactly. Just impulse. Johnny felt his limbs jerk of their own accord and he moaned in frustration that he wasn't able to flee, wasn't able to get away from the pain. He was trapped by something but couldn't understand what; everything he saw had a nightmare quality that he could not comprehend. The signals to his brain weren't clear enough.
He heard a soothing voice, a calm voice, a voice he thought he recognized but didn't have the energy to summon a name for. Instinctively he knew it was not the voice of anyone who would hurt him. Not the voice of--out of long force of habit, Johnny veered away from the memory of that other voice. Hide, his brain suggested alternatively, and Johnny closed his eyes tightly. Hide where he can't find you!
* * *
"Johnny, you have got to calm down," Roy insisted in frustration, as Johnny startled awake again and set off the alarms. He had been in the ICU room for only a few hours, and already Johnny had set the alarms off too many times to count.
"Come on," Roy soothed, running a cool cloth over Johnny's forehead. The wild, terrified eyes focused on his face. "It's gonna be okay," he stressed, wiping hair back off of Johnny's forehead. "You need to rest. You need to close your eyes, Johnny. I promise, I'll stay right here. I won't let anyone hurt you."
Johnny pulled suddenly at his restraints and moaned as a spasm shook his body for a moment. "That's electricity working its way out of you," Roy explained, forcing his voice to stay calm. "I know it hurts, but each time it happens, it's that much less electricity in your system." Roy pushed hopelessly at the seriously curly hair his partner now sported. It had relaxed a little when the nurse washed it, but it was still pretty curly. They had been forced to shave part of his hair to get off all of the plastic melted from his sunglasses. Roy reflected wryly that Johnny would probably not be very happy with his appearance if he was in his right mind.
Roy sat down again as Johnny's eyes slid shut for another moment of rest. He wondered if Johnny would ever again be in his right mind. Dr. Brackett and the other doctors on Johnny's case had been pretty guarded in their prognosis. Of course, some of the specialists were surprised he had even made it as far as the ICU. They don't know Johnny, Roy thought with grim satisfaction. He was a survivor through and through. Roy had seen him cheat death more times than he could count--far more times than anyone he knew, and as a firefighter, he knew a lot of people who faced off against death on a regular basis.
Dr. Brackett eased into the room silently and caught Roy's eye. With a silent gesture, he called Roy to the doorway. It was as far as they could afford to have Roy leave Johnny at the moment. Roy had gone to use the restroom at one point earlier, and Johnny had fought furiously when he startled awake and someone else was standing beside him. Roy almost tiptoed over to the door, afraid Johnny would hear.
"How's he doing?" Brackett whispered.
Roy shrugged. "About the same," he replied softly. "Doc -- every time he wakes up it's like the first time." He glanced worriedly at the bed. "When will he start remembering?"
"I doubt he'll ever remember today, Roy, at the very least," Brackett told him quietly. "We won't know about his long-term memory for some time yet, I'd bet. But his short-term memory--well, I have to agree with you - as far as Johnny is concerned, each time he wakes up it is the first time."
Johnny's muscles spasmed in his sleep again and his limbs jerked, but his eyes stayed mercifully shut this time. Both men watching froze, afraid of waking him. As the moment passed, they relaxed a little again. "Hopefully the short-term loss isn't permanent," Brackett whispered. "There aren't a whole lot of studies out there on lightning strikes. The medical profession is only recently starting to compile data on it. Right now, his brain is--kind of shorted out, Roy. It's going to be a while before he gets all his wires straightened out. And then we can find out what is and isn't permanent."
"How long a while is it going to take?" Roy pressed.
Brackett crossed his arms. "I'd say at least another day or two," he said tentatively. "Just estimating. And that means getting to the point where we can really talk with him."
Roy nodded. He had been talking to Johnny and while it seemed to calm him a little, Roy wasn't sure Johnny really understood anything he said. "How long does he have to stay on the vent? I think getting that out would help, Doc."
Brackett bit his lower lip thoughtfully, then moved into the room just far enough to silently examine the chest tube and its drainage. The fluid that had been seeping out of Johnny's chest had changed from ugly black sludge to a thinner, slightly less dark fluid. Brackett rubbed his stethoscope between his hands, warming the metal, and then risked putting it to Johnny's chest. He listened carefully, then crossed back to Roy.
"Late tomorrow at the earliest, possibly the day after," he whispered. "I want his chest clear first. That drainage has us all thrown. The pulmonary specialist, Dr. Roberts, said he's never seen it before. Read about it, but not seen it."
Roy nodded; it was a horrible sight. He had asked the nurse earlier to hang the bag on the opposite side of the bed from him. The sight was making him more nauseous than he already was.
A nurse came in at that moment, interrupting any further talking Roy and Dr. Brackett might have done. Roy followed her to the bedside, knowing that Johnny would waken as the nurse took her readings. He took a deep breath, steadying himself to face the terror he knew would come to those dark eyes when they opened.
It's funny, Roy thought to himself without the slightest trace of humor. Johnny had a reputation in the Department for being, among other things, so fearless on the job that it almost bordered on recklessness. Roy never thought he would see the day when Johnny's eyes were filled with utter terror. But that was before this new world of unspeakable pain and helpless incomprehension.
* * *
A big, angry man, pacing the kitchen. A woman lying on the floor. Flashes shooting through his brain like photographs being shot. Green eyes, open, unblinking, staring straight at him and he knew, down deep in his spirit, that she couldn't see him. That she would never see him again.
A shadow looming suddenly and then pain as the first blows fell. Johnny screamed and struggled to get away.
The picture faded and another came into view. Fuzzy. A face above him. Not the scary face. Someone else. Someone who wouldn't hurt him. Someone he trusted. Soft words. He strained to understand and could almost physically feel the world come into a little better focus.
". . . okay . . . feel better . . ."
I feel terrible were the first words he was consciously aware of thinking. Everything in his body seemed to want to go off in different directions.
". . . sleep . . . won't let . . . hurt you . . ."
Maybe he's gone now, Johnny thought wearily. He didn't fight the descent into sleep.
* * *
Roy had to stay with Johnny, as he had for the last day and a half, when Dr. Brackett removed the vent. He had tried to prepare his friend, explaining gently what the doctor would be doing, and how it would make him feel better, but Johnny began to struggle as soon as Brackett stepped up to the bed, and fought his restraints and even Roy's hands as Brackett went about extracting the tube. Johnny choked and gagged as it was removed, and Roy tried to soothe him as the ordeal ended. He tried to give Johnny a drink of water for the pain in his throat, but it became clear very quickly that Johnny didn't understand the gesture, and he found it extremely alarming when Roy tried to help him by slipping the straw in his mouth
Both Roy and Dr. Brackett had hoped they could try talking with Johnny when the tube was out, but he squeezed his eyes shut, obviously incapable of handling any more at the moment, and tears slid down his face. His breathing grew ragged.
Brackett gave Roy a very worried look and then left the room. Roy sagged down into his chair and looked at his watch. It had been two days now since it happened, almost to the hour. It felt like two months. He rubbed Johnny's arm gently. "It's okay," he murmured absently, staring out the window. "You're tired, Johnny. You just go on to sleep. It's okay. You'll feel better soon . . ."
* * *
Blood, blood. He could see it in his mind, on the floor. He could taste it in the back of his throat. He squeezed his eyes shut tighter. If he opened them, he would see her. He might see him. He didn't want to see. And he didn't want to be seen. Hiding was best. He was good at it.
But everything was quiet, and he couldn't help but start to hope the man was gone. Everything hurt, more than he had ever felt before. And everything was quiet. He tried to force himself to keep his eyes shut, but he could feel himself losing the battle. He had to know. He had to risk being seen. He had to know if the man was gone.
He cracked one eye just a tiny bit, hoping it wasn't noticeable. And then he opened both eyes wide.
Hospital. He was surprised. Even though he could feel for himself the pain was the worst it had ever been this time, he was still surprised to find himself in the hospital. They usually take me to the clinic, he thought dispassionately.
He turned to see a man sitting in the chair beside the bed. The man was sleeping. At first his presence was a mystery. Then the name came to him. Roy, this is Roy. He couldn't remember how he knew Roy, but he knew him somehow. He stared foggily, wondering why Roy was in the hospital with him.
* * *
Roy came awake with a start, sitting up in his chair and stretching his aching back. As he did, he noticed the dark eyes focused on his. Johnny had turned his head and was watching Roy warily.
"Johnny?" Roy asked in surprise.
The dark eyes blinked. "Roy?" Johnny rasped uncertainly, throat hoarse.
Roy felt his eyes starting to well up, and he grinned widely. He grabbed the cup of water off the table, and remembered the last attempt he made to give Johnny some water. He held up the cup. "Do you want some water?" he asked carefully.
Johnny seemed to take a long time to consider his answer, and then gave a minute nod of his head. He winced at the act.
Roy brought the cup forward slowly, moving the straw to Johnny's lips. Johnny made no move against his restraints, but accepted the straw and after a few long moments where Roy could practically see him trying to focus on what to do, he managed to draw water up and swallow it. He dribbled a bit, but he got some down. Roy wiped his face with a napkin.
Johnny seemed exhausted by the effort. "You hur'?" he breathed out, nearly inaudibly, and slurring because his tongue was still a little swollen. Roy leaned closer.
"Me?" Roy asked in surprise. "No, Johnny, I'm fine."
"Oh," Johnny exhaled, looking puzzled.
Roy smiled, thrilled that Johnny was talking to him. He thought of pushing the call button, but he didn't want to spook Johnny now that he finally had him talking.
"How come y'here?" Johnny slurred, eyes drooping drastically.
"Well, you had a little accident," Roy hedged, not sure what he should say. The truth might get Johnny upset again.
Johnny gave a tiny nod as his eyelids fell the rest of the way, and then Roy knew he was sleeping again. He pressed the call button and went to stand in the doorway to pass on the good news.
* * *
Dixie patted Johnny's hand with grateful relief that the restraints were gone. It had taken another whole day, but Johnny had finally reached the point where he recognized people. This meant that an exhausted Roy could be relieved at last, and at least two dozen people had volunteered to sit with Johnny. Dixie was grateful Johnny had made so many good friends since moving to LA. Ever since his aunt died, he had no family to call upon. If it were not for his friends, Johnny would be alone.
Dixie watched the young man as he rested for a moment. She wondered why she had always felt drawn to Johnny Gage. He could be so silly and gullible at times, and yet there were moments when she suspected he did it on purpose. He was one of the best paramedics their program had ever produced, and as such, she knew he was very intelligent, yet he almost seemed to cultivate the image of a happy-go-lucky airhead.
Dixie knew she'd never met a person quite like Johnny before, and she also knew she wasn't alone. Johnny attracted people to him in so many ways. Maybe it was because he had no family, maybe that had done something to his personality, but Johnny just seemed to draw would-be brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers. Dixie knew for a fact that many of his girlfriends broke up with him because of this; many a nurse had confided in her that dating Johnny felt an awful lot like dating a brother. He was a wonderful person, most agreed, but just little brother-ish enough to make it feel odd.
Dixie studied her young friend. Johnny had been making good progress. His tongue was back to normal size, she noted happily. Johnny tired very quickly, but he was able to speak normally again, although he sometimes didn't make sense, exactly. He was still very confused. No one could blame him.
Johnny turned his head to face her, drawn by her patting motion on his hand. His eyes widened in tired surprise. "Dixie," he smiled.
Dixie realized he'd started over again. That was how she thought of it. While Johnny's long-term memory allowed him to remember people and events of the past, his short-term memory loss made him like a two-minute recording that played over and over in a loop. He kept restarting back at square one, short-term memory-wise.
"Hi there, Handsome."
Johnny smiled uncomfortably. "What are you doing here?"
They hadn't figured out the significance of that question but it obviously meant something to Johnny. He asked the question again and again of every person who came to see him. He always looked a little surprised to see his friends.
"Just came to see you," Dixie smiled. "How are you feeling?"
Just like always, Johnny became suddenly wary. "'m okay," he shrugged, with little energy.
"Not exactly," Dixie chided.
Johnny turned his face away. "Can't talk about it," he murmured.
Dixie narrowed her eyes. That was a new answer. "You can't?"
Johnny pursed his lips and gave a tiny shake of his head, still not looking back at her.
"Says who?" Dixie asked playfully.
There was another minute shake of his head.
Dixie patted Johnny's hand again. "Well, sweetheart, I have to ask you a couple of questions, okay? Can you tell me your name?"
Johnny's eyes came back to her. He looked surprised to see her. "Dixie," he smiled.
He started over. Dixie sighed. "Hi, Handsome. Can you tell me your name?"
His eyes became confused. "You know my name."
Dixie nodded, keeping the smile although it was breaking her heart. He'll get better, she told herself. It's not going to be permanent, it's not.
"I need you to say it," she told him teasingly.
"Johnny," he sighed. He looked at her worriedly. "Why are you here, Dixie?"
She pursed her lips, considering. It was almost as if Johnny was not so surprised to see Dixie, but rather, surprised to see her here. "Where's here?" she asked him, making her tone playful.
Johnny waved his fingers around the room. "Here," he repeated. "The hospital."
"Where should I be, Johnny?"
She could see him struggling with the concept. He sighed. "I don't know."
Dixie moved a little closer. "Do you know why you're here, Johnny?" she asked. Each person who sat with Johnny was under instructions to try different questions, in an attempt to get a handle on what the state of Johnny's mind was.
Johnny squeezed his eyes shut tight. "Bad," he whispered.
Dixie eyes flew of their own accord to check Johnny's MS drip, but it was fine. "Are you feeling--"
"I was bad," Johnny mouthed, not even whispering the words. Dixie was lucky she caught it. If she hadn't turned back in time to see Johnny's lips move, she wouldn't have known he said it.
"What do you mean, sweetheart?" she asked gently.
His eyes opened and he looked at her hopelessly. "Bad," he whispered very clearly. Dixie saw his eyes tear up. Johnny turned his head and wiped clumsily with his free arm, unable to control it very well yet. He managed to wipe his face.
Dixie rubbed his other arm lightly. "Johnny? Are you okay?"
He turned his face and his eyes widened a little. Restart, she realized.
"Dixie," Johnny smiled, as if her presence was a pleasant surprise.
* * *
After four days in the ICU, Johnny was something of an amazement to most of the hospital staff. He was sitting up in bed, feeding himself, albeit clumsily, and able to carry on a conversation - although his friends found his short-term memory loss alarming. Johnny recognized everyone he had known before, but he remembered nothing for a week prior to Memorial Day. He also did not remember anything since, from moment to moment. It made visits with him frustrating.
"I was with him an hour," Chet Kelly told Dixie as she and Dr. Brackett stood at the nurses' station. "He must have asked me 15 times why I was there."
"Yeah," Dixie agreed, sighing. "Kel, I think he still doesn't know where he is."
Dr. Brackett shook his head. "I don't think that's the problem," he told them. "I've talked with Johnny. He knows he's in a hospital. I think what the problem is, is that he thinks it's some other hospital. That's why he's always surprised to see us. I think he believes he's in some other hospital, one that he knows--somewhere down deep--we've never been. So he's surprised to see us there."
"He grew up in Montana," Chet offered.
"I thought of that, too," Brackett told him. "Don't worry, Chet. We're aware of the problem. It may go away on its own. We just have to be patient."
Chet raised a hand, trying to hold Brackett back a minute longer. "Uh, Doc, how long does this normally take?" he asked anxiously.
Brackett smiled patiently. "We have to wait and see, Chet. He is getting better, believe it or not. But I can't give you definite answers because there aren't many statistics out there on lightning strikes. Right now, Johnny is supplying a lot of them to us. We've learned a lot from him that will help hospitals with any future lightning patients."
"God forbid," Dixie muttered. Brackett nodded and headed into a treatment room.
Chet hung uncertainly by the station, and Dixie looked back up at him from the file she'd been checking. "Yes, Chet?"
He put his hands on the station and leaned against it. "Dixie," he said worriedly, "he is gonna be okay, right?" He couldn't bear the thought that Johnny might not recover any further.
Dixie put down her pen and tilted her head at him. "Why, Chet, if I didn't know better, I'd say you care about Johnny."
Chet immediately crossed his arms on his chest. "Of course I care," he blustered. "If Gage doesn't get back to what limited capacity he had before, the Phantom'll lose his pigeon."
Dixie laughed. "What's this, Chet, morals? The Phantom couldn't play pranks on him if the pigeon wasn't up to speed?"
"Of course he could," Chet retorted, then smiled. "I just might not enjoy it as much," he confessed.
"Give him time," Dixie said encouragingly. "He's beaten all the odds so far, and Kel's right. He used to ask 15 times in 15 minutes, not a whole hour. Knowing Johnny, I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't make it completely back. He just needs time."
Chet looked a little bit relieved as he headed out. Dixie watched him go, smile fading. You have to come back, Johnny.
* * *
"But how did you get here, Roy?" Johnny was pressing his friend when Dr. Brackett came the next day to check on his patient. He noted with satisfaction that Johnny's eyes were getting back to normal. It was just another sign that the brain swelling was going down.
"I drove," Roy repeated. "Hi, Doc."
Brackett pulled up a chair and sat beside Roy next to the bed. Johnny was looking extremely puzzled. "What's wrong, Johnny?"
Johnny gestured at his friend. "Roy says he drove here. Did you drive too?"
Brackett wondered for the hundredth time what was going through the paramedic's head. "Yes," he answered. "I drove."
"But it's such a long way," Johnny complained on their behalf. "Why would you want to drive here just to visit?"
"Well," Brackett had a sudden idea, and leaned forward. "I've always wanted to see this area," he said vaguely. "And this hospital."
Johnny looked more puzzled than ever.
"You remember the name of this hospital, don't you, Johnny?" Brackett prompted.
The young man nodded. "City Hospital," he supplied.
Great, Brackett thought cynically, That was helpful. Then he saw Roy catch the idea and sit forward a little too.
"Uh, which city, Johnny? I only know this is Montana," he guessed, gesturing vaguely out the window.
"Lame Deer," Johnny answered promptly, still looking confused. "How did you get here if you didn't know the city?"
"Oh, I just forgot," Roy shrugged it off. "Lame Deer, now I remember."
Brackett watched as the young man struggled with some issue in his own mind. He didn't look even close to resolving it. Brackett interrupted his thoughts. "Johnny," he began, "Does it seem odd that Roy and I are here to see you?"
Johnny met his eyes. "Yes," the paramedic told him flatly.
"Why do you think that is?" Brackett questioned.
Johnny's eyes became unfocused as he seemed to look inwardly for a moment. Then he looked out the window. "You're not supposed to be here," he said quietly.
Roy and Brackett exchanged glances. "Why not?" Brackett prompted.
Johnny turned his gaze back to the two men. "You--you weren't--" he stopped, staring.
"We weren't what, Johnny?" Roy asked gently.
Johnny focused on Roy's face. "You weren't here before," he said anxiously.
Roy looked at Dr. Brackett for a moment, then back to Johnny. "Before when?" he asked.
Johnny turned away, leaning wearily back in his bed, and gazed out the window. "Before," he said simply.
"Why are you here, Johnny?" Brackett inquired.
"I don't understand this!" Johnny shouted angrily, but refusing to look at them. "Why are you here? You weren't here before. I know you--but I'm not supposed to know you! How can I be in two places at once? I don't understand!" Brackett and Roy could see the tears of frustration on visible part of Johnny's face.
Both men were on their feet the instant they saw. Roy sat on the bed behind Johnny and put his arms around his friend's shoulders. Brackett came around the other side of the bed to face his patient.
"Johnny," he said solemnly, "you have to tell us what happened to you. We don't know what you're thinking. You have to tell us why you're here."
"You tell me," Johnny whispered. He took a shuddering breath.
"We have told you," Roy replied for Brackett. "We've told you several times, Johnny. Your short-term memory is affected. You keep forgetting."
"And what's more real to you is where you think you are," Brackett told the young man. "We can't help you understand if we don't understand ourselves. We have to know what you're thinking. Why are you in the Lame Deer City Hospital, Johnny?"
Johnny clenched his eyes shut. "I can't tell you," he protested. He wrapped his arms around himself tightly.
Roy remembered Dixie telling them about her conversation with Johnny. "Who told you not to?" he asked, keeping his arms around Johnny.
Johnny kept his eyes tightly shut and tears squeezed from under his eyelids. He shook his head mutely.
Brackett knew. At that moment, he knew beyond a doubt. He could see in Roy's eyes tearing up that Roy knew too. "Who hurt you, Johnny?" he asked, trying to keep the anger out of his voice. It wasn't Johnny he and Roy were angry with.
Johnny shook his head again and refused to speak any more. He eventually fell asleep, leaning back against Roy.
* * *
Roy was in an especially good mood. After two whole days of Johnny in an understandable but unusually irritable and depressed mood, he had suddenly, the day before, surprised everyone by recognizing that he was in Rampart Hospital. With that awareness, he had calmed down immensely. Roy didn't bring up the subject, but he understood; Johnny had suddenly realized he was far away from events of his past, and thus safe from them. Like a domino effect, once Johnny was calm and oriented, his short-term memory had begun to return. He had only been forgetting minor things since then.
For the first time in two weeks, Roy was feeling pretty happy. He watched Johnny frown suspiciously at his other visitor. Roy had to laugh as he brought his thoughts back to the present and witnessed Chet's 'Welcome Back' prank. For once, Johnny wasn't falling for one of the Phantom's tricks.
Nonplussed, Chet Kelly was waving his arms around in the air. "Don't you remember, Johnny?" he pressed innocently. Roy wondered how the demonic little Irishman managed to keep a straight face.
"No," Johnny insisted firmly.
"You lost it fair and square in a card game," Kelly insisted. "You told me you'd pay me next paycheck. That was over a week ago! What am I supposed to do now?" he wailed, sitting heavily on the bed and looking overly pitiful.
Johnny crossed his arms. "I may have problems with my short-term memory, Chet, but I do remember you. No way do I owe you 50 bucks."
Roy would have found Kelly's attempts less funny if he had thought Chet would actually keep the money, but he knew the Phantom's alter-ego would have found a way to return it to Johnny. "Give it up, Chet," he advised. "Johnny may be gullible, but he's not that gullible."
Chet slumped and then grinned mischievously. "Well," he grudgingly surrendered, "maybe the Great Beyond wisened you up a tad. Although you were fool enough to stand under a tree in a storm."
"It wasn't raining!" Roy protested on Johnny's behalf, knowing Johnny didn't, and almost definitely never would, remember that.
"Only you," Chet went on, ignoring Roy, "Only you could manage to get hit by lightning. In a cemetery, no less!"
Johnny nodded soberly. "You might not want to sit too close, Chet," he said quietly. Roy saw Johnny's own spark of mischievousness glint in the dark eyes.
"Sheesh!" Chet jumped off the bed. "You're right!" He looked nervously at the ceiling and window.
Roy couldn't help it, he burst out laughing.
"Wait, wait," Kelly motioned him. "What if there's something about Gage that draws it? We already know he's a disaster magnet. Man, you're right," he told Johnny, whose grin was growing. "If there is any lightning ready to come down, it makes sense it'd be drawn to you," he reasoned. "I mean, if anybody's going to get hit by lightning, it'd be you!"
Johnny nodded. "Better not stand too close," he warned Kelly.
"Yeah," Kelly said backing away, and Roy couldn't tell if Kelly was serious or just ready to leave. "I better get out of here while I still can. Uh, see you later, guys!" he called hurriedly, exiting the hospital room.
Johnny giggled, and Roy chuckled, thinking it'd been too long since he'd heard that silly laugh of his partner. "That's one way to get rid of him," Roy told Johnny.
"Yeah," Johnny agreed contentedly. "Maybe the Great Beyond did wisen me up a tad," he laughed.
Dixie entered just as Johnny was making this statement. "Oh, really?" she asked, crossing over to the bed. "Does this have anything to do with a certain firefighter making a rushed exit from this room? What have you been up to?" she asked Johnny in mock suspicion.
Johnny gave her his most innocent little boy look. "Who, me?"
Dixie slapped gently at his hand. "Don't give me that," she warned, her smile ruining her attempt to look fierce. "You don't fool me for a minute, Johnny Gage."
"Don't you have a question to ask me?" Johnny grinned.
Dixie's eyebrows went up and she looked impressed. "Well, now, do I?"
Johnny was obviously pleased with himself. He wrapped his arms around his chest, unable to contain his satisfaction. "Don't ya wanna know the secret password, Dixie?"
Dixie found it hard to contain her own delight and looking over, saw that Roy was pretty happy-looking too. Apparently, Johnny not only knew the words they'd asked him to remember in order to test his short-term memory, but he had also remembered that he would be questioned. She smiled at him cheerfully. "Okay, so what's the secret password, Johnny?" she asked. They had instructed him to remember the words, 'Benjamin Franklin.'
Johnny smirked. "Benjamin Franklin," he replied promptly, proud of himself. "Another man who played with lightning," he added quickly. "One of our founding forefathers, inventor of the bifocals--among other things, and coiner of the phrase, 'God helps them that help themselves'."
"Okay, now you're just showing off," Dixie told him indulgently. "I don't know if I should be happy or afraid that you're getting your confidence back." She gave him a congratulatory pat on the back. Johnny lay back in bed, smiling.
"Feels good," Johnny told her, letting his eyes close as the familiar sensation of sleepiness began to catch up with him He was feeling so good, in fact, that he didn't even mind his weary body needing a nap. He fell asleep feeling triumphant.
* * *
The local newspapers had all run stories on Johnny being hit by lightning. They followed up with stories about the amazing recovery Johnny had made. After only a week in Intensive Care, Johnny was moved to a regular room. The doctors had finally pronounced his short-term memory loss as temporary, and by the time Johnny left Intensive Care, he had recovered both his short-term and long-term memory, almost completely.
Roy smiled at his best friend another week after that, as he watched Johnny prepare excitedly for his discharge. He thought about the memories Johnny had not recovered, or at least, wasn't talking about. He had also lost the week before the lightning strike, and the week after. Roy, on the other hand, had gained many memories he wished he hadn't. Some day, he and Johnny might have to talk about that. Maybe.
Roy shook the thought from his mind as Johnny finished dressing, turning to him happily as he sat on the edge of the bed. Roy handed Johnny his shoes, slip-ons, as Johnny's balance wasn't quite what it should be yet. They had learned the hard way that bending down to tie his shoes could topple Johnny. The doctors assured him this too would pass.
Roy told Johnny when he arrived that day that there were reporters waiting for him outside. Johnny had laughed at the idea that he could answer any questions about the ordeal. He remembered nothing about the actual event.
Roy was pulled out of his musings as Johnny gave him an overly happy, crooked grin. "Well, how do I look? Am I ready for my adoring public?"
Roy looked him over in mock seriousness. He knew Johnny's heels, ankles, and left knee were still scabby-looking, but they were covered by Johnny's socks and sweatpants. His left elbow was still completely wrapped up in gauze. He had fading electrical burns in several places, including a still strong burn on his chest that was visible where Johnny's top shirt buttons were undone. The doctors said even that would fade with time. Johnny's left ear was packed with cotton and covered with tape to protect it from any wind. He was pale and even thinner than usual, and Roy knew the trip from the front of the hospital to Roy's house would probably wear Johnny out completely.
"You look great," he smiled.
Dixie pushed open the door behind Roy and entered, Dr. Brackett and Dr. Early following. Dr. Early was pushing a wheelchair. "Now you really are our star patient," Dixie told Johnny, taking over charge of the wheelchair. "Are you ready to meet your fan club?"
"And get them out from under our feet?" Brackett grumbled.
"Never more ready in my life," Johnny answered happily, surrendering to the wheelchair. Roy loaded him up with some of the more personal gifts he had received during his stay.
Johnny pointed to the multitude of flowers and plants. "You'll give those out?" he asked the doctors.
"Don't we always?" Dr. Early laughed.
"This hospital never has to buy any flowers or plants," Brackett teased. "When we start running low, we know it's only a matter of time before you'll replenish our supply."
"And a month or so from now, you'll be bringing us even more," Dixie smiled.
"Don't remind me," Johnny frowned momentarily. He was not looking forward to returning for surgery on his ear. "I don't want to see this place for a long time!"
"You're in the wrong profession, then," Roy commented.
"Well, as a patient," Johnny quickly amended.
"Don't worry, Johnny," Dixie consoled him. "After your surgery, I'd say you've probably filled your quota of patient time for this year."
"This is Johnny we're talking about," Brackett grinned.
"We've got a present for you," Dr. Early told Johnny, smiling. "We didn't quite find the whole ensemble, but . . ."
Brackett produced a bag from behind his back, and reaching into it, pulled out a shirt and pants, a pair of socks, a pair of shoes, and half-melted sunglasses. None of the articles of clothing were recognizable if you didn't know they had been worn by someone who had been hit by lightning. The shirt, pants, and socks hung in shredded strips. The shoes were ripped lengthwise in two, and were missing most of their soles. Johnny swallowed hard. "Wow," he breathed. He fingered the shaved portion of hair at his left temple as his other hand touched the remains of his sunglasses.
"Wow is right," Dixie nodded. They all stared for a moment, then Brackett stuffed the clothing back into the bag and handed them to Johnny.
"Souvenirs," he smiled sadly.
Johnny nodded and took the bag. He held it gingerly in front of him.
"You ready to blow this joint?" Roy asked. "The kids are waiting for you."
"Home, James," Johnny said in reply, looking up at Dixie behind him.
They started off down the hall. "Jennifer says you owe her a tea party," Roy remarked casually.
"I don't remember that," Johnny declared.
"I wouldn't either," Roy laughed.
Better Off forgotten Part 2: A Time To Remember