It's like walking around in a canvas bag.
It wasn't the first time in his life that analogy had crossed John Gage's mind. He'd originally heard it from one of his academy instructors. Nineteen and pretty full of himself, he'd chalked it up to just one more old timer's attempt to instill the fear of God into young trainees. He pushed it to the back of his mind where he stored other such bullshit, but it had come back unbidden the first time Johnny found himself inside a burning building. Surrounded by smoke so dense and suffocating that for a few terrifying minutes he thought he'd never find his way out, he realized old man Bittner just might have known what he was talking about. It was the first of many such revelations he received as a wet behind the ears probie.
It's like walking around in a canvas bag.
Over the years he'd been a firefighter there'd been many times when those words flashed through Johnny's mind. He'd even voiced them a time or two. And he never forgot that knot of panic in his gut when he thought he was lost in that gray, disorienting labyrinth. It was always there; every single time they rolled up to a fire. But he'd never yet let the fear get control. He never hesitated when duty required him to walk into places that rivaled any version of Hell the nuns at the reservation school tried to describe to a room full of squirming children.
Not that he dwelled on it too much. None of the guys he knew did. You couldn't and still do your job. But there were times when you wondered. Times when your guts turned to water and the metaphors suddenly didn't seem to cover it by half.
Today was one of those times.
The two story frame house had been well involved when they arrived on the scene, though for the moment the flames appeared contained to the first floor. None of the neighbors could say for sure if the owners were home, so Cap ordered Roy and Johnny in to do a sweep of the second story. As the two paramedics donned their turnout coats and tanks, the sound of approaching sirens told them additional help was on the way. Bolstered by that thought, and with Chet and Marco laying down a covering spray of water, they made their way into the flaming structure.
Another thing Johnny had learned quickly as a rookie was that anyone who'd never been inside a burning building could never possibly comprehend how hot it really was. Turnouts and SCBA gear notwithstanding, a firefighter usually could only mange a few minutes before he started feeling a lot like a baked potato. If you stayed inside too long, disregarded protocol to play the hero, you ran the risk of becoming a victim yourself.
As the paramedics entered this house and the waves of heat enveloped them, Johnny knew their time was short. Once they'd managed to get up the stairs it became more bearable, but even without the high temperature, the smoke was so dense here that Johnny could barely see Roy in front of him until his partner stopped and turned around.
It was hard to hear each other with their masks on, but they'd worked together long enough that a brief exchange of hand gestures sufficed. Roy wanted to split up so they could cover the rooms more quickly. Johnny nodded and headed down the narrow hallway, his hand running along the wall to guide his way. It didn't take long to find the first bedroom.
He felt his way around the small room, looking under the bed and in the closet - places where a frightened child might hide. He even lifted his mask once to yell out for anyone, but got no response. He quickly re-donned his mask, gulping the stale, tanked air gratefully, satisfied nobody was here.
There was only one other room at this end of the house, and from what Johnny could make out of the furnishings, it was used as an office or den. There wasn't a bed to check under, and the closet was stacked with boxes and bins. It didn't seem likely that anyone was in here, but Johnny did a cursory search just the same. In a few moments he was sure, and he made his way back to the hallway.
The smoke had grown worse in the short time he'd been in the room. Out of years of habit, he bent low and kept one hand on the wall to guide him toward the landing. It was hotter now too, telling Johnny the men below were losing the battle with the fire. He and Roy needed to get the hell out of here - now.
Roy's voice was muffled, but Johnny could hear him distinctly enough to suspect his partner wasn't wearing his mask. The coughing he heard next confirmed it. There were a number of reasons why Roy wouldn't be wearing his gear, none of them good. Johnny squinted into the swirling smoke and could barely make out the slightly hunched figure at the top of the stairs. Roy was bent with the weight of a victim over his shoulder, giving him a misshapen appearance. It also explained why he wasn't wearing his air mask. Though he couldn't see clearly, Johnny knew his partner would be holding it up to the victim's face.
"It's clear here," Johnny called, lifting his own mask so Roy would be sure and hear him. He waved his partner on, knowing Roy needed to get both himself and his victim out of this smoke. As if in sympathy, Johnny coughed himself and hastily replaced his mask. He waved again. "I'm right behind you," he shouted.
Roy must have heard him, for he lifted his free hand in what had to be a "thumbs up" gesture, then headed down the stairs. With one hand still running along the wall, Johnny hurried over to the landing.
It was a strange feeling to start down and not be able to see the bottom, and even stranger when after only a moment he couldn't see where he'd just been either. His firm grip on the wooden banister was his only anchor, the only thing tangible in the gray void.
Training kept his feet moving - kept him reaching down for stairs that somehow always appeared under his feet. His senses were scrambling for something concrete - something they could send his brain to keep him oriented. And he began to pick up sounds.
He could hear the muffled voices of the men working the hoses, the distant whine of a K-12 up on the roof as other companies were ventilating. The hiss of the spray as it hit the flames and mixed steam with smoke. And he could hear the creaking of the house itself as it surrendered to the fire. It was giving up.
He figured he was about half way down now. He could make out movement and blurred figures, and he suddenly felt the spray of water as someone thought to cover his descent. But as his foot reached down for the next step, he heard another sound - a groan of timber, louder than anything else that had yet reached his ears - followed by a rumbling roar and whoosh of flame and steam. And his foot came down on nothing.
He was falling. His hands flailed for something - anything - to grab. For an instant there was nothing. Nothing but smoke. And then things became far too real. He hit something painfully hard and a searing pain shot up his leg. Splintered wood and plaster rained down on his head, knocking his helmet and mask askew. His last thought was a hope that Roy had gotten the victim out and was okay. And then his world went dark and he didn't think of anything at all.
* * *
Roy maneuvered his way out of the house, trying to keep his air mask up to the victim's face. It wasn't an easy task. The old man he'd found half conscious in the master bedroom was considerably overweight, and it had been all the paramedic could do to get him down the stairs. Between the strain on his back and the near constant coughing from breathing in too much smoke, Roy was more than ready to turn this poor guy over to somebody else. Then, through blurry, irritated eyes, he saw the number 36 on a helmet and helpful hands lifted the man off Roy's overtaxed shoulders. Knowing his victim was now in good hands, he took a moment to grab his mask and breathe in a few deep gulps of air.
"Here, Roy, sit down for a minute."
Bellingham's suggestion sounded like a good idea, and the exhausted paramedic started to shrug out of his tank, when a thunderous noise turned him toward the house. A cry went up from the men on the lines, and the bottom floor windows burst outwards in a blast of glass and smoke.
Two thoughts flashed through Roy's mind.
Damn, I hope everybody's outta there.
How tired he'd been no longer took up any space in his thinking. He turned to Brice and Bellingham on the ground, working on the old man.
"You got him?"
At Brice's curt nod, Roy raced back towards the house, tightening up the straps he'd just loosened. He spotted the white striped helmet near the front door and headed in that direction.
"Cap?" He coughed harshly and shouted again, trying to make himself heard over the noise of the fire. "Cap?"
Hank Stanley turned as Roy approached, his face strained, but wearing a tight smile that conveyed a degree of reassurance.
The captain's words sent a flood of relief through the anxious paramedic, but Roy could tell from Cap's expression there was more to it. Roy made to move past Hank and into the house, but the captain took hold of his arm to hold him up.
"Stay put, Roy," he ordered "Chet and Marco are bringing him out now. I don't need anybody else in there. It's too unstable."
"What the hell happened?" Roy asked as he tried his best to see what was going on inside the structure. The smoke was too dense to make out much beyond a few moving shapes.
"Stairs gave out, and the ceiling came down," Hank informed him grimly. "Took out Gage and Rawlings from 36. Rawlings walked away with only a few scratches..."
The rest was left unsaid as Hank suddenly moved back, his arm taking Roy back with him, making room for the stokes coming out of the doorway.
Roy's first sight was the back of Chet's dripping turnout coat and air tank, then Marco's grimy face, half hidden under his mask. And then he saw Johnny. His partner was wet and dirty, lying half on his side, still wearing his tank. That spoke of the urgency with which he'd been removed from the burning building. Roy only hoped that necessary haste hadn't exacerbated any injuries.
"Take him over to 36," he instructed. "They're set up over there."
Chet gave a crisp nod, reaching up with one hand long enough to shove his helmet back and pull his mask down. Marco did the same as they carried Johnny down the front steps and away from the now fully engulfed house.
As he trotted alongside the stokes, Roy did a quick assessment. He could see blood mixed with the wet plaster and soot that covered his partner's face. Johnny's eyes were closed, apparently unconscious, though a quick grab at the younger man's wrist reassured Roy that John's pulse was strong.
Concussion, probably, he told himself. Hopefully mild.
There would be other injuries less evident. There would have to be given the amount of debris that must have come down. His eyes automatically traveled down the rest of his partner's body, looking for any outward signs, and that's when he noticed Johnny's leg - or rather the jagged piece of wood sticking up from the injured paramedic's left calf. He couldn't tell without a closer look, but the fact that it had penetrated the thick fabric of Johnny's bunker pants set off Roy's medical alarm bells and made him impatient to get his partner to a place where he could be more completely examined.
After what seemed like forever, Chet and Marco finally set Johnny down. Roy slipped out of his air tank in one quick, fluid movement, then knelt down beside the stokes. He gave Bellingham a quick nod of acknowledgment as the pudgy paramedic came over with his biophone, ready to relay Johnny's vitals to Rampart. With one weary sigh to shove his fatigue aside, Roy set to work taking stock of his partner's condition.
* * *
"Hang in there, Johnny. We're almost to Rampart."
He'd heard those same words before, but this was the first time his head had been clear enough to figure out who was talking.
Roy. And sirens. That's just great.
It took some concentration, but he was at last able to get his voice to work, even if it was too hard to open his eyes.
"Mmmm... tha's what... tha's what you said... an hour ago."
"It wasn't an hour... just seems that way to you."
He could hear the chuckle in Roy's voice, but even his pain rattled senses picked up the concern there as well. Johnny didn't really remember much. The sensation of falling was vivid in his memory, but things got a little hazy after that. The next clear image he recalled was Roy's face bending over him shining his pen light in his eyes and asking him a lot of questions Johnny couldn't really answer.
He knew he hurt - everywhere. His head was the worst, though his leg was running a close second. He wasn't sure what he'd done to it because every time he tried to sit up so he could take a good look, Roy would push him back down. He gave up after a time, mostly because the constant motion wasn't doing his headache any good. Besides, he really didn't want to throw up, which his stomach threatened to do every time he moved his head.
He must have drifted in and out, for the next time he was really aware, he was in the back of an ambulance, an IV in his arm and Roy sitting on the bench beside him.
They hit a bump and he couldn't keep back a slight yelp. Roy was at his side immediately, checking his vitals again.
"Sure... sure you can't... slip a little MS in there?" Johnny asked, as his partner adjusted the IV drip.
Roy shook his head regretfully. "Sorry. Not with that bump on your head. You'll just have to wait 'til the docs take a look at you."
"Wha... what about my leg?"
Roy's eyes darted toward the injured limb, and Johnny could see him weighing how much to say. He smiled lightly.
"Well, you've got a pretty good sized splinter in there."
"Couldn't ya just... use some tweezers?" He tried to flash a smile, but was pretty sure he failed.
Roy chuckled again and shook his head. "Sorry, buddy. This one's a little outta my league."
Johnny made a face that was only partly facetious. "Guess that means Dixie'll get her hands on me... gimme one of her shots."
"Probably," Roy agreed ruefully. They'd both been on the receiving end of tetanus boosters.
"Just remember, it only hurts for a second."
Johnny snorted and closed his eyes against the pain in his head. "I've heard tha... that before." He was fading again. He couldn't help himself.
"Johnny? Johnny, stay with me."
He could hear Roy calling to him, but his partner's voice was only a faint, tinny sound in his ears.
* * *
He tried to lift his head, but that hurt, so he didn't try again.
"Johnny? Where are you?"
His initial joy at recognizing his mother's voice gave way to a wash of panic and stifled his
answering call. As much as he wanted Momma to find him and make the hurt go away, the five year old didn't want to see her angry face when she realized he'd been in the tree she'd forbidden him to climb time and time again.
John Gage, I swear, you're gonna break your neck falling outta that tree!
He'd heard that so many times, he could hear her voice in his head now. She would be mad, and she would tell Daddy, and he'd get a spanking. He didn't mind the spanking. Daddy's hand would hurt on his backside for a few minutes, but that went away fast. It was the look in Daddy's eyes that always bothered him. The look that always seemed to say he'd made his daddy sad when he did something bad.
"Johnny, come in for lunch!"
Lunch! He suddenly remembered being hungry when he was up in the tree. He'd been looking forward to going home to eat. It was that hunger that made him hurry as he climbed down the tree he knew so well; had made him miss his footing and slip from the second lowest branch.
But he sure wasn't hungry now. In fact, his stomach was acting funny, and he didn't think he wanted any lunch. That would upset Momma too. She always told him it was a sin to waste food.
"John Roderick Gage, I'm tired of calling you."
He let out a soft groan. Boy, was he in trouble now. That was Momma's "last chance" voice; the one she only used when she was 'zasperated with him. He knew if he didn't answer her he'd get a worse lickin' than just climbing a tree would earn him. And besides, his head was really hurting bad now. He decided he wanted Momma no matter how mad she was.
Sitting up was hard work. It made his head throb and sent the orchard spinning, and Johnny leaned over suddenly as his stomach heaved. It was only when he was through being sick that his blurred gaze found his leg and the blood that covered it.
"Mamma," he croaked in a small, frightened voice. He was scared now, and that fear made his voice louder. "Mamma!"
"Johnny! Hold on, sweetie, I'm coming."
She knew he needed her. He could hear the change in her voice. The "last chance" tone was gone and in its place was the voice that had soothed away a hundred hurts. She was coming and she would make everything all right again. He laid down again, resting his cheek against the cool earth and closing his eyes to stop the trees from spinning.
"Johnny! Oh, baby, what did you do?"
She was there beside him, gathering him up into her arms, and it didn't matter that he was a big boy. He leaned into her shoulder, breathing in the faint scent of soap. She must have been doing the dishes.
"I... I fell, Momma. I'm s-s-sorry," he stammered as he tried mightily not to cry. "I... I was bad and climbed the tree... an' I fell."
Her arms tightened around him, and her voice held no anger, only softness. "It's all right, Johnny. Don't worry. Momma's here now. Everything's gonna be okay."
* * *
"Everything's gonna be okay, Johnny. Hang in there."
Dixie smiled at Roy's steady stream of reassurances as the gurney carried his partner down the hall from radiology and back into treatment room 4. Since he'd been brought into the ER Johnny had been drifting in and out of consciousness, and right now he was more out than in. Dixie wasn't sure he could even hear Roy, but she figured it didn't much matter. Sometimes a person just needed to say the words even if nobody really heard them.
"As soon as we get his films back, we'll know better what we're dealing with," Joe was saying as the attendants locked the wheels of the portable bed back in place. The neurologist had stitched up the gash in Johnny's scalp, but it was the inside of the paramedic's head that concerned him. "Once we rule out a skull fracture, we can give the surgeon the go ahead on taking that lumber out of his leg."
While the two men talked, Dixie used the temporary lull in treatment to clean Johnny up a bit. She took a warm cloth and gently wiped away the blood and dirt from his face and arms, careful of his IV's and the numerous cuts and abrasions he'd received in his fall. Some of them had been serious enough to require stitches as well. Her gaze fell towards the paramedic's impaled leg. It had been packed to stem the bleeding, but so far the paramedic's head had taken priority in treatment. She had to repress a shudder at the thought of Johnny falling through all that jagged wood. Though he'd probably argue with her if he was more coherent, he'd been very lucky.
She heard the quiet groan at the same time she felt his arm pull away from her grip.
"Easy there," she soothed gently, laying a hand on his shoulder to remind him to stay still. "You're going to be okay, Johnny, but try not to move around too much."
The injured paramedic's eyes flickered open. They moved around slowly at first, as if trying to focus, then his gaze fell on Dixie and his brow furrowed slightly.
"Momma?" he asked hoarsely.
Dixie smiled affectionately at his mistake. He was obviously still confused about where he was, or even when. She leaned over and gently brushed the bangs off his forehead. There weren't many people she would let get away with mistaking her for their mother, but John Gage had always been able bring out Dixie's softer side. All he had to do was flash that cheeky grin.
"Nope," she answered softly. "Your mom's not here right now."
"Not here?" he echoed.
There was such a plaintive quality to his voice that Dixie had to swallow an unexpected lump in her throat before she answered, and she suddenly remembered Johnny telling her once that his mother had passed away when he was fairly young.
"No... she's not. But I am. Will I do?"
Those brown eyes held her gaze for a long moment before moving to take in the rest of the room. He wasn't looking at her, but his hand moved in a way that told her he was seeking contact. She reached down and felt his fingers close weakly over hers. His shoulders heaved slightly in a weary sigh, and then his eyes grew glassy and closed again.
She glanced up at Joe's expectant question. Both he and Roy regarding her curiously, and she realized neither man had heard her exchange with Johnny.
"He wasn't really aware," she informed them with a shake of her head. She decided she didn't need to tell them who Johnny thought she was. He would only be embarrassed by it later on. "He didn't know me."
Roy's face grew even more worried, if that was possible, but Joe nodded knowingly. He put a reassuring hand on the senior paramedic's shoulder.
"Don't be alarmed," he counseled. "He had a pretty good knock on the head. This kind of thing is typical. He may be confused for a few days. But let's wait for the X-Rays before we get too concerned."
Roy chewed on his lower lip, but gave Joe an answering nod. "If you say so, Doc." He breathed out heavily. "Guess I better go call Cap... let him know what's going on." His blue eyes moved to his partner, then back to Joe. "I'll hang around here as long as I can. Just in case you need... well, just in case, ya know." He turned to the door, gave Dixie a half smile, then walked into the hallway.
The nurse watched the door swing closed behind him, then turned back to the unconscious man on the table.
* * *
He wasn't feeling very good. Momma had wrapped up his leg in some clean kitchen towels, then carried him down the road to Mr. Gamboa's house to see if he could drive them to the clinic in his truck. Daddy was working construction today and they didn't have a way to call him to come home with their car.
Momma had muttered something under her breath about the worthless phone company. Johnny wasn't sure what she was mad about, but he did know that ever since this past winter when they'd had more snow than usual, their phone hadn't worked right.
If Charlie had been home, Momma would have sent him to Mr. Gamboa's and had him bring the truck here. But Johnny's big brother had outgrown the local primary school. Last fall he'd started taking the bus into town with all the other high school kids. He was too far away to be of any help.
So Momma had carried him nearly a whole mile. She tried to be careful and not jostle him. He'd clung to her neck, burying his face in her shoulder to keep from crying because his head hurt real bad, and having his leg dangling down made it hurt worse than before. He thought riding in the truck would be better, but rutted roads and old shocks made for a bouncing ride that threatened to make Johnny sick again. They pulled up at the weathered building that served as the local emergency room and clinic none too soon for Johnny's stomach.
Momma gathered him up in her arms, thanking their neighbor over and over as she climbed down from the pickup and closed the door. Johnny heard Mr. Gamboa say something about driving into town and trying to call Daddy for them. Then he backed out and drove away.
It was cooler inside the clinic and Momma set him down in a chair, then went up to the desk to talk to a lady in a funny white hat. There were a lot of other kids playing with blocks on the floor. Johnny liked blocks, but today he didn't feel like playing.
Pretty soon Momma came back and the lady in the hat came with her. She sat down in the chair next to him and reached toward his leg. He instinctively pulled it away from her.
"Let me take a look, young man."
She didn't say please, and she looked cranky. He didn't want her to see his leg. Johnny drew back against Momma. She squeezed his shoulder and whispered in his ear.
"Let her look, baby. She needs to see."
He looked up at Momma and she gave him an encouraging smile. Reluctantly he pushed his leg back toward the other lady.
She still didn't smile. Her mouth was tight as she lifted the towels Momma had wrapped around his cut.
"It doesn't look too bad," she stated as she replaced the towels. "Probably just needs a few stitches." She stood up. "We're swamped today, so you'll have to wait some."
"But what about his head?" Momma asked. "He hit it pretty hard."
"The doctor will let you know," was all the lady answered as she walked back to her desk.
Momma stared after her a moment, and Johnny saw her mad face. He was glad she wasn't mad at him.
"What are stitches?" he asked.
He felt Momma let out a big breath, and then she put her arm around him and pulled him close. When he looked up at her he could see her smile had returned.
"It's something the doctor will do to help your cut get better."
"Is it a shot?" he asked dubiously.
"Sort of," Momma answered lightly. "It might hurt a little, but not much."
"I don' want no shot," he told her.
She hugged him tighter. "Why don't we wait and see what the doctor says."
He leaned against her, feeling miserable and wishing with all his might that he'd never climbed that tree.
* * *
The world was still fading in and out, but he knew he was at Rampart. The bright light and cold room told him that. He'd talked a little to Doc Brackett, then Joe Early had come in and given him a neuro check. He wasn't sure he'd passed, but he didn't care right now. He still hurt like hell and all he wanted at the moment was for somebody to give him something for the pain and then to leave him alone.
"Hey, hotshot, how ya holding up?"
He turned his head slightly and saw a fuzzy white figure standing next to him. A distant image from the past flashed through his mind, but before he could bring it into focus it was gone. He squinted and then he recognized the person standing beside him.
"Dixie? 'Sat you?"
"Who else? Nothing but the best for our favorite customer." Her tone was light and teasing, but she was busy doing something to his arm.
He realized what she was up to and pulled out of her grasp.
"Whoa there, Johnny..." She tried to take his arm again. "It's just a shot."
"Don' wan' no shot!" he stated emphatically.
"I know you don't," the nurse replied sympathetically, but she still held his arm in a strong grasp. "You know as well as I do it's for your own good. That wood they took out of your leg was pretty dirty. You need a booster. It will only hurt for a second."
It will only hurt for a second...
* * *
"Okay young man, this will only hurt for second."
The elderly doctor had kind blue eyes and a warm smile, but Johnny only had eyes for the hypo in the man's hand. He shook his mop of dark hair.
"I don' wan' a shot!" he stated emphatically, scooting down on the paper covered table.
"I know you don't," the man replied understandingly, "but little boys who fall out of trees and get themselves scraped up like you did have to get stitched back up. This will only hurt a little bit, and then I can fix your leg without it hurting at all."
The sympathetic explanation did little to change Johnny's mind. He shook his head again and slid off the table. The open backed gown slipped down over one thin shoulder and he tugged it back in place as he tried to move toward the door of the examining room.
"Don' wanna get no shot!" he repeated.
He'd had his fill of doctors, nurses and high tables in lonely rooms without Momma. They'd taken him back without her. She hadn't looked happy about it, but the grouchy lady at the desk said it was better that way. Johnny didn't think it was better. But Momma had told him to go and behave himself. He did. But he was only five after all, and he'd cooperated about all he was going to.
He'd stayed still when they took pictures of his head. He'd let the nurse lady who was lots nicer than the other lady at the desk clean up his other scratches. But when the white haired doctor came in with the needles, Johnny decided he was done. He edged closer to the door.
The doctor lost a little of his friendly smile. "Now, listen here, son..."
The door swung open as a nurse came in with a tray. Seeing his chance, Johnny ducked out into the crowded hall. Despite the cut on his leg, he ran for all he was worth, not caring one bit that he wasn't wearing anything under the gown and that people might see his bare bottom. He didn't know where Momma was, and right now he wasn't really trying to find her. He just wanted to get away from that scary needle.
* * *
"Johnny... Johnny, calm down."
"No." He twisted away and managed to pull free of Dixie's grasp, ignoring how much it hurt to move so quickly. "I don' wan' a shot," he insisted with as much force as he could muster.
"Okay. Okay. No shot. I promise."
He watched warily as she set the hypo down, but didn't relax and lay back, until she pushed the rolling tray away from his side. He was panting slightly, his body protesting his outburst. He knew he was being unreasonable, but there was something lurking just beyond the reach of his memory that made him afraid.
When his eyes finally settled on Dixie again her face broadcast how worried she was, and Johnny suddenly felt foolish.
"S-s-sorry, Dix," he mumbled breathlessly.
"That's okay," she consoled him. "We can do it later." She reached down to take his pulse.
Probably through the roof, he decided, and tried to do as Dixie asked and calm himself. He didn't know why he was so unnerved by the thought of getting a shot. But he was still too fuzzy to figure everything out. Thinking about it only made his head hurt worse.
"We're going to send you upstairs, Johnny."
The paramedic looked up, startled at Dr. Early's voice. He hadn't even heard the man come into the room. He glanced around and saw Roy on his other side, and realized he must have faded out again. He didn't see Dixie anywhere.
"Am I okay, Doc?" he asked hesitantly, wondering what kind of head trauma he must have sustained to be this foggy.
He felt Dr. Early's hand pat his shoulder in a gesture meant to be reassuring. "You're going to be just fine, Johnny. It's normal for you to feel a little disoriented. Don't worry about it."
"That... that's easy for you to say, Doc," Johnny replied ruefully. "It's... it's kinda freaky on this end."
Joe smiled understandingly. "The confusion will pass, Johnny Just try and rest. And give it a day or two. You'll be your old self before you know it."
"Gee, Doc," Roy chimed in with a teasing smile, "I was looking forward to him being somebody new."
Johnny made an attempt at rolling his eyes, but that made his head hurt. So he settled for making a soft, scoffing sound. "Leave the humor... to Chet, Pally."
He never heard Roy's reply. The next time he opened his eyes he was alone in a darkened room.
* * *
The room was dark and dusty. Johnny's leg hurt awful bad from running down the slippery corridors, and now that he was still, his head was hurting again too. To top it off, the dust he'd disturbed when he slipped inside the little used closet was now tickling his nose. He tried his best to fight back a big sneeze, but lost the battle, and for one terrified moment thought he'd given himself away. He sat in the blackness, listening to his heart thumping wildly in his chest. He could hear soft footsteps sweep by on the other side of the door, but no one tried opening it.
After a while, when he felt he was safe, he looked around his small sanctuary. He couldn't see much. There was only a bit of light peeping in under the door. It wasn't enough to show Johnny what kind of stuff they stored in this closet.
He had an active imagination - over-active, his grandma said. And right now that imagination was doing its best to fill the darkness with things that bit, grabbed, snarled and snapped. The five year old hugged himself tightly and let out a small whimper. He didn't like the idea that there might be strange creatures in here. But he didn't leave. He didn't want that doctor to find him. Or the grouchy lady with the hat. And mostly he didn't want that big needle to come anywhere near him. His fear of getting that shot outweighed any would-be monsters.
Hurt, scared and alone, Johnny let go a shaky sigh and leaned the side of his head against the wall. Tears leaked out of his eyes and ran down his cheeks.
"I wanna go home, Momma. Please come take me home."
* * *
Roy walked down the hall, hoping the squeak of his boots on the linoleum didn't disturb any of the sleeping patients. He was finishing this shift with Carlson, and the younger paramedic didn't mind having a cup of coffee at the nurses' station. Roy knew Steve had a thing for one of the night duty nurses, so sitting around shooting the breeze instead of rushing back to the station to get some shuteye wasn't much of a sacrifice.
He glanced at the clock on the wall. Five a.m. There wouldn't be much Roy could do at this hour, but he figured since he was here anyway, he'd peek in on his partner. No matter how much Dr. Early told him not be concerned, the fact that Johnny was still having bouts of confusion worried Roy. He'd seen the doc sew up the gash on Johnny's head. It hadn't been pretty and Roy counted at least twenty stitches. He sure hoped that the only side effect of his partner's concussion was going to be the bald patch on the side of his head where they'd shaved his shaggy hair close to the scalp.
Roy chuckled to himself as he envisioned Johnny's reaction when he was finally aware enough to notice his new hair style. It was in this lighter frame of mind that the paramedic pushed the door to room 413 open slightly, trying not to let too much light in that might disturb his sleeping partner.
The smile left Roy's face as he pushed the door open all the way. Johnny's bed was empty.
"Johnny?" he called softly. When he got no answer he flicked on the light switch. There wasn't anyone in the other bed, so he knew he wasn't disturbing another patient. But the added light didn't help. The bed was still empty.
"Johnny?" Roy's voice was louder this time, and he felt the stirring of fear in his gut. There was no reason Johnny should be out of his room at this time of night unless something had happened - his condition had worsened. By the time Roy had glanced into the empty bathroom to check there, that fear was threatening to become full blown panic.
He managed not to run down the hall to the nurses' station. When he reached the desk the woman on duty regarded him warily. He supposed he did look a little harried in his turnouts and boots clumping around her floor.
"Can I help..."
"Where's John Gage?" he interrupted, working to keep his voice level.
"In his room asleep," the nurse informed him evenly. "And it's not visiting hours," she added sternly.
Roy ignored her none too subtle hint that he shouldn't be here. Her reply wasn't the answer he was expecting. He'd been afraid she would tell him Johnny had taken a turn for the worse and was having surgery or some other kind of emergency treatment. But for her not to even be aware her patient was missing wasn't something he'd been prepared for. His jaw worked with his effort to keep calm.
"He's not in his room."
"Of course he is," the nurse insisted indignantly. "I just did a neuro check on him half an hour ago."
"Well, he's not there now." Roy gestured down the hall toward the room he'd just left, then found himself following after the woman as she hurried towards Johnny's room.
"He was just here," she stated helplessly as she stood in the doorway staring into the empty room.
Roy didn't wait for her to gather her wits. He rushed back to the desk and picked up the phone to call security.
* * *
The room was dark and dusty. Johnny's leg was throbbing and his head hurt something fierce. But at least he felt safe here, even though he wasn't sure what exactly it was he felt safe from. All he knew was that he'd woken up in a panic and had to get away.
He remembered climbing out of bed and having to pull his IV line. It stung, but only for a moment. It was a minor twinge compared to how much his leg hurt when he put his weight on it. But he did his best to ignore it, limping his way out of his room and ducking down the hall without the nurse seeing him. He didn't care that his bare feet were cold on the linoleum or that the open backed gown was flapping freely behind him. His one thought was to put as much distance between him and that room as he could. If he stayed in the bed he wouldn't be safe.
He didn't know where he was going. Every room he passed had the same beds in them that he was trying to get away from. It was only when he started feeling frantic that he would never find a good hiding place that he stumbled across the small closet that luckily wasn't locked.
He fumbled with the knob and opened it just enough slip inside. His vision was blurry, and he couldn't quite make out what kind of storage area this was. It didn't matter anyway. When he closed the door after himself, he was plunged into total darkness. With his breath heaving and his head aching, he lowered himself to the ground to wait.
Wait for what?
He couldn't remember what he was running from, and he shook his head to try and clear some of the cobwebs That action wasn't very smart. The pain that flashed inside his skull was agonizing, and brought tears to his eyes.
Damn, I just wanna go home. Somebody come take me home.
* * *
"Johnny? Baby, what are you doing in here?"
"Momma?" He squinted up into the sudden infusion of light and saw the outline of his mother.
"I'm here, sweetie."
She moved to his side and as she drew closer he could make out her face better. She settled down beside him and pulled him into her lap.
"I've been worried about you. The doctor said you ran out of the room and they couldn't find you."
"It was a big shot, Momma. I didn't wan' no big shot." He clung to her neck, the tears that had dried earlier returned in full force. "Don' let him gimme a shot."
"Johnny, the doctor only wants to make your leg better."
"A dumb ol' shot won' make it better," he argued in a muffled voice.
He felt her kiss on his cheek and somehow knew she was smiling.
"This one will, sweetheart. And it will only hurt for a tiny minute."
Johnny let out a heavy sigh. There didn't seem to be any way out of it, but if Momma said it would be okay, then maybe it would. Still, he stayed where he was for a moment longer, wanting to feel that sense of protection that only his mother's arms provided.
"Are you okay now?"
"I think so," he replied in a shaky voice.
"Maybe we should get you back to your room."
He breathed out another sigh, this one resigned. He lifted his head, and at first saw only the white clad shoulder he'd been leaning on. Then his vision cleared, and he could make out Dixie's understanding face as she waited for him to decide to get up.
He sniffed and automatically swiped at his eyes, puzzled to find his cheeks wet. He wasn't sure why he'd been crying on Dixie's shoulder. He knew distantly that he should be embarrassed about it. But at the moment he wasn't. He just felt safe.
* * *
Dixie adjusted the drip on Johnny's IV. After talking to Joe and Kel about the paramedic's reaction to getting a shot in the arm, they decided to forgo a tetanus booster and just stick with IV antibiotics. The fireman was fairly current. His last shot was only a few years ago. Though he didn't seem to be as agitated as he'd been earlier, there wasn't any reason to upset him by insisting on the injection.
Whatever nightmare his concussion had brought to the surface of his memory seemed to have retreated. Johnny was much more lucid now. He was lying here talking to Roy, sounding tired but no longer afraid. He didn't even remember escaping from his bed or the nearly two hours he'd spent hiding in the linen closet until Dixie happened to find him. Nor did he seem to have any memory of crying in her arms.
She knew he'd thought she was his mother. It was actually a sweet moment she would always cherish. She was honored to be able to fill that role for him when he so obviously needed someone to step in. Even if Johnny never remembered it, Dixie would. She wouldn't tell him. Just like she would never tell him how she'd found him nearly naked in the closet, the thin gown barely covering the essentials. She smiled. Some things you just needed to keep yourself.
* * *
"Man, I can't believe how much hair they cut off." Johnny held the small hand mirror up to the side of his head and strained to see the part of his head just behind his ear. He could hardly find it with his eyes, but he could feel it. Apart from the sutured line, which he avoided, the feel of peach fuzz stubble was unmistakable for nearly three inches.
"Be glad that's the least of your worries," Roy advised him with a chuckle. "Hair grows back, ya know."
"I know, I know." Johnny dropped the mirror and rubbed at his eyes to relieve the strain of trying to see behind him. He made a face. "Chet's gonna have a field day with this."
Roy just shook his head. "I'm just glad you still have a mind for Chet to mess with."
Johnny shot his partner a questioning glance. He knew he'd been lucky not to have more serious injuries. He also knew he'd been pretty out of it for a while. Though no one had said anything specific, he suspected he might have said or done some strange things during that time. It was pretty foggy. His last clear memory was falling down the stairs. But he had vague snippets of images that wouldn't come into focus.
He sighed and returned his attention to the mirror, wondering how long it would take for his hair to grow, and if it would be better to cut it all shorter to avoid having that obvious bald spot. But then the stitches would be so obvious and fairly Frankenstein-ish. If he left it long, maybe he could cover the spot up - at least a little.
The sound of the door opening cut into his musings and he glanced up to see Dixie walk in. She was smiling. She seemed to be doing that a lot lately. Not that she wasn't normally a happy person, but there was something in the way she was acting around him he couldn't quite figure out.
"How ya doing this morning?" she asked as she stood at the foot of his bed.
"Better." He gestured to his leg, which was still propped up on a pillow and covered in bandages. "Once Brackett okays it, I can go home."
There's that smile again. Damn, I wish I understood women better.
But when she came over to take his pulse and gave his hand a quick squeeze when she was finished, Johnny suddenly felt a warmth of gratitude and affection for this woman that he really couldn't put into words. He settled for squeezing back and giving her a smile of his own.
Thanks for Audrey for finding all my typos and for all her hard work in keeping her site active.
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Stories by Jill Hargan Guest Dispatchers