A Christmas Journey
By Jane L.
“Here, son, I want you to take this.”
“Now, Dad, I don’t need that. You keep it and take Mom out for dinner or something.”
“No. Your mom and I
already talked about it. There’s not
much here, but it should get you a decent room for tonight.”
“But I don’t need . .”
“Nothing more to say, John. We both know you’d just keep driving or pull over and sleep in the back of your Rover. This way, we’ll feel better, knowing that you got a good night’s sleep along the way. We’re a little worried about your starting out so late, and it’s a long drive back to LA. Besides, we’re both so glad you made it home this Christmas; this is simply a small way of saying thanks. Just take the money, son, you know you’re not going to win this argument.”
“Come on, Dad. You and Mom have been great, and it’s for sure I won’t need to eat for a month, after all the good food Mom’s been pushing on me.”
“Well, it’s about time someone fed you. You’re skinny as a rail.”
Both men looked up as the short dark-haired woman joined them, and the older man’s booming laugh was enough to lighten everyone’s mood, while the trademark ‘Gage’ grin flashed across Johnny’s face.
“Alright, alright, I’ll take the cash.”
But his grin faded as he moved to embrace the couple.
“Thanks, both of you. It’s been a great visit.”
Mrs. Gage swiped a hand across her eyes in a futile effort to stem the flow of tears. With a soft moan, she enfolded her grown son in her arms for one last hug.
“I love you, Johnny.”
“Love you too, Mom.”
And then he was in the Rover, driving slowly down the lane as he waved out the window to his parents and extended family gathered on the porch. The sun was already well on its way towards the western horizon, and Johnny knew that he’d waited too long to leave. But with all the aunts, uncles and cousins gathered for Christmas dinner, it had been hard to break away. Now he’d be traveling the first leg of his journey in the dark, unable to enjoy the beauty of the country he loved so much.
“Can’t be helped, Gage. You only have til Saturday morning to get home.”
Realizing that he’d only been on the road for ten minutes and was already talking to himself, Johnny reached over for his box of tapes and deftly slipped a ‘Boston’ cassette into his stereo. Minutes later he was pulling onto the highway and heading southwest to Billings.
~ * ~ * ~
The DeSoto house was quiet for the first time in several days, and Roy enjoyed the pleasant crackling of the fire as he leaned back on the couch and surveyed the room. The twinkling lights on the Christmas tree gave a warm and cheery aura to the otherwise bedraggled room. Bits of wrapping paper still adorned the carpet and new toys were scattered about in wild abandon. Across the room, crumpled tissue paper and used ribbon filled the space under the tree where only a day earlier, a pile of brightly wrapped presents rested.
Heaving a sigh, Roy continued to stare at the leavings of another holiday, silently wishing for the energy to get up and return the room to some semblance of order. But soft footsteps on the stairway caught his attention, and the tired father found himself relieved that there was an excuse not to rise.
“Mommy said I could come back down to say goodnight.”
“Didn’t I already tell you goodnight?”
“Yeah, but . . well, I . .”
“What is it, honey?”
“Why couldn’t Uncle Johnny be here at Christmas? He always comes over and opens presents with us. I like it when he eats dinner with us and plays with our new toys. Why didn’t he come this year, Daddy? I missed him.”
“I know you did, but we talked about this, and you’ve known all along that Uncle Johnny wouldn’t be here this year. His mom and dad wanted him to spend Christmas with them. Remember when you and Mommy talked about how we’d want you to come visit us if you lived far away?
“Yeah . . but I didn’t think he’d be gone this long. And I thought maybe he’d surprise us and come over this morning anyway.”
Struggling to hide a grin, Roy continued his efforts to console his young daughter.
“Well, Uncle Johnny wanted to see his family this year. It’s been a long time since he went back to his other home. Besides, didn’t he promise you that he’d come over for a second Christmas dinner on Sunday? And isn’t he bringing you something special from Montana?”
“Well . . yeah, I guess so. . but”
“No buts, Miss Jennifer. It’s getting late and time for you to be in bed. Uncle Johnny will be back before you know it and then you can show him all the loot Santa brought you this year.”
The little girl threw her arms around her daddy’s neck, giving him a long hug before bouncing off his lap. Over her shoulder, Roy spied Joanne at the bottom of the stairway, and the couple shared a smile. Both were aware of how close their children had grown to Roy’s partner, a feeling that was obviously mutual. They remembered with fondness how hard it had been for Johnny to share the news of his impending trip.
Smiling with excitement when he came to their door several weeks ago, his happiness had soon faded when he realized how hard it would be to miss the DeSoto children enjoying their Christmas ritual. Only Joanne’s promise to recreate the holiday atmosphere several days later had renewed the young man’s cheerfulness about going home.
Johnny had struggled for several months on how to make the trip and stay within his budget and time frame. Although he’d been encouraged to fly home, the cost of an airline ticket had proved to be more expensive than he could afford, so after careful consideration, he’d finally decided to drive his Rover over 1300 miles to his parents’ home in Montana. With five days of vacation and ‘A’ shift scheduled to be off for three days including Christmas, the young paramedic figured his plan would work out perfectly. If the weather would just cooperate, he’d make the trip with no problem. Two days driving time each way, and five days to enjoy with his folks.
As Roy settled back into the cushions, he wondered idly if Johnny had enjoyed his visit. Glancing at the clock on the mantle, he tried to imagine where his friend was now. If everything had went as planned, the Gage family would have eaten an early Christmas dinner, giving Johnny part of the afternoon to travel. He’d spent the days prior to Christmas Day visiting, leaving Christmas night and the next day to drive home before reporting to work on Saturday morning.
It was no secret that Roy hadn’t been fond of his partner’s intentions. In fact, both he and Hank Stanley had argued with Johnny for several days in an effort to get him to rethink his plans. But the young man was adamant about his decision. Unwilling to give up on going home, he was also in no position financially to spend a lot of extra money. What with the animals to feed during the winter, along with numerous expenses at the ranch, the funds simply weren’t there. And to the young man’s credit, he’d even turned down an offer of a loan from his captain, saying that he didn’t want to borrow money he didn’t know when he could repay.
So, in the end, Johnny had packed up his Rover and after their shift ended on the previous Friday, he’d said goodbye to his friends, and headed north for home. Now, almost a week later, Roy found that he was anxious for his partner’s return. Not only would he be glad to share the squad with him again, but he’d also realized how much he missed being around his best friend. With a slight smirk, he acknowledged to himself that he’d be glad to have the young man back home. Even with all his hair-brained ideas and irritating rants, John Gage was a good friend.
Standing quietly behind the couch, Joanne watched as her husband stared into the crackling fire, and smiled gently as she overheard his mumbled words.
‘Travel safe, Johnny.’
~ * ~ * ~
Once he’d reached the interstate, Johnny made good time, and even while the sun set in the west, he’d continued to cover the miles quickly. Being Christmas day, traffic was at a minimum, and even the truckers seemed to have taken a break.
Letting his mind wander back over the past few days, Johnny enjoyed the memories of family and friends he’d been able to spend time with, and familiar places he had been to.
But as good as it was to visit, the young man found he was anxious to return to LA. That was his home now, the ranch with his animals, and the guys at Station 51. But most important were Roy and his family. With each mile he put behind him, Johnny found himself focusing more and more on the good things he’d found in Carson. Of course, he’d always feel at home in Montana with his parents, but he belonged in California.
Pulling into a rest area, Johnny spread out his map on the dashboard. He knew the route well, but with such a late start, he felt certain he could shed some miles, and time, if he took a short cut. Thankful that his mom had supplied him with turkey sandwiches and a thermos of coffee, he made his plans for the next few hours, confident that he would be well into Utah before stopping for the night.
~ * ~ * ~
Johnny blinked in the early morning sun as he emerged from his motel room. Already almost seven o’clock, he was anxious to get back on the road. But as he stopped at the railing and looked over the parking lot, he stretched his long limbs happily. His dad had been right. Stopping at a motel had given him the extra rest he needed, and without his parents’ gift, he probably would’ve skipped that luxury. In fact, the sleeping bag and small tent stashed in the Rover were testaments to his accommodations on the trip north. No, this was definitely much better. No icy fingers to wake up to. Just clean sheets, warm blankets and a nice hot shower to get him going.
Hurrying down the stairs, he stopped to toss his duffle bag in the back of the Rover before stepping into the diner for a quick breakfast. Thirty minutes later, John Gage was back in his vehicle, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel as he listened to the Eagles. The traffic had picked up considerably, and he was glad that he’d driven late the night before. It had been after midnight when he pulled up to the motel, but that still gave him at least a thirteen-hour drive today. And after he got home, there were the animals to attend to, along with any chores the neighbor kid left unfinished, before he could get some rest. Johnny had a feeling that tomorrow’s shift would come quicker than he wanted it to. But for now, he enjoyed the scenery as he sped south.
~ * ~ * ~
The desert highway wound amongst treeless hills and barren stretches of land, with little or no vegetation in sight. Still, Johnny enjoyed the view, marveling at how many different climates he’d been through since leaving Montana. From the snow-covered hills of the Rockies down into the desert land of Nevada, the scenery was always changing. The sigh of contentment from the young man was evidence of his appreciation; his only wish was that he had more time to enjoy the trip.
Johnny had always taken pleasure in traveling, his love for the land something handed down from grandfather to son to grandson, for generations. Even though he loved his job, it was having the ranch to go home to that really kept John Gage happy. Not only having his horses there, but simply the freedom to walk out his back door and see the sky instead of another roofline staring back at him . . . yes, he’d made the right decision when he bought that rundown property. Of course, it was in much better shape now. Hours of hard labor in repairs, and extra shifts spent at the station to pay for the materials; it had all been well worth the effort. Then, too, there’d been the added bonus of discovering how many friends he’d made since moving to California. Not only Roy and the other guys from ‘A’ shift, who were really more like family than friends, but many others had lent the young man a hand in fixing up his place.
Realizing that he was daydreaming, Johnny pulled his mind back to the present as he entered another small town. With the sun beginning to set, and still a fair stretch of road to cover, he decided to stop for a quick meal. The turkey sandwiches were long gone, and the idea of a hot meal seemed enticing to the tired man. Stretching tiredly as he climbed out of the Rover, Johnny took a moment to notice the sky. Brilliant colors of pink and gold filled the horizon as the sun slowly slipped behind the mountains, and once more he breathed a thank-you for the good weather. The moon would be out again tonight, making the landscape visible during his night drive. Still several hundred miles from home, he knew it would be a short night for sleeping before he had to report to work tomorrow morning. He hurried inside, anxious to eat and get back on the road.
~ * ~ * ~
The lights of Barstow faded in the east as the Rover continued on its journey. Now that he was getting closer to home, and the roads were more familiar, Johnny chose a secondary road in the hopes of cutting off a few more miles. His spirits lightened when he realized he’d be home in time for a decent nights rest, yet the road stretched forlornly before him. Reaching into the dark, Johnny fumbled for another cassette, anything to keep him alert and focused on his driving. Pushing the unknown selection into the player, he smiled at hearing the familiar sound of his new ‘Ozarks’ tape. Yep, this will keep me awake.
Stretching carefully in his seat, it was no surprise to the young man that his muscles were stiff from the long hours of inactivity. It seemed like ages since he’d been able to really relax and unwind. But the thought of home beckoned him on, and he settled back into place.
The lights of an approaching car flickered in the distance, and Johnny slowed his speed a bit as he approached a curve in the road. Continuing to watch the lights before him, he suddenly realized they were moving faster than they should be. Seconds later, the car itself appeared. There was no time to swerve, and Johnny didn’t even register the squealing of his own breaks; an eerie sound of twisting metal and shattering glass rent the air, then silence.
~ * ~ * ~
“We’ve got two victims here!”
“Okay, Josh, put this one in 2C. The other one will have to wait out here until 4C is ready; there’s a sick baby just being sent home from that space.”
The paramedics pushed the gurney through the curtained opening, moving carefully through the maze of equipment and paraphernalia in the tiny area.
“Do you have updated vitals?”
“Not in the last five minutes. But his last BP was dropping, 90 over 60. He has chest injuries and severe burns over most of his upper body; doesn’t look too good, does it?”
The nurse merely shook her head as she worked quickly to help transfer the unconscious man from the ambulance gurney to the emergency room bed. Hanging IV bottles and taking vital signs, the paramedics worked quietly alongside her as they attempted to stabilize the accident victim. As she worked, Carla took a moment to look at the dark-haired man lying before her. He seemed so fragile and innocent with his eyes closed, as if he were merely sleeping instead of fighting for his life. Shaking herself from her musing, the nurse turned back to the paramedics.
“Dr. Masters will be here shortly. He’s just finishing up in the next cubicle. Let’s take a look at the other victim.”
The nurse hurried back through the screened opening to find another dark-haired man on a gurney. This one was also unconscious.
“What’s the story on this one?”
“Looks like he took a bad blow to the head; he’s been unconscious since we got to the scene. There’s some damage to his left shoulder and he suffered some minor burns.”
“Where’s their ID? We’ll need to contact the relatives.”
One of the paramedics answered quietly.
“There was none. Both vehicles were engulfed when we got there and neither victim had any identification on them. Highway Patrol will be in to talk to you later.”
It bothered the nurse that these two men were alone, but she knew that there was nothing she could do about it. The activity level in the small community hospital was at a feverish pitch; had been since before the holidays. Now with two patients, possibly critical, Carla knew it would be a long night. She found herself saying a silent prayer that these two men would still be around tomorrow.
~ * ~ * ~
The ringing telephone startled the group, their reaction uniform in appearance: they all seemed to be frozen in place. It wasn’t until the fourth ring that Captain Stanley finally made it out of his seat and picked up the receiver. The rest of ‘A’ shift sat silently at the table, their attention focused on Hank’s voice.
Roy’s hands were splayed out before him on the table’s surface, shoulders stiff, his throat constricting as he listened to his captain’s side of the conversation.
“Yes, sir, this is Captain Stanley . . . that’s right, John Gage . . . yes, he is . . . sure, he drives a white Land Rover . . .”
By this time, Chet was standing next to Cap, while Marco stood quietly next to his worried friend. The senior paramedic remained in his seat while Mike and Johnny’s replacement, Charlie Dwyer, watched him closely. Cap’s voice was somewhat strained as he continued, a fact that no one in the room missed.
“I see . . . What? . . . Nothing at all? . . . Are you sure? . . . Okay, yes, we’ll take care of it . . . What about his . . . Thanks, I appreciate that . . . Right . . . Sure, Chief, thanks for the call.”
The silence in the room was filled with tension as Hank Stanley slowly replaced the phone’s receiver in its cradle. Turning to face the group, he struggled to control his own emotions as he stepped into the roll of captain. He continued to move methodically as he lowered himself into a seat directly across the corner from his worried paramedic, his eyes never leaving Roy’s face. Hank knew he was stalling as he cleared his throat, but for the life of him, the words just wouldn’t come out.
It was Mike who finally forced him to speak, and Hank found himself somewhat thankful for his engineer’s quiet persistence. Then, without thinking, the captain reached out his hand and grasped Roy’s arm in a show of support.
“Hey, Pal, that was Chief McConnikee.”
Hank waited for a moment, but there was no response from Roy. It was almost as if he were afraid to ask.
“After we called in a couple hours ago, he checked with the state police. Seems there was an accident up near Barstow last night . .”
The thin voice gave no resemblance to Roy’s normally clear tones, but Hank simply ignored the interruption and hurried on.
“There were two vehicles involved. There was . . well, there was a fire after the crash.”
Blue eyes gazed at him, and Hank knew he’d have to get the next part out in a rush. There was no sense in prolonging the man’s agony.
“Both vehicles were destroyed in the blaze, but from the descriptions, the police believe that one of them might be Johnny’s Rover. There were two men involved in the accident, but neither one had any identification on them, so that’s why we haven’t heard anything.”
“Is he . .”
Hank looked up at the other men who were gathered around the table. Each one seemed to be hanging on his words, waiting to hear what the final outcome would be, but the captain found that the last part was almost impossible to reveal. What if . . .
“One of the men was badly burned and didn’t make it. The other one has been unconscious since the accident.”
“Where is he?”
“Roy, we don’t know for sure that this is Johnny.”
“Yeah, Cap, we do.”
Once again, silence filled the dayroom, but this time the emptiness was overwhelming.
Hank looked around the table, taking in the worried faces, then finished with his last piece of information.
“The victims were taken to a community hospital in Barstow. Chief McConnikee has arranged it so that you and I can head up there right away. Our replacements should be here any time. . ”
He didn’t need to finish his instructions. Roy was already out of his seat and headed for the dormitory.
“Mike, why don’t you tag along with Roy. See if there’s anything you can do . . maybe offer to call Joanne for him . .”
Stoker simply nodded as he hurried after the paramedic.
Hank noted that Marco’s hand was firmly clasped on Chet’s shoulder, while Dwyer simply stared at some unknown point across the room.
“Thanks for sticking around, Charlie.”
Then he too hurried away, unable to stand the oppressive silence any longer. After phoning his wife, Hank busied himself with paperwork until their replacements arrived. He could tell from the quiet in the stationhouse, that no one else was doing much talking, everyone’s thoughts focused on their missing member.
~ * ~ * ~
Hank glanced across the seat, taking in Roy’s haggard appearance. Grateful once more for his Chief’s keen sense of perception, he took a moment to appreciate the man’s ability to look beneath the surface, to know about and take care of his men. Not every leader would take this situation into consideration, but McConnikee was aware of the close relationship between Gage and DeSoto, and the fact that Johnny’s family was so far away gave him reason enough to allow Roy the time to look after his friend. The fact that he’d allowed Hank to accompany Roy was an added bonus, one that both men appreciated. It was an unspoken fact that neither men knew if they were going to aide an injured friend or identify his body, but Hank knew that if it were the latter, Roy would need all the support he could get.
As they drove along the interstate, the two men remained silent, afraid that if they talked, their fears for Johnny would be revealed. During the two-hour drive, there was only one time that words were spoken. Thirty minutes after leaving the station, Roy turned to his Captain and uttered one statement.
After that, Roy returned to his previous activity of watching out the window. However, he wasn’t seeing the scenery as they raced along, instead he was reliving the last few hours. From the time he drove into the station at 7:30 that morning, the paramedic had known that something wasn’t right. In fact, after he thought about it, he’d suspected something was wrong the previous evening, but hadn’t admitted it to himself.
Johnny hadn’t promised to call or even implied that he would, but from past experience, the DeSoto family fully expected their phone to ring with a jubilant Uncle Johnny on the other end. But as the hours ticked by Friday evening, Roy had honestly convinced himself that the young man had simply come in late and too tired to get in touch with his friends. He and Joanne had assured the kids that everything was fine and Johnny would be there to see them on Sunday as planned.
But when he pulled into the parking lot this morning and no Rover was in sight, the warning bells had sounded. An hour later, the whole crew had joined in his concern, especially after they’d called his ranch and then the neighbor who’d been taking care of Johnny’s animals. Mr. Saunders had seemed almost grateful that Roy had called, saying that he’d been rather worried when the young man hadn’t come home as planned. That final piece of information had sent Captain Stanley on a calling spree that included, of course, headquarters.
Looking back, Roy felt guilty for not starting the process the night before. Talking with Joanne before he left the station had not reduced his feeling of remorse. Even though she did her best to convince him otherwise, Roy still felt that he should have checked on his friend earlier.
Now it was too late. And though Roy couldn’t bear to utter the words to his captain, he was afraid that they’d find their friend was the one who hadn’t made it. With an audible sigh, Roy slid further into his seat, almost as if he were trying to hide from the truth. Closing his mind to the what-ifs, he continued to stare out the window, his mind focused now on memories of his partner and best friend.
~ * ~ * ~
The community hospital was easily located, and it was shortly after noon when Captain Stanley and Roy DeSoto stepped through the Emergency Entrance. Within minutes, a nurse had taken their information and directed them to a waiting area, assuring the two men that someone would be out to talk with them as soon as possible.
Hank settled into one of the hard vinyl chairs, immediately comparing its uncomfortable surface to the ones at Rampart. It only took a moment for him to recognize that there was probably little difference in this hospital’s focus on visitors’ comfort. He watched his senior paramedic as the man paced slowly about the small area. There was no one else in the room and the sandy haired man seemed unable to sit; Hank decided it was best to let Roy get rid of some of his pent-up energy.
“Are you the gentlemen from Los Angeles?”
Roy and Hank were across the room in seconds, both men focused on the middle-aged doctor standing before them.
“Yes. I’m Captain Hank Stanley, and this is Paramedic Roy DeSoto.”
“I’m Dr. Masters. It’s nice to meet you both. Please, sit down.”
Unable to contain himself any longer, Roy answered for them.
“No thanks. We’d like to see the man who was brought in last night.”
“Yes, I understand. I simply wanted to make you aware of the situation first.”
“Please, can’t we just see if it’s our friend first? Then you can fill us in on all the details.”
Dr. Masters eyed the younger man carefully. He could understand the man’s anxiety, and with a slight nod from the captain, readily agreed that this would probably be the best course of action.
“Alright, follow me. But let me give you a little information along the way. There were two young men brought into Emergency late last night. Both were unconscious. The first man was badly burned and we lost him within the first hour. The second man has not regained consciousness. He has a severe concussion, and we are monitoring his condition closely. Other than that, he sustained minor burns on his hands and arms; we believe he may have pulled the other man from his car. There were no witnesses to the accident, so we don’t know for sure. He also suffered a dislocated shoulder and has numerous contusions and abrasions.”
The doctor stopped speaking as he reached a door at the end of the hallway.
“Are you ready, Mr. DeSoto?”
Roy glanced at the doctor, realizing for the first time that the man was sincerely concerned. So focused on the information the doctor had been relaying, he had closed his mind to the sights and sounds around him. All he could think about was ‘who’ was lying in the bed on the other side of that door. Forcing himself to speak, Roy found he didn’t even recognize his own voice when the words finally came.
“Yes, Dr. Masters, I’m ready.”
The door was pushed open and Roy stepped inside, followed closely by his captain. It only took a moment for their demeanor to change.
Both men hurried to the bedside, grateful that the man residing there was their missing friend. Leaning over the railing, Roy carefully lifted his partner’s hand, surprised at how limp it felt in his grasp.
“Hey, Junior, what did you do to yourself this time?”
There was no response from the dark-haired man, even though Roy suddenly realized that he was subconsciously waiting for an answer. He stood quietly watching his friend’s chest rise and fall, slowly taking a visual inventory of Johnny’s injuries. There was ample evidence of the doctor’s skill with a needle, and a sling held the young man’s left arm, obviously supporting the injured shoulder. Still holding the lifeless hand, Roy turned it gently, swiftly evaluating the severity of the burns there. His shoulders drooped slightly as he realized how tragic the outcome could’ve been.
Hank had stepped up beside him, and quietly looked over his youngest charge. He gently laid a hand on Roy’s shoulder, offering the strength and support he felt was needed.
“Looks like he’s had a bad time of it.”
“Yeah, Cap, he always seems to find trouble.”
“That’s true, Roy, but he also seems to get himself out of it, too. He’ll be fine.”
The two men watched quietly for a short time, but in the end, Hank left Roy alone with Johnny while he went to call the rest of the crew. He knew they’d all be waiting anxiously for some word, and too, there was Mr. and Mrs. Gage in Montana. They needed to know what had happened to their son.
Roy stood by his partner’s side for some time before finally pulling up a chair. He had a feeling he was in for a long wait.
~ * ~ * ~
The late afternoon sun shone weakly through the window, but there was no noise in the private room, only the muffled sounds of hospital routine outside the door. Sitting or standing, Roy continued his vigil, occasionally flipping through a ragged magazine he’d found in the room. Hank Stanley had already headed back to Carson, promising Roy that someone would be back to drive the two home when Johnny was ready. But neither man knew how long that might be, a fact that was rather disconcerting to the pair. However, once they knew that Johnny was alive, and expected to recover, Hank opted to hurry home and make himself available for the next shift. Their crew was already down by two members.
Turning from the window where he’d been standing, Roy glanced towards the bed and stopped short as he suddenly realized he was being watched.
Almost instantly, Roy was at the bedside, pushing firmly on the nurse’s call-button, at the same time keeping a close eye on his friend.
“Come on, Junior, answer me.”
The dark eyes turned slowly towards him, blinking several times as if trying to confirm that he was really seeing right. Lips moved slowly, but the voice, when it was finally audible, was thin and weak.
“Roy? What happened?”
“Why don’t you tell me? What do you remember?”
Johnny slowly raised a hand to his face, until Roy pulled it gently away.
“I think I was . .”
A young nurse poked her head in the room, and then disappeared. Moments later a deep voice interrupted them.
“Well, well, young man, so you finally decided to wake up and meet us properly.”
The doctor bustled in, his demeanor upbeat and encouraging as he checked Johnny’s vital signs and jotted the information on a chart. It wasn’t until the details were recorded that he finally slowed down and watched his patient closely.
“Do you remember anything, Mr. Gage?”
Once again Johnny looked rather lost, his eyes tracking back and forth between Roy and the doctor as he struggled to identify what was happening. The doctor seemed undaunted by his patient’s lack of response, but that detail bothered Roy immensely. After several minutes, Dr. Masters excused himself, promising to return later.
Roy patted Johnny’s shoulder and hurried out after the doctor, anxious to talk privately with the man before he continued on his rounds.
“Dr. Masters, could I have a minute of your time?”
“Yes, Mr. DeSoto, what can I do for you?”
“What’s your prognosis, Doctor? Is Johnny going to be alright?”
“Yes, I believe he is. It’s not uncommon for a victim to lose some of their memory after a serious injury like this, and he has been unconscious for almost 24 hours. Give him some time, my boy. He’ll be fine. Now, if you’ll excuse me . . .”
Dr. Masters was already hurrying down the hallway, leaving Roy standing at the doorway as if frozen in place. He’d dealt with many doctors in his career, and some of them had terrible bedside manners. But to leave a patient with little or no information, and without even asking many of the basic questions. . .
“The doctor is very overworked, you know.”
Roy turned to see an older nurse watching him carefully.
“The hospital is grossly understaffed during the holidays, and he’s working extra shifts to help out. He’s normally not so short with people.”
“Oh . .”
Unable to put anything else into words, Roy pushed back through the door, worried about his partner who’d been left lying there with no answers. It was important to get Johnny talking, and it fell to Roy to make sure that happened. However, by the time he’d returned to his friend’s bedside, the young man had drifted off to sleep, and Roy found himself waiting once more.
~ * ~ * ~
Roy studied his friend’s face for any reaction, but there was none. Johnny continued to stare across the room as if locked in some kind of trance. There was no question that Gage could speak; yet other than a few occasional words, he’d remained silent since he first came to. From his expression, Roy knew he was in considerable pain, a fact that was not unexpected given the severity of his concussion. But what worried the older man was the lack of emotion in the normally expressive young man. It seemed as if Johnny was locked in some void that he couldn’t escape from. There was nothing to show that he even knew where he was; no smiles or frowns, not even questions passed his lips. He simply lay there in silence.
Dr. Masters had been in several times, but his report remained the same. His young patient was doing well and could expect a full recovery . . and then the good doctor would hurry on his way. Roy understood the doctor’s predicament, but found himself anxious to get Johnny back home where Dr. Brackett or Dr. Early could give him a thorough exam. There was obviously something wrong here, whether physical or emotional, Roy just couldn’t agree with the doctor’s attitude of ‘wait and see.’ He wanted to know what was going on and what he could do to help his friend get better.
Staring down at his partner, Roy was grateful to see that Johnny was finally looking back at him, even seeming to focus on him in an effort to respond.
“Johnny? Did you hear me?”
“I said, let’s get you ready. Cap will be here in about an hour to take us home, and we have to get you discharged before we can go.”
“Oh . .”
The brown eyes seemed almost sad and Roy wondered, not for the first time, if he should broach the subject of the wreck. Dr. Masters had cautioned him not to bring it up until Johnny was stronger, but Roy had an uncanny feeling that his best friend was already worrying over what had happened. However, Roy followed the doctor’s lead and kept his silence. Instead, he continued to go about the simple routine of getting Johnny dressed to go home.
“Here you go. I bought a new shirt for you; do you like it?”
Still no response, just a simple nod as Johnny fastened his eyes on the article of clothing. Lifting a bandaged arm, he carefully pushed it through the proffered sleeve, then followed suit with the other arm. Minutes later he was sitting on the side of the bed as Roy helped him into a new pair of blue jeans. All the while, the senior partner kept up a steady conversation, albeit one-sided.
There was no question that he was relieved when Hank finally strode into the room. Roy had spoken to his captain several times in the last 24 hours, so Hank was well aware of the paramedic’s concerns. The two men had agreed that Cap should come alone, making it a quieter journey home, but hopefully more relaxed for Johnny.
As he stepped into the room, Hank thought he was prepared for the changes in Johnny, yet it brought him up short to see the lifeless look on the young man’s face. What was wrong with him? What kind of trauma or injury was causing him so much pain? Covering up his surprise as quickly as possible, Hank hurried across the room to Johnny’s bedside.
“Hey there, Pal. Good to see you up and dressed. How are you feeling?”
Johnny raised his head slowly to meet his captain’s gaze, almost as if it took more energy than he could muster. At first the two other men thought he wouldn’t bother to answer, but after several moments, a thin voice slowly replied.
“I’m okay, Cap.”
Hank and Roy bustled about in their hurry to get Johnny discharged and into the car, and within the hour, the three men were speeding down the road towards Carson.
~ * ~ * ~
Everything seemed to move about in slow motion. Johnny knew from the first moment that he opened his eyes in the hospital room, that he’d been in some kind of accident, but the details seemed to elude him. In those first moments, he worried that Roy had been hurt also, but the sight of his partner standing over him had put those fears to rest. Yet he struggled to remember what had happened to land him in the strange hospital room. He’d known right away that he wasn’t at Rampart, a fact that was confirmed when the strange doctor had arrived at his bedside. But nowhere in his memory could he find a reason for being away from home. In fact, he had no idea where he was or even what time of the year it was.
Johnny wanted to talk to Roy; knew his friend was trying to help him. But every time Roy spoke, it felt like a hundred tiny hammers were pounding away at his skull. Johnny didn’t know if it was the physical pain that hurt worse, or the mental struggle of trying to remember. Either way, he found that the easiest way to make the pain go away was to remain quiet. For some reason, this seemed to dull the hurt, and Johnny quickly found that he could tolerate the world around him if he shut himself off from it. There was no need to ‘think’ about things; Roy would take care of him. Maybe later he’d be able to remember what had happened, but for now, he was content to just lie there.
Now that Cap had picked them up, it was obvious that he could no longer hide in his hospital bed. Yet Johnny continued to drift in this sea of uncertainty. When he did try to focus on the memories, the pain would return, a pain that he couldn’t force himself to face. And so he sat silently in the car, staring out the window as the countryside passed by. There was no enjoyment in this journey; no relaxation or contentment.
“No! Stop . .”
His hands clasped in front of him, Johnny could feel the sweat trickle down his forehead as he sat frozen in his seat. So intent was he on the vision before him, that he didn’t hear Roy’s worried questions from the front seat; was totally unaware of Hank pulling the car to the side of the road. Instead, he continued to see the road before him. A road filled with snow-covered mountains and barren deserts, familiar tunes audible in the background as his memory took him back. Then, suddenly, he saw the lights of a lone car headed straight for him.
~ * ~ * ~
“John! Are you alright?”
Two worried men were already out of their seats, moving quickly to assist their friend. It was almost as if Johnny were in a catatonic state, so still and unresponsive. Roy had pulled the back door open and was half sitting at his friend’s feet, his fingers already feeling for the pulse in Johnny’s wrist. Continuing to watch his partner closely, he muttered quiet words to his captain.
“Pulse is way too fast, Cap. I don’t like it.”
“What do you want to do, Roy?”
There were several moments of silence as Roy contemplated their options. Already halfway home, it didn’t make sense to turn back now. No, it was better to hurry on and get Johnny to Rampart where he could be checked over thoroughly. Clearing his throat to speak, Roy was stopped by his partner’s shaky voice.
“Roy . . I killed him.”
Then suddenly, Johnny had slumped into the seat.
“Cap, let’s go!”
~ * ~ * ~
The door of the doctor’s lounge opened to reveal a tired Kelly Brackett. Moving directly to the coffee pot, the doctor filled his cup silently before turning to the waiting men. He watched them carefully as he settled into a seat across the table, and then took a sip of the hot brew before opening the conversation.
“Well, Dr. Masters was right. Johnny’s injuries are healing nicely, but the concussion was severe and he’s suffering from some pretty intense headaches as a result. We’re getting him settled in a private room right now, and I’ve given him something for the nausea.”
“You mean, all this time he’s been having headaches and never said anything?”
“Yes, that’s right, Hank.”
“I’m not sure, yet.
But I have a hunch that he’s suffering more from emotional shock than
anything physical. How much does he
know about the accident?”
Roy was overwhelmed at his own shortsightedness. He knew that Johnny had been hurting, had even mentioned it to the doctor, but hadn’t pushed the issue when told Johnny was really doing okay. Now he felt responsible for his partner’s current state, sure that the pain had furthered his friend’s trauma. And here was Brackett, asking about the accident; what else should he have done to help Johnny? Staring at his hands for a moment, Roy finally answered.
“Not much. Dr. Masters said we should wait until Johnny was stronger before we brought it up. Why?”
Kel swirled the coffee around his cup slowly. He didn’t want to add to the sense of guilt Roy already felt; a fact that was obvious to anyone who knew the paramedic. You could almost read Roy’s face and see how responsible the man felt. But Kel also knew that they needed to be completely honest if they wanted to help Johnny get over this.
“This is just my theory, Roy, but I think Johnny’s blaming himself.”
“But I thought he didn’t remember anything.”
“Maybe he didn’t at first, but from what I could get out of him, he’s beginning to recall bits and pieces of the accident itself. That, coupled with some overheard conversations, has left our young friend feeling like he’s to blame.”
“You mean he thinks he caused the wreck?”
“Again, Roy, it’s too soon to know. But he’s said several things about being too tired, driving too long, about how he couldn’t stop in time. He even made a comment about how he couldn’t save the man after the accident. I think Johnny’s pushed himself into an emotional state on this one, and he’s simply shutting himself off from everything subconsciously. Of course, I’m not an expert in this field, but we have some very good people on staff who are. Meanwhile, I’m having him admitted for observation. I don’t like the way he went out on you during the trip home. His blood pressure is still a little low, so we’ll just keep an eye on him for a day or two.”
“Can I see him?”
“Of course, Roy. He’s in room 408.”
The three men rose together and moved towards the door, but Kel stopped them before leaving.
“Don’t worry about bringing up the accident. I think it’s exactly what we need to do. There’s no sense in letting this go any farther or letting Johnny continue thinking he did something wrong. And I’ll have Dr. Baldwin schedule some time with him tomorrow. Maybe between all of us, we can convince that stubborn friend of yours that he isn’t to blame.”
Hank reached out to grasp Brackett’s hand in a show of appreciation. No words were spoken, but all three of them knew just how much that handshake meant.
~ * ~ * ~
The room was dark when Roy pushed open the door, but he didn’t hesitate to enter. Moving across the narrow space, he quickly found a chair and positioned it next to the bed. He silently vowed to himself that he wouldn’t leave the room until he’d talked some sense into that thickheaded partner of his. Settling into the seat, Roy watched his friend closely, sure that the steady breathing was a sign Johnny was sleeping comfortably. But several minutes later, the dark-haired man began to move about as if struggling against something.
It took only a moment to shake Johnny awake, and Roy found himself relieved when his friend looked up at him in recognition.
“Hi . .”
“How are you feeling?”
This time there was no answer, but Roy was determined not to let Johnny slip away from him again.
“Brackett said you were talking a little about the accident.”
Again there was no response, but the dark eyes turned away to stare at some unseen spot on the wall.
“Johnny, it wasn’t your fault. The accident was not your fault.”
Roy waited patiently for several minutes, but when no response was given, he tried again.
“Did you know the other guy was drunk?”
This time there was a response. The dark eyes were turned back towards Roy, the questioning gaze unmistakable.
“That’s right. The guy was intoxicated. Dr. Masters got the results just before you were discharged from the hospital, but he didn’t think you were up to hearing about it.”
“You . .sure?”
His heart soared as Roy realized he was getting through to his friend. If only he’d tried this tactic in the first place. He knew his partner well enough to know Johnny would be blaming himself about the other man’s death. Unfortunately, Roy didn’t know how much his friend remembered, or that he’d picked up bits and pieces of conversations along the way. If he had, Roy would have started this process the first day Johnny woke up.
“Yes, Johnny, I’m sure. The guy was drunk and he was in your lane. He’s the one who hit you head-on. Neither one of you had much of a chance; it’s a wonder you made it. Don’t you remember anything about the accident?”
“Some. Remember the lights. Saw the car in front of me. . . Can see the guy lying on the ground.”
“Did you pull him out of the car?”
“Think so. . .not sure.”
“You must have, Johnny. At least that’s what the sheriff’s department thinks; that’s where you got the burns from.”
There was a pause in the halted conversation as Johnny looked down at his hands.
“Could be. I just remember thinking that there wasn’t time. Kept trying to carry him but my shoulder hurt . .”
“You can’t blame yourself for any of this, John. It wasn’t your fault.”
“So . . tired.”
Realizing that his friend had probably had enough, Roy misunderstood Johnny’s statement and rose to go. But long fingers clutched at his hand as he stood next to the bed.
“So tired. . should’ve rested.”
“I know, Junior. I’ll let you rest now.”
“No. Should’ve stopped . . my fault.”
Understanding finally what Johnny was getting at, Roy laid his hand on his friend’s shoulder.
“I told you, Johnny. It wasn’t your fault. Didn’t matter if you were tired or not. That guy was totally out of it and was in your lane. None of this was your fault and you have to let it go.”
Dark eyes met blue as the two friends stared at one another. Minutes passed as Johnny struggled to accept his friend’s words, but in the end, his eyelids drooped closed with no other words spoken. Roy slipped quietly from the room, anxious to speak to Hank and then call Joanne. This ordeal was far from over, but for the first time, he finally felt like Johnny was on the road to recovery. He hoped it would be a short journey for his friend’s sake.
~ * ~ * ~
“No, Dad, I’m fine . . Yeah, I’m really glad you called . . . I know . . it’s been real hard, but talking to you has helped some . . No, Roy’s been great . . all the guys have . . Yeah, I’m going home tomorrow. . . Okay, well, tell Mom to quit crying. I can hear her in the background . . . I know, but we agreed a long time ago that you two weren’t going to fly out here every time I got hurt . . . Yeah, this was different, but really, I’m okay now. . . Sure, I’ll remember. . . Love you too, Dad. Bye.”
Johnny continued to stare at the telephone long after he’d returned the receiver to its proper place. His father’s words of love and encouragement echoed in his ears and he realized at last that he’d been honest when he told his dad that talking to him had helped. The elder Gage had reiterated the same statements that his friends had been using on him since he checked into Rampart, but somehow, hearing his father say the words had really made an impact.
Deep down, Johnny had known all along that the other man behind the wheel had been at fault, yet the paramedic in him felt guilty for not being able to save the man. But as the headaches began to subside and his friends rallied around him, the young paramedic had finally acknowledged to himself that he’d truly been helpless in this incident. Now his father’s confirmation seemed to bring some kind of conclusion to the whole process, and Johnny knew it was really time to move on.
It took only a few minutes to throw his shaving items in the bag and zip it shut. He’d already changed clothes and all that was left to do was wait for his ride. Moving to the window, Johnny stared out over the parking lot as he allowed the recent memories to overtake him. The visit at home, the long drive and even the accident . . they were all just pieces of his journey. Suddenly, Johnny smiled warmly as he recalled hearing his grandfather telling him something like that years before; how the good times and bad times all melded together to make up a man’s journey through life, and that the measure of a man was how he dealt with the bad as well as the good. The young paramedic hoped that his grandfather would not be ashamed of the way he’d handled this latest adversity.
The click of the door broke his train of thought and Johnny turned to face his partner.
“Well, it’s about time you got here.”
“What? Uh . . I’m sorry . .”
The look of surprise on Roy’s face was priceless, but Johnny wasn’t about to let up. He’d had enough of the worried faces around him; it was time to let everyone off the hook.
“Yeah, well . . okay. But we’re going to have to hurry now. I have lots to do before that Christmas dinner Joanne promised me. So let’s go, Pally.”
Roy could only stare in surprise at his animated partner as the dark haired man grabbed his duffel bag and headed for the door.
“Wait a minute, aren’t you supposed to . .”
Johnny was already headed down the hallway and Roy had to hustle to catch up. Gone was the worried frown of the past few days, the drooping shoulders and downcast eyes. Roy knew that Johnny was starting to accept the facts about the accident, but he’d still been struggling with the guilt, or so it had seemed during last night’s visit. But this? What was this sudden turn around?
Dr. Brackett was talking to Johnny by the time Roy caught up to his wayward partner. The doctor seemed relaxed and unconcerned as he handed a paper to Johnny before shaking his hand.
“Doc, everything alright?”
“Yes, Roy, everything’s fine. I’ve just signed your partner’s release papers, and if his shoulder continues to heal as rapidly as it has, you partner will be back in the squad with you before you know it.”
Johnny’s grin mirrored Roy’s as the two men thanked Brackett. But it would’ve been a toss-up to know which one was the most relieved. It had been an anxious journey, for both of them.
As they walked out of the hospital, Johnny paused for a moment in the bright sunlight.
“Roy . . I want to . .”
“Well . . I just wanted to say thank you.”
“For being my friend.”
Roy hesitated, unsure of how to answer his friend. He knew that Johnny would’ve done the same for him.
“Hey, don’t get all choked up or anything. I still need a ride home, you know.”
With a laugh, Johnny strode on across the parking lot leaving Roy shaking his head in wonder. Yes, it looked like his partner was back.
~ * ~ * ~
“Daddy, Daddy, come quick! Uncle Johnny is here!”
Chris joined in as the two headed for the front door.
“Hey, Dad, he’s driving the Rover!”
Roy caught up to Joanne as she hurried after her children.
“What does Chris mean?”
“Johnny found another white Rover, and if you think Jen and Chris are excited, wait til you hear him talk about his new car.”
The two shared a quick smile and a warm embrace before following their children outside. Johnny was already unloading brightly wrapped packages which he placed into Chris and Jennifer’s outstretched arms.
“Hey, Roy, I think we need a little help out here.”
It took several trips, but soon the gifts were unloaded and brought inside to grace the Christmas tree. Joanne found herself silently thanking Roy for the artificial tree they’d purchased the year before. It had made their decision so much easier after Johnny’s accident; the DeSotos simply left it standing in its corner while waiting for their friend to heal. Now, several weeks after the official holiday, they gathered to share a special celebration.
Dinner was an enjoyable affair, with Johnny regaling them all with stories of his visit in Montana. He told of his drive north and all the beautiful scenery along the way, and of the snowstorm that greeted him upon his arrival. When he told of his relatives, it seemed as if they could almost see the various aunts, uncles and cousins who had shared his Christmas holiday. No one mentioned his trip back to Los Angeles or the subsequent accident, yet there were plenty of silent thank-yous being said for his safe return. But as soon as the last slice of pie had been consumed, Jennifer bounced up from her chair, unable to contain her excitement any longer.
“It’s time for presents now!”
Sparkling blue eyes looked up from a startled face.
“How many times have we talked to you about asking for presents?” Joanne questioned.
“Oh, I didn’t mean for me. I meant it was time to give Uncle Johnny his presents!”
Johnny had already moved from his chair to gather the small girl into a warm embrace, while Joanne and Roy looked on, rather unconvinced.
“That’s okay, Jenny Bean, I think it’s time for presents, too!”
Chris was already under the tree by the time the adults had settled into their seats. Joanne and Roy shared the couch while Johnny relaxed in Roy’s recliner. After distributing the various packages, the children oohed and aahed their way through numerous gifts. From his vantage point, Roy watched his partner enjoy the ritual, fully aware that Johnny had not opened even one of his presents. The young man seemed totally enthralled with simply enjoying the children’s happiness.
After the last package was opened, Jennifer stole shyly onto Johnny’s lap and gently wrapped her arms around his neck.
“Thank you, Uncle Johnny, for all the presents. My favorite one is the bracelet you brought me from Montana. But how did you do it? Didn’t it get lost in the . .”
Roy’s frown almost turned into a rebuke, but Johnny’s quiet voice stopped him.
“Well, Jen, the first one did. But you know, my mom helped me pick out the special presents from Montana, so after the accident, she went back and bought new ones for me. Then she mailed them to me so you could open them with your other gifts.”
“Ohhh. You must have a very nice mommy.”
“I think so, sweetie.”
“Would it be alright if I sent her a letter telling her how much I like it?”
A moment of silence filled the room, and Johnny’s voice was even softer when he finally answered.
“She’d like that very much.”
“Do you know which present I liked the very best?”
“No, which one.”
Johnny hugged the small girl, his eyes focused on his friend across the room, who returned his warm smile. His journey was over; John Gage was home.
~ * ~ * ~
Huge thanks to Kenda for the beta read during this busy season. As always, I appreciate all the wonderful suggestions. Thanks also to Audrey, for welcoming my little offerings.