It had been a slow day. One of those kind where each hour that passed without the tones sounding seemed to drag by slower than the last. John Gage knew in his head that no calls were a good thing. There were no fires, no major traffic accidents, no children playing with and tasting things they had no business even being able to reach. No calls meant the people they were responsible for helping were relatively safe and didn't need them today.
But today Johnny would rather have been out on a marathon of runs. It wasn't that he wanted anyone to be sick or injured, but sitting around watching the constant parade of deliveries from the florist had grown old fast.
Valentine's Day really sucked.
Cap's wife had sent him a big arrangement of roses that now sat on the desk in his office. Mike had gotten roses from his wife, too, but they were accompanied by a large assortment of balloons in the shape of hearts with sappy sayings emblazoned across the front. On a slightly smaller budget, Joanne had settled for carnations, but they too had come with the same kind of balloons Stoker had received. Both arrangements had been placed on the day room table, filling the room with the scent of flowers and latex.
Even Chet and Marco had gotten small tokens of the day from the women they were currently dating. Marco had gotten a single rose surrounded by baby's breath, all in a pretty vase, and a card he wouldn't let anyone read. Chet had received a small teddy bear dressed like a fireman carrying a little sign that proclaimed Chet could "light her fire anytime."
Johnny snorted, but somewhere in the process it turned into a sigh, and he rested his chin in his hand as he leaned against the table. He was alone in here with all the fragrant reminders that he didn't have anybody serious in his life. With all their housekeeping chores for the day done, the rest of the guys were outside playing basketball. They'd pestered Johnny to join them to make the teams even, but he'd begged off, claiming he was too tired.
It was flimsy at best. It wasn't like they'd done anything today to make him tired. But they'd finally left him alone. Roy was the last one out the door, pausing to give Johnny a "look" that the paramedic knew meant his partner would be sure and seek him out later, when they were alone, and try to find out what was bothering him.
Geeze, you don't have to be Sherlock Holmes, Roy. Just take a look around. Whaddaya think is botherin' me?
With the sound of the ball bouncing on the driveway and the occasional shout from one of the guys reaching his ears, Johnny reached an uninterested hand into a small bowl of candy hearts someone had put out on the table. He grabbed a handful, popped a few in his mouth and let the rest spill out in front of him.
They weren't his favorite candy. They were too hard and chalky and reminded him of Tums. But he chewed on them anyway and absently read the words on the ones on the table.
Be Mine. Hey, Kid. Stay Cool. Who thinks up these stupid things? Why do they keep making and selling these dumb candies? Who even eats them anyway? Why didn't I get anything for Valentine's Day? What's wrong with me that chicks don't stick around long enough to even think about sending me anything?
The sound of the tones actually startled him, and it took him a moment to realize they were getting called out for the first time that day. When he moved, it was with renewed energy. He scooted back his chair, grabbed up his blue jacket and was out the door of the day room, grateful to be away from this place for a while - to be away from his gloomy, jealous thoughts of what his friends had and he didn't. When Roy slid in behind the wheel of the squad and cast a sideways glance at his partner, Johnny was actually smiling. Something he hadn't done all day.
The 4 story apartment building had seen better days, and the way things were looking now, today was going to be its last. Flames were shooting out of the first floor windows and heavy, black smoke was billowing out of the ones on the second. There was a crowd milling around and it was impossible to tell who were residents and who were just curious bystanders.
Station 51 was the first in, though the rest of their battalion wasn't far behind. Judging from the rapid progress the fire had made, McConnike would put in an appearance soon, but for now Hank Stanley was in charge.
There was no way to know if everyone had gotten out. They would have to do a sweep. Johnny didn't waste any time waiting. As Cap barked orders to his engine crew, the paramedic was busy fastening up his turnout coat, then hefting his air tank onto his back. Beside him, Roy was doing the same thing. Years of practice had them ready when the captain turned to tell them where he needed them.
"John, Roy... take the third and fourth floors. I'll have the men on the lines handle the fire floors. Anybody you find had better go up to the roof. This beast looks fast and hungry."
"Right, Cap," John answered. He noticed Roy studying the building with an appraising eye. "It's gonna be hairy," he muttered in a voice meant only for his partner.
Roy nodded crisply. "Faster we're in, the faster we're out."
And that was that. No other words needed to be spoken. Chet and Marco were making their way to the front entrance with their hose line. Johnny and Roy trotted over to enter the building behind their covering spray of water. As they left the street and walked into the darkness of the smoke filled corridor, Johnny could hear the siren of another engine company approaching. It was a comforting sound..
They left their shift mates to fight the flames and started their climb. The flashlight in Johnny's hand barely cut through the dense smoke as he led the way up the stairs. He knew Roy was behind him by his partner's hand on his shoulder. It would be hard to find each other if they got separated. Fortunately, once they reached the third floor, the smoke wasn't as thick and they could see a lot better.
Roy motioned for them to each take a direction. Johnny nodded. It was the only way to cover the entire floor without wasting precious time. He headed down the hall and began banging on doors.
Because of the time of day, the majority of the tenants were at work. They did find a few however, mostly older people, cowering in their apartments waiting for someone to tell them what to do and where to go. Johnny shepherded three of them toward the stairwell, where he met up with Roy and the couple he'd rounded up.
"Okay, folks, move on up the stairs," Johnny ordered them as gently as possible, while still trying to convey some urgency. He had to lift his mask to be heard and he could already taste the smoke that was thickening on this floor.
"But the fire," one old lady cried out, pulling back from his prodding arm.
"It's okay, ma'am," he assured her. "The fire's below us. We're going up to the roof. There'll be some very nice men up there to help you off the building."
"Help us off?" She sounded unsure, but she started moving again.
Johnny was grateful for her confusion, and that she probably wouldn't figure out that getting off the building meant a ride in a snorkel basket until it was too late to do anything about it.
"Let's go, folks," Roy's voice prompted from the landing above. "Let's go."
They got their charges up to the fourth floor and headed up to the roof, turning them over to the guys from truck 126. The truckies waved them on, letting them know they could handle this group, freeing the paramedics to continue their search.
Once more they split into different directions. The air up here was still relatively clear, and Johnny took advantage of that and took off his mask to save his air supply. It dangled down the front of his coat as he trotted down the hall.
"Fire department!" he called loudly, banging on each door he passed. If it was empty, he chalked a big "X" on it. One or two fearful residents emerged and he headed them toward the stairs. "To the roof!" he ordered firmly, not wanting them to be confused as to what they were supposed to do. He jerked his thumb upwards. "Go up! To the roof."
A tall man with gray hair nodded his understanding and took his neighbor by the arm to lead her down the hall. Johnny waited only long enough to be sure they were indeed going up instead of down, then moved along.
He'd reached the end of the hallway. There was one unit left and a large utility room of some kind next to it. Johnny eyed it warily as he banged loudly on the apartment door. It probably contained the water heater for this floor.
"Fire department!" he yelled loudly, pausing to cough. He hadn't noticed the increase in smoke in the last few minutes. Well, he'd put his mask back on as soon as he was done with this one. It was just so hard to be heard through his gear. He beat his fist a few more times against the old wood. "Fire department! Is anybody in here?"
The paramedic turned. He could see Roy at the end of the corridor, a frail looking old woman in his arms. Like Johnny, the blond man had his face mask dangling down the front of his turnout coat.
"Whaddaya got, Roy?" he called.
"She can't walk. I'm taking her to the roof. You almost done?"
"Yeah," he called hoarsely. "Last one. I'll see ya up top."
Roy nodded and headed up the stairs with his burden. Johnny turned back to the task at hand.
He was reaching to mark the door, when he paused. He thought he'd heard something. He took off his helmet to lean his ear against the door.
"Is anybody in there?" he called again.
Yes, there is was. A faint voice. Someone was still inside.
"Hold on. I'm coming."
He tried the knob, but it was locked. Stepping back a moment, he gave the door a quick once over. It looked flimsy enough. Hopefully there would be no deadbolt. He tensed, then launched himself at the door, shoulder first, sending it inward with a shower of splinters. He took only a moment to regain his balance before he started his search.
"Hello? Fire department!"
"In here," a voice called weakly. "I'm in here."
Johnny made his way through the tiny, cramped living room, into the even smaller bedroom. He couldn't see much because a large book case had toppled over, telling him in an instant what had happened to the person who lived here.
"Hello?" he called again.
"Yes, I'm here... under here, I guess."
The voice sounded like an elderly woman and the paramedic picked his way over to peer around the cumbersome bookcase. Sure enough, he could see the upper part of a silver haired woman who looked to be in her early seventies. When she saw Johnny's face, she broke out into a smile.
"Oh, thank goodness. I didn't think anybody would ever hear me."
"Don't worry," he told her in his most confident voice. "I'll get you out of here. Are you hurt?"
The woman shook her head. "I don't think so... well, maybe my leg a little... but I just can't get out from under this thing." She tried to shove at the heavy wood, but with little effect. "You see?"
Johnny nodded and gave her a grin, glad to hear she sounded fairly upbeat instead of panicked.
"I certainly do see. But I think I can help ya out here."
He tossed his helmet to the floor and tried to lift the case, but it was awkward and he could only get it partway up. He was going to have to put his back into it. He shrugged out of his tank and let it drop next to his helmet. Squatting down, he wedged himself into the small space between the bed and the bookcase, positioning his back and shoulders to take the load. Pushing with his legs, he managed to lift the heavy piece of furniture upright. He wasn't too sure it would stay against the wall at the angle he had it and he didn't think he could maneuver it himself. He glanced down at the woman on the floor.
"Can you move?" he asked, his voice more of a grunt with the strain of supporting the weight.
"I think so." The woman scooted back until she was sitting against end table, but Johnny noticed the grimace of pain as she did so. "There. I think I'm clear," she told him.
He checked to be sure, then moved out of the way, letting the case fall with a thud. He swiped an arm across his forehead, coughed a few times, then scrambled over the bed to settle down beside the old woman. He automatically reached for her wrist to take her pulse.
"You okay?" he asked. "Looks like you were in pain there for a minute."
"I think maybe I hurt my leg some," she answered reluctantly. "That dang ol' bookcase... I shoulda gotten rid of it years ago."
Johnny smiled at her feistiness as he moved his hands down to check her leg. She was wearing a house dress, so he had a good view of the mottled bruising that was already appearing on her shin. She winced as he moved over that area.
"Looks like you mighta broken it," he told her.
She shook her head in disgust. "Now isn't that just my luck. Of all the stupid things."
Johnny's smile widened as he looked around for something to use as a splint. He found a pile of magazines near the bed and grabbed a couple. He didn't have any bandages on him, so he'd probably have to cut up her sheets to ties the splint in place. She seemed in fairly good spirits, all things considered, but he wanted to keep her mind off of her predicament while he worked. He'd always found talking to a victim kept them too busy to worry.
"What's your name?"
"Lydia... Lydia March."
So, Lydia, what the heck happened, anyway?" he asked as his hands worked swiftly and gently to immobilize her leg. "This thing didn't just fall over, did it?"
"Oh, no. Of course it didn't. It's really stupid, an old woman like me should know better." She shook her head again and clucked her tongue, reminding Johnny of his grandmother. "I heard the alarm go off. I knew I should get out, but I had to find Jasper."
"Jasper?" Johnny looked around in sudden fear that there was someone else here.
"My cat," she explained. "All the noise frightened him. He'd jumped up on top of the bookcase and wouldn't come down. Ugh..." she grimaced as he moved her leg slightly.
"Sorry," he apologized.
"That's okay, young man," Lydia told him with a wan smile. "You're helpin' me out here and I'm more grateful than I can say. Anyway, fool that I am, I tried to climb up to get him. I just stepped on the one shelf, but the whole darned thing just topped over, me and Jasper with it."
Johnny could just imagine. A heavy bookcase like this, not bolted to the wall, it was inevitable. "So where's Jasper now?" he asked as he finished up the makeshift splint. The air was getting thicker and they needed to get a move on. He didn't want to waste a lot of time looking for a cat.
"I think he's under the bed. I heard him meowing a few times."
Johnny took a quick look under the bed. It was dark and he didn't see the animal. He made a quick decision and hoped this lady wasn't the type to go into hysterics over a pet.
"I don't see him, but I need to get you out of here." He felt another round of coughing coming on and tried to minimize it.
"Fire comin' closer?" Lydia asked quietly. He hadn't fooled her.
"Mostly likely," he admitted truthfully. "But we got lots of time. I'll just get you outta here, then hopefully I can come back for Jasper." He didn't like making these kinds of promises. Cap would skin him alive if he even tried to come back for a cat.
Lydia gave him a reproving look. "Don't con me, young man. I know what you have to do."
"We'll, see," was all he answered. He leaned forward to help her to her feet. In the next instant the entire room exploded in a blast of heat, wood, plaster and steam.
When Johnny opened his eyes the first thing he was aware of was the ringing in his ears. The next thing was a pounding rhythm, and it didn't take long to realize what he was hearing was inside his head. It only took trying to move to remember where he was.
"Ah, damn," he muttered as he tried to lift himself off of the old woman, chunks of plaster and wood falling from his back as he did so. "Lydia... you okay?"
It took her a moment to answer, and when she did, her voice sounded weaker and a bit breathless.
"I... I think so. You... you sorta knocked the wind outta me when you... when you fell on me like that."
"Sorry about that," he apologized, worried that in his effort to shield her from the blast, he might have injured her further.
"Don't worry," she chuckled. "It's just been... quite some time... since such a handsome young man took... took my breath away." There was a teasing quality in her voice, even under the strain and Johnny couldn't help the embarrassed smile that came to his face.
Lydia's answering laughter seemed out of place in the dark, smoky apartment that had suddenly turned topsy turvy. Johnny shifted to sit beside her, wincing at the pain in his head as he did so.
"What happened?" the older woman asked quietly, gazing around the ruins of her room.
Johnny shook his head, and immediately regretted the action. He fought the wave of dizziness, then did his best to answer.
"I... I think the water heater blew. It... it was probably the gas line." He coughed, then hissed at the stab of pain in his head that made his stomach lurch. He automatically reached a hand to the back of his head and felt the lump that had formed. When he brought his hand back into his line of sight, he could see blood on his glove.
Damn it, Cap's gonna kill me for takin' off my helmet... again.
"Are you okay?" Lydia asked, breaking into his thoughts. Her voice had gained strength as she caught her breath.
"Yeah, I'll be fine," he assured her, smearing his hand on his pants quickly so she wouldn't see.
"Uh huh." Her doubt sounded loud and clear.
"What?" he asked with a weak smile. "You don't believe me?"
"You men," Lydia clucked. "Why do you always think you have to hide when you're hurt."
Johnny flashed her a lop sided grin. "That's so... so you'll always think we're... strong and tough."
She snorted, then grew quiet and watched as he grabbed hold of the bed post and tried to drag himself upright. Between the room spinning and his head pounding, he didn't get very far, but what he could see wasn't very promising. Wall board, wood, and pieces of what must have been furniture were all Johnny could make out, and they were in a much smaller space than the room originally had been. There was no obvious way out and with the shape the two of them were in, he didn't think they'd be doing much digging or moving.
He settled back down beside Lydia and closed his eyes, working on catching his breath and keeping the nausea at bay, and hoped Roy and the rest of the guys would be able to get to them quickly. The smoke was getting worse, telling him the fire had most likely reached the floor below. He heard Lydia cough quietly beside him. He tried to remember where exactly he'd left his air tank, but with the state the room was in, he wasn't sure he'd be able to get to it, even if he knew where it was.
"Don't worry," he told her. "My partner's out there. He'll find us."
"I'm sure he will," the elderly woman answered confidently. She coughed again, then smiled wryly. "Don't take this wrong, but I'm sure glad you're here. At least they'll come lookin' for you."
Even through the pain in his head, Johnny could hear the wistful tone in her voice. He reached over and squeezed her hand.
"Somebody would have found you," he assured her. "Even if it wasn't me."
Lydia leaned her gray head back against the side table and sighed. "I don't even know your name."
"John," he answered. "Johnny Gage."
"Johnny... I like that name. It suits you. A nice name for a nice young man."
"Well, I don't know about that," he replied self-consciously. "You may not have thought I was so nice if you'd seen me a few hours ago."
"Oh, somehow I doubt that," she chuckled, then fell into a fit of coughing that lasted quite some time.
"Easy now, easy," Johnny soothed as he held onto her thin shoulders until the episode subsided. "That was more than just smoke," he observed quietly.
Lydia nodded her gray head and made a wry face. "Too many years of smoking," she told him with a shrug of her shoulders.
She nodded ruefully. "It's not too bad yet. I still have a few good years left in me. But the smoke isn't helping right now."
Johnny knew he needed to find his tank. It wouldn't help as much a straight O2, but it would be better for her to breathe than the heavy air in the room. Once again he pulled himself up as much as he could, gritting his teeth against the increased tempo inside his skull. He had to wait a moment to get the dizziness under control, then he pushed a large piece of what had to have been the bookcase out of his way.
That took a lot out of him and he leaned against the bed for a moment, breathing in deeply and then coughing at the smoke he'd taken into his lungs. When he felt able to move again, he picked his way carefully over the debris. He was in luck and found the yellow tank half-buried under some drywall. He bent down to scoop it up and nearly fell over, grabbing at what was left of the bed post to keep upright.
"Johnny? Johnny, are you okay?"
He heard Lydia calling after him and used the sound of her voice to pull him back from the wash of gray that had threatened to claim him. He dug up a reserve of strength from somewhere and found his way back to her, collapsing down beside her, the precious air tank in his lap. He fumbled with the mask until he had it the right way in his hands, then held it out to her.
"Here... breathe... breathe in here. It'll help."
"What about you?" she protested.
"I'm... I'm okay. Just... just gotta sit still... for a minute." He tried his best to give her a reassuring grin.
He wasn't sure she believed him, but she held the mask up to her face for a few moments and breathed in deeply. Knowing she would be all right for the time being, he leaned his head back and closed his eyes.
He didn't know if he'd actually blacked out, but he must have zoned out a little. He suddenly realized he could hear someone calling his name. It was faint, but it certainly sounded like Roy.
"Johnny? Johnny, you in there?"
"Roy?" he mumbled, only half aware. He blinked his eyes and sat up straighter. "Roy?" He turned to see his companion still awake beside him, the air mask still held to her face. Her brown eyes blinked at him, telling him she heard it as well.
"ROY!" he yelled as hard as he could. "Roy, we're in here!"
There was the sound of bumping and scraping and then his partner's voice sounded again, louder this time.
"Okay, hold on. We're coming to get you. You got a victim?"
Johnny took another deep breath and shouted his answer. "Yeah... female... 'bout 70. Poss... Possible broken tib... tibia." He fell back against the end table, panting from the exertion.
"Got it." There was a pause and then Roy was shouting again. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah," he answered breathlessly.
"No, he's not!" Lydia's voice suddenly shouted from beside him. Johnny turned to give her a surprised look and she scowled her disapproval at his dissembling. "Somethin' whacked the back of his head."
There was another long pause, and Johnny could almost see the look on his partner's face. "Understood," Roy finally replied. "We'll have ya out in a minute."
And that was that. They only had to wait. Johnny turned to Lydia, rolling his eyes at the pleased expression on her face. The faint whine of the K-12 could be heard from the other side of the wall.
"You just got me in trouble," he complained with a weak smile to let her know he wasn't really mad.
Lydia just smiled smugly. "So you never did tell me why I wouldn't have thought you were nice."
Johnny's brows drew together while he tried to remember, then they raised as he recalled what they'd been talking about.
"Oh... that. Well, it's kinda dumb... I guess I was just sittin' around feelin' sorry for myself."
Johnny leaned over and gently pushed the mask back up to her face. "Keep breathin' this," he reminded her. Then he let his head rest against the table and smiled wryly. He didn't know why, but he had no qualms about telling this woman the things that had been bothering him.
"Valentine's Day," he stated, as if that explained everything, and by the look on Lydia's face, it seemed like she understood.
"I'd almost forgotten," she replied, taking the mask away again so she could talk. "It's been nearly ten years since I lost my Albert. I remember how lonely those first few Valentine's Days were. He never forgot me, Albert didn't. Even when money was tight, there was always something." She sighed and coughed lightly.
Watching the far away look in her eyes, Johnny knew she was reliving some past event, and he suddenly felt pretty stupid.
"Well... uh... Lydia... it's not like... I haven't lost anybody.... I just..."
"Just haven't found her yet?" Lydia smiled kindly.
Johnny nodded slowly. "Yeah, I guess you could say that."
"Lonely is lonely," she stated. "And it hurts sometimes to see others happy when you're not."
Johnny stared at the elderly woman, wondering how she knew what he'd been thinking and feeling. She chuckled a little.
"Doesn't take a rocket scientist," she observed. "I used to work in an office. Before I married Albert, I used to watch the other girls get flowers from their husbands and sweethearts. It hurts sometimes. Is that what happened today?"
Johnny nodded absently. "I was the only one... the only one who didn't get something." He smiled self-consciously. "You shoulda seen me. I'd chased everybody off and I was sittin' alone eating those stupid conversation hearts. You know those ones with the dumb sayings?"
Lydia nodded with a smile. "Oh you kid. That was always my favorite."
Johnny laughed lightly. "I've never liked 'em much. But this afternoon, while I was sittin' there... I would've given anything for even a box of those, if only they'd come from somebody who mattered, ya know?" He felt his face flush at such a personal revelation, but then felt Lydia's weathered hand take hold of his.
"I know, Johnny," she told him. "I know exactly what you mean."
The K-12 suddenly broke through the wall with a noisy burst, putting an end to their conversation.
A figure in full turnouts and SCBA gear pushed his way through. Johnny knew immediately it was Roy.
"Over here!" he called, waving his partner over.
In a few moments Roy was beside them, and several other figures were coming in behind him. The blond paramedic took off his mask, revealing a sooty, worried face.
"You two all right?" he asked, the concern in his voice evident.
"We're fine," Johnny assured him. "You're gonna need a stretcher for Lydia. I'm... uh, I'm pretty sure... she's fractured her tibia."
"We've got stretchers out here for both of ya," Roy informed him, then waved Chet and Marco over.
In a few moments, they had the elderly woman positioned and were lifting her out of the rubble of her room. As they started to take her out though, she grabbed hold the sleeve of Roy's jacket.
"Don't let him fool ya," she whispered loudly, meaning for Johnny to hear. "He took a good knock."
Johnny saw the smile on Roy's face and the wink he gave the woman and knew he wasn't going to be able to talk his partner out of a stretcher ride.
"Thanks, Lydia," he called and smiled at the sound of her laughter as it faded down the hall.
Johnny ended up with nine stitches, a mild concussion, and an overnight stay at Rampart, mostly due to the fact that he passed out when he stood up to show Dr. Brackett how much better he felt. He was back at work, however, the next time A shift was on duty.
It was another slow day, but Johnny wasn't bothered by it as much as he had been a few days ago. He and Roy were in the kitchen cleaning up after lunch when the bell rang announcing a visitor. Johnny knew Cap was in his office, so he didn't pay much attention until he heard someone call his name.
"John? You've got a delivery."
Johnny turned to see Cap standing with a heart shaped candy box in one hand and a card in the other.
"Guess it's a belated Valentine, pal," Hank commented as Johnny dried his hands and came over to the table to see what it was.
He took the envelope from Cap's hand and opened it, pulling out a flowery card.
"I didn't know you were seeing anybody," Roy commented, and Johnny realized his partner had followed him over.
"I... uh... well... I'm not...." He flipped open the card, moving aside a bit, as Roy made to read over his shoulder. "If you don't mind..." He rolled his eyes. "Sheesh, give a guy some privacy."
Roy merely smiled and went back to washing the dishes. Johnny glanced over at his partner, then returned his attention to the card. The writing was small and cramped, but the words flowed easily.
I know this is a little late, Johnny, but I wanted to be sure and wish you a Happy Valentine's Day. I also wanted you to know that for however many years this old lady has left, you'll never have to worry about feeling left out on this day. You were my Valentine this year, Johnny, and I'll never forget you. And oh, yes, that rascal Jasper is fine. He got out of the building somehow and one of my neighbors found him and took care of him for me.
P.S. You can tell your partner and your friends about me if you want, but if I were you, I'd leave them guessing.
Johnny felt the smile tug at the corners of his mouth. What a great lady. He tucked the card into his shirt pocket. Maybe someday he would share this with Roy, but for now he was going to enjoy the moment. Chet Kelly would go nuts trying to figure out who it was.
He turned to the box on the table and unwrapped the cellophane. The heart shaped container rattled when he moved it, so he didn't think it was chocolate, but when he opened the lid he couldn't help but burst out laughing. It was an entire box of conversation hearts.
Thanks to Kenda and Audrey for the betas.
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